sink or zen: finding my stride in the classroom of life

When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes… I will tell you:

Loosen up.

And you will tell me just where I can shove it. Or maybe you’ll smack me upside the head. Because being told to loosen up is like being told not to think of a pink elephant: both directives are bound to backfire.

Yet I shall risk the shoving and smacking and tell you what I’ve learned thus far about the whys and wherefores of loosening up, for teaching has forced me to swim in seas of stress and discover how not to sink.

When I was a first-year teacher, come December I was shocked to find myself on the edge of a nervous breakdown – this despite the fact that I’d heard over and over again how terribly trying any first year in a classroom must inevitably be. But I had never known such stress. In my heyday, four out of five dentists recommended me as laid-back and easy-going (to their patients who chew gum). Even my solo trek halfway around the world to meet and pick up and bring home from Ethiopia the third and fourth additions to our family, aka our oldest and youngest sons – a trip in which I grappled with language barriers, taxis, oppressive poverty, emotional roller coasters, unfamiliar food, unusual schedules, plane ticketing snafus and sudden illness – did not compare to the stress that saddled me in that first year of teaching. Continue reading


mondays kill me but i rise again

A new school year is upon us. For teachers as well as students, new school years can feel a lot like Mondays. And while it’s easy to feel overshadowed by the dark side of a Monday, in reality Mondays are both light and dark. Mondays are double-edged swords.

This week my eleven-year old son discovered on Netflix the old tv show Lost. I know that Lost was an “It” show when it aired from 2004 to 2010, and though it looks well made and I see the appeal of it I’ve only ever watched a few hours’ worth of the first season. My boy, on the other hand, modern as he is, after viewing four of seven episodes in today’s opening salvo declared that he will devour the whole series – all 121 episodes. (Given his track record, I am inclined to believe he will.) Continue reading


synthesize me

These days when teachers teach concepts and facts and skills they do so in the service of required learning standards. One of the standards particularly important to the subject of Literacy (English Language Arts) is synthesis.

According to dictionary.com, the definition of synthesis is:

the combining of the constituent elements of separate material or abstract entities into a single or unified entity

The photo above might be said to demonstrate synthesis in its artful (subtle, nuanced, clever, careful, cohesive) union of the literal (the eyes) and the abstract (the blotches).

In my classroom students synthesize by, for example, writing a narrative that demonstrates an understanding and combination of several previously taught elements (such as exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution; such as the Six Traits of ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions). Or they might research a controversial issue, take notes and synthesize by demonstrating their command of the material (combining all that they’ve learned into a cohesive whole) in a debate.

Continue reading


don’t bother me, i’m imagining possibilities

Every Christmastime, we make sure to watch these three classics:

1. It’s a Wonderful Life
2. Elf
3. A Christmas Story

Each has a special place in my heart. Each is necessary for any life to be complete. The most writerly of the three is A Christmas Story, which makes sense, since the script is based on the writings of renowned comic author Jean Shepard (who also narrates). Any lover of words ought to be thrilled by dialogue such as…

“I have since heard of people under extreme duress speaking in strange tongues. I became conscious that a steady torrent of obscenities and swearing of all kinds was pouring out of me as I screamed.”


“We plunged into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.”


“Let’s face it, most of us are scoffers. But moments before zero hour, it did not pay to take chances. ”

If you have seen the movie, you are no doubt miffed at me right now for flagrantly failing to cite your favorite immortal lines. If you have not seen the movie, get thee to a nunnery! And by nunnery I mean Netflix portal or something.

Any good writing is bound to include a heaping helping of truisms. Continue reading


begin the begin

I have never literally painted myself into a corner, although last summer I nearly stained myself into one while refinishing our deck. Figuratively, on the other hand, I have painted myself into a corner more than once. When my wife Julie and I bought our first home in 1996, when I was 25, the very adult burden of mortgage payments soon made me feel painted into a financial corner in that I sensed a near future of towering stacks of bills along with cribs full of babies (which we wanted) plus their costs (which we could do without).

The upshot of this pressure cooker situation is that I wanted to keep my home and family but shrug off my job in sales that was making me feel more trapped than the mortgage, the bills and the babies in the offing. Fifteen years later, after following a circuitous route through retail sales, copywriting, screenwriting, a home-based business, at-home fathering and now teaching, I’d say I made the right career decision. Yet the fact remains that painting one’s self into a corner means creating sticky situations that must somehow be gotten out of – often by paying a steep price.

In writing, sticky situations are inevitable. Writing a novel, a process requiring thousands, maybe millions of decisions – regarding word choice, sentence structure, plot, theme, character development and so on – is too complicated to allow for anything approximating perfection. If you whittle away at a story for more than a chapter or two, you will increasingly find yourself going the wrong way down one way streets, screaming toward dead ends and paddling your canoe into throttling, swampy byways – to mix a handful of metaphors for your supercilious reading pleasure.

Most writers with any experience maintain an uneasy intimacy with these dangers. It makes us skittish, gun shy. Every time we start a story or come to a crossroads in plotting, we second guess where a story or character choice might eventually lead us.

Please, ye gods of story, have mercy on me! Save me from painting myself into a story corner! Continue reading


wanna write?

Remember when you were a kid and someone would say, “Race ya round the house!” or “Race ya to the car!” or “Race ya home!”- remember that???

My vision for this blog is in that spirit. “Write ya to page one!” “Write ya to the midpoint!” “Write ya to the climax!”

I write YA fiction, I teach young adults, I have a few of my own at home, and most days I feel like one. Since you found me here, maybe your story and mine overlap. So imagine you and I are friends, it’s a hot summer morning, the sky is blue, we’re strolling home from the pool in our flippity flops, and suddenly I throw down a challenge. Wait for it…

“Write ya to the finish!”

It’s a challenge for you and I both. And let’s remember that it’s supposed to be fun.

Ready, set, go!