the dig list

It’s time for one of my periodic lists of stuff I dig right now.

  1. Music with close vocal harmonies. Throughout the past week, I have been listening to two bands whose music showcases the capabilities of the male voice in harmony with others. One is Queen. Have you ever noticed–well, I’m sure you have; I’m stating the obvious here–that if you stripped away the wailing guitars, many of their songs would make wonderful barbershop quartet numbers? The other band is Lord Huron, whose moody music conjures the lowering darkness of an overcast autumn day–specifically, of clouds gathering over a lake, probably Lake Huron. (Some of their songs reference lakes too.) Their harmonies are tiiiiiight (in two senses of the word).
  2. The Pickwick Papers. I decided that while I’m reading Michael Slater’s biography of Charles Dickens, I’m going to watch, in order of novel publication, my collection of BBC Dickens adaptations. Saturday and Sunday, I watched the 1985 Pickwick Papers miniseries. I can’t put my finger on what’s so delightful about watching rotund middle-aged men act like adult children and get into the same tight spots (figuratively and sometimes literally) over and over again, but maybe it’s that in this novel and only this novel within Dickens’ repertoire, everyone is so genuinely good-hearted. Even the blood-sucking lawyers Dodson and Fogg are ultimately harmless. Pickwick and his friends triumph because they choose to believe the best about everyone. Maybe that’s not the way the world really works, but it’s something to strive for. Watching this mini-series is kind of like watching Parks and Recreation, which manages to be hilarious even while being refreshingly un-cynical. All the duels, lawsuits, and other confrontations in Pickwick are funny in the same way that it’s funny when the other characters make fun of Jerry on Parks and Rec. They’re like little kids trying to be mean but succeeding only in being cute.
  3. Fazoli’s. Okay, look. It may not be “authentic Italian food,” though I’m not sure that phrase really means much in America, where we’ve adopted Italian cuisine as one of our own and enacted tons of bizarrely creative, often successful variations on it. (I mean, just look at pizza.) But I ordered a Caesar side salad, baked ziti, breadsticks, and a blood orange Italian ice online, picked it up, and was back home within half an hour. It was faster than flying to Sicily. And it was good.
  4. Peer review day. One of my favorite things to do as a teacher is to walk around the classroom and briefly engage with pairs of students as they read and constructively critique each other’s papers. My short attention span appreciates the short interactions, and instead of standing in front of a classroom babbling until my throat hurts, I get to swoop in, answer questions and sound very knowledgeable, and move on to the next group. All kidding aside (not kidding about that stuff, though), peer review can be a great instructional strategy, teaching students the important life skills of reflection and of giving feedback without being vague or unkind. Fortunately, I’m teaching two writing classes and have lots of peer review days to look forward to this semester.

What are you digging right now? Let me know if the comments.

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back to school

Today was the first day of classes at my new institution. Last time I wrote about the first day of classes, I wrote about being so scatterbrained that I could barely organize my thoughts for a blog post. While I wasn’t exactly a chilled-out guru sitting on a mountaintop in mountain pose with a cup of green tea today, I was considerably more focused and less stressed because now teaching is my entire job, not something I try to fit in around meetings and administrative tasks.

It’s an unusually hot day in western Michigan, and this morning it was raining, so my office has been a little damp all day. But at least it has air conditioning, unlike the room where I taught this afternoon. (There were fans blowing, but only the students who sat in the back of the room got to benefit from those, I realized when I went over to talk to one of them after class.) I like to wear a cardigan while teaching because of the pockets, so there was sweat actually dripping down my back and my legs after about an hour of class. On the positive side, my classroom has windows, and it also has an upright piano, which I doubt we’ll ever use, but it looks cool to have in the background. Actually, maybe I’ll see if any of my students can bang out a rendition of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” on October 31, when we have the Reformation/All Saints Day party that I really did schedule on the syllabus. (It may end up being a Halloween party as well, but I wanted to get a sense of who my students are before I start foisting pagan celebrations upon them.)

All classes here are 90 minutes long, and I was worried about filling that much time on intro day, but I neatly rounded out the first hour by taking attendance and rambling about myself, the syllabus, and the textbooks (I am a champion rambler), and then I had my students write a literacy narrative during the remaining half-hour. I’d read about literacy narratives in composition journals–apparently they are rather passe now–but I had never assigned one myself. My off-the-cuff version of the assignment probably didn’t exactly conform to the standards of the genre, but not only did it use up a good chunk of class time; reading the results also taught me quite a bit about my students as writers and readers (e.g. several of them are Harry Potter fans; some lack confidence about writing, and all of them have decent handwriting)–and my students got a 10-point completion grade. Win, win, win.

Eleven of my twelve students are women, so I promised the token male student I would not single him out in class. All but two are brand new freshmen, though a couple of them have parents who work at the university and/or took pre-term classes, which means they probably know more about this school than I do. Still, they all looked sincere and eager to learn, many of them were taking notes during my course introduction (and I didn’t penalize them for doing so, like Snape did to Harry Potter), and one of them asked approximately ten questions during the syllabus review. She apologized for having so many questions, but I thanked her and told her that others probably had the same questions. The best student feedback I received today, though, probably wasn’t meant for my ears. Before class, I heard one of the students saying to the person next to her, “I’m so excited about this class.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a student say that about a freshman writing class. I wonder if she still felt the same way after class.

I wrote a brief note on each student’s literacy narrative, and in many of them, I asked the student to talk with me about something–not incorrect grammar or ineffective transitions, but Harry Potter, creative writing, or some other such enjoyable topic. I hope they will come see me, even the ones who are shy about their writing or terrified about starting college. Especially those ones.

I don’t have any classes tomorrow, so I’ll have time to prepare for my Wednesday classes, which I think are in a room with air conditioning. Every time I walk into a class for the first time, I’m nervous that I’ll be met with faces that are judgmental, sarcastic, or completely checked out, and occasionally that happens, but most of my students really want to be in college. I just hope that after sitting through my class on day 1, they want to stay.

reasons to move to Lynchburg, VA

Tomorrow I am moving away from Lynchburg, VA (well, technically Forest, but let’s not split hairs), where I have been living for 15 years. I am writing this list partly to convince someone (perhaps you?) to move to the area and buy my lovely three-bedroom, open-floor-plan, single-story house in a quiet, convenient neighborhood (see realtor.com for further details), but mainly as an elegy to my life in this small city, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, that has been so good to me for so many years.

  1. It’s nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’m really bad at geography and topography, but I’m pretty sure Lynchburg is in a valley, which means that it’s sheltered from the harsh cold and snowfall that can occur in the mountains themselves. It also means that just about wherever you look (especially out in Forest, where I know about a nice house for sale!), you can see the blue silhouette of the mountains, especially on a clear morning.
  2. There’s a cliff in the middle of downtown. Officially, it’s called a bluff. I’m sure there are other cities that have this odd geographical feature, but I’ve never been to them. At the top of the bluff is most of downtown; at the bottom is Jefferson Street, some recreational spaces, a railroad track, and the James River. You can enjoy the view by sitting on the deck at Bootleggers eating a delicious burger or by walking a skinny trail along the bluff at Riverside Park.
  3. It has historical sites you haven’t already been to. Lynchburg and the surrounding towns have a number of historical locations that aren’t overrun with tourism. (Appomattox, about a 20-minute drive away, is pretty overrun, but even there you can find some newer attractions, like the Museum of the Confederacy, which is not a glorification of the Lost Cause but a thoughtful, objective presentation of history.) Forest is home to Thomas Jefferson’s second house, Poplar Forest (just down the road from a cute house I know!), and downtown Lynchburg’s Old City Cemetery is full of Civil War and railroad history, plus some beautiful old graves and trees.
  4. Most people seem to enjoy serving their community. I think this is because Christian culture and hipster culture intersect in Lynchburg in a way that you don’t really see elsewhere, except in a few other cities (such as the one I’m about to move to–Grand Rapids, Michigan). Your Facebook news feed will give you lots of suggestions for ways to meet people, have fun, and do good all at once: from food truck fundraisers to racing in the CASA Superhero Run (or actually becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate–they’ll be looking for a new volunteer to replace me!).
  5. Speaking of races, Lynchburg has the most enjoyable one I’ve ever run. The Virginia 10-Miler, which occurs the last weekend of September every year, garners a massive turnout from locals as well as people who love it so much they travel in order to participate. The course is scenic and challenging (you don’t have to run up the bluff, but Lynchburg is hilly in general), and hundreds of volunteers turn out to hand out water and Gatorade and to cheer, making you feel like a celebrity even if you’re the slowest runner on the course. If a 10-mile race sounds like punishment to you, there’s also a four-miler as well as a four-mile walk.

I’ll stop here, though I could go on: Lynchburg has a cool old baseball stadium where the minor-league Hillcats still play, some good coffee and ice cream shops, and a full schedule of various festivals throughout the year (even more if you venture out into the surrounding hills–if you love apple-picking and hoedowns, you’re going to love fall in this area). Whether or not you decide to move here (and buy my house!), Lynchburg is a lovely place to visit. I’ll be visiting as often as I can.

Children’s Literature Conference!

I’m here at Shenandoah University’s 33rd Annual Children’s Literature Conference in Winchester, VA. Specifically, I’m here in the dorm room (complete with inconveniently tall beds) that I’m sharing with my friend and conference veteran Allison Scoles (look for her picture book blog starting later this year!). Now that we’re three days into the conference, I want to give you a recap of what I’ve heard so far.

Monday: First, there was a power outage, and everybody freaked out, but the show went on. (Someone actually quoted P.T. Barnum, with proper attribution.) Our first presenter, Laurie Ann Thompson, author of books for young activists such as Emmanuel’s Dream and Be a Changemaker, bravely gave her presentation in a dark, stuffy auditorium. Her description of her middle school experience was what stood out to me most. I wish I’d written it down, but basically she said that she’d tried to be as unremarkable as she could–invisible, if possible–in order to avoid unwanted attention. I can understand that desire, and I think many people can. She also spoke of her career in software engineering prior to becoming a writer; this became a theme of at least the first couple of days of the conference: very few people follow a simple trajectory from childhood dreams to school to being a famous writer.

The power came back on right as Matthew Holm, the illustrator of the Babymouse and Squish books (his sister, Jennifer L. Holm, writes the text), was about to speak. This was a good thing, because he did a bit of sketching during his presentation. Confession: On Tuesday, I noticed that his sketch (of Squish the amoeba looking a little bit like Harry Potter) was still on the easel, so I sneaked up to the platform at the end of the day and took it. Why? Because it’s original artwork, because I love Harry Potter (“Really? You love Harry Potter?”), and because I think I have a little bit of a crush on Matthew Holm. I mean, he’s an adorable nerd with an infectious laugh who draws comics for a living, and who’s happy doing that even though he knows he’s probably never going to win a Caldecott. Also, during his roundtable session, he gamely answered a whole string of questions I asked about how a comic book illustrator would behave during the zombie apocalypse. I asked these for research purposes. (Seriously, the main character of my zombie story is a comics creator.)

After lunch, we heard from Ryan Higgins, author and illustrator of Mother Bruce, its sequels, and other picture books that draw from the comic tradition. He mostly told embarrassing stories from his life in a sheepish voice, but he also gave us what appeared to be a very detailed (though he claimed it was rushed) demonstration of how he uses an app called Procreate (snicker snicker) to draw Bruce, the cranky bear. I enjoyed seeing some of his juvenilia (including an illustrated joke book–I think I made one of those as a child too, or at least a page of one) and learning about his influences–from Calvin and Hobbes to his grumpy yet nurturing grandpa.

The last presenter on Monday was John Schumacher, or Mr. Schu, a former school librarian, now blogger, professor, and Scholastic ambassador, whose enthusiasm and energy make me feel exhausted just watching him. He referred to himself as the “Oprah of books” because he kept giving away books to people just because they waved their hands in the air. I guess he likes to see his enthusiasm mirrored! He mostly told stories about kids’ responses to books, some of which were quite emotional. It was an inspiring conclusion to the first day, but I felt like I needed to take a nap afterward.

Okay, I’ve done it again–my post is already long, and I’ve only done one day. On day two, we heard from some heavy hitters (three Newbery winners and someone who’s probably going to win a Caldecott one day), so I’ll save them, along with the equally awesome day three, for a later post. I suppose I should give you a “takeaway” from the conference thus far. Well, it’s been more reinforcing than revelatory for me. The presenters have been speaking about how children need to see themselves represented in books, to learn empathy through books, and to choose books they want to read. I already knew all that. But hearing each of the presenters explain these concepts in their own way and illustrate them through their own lives has been endlessly fascinating. I’m ready for day four (well, after a good night’s sleep in my weirdly tall dorm bed).

activities that are surprisingly fulfilling to do alone

You won’t believe #3! (just kidding–that was me making fun of clickbait)

  1. Hiking. I have recently become fond of solo hiking. This past Saturday morning, I hiked Sharp Top, a popular local peak, as my quarterly three-hour “solitude retreat.” I enjoyed the experience very much, partly because it was early in the morning (I got to the summit at 8:00 and stayed up there for about half an hour), which meant that there was still mist hovering below the nearby ridges and a cool breeze blowing. But a large part of my enjoyment consisted in being alone, except for the few people I saw along the way. When I hike alone, I can set my own pace, and I’m more aware of my surroundings, which is good not only for practical reasons (I can pay attention to where I’m setting my feet) but also for more esoteric ones (I can hear the different bird calls in the woods). I can also stay at the summit for as long or short a time as I want, without having to take the obligatory group photos. Don’t get me wrong; I love hiking in pairs and groups, but if you’ve never thought of hiking as a solo activity, perhaps it’s time to consider it. Two words of caution: 1. Choose a hike where you won’t get lost (Sharp Top is pretty foolproof, though I did accidentally take the bus shelter path instead of the main hiking trail the first time I hiked it alone–duh), and 2. MAKE SURE SOMEBODY KNOWS WHERE YOU ARE GOING. If you don’t think that second piece of advice is important, watch 127 Hours.
  2. And that’s a great segue into my second item: Going to the movies. Think about it: You’re not going to be chatting during the movie anyway, at least I certainly hope not. So why not go alone? That way, you don’t have to feel obligated to share your Sno-Caps or Cherry Coke. And it’s dark, so nobody is going to be looking at you thinking, “Look at that sad person who couldn’t find anybody to go to the movies with.” And even if it weren’t dark, nobody would be thinking that anyway. The only bummer about going to the movies alone is that you don’t have anyone to rehash the film with afterward, but if it’s something you’re pretty sure only you will enjoy, it’s better to go by yourself than to go with someone negative. And if it’s a movie you know others in your circle will be watching eventually, seeing it alone gives you some time to contemplate it before discussing it– a bonus for introverts.
  3. Eating out. Okay, this is one I’m still dipping my feet into. I have not yet eaten at a full-service restaurant (i.e. with a waiter) by myself. If you have, I’d love to hear about your experience. Also, I haven’t gotten to the point of being able to just sit there and enjoy the food without reading a book or looking busy on my phone. But I’m sure there’s value in giving my full attention to what I’m eating, just as there’s value in giving my full attention to my surroundings while hiking. Normally I’m a big advocate for sharing food with other people, and I know that solo eating often has negative causes (e.g. loneliness) and negative effects (e.g. overeating), but I think it can be a good thing if done mindfully. Even in public!

Let me know if you’ve had experience with any of these solo experiences and/or if there are other activities you enjoy doing alone!

Puffs!

A week ago, I went to see Puffs, an off-Broadway homage to Harry Potter (but totally unofficial) that was filmed and shown on two nights in selected movie theaters. I am not a theater critic, and I’m certainly not a critic of plays that are filmed and then shown in movie theaters (though this does seem to be an art form–some creative camera work was involved in this one), so I’ll make my remarks from the perspective of a fan.

First, it was amusing to see how the writers bent over backward to avoid using copyrighted names, such as Hogwarts, which they referred to as an unnamed “School of Female Magic and Male Magic,” and Dumbledore, whom they always referred to simply as the headmaster. Other characters, like Cedric Diggory, were called by first name or last name, never both together. In many cases, it was clear that the writers were having fun exploiting the limitations–and, perhaps, gently ridiculing the idea of placing such restrictions on such household names.

The four houses were called Brave, Smart, Snake, and Puff, and the story focused on the Puffs, the house that has the least interaction with Mr. Potter in the canonical story, which meant that this house was the perfect vehicle for exploring the experience of a non-famous, non-chosen student who’s just trying to get through school with decent grades. The protagonist was Wayne, an American kid who ends up at the school by a series of unlikely events, probably fulfilling a fantasy of the writers themselves. I should point out here that the actors were all adults, which says a lot about the intended audience. I think the goals of this play were to make long-time Harry Potter nerds squeal with recognition at the inside jokes, to aim a little irreverence at a sacred cow (without becoming cynical or nasty, although some of the jokes were definitely for a “mature audience”), and to provide a bit of vindication for the Hufflepuffs. The childlike wonder of magic was not really a focus.

The play was only about 90 minutes long, and the seven books provided its organizational structure, so in this sense, it reminded me of a parodic play called Potted Potter that I saw a few years ago. (A lot of the humor came from the forced brevity, kind of like in the popular Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged.) The plot stuck to events that happen in the books, except in one (ultimately rather anticlimactic) plotline involving the Death-Eater mother of Wayne’s friend Megan. The play is best enjoyed as sketch comedy rather than as a full narrative arc, although it does have a climax: the Battle of Hogwarts, as seen from the Puff perspective. I don’t want to give away spoilers here in case the filmed version ever comes out on DVD, but I will say that the until-now underrated contribution of the Hufflepuffs in this battle, recently pointed out by J. K. Rowling (wait–am I allowed to say her name?), was given its due here. I thought there were some tonal infelicities in this last segment of the play (i.e. some stuff that was played for laughs that I didn’t think should have been), but the writers redeemed themselves with a heartwarming scene between Wayne and the headmaster, which in itself was a vindication (since in the books, it’s only Harry who gets to process things one-on-one with Dumbledore).

As a Hufflepuff, I enjoyed Puffs; I think I would have enjoyed it even if I were a Brave, a Smart, or a Snake. I also realized that I switched between past and present tense in this post. I hope you didn’t notice.

Monday miscellany

Here are some quick takes for your reading pleasure. Consider it professional development (after all, this is a leadership blog, right?).

  1. You know you have a serious problem when you start sorting the Corleone family into Hogwarts houses. I started thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I was considering how to pitch a Hufflepuff leadership book idea to someone who seemed unfamiliar with Harry Potter but had used a Godfather analogy in his presentation. Then I went down a rabbit hole. I sorted Vito and his three sons (his blood sons; sorry, Tom Hagen–I think you’re a Muggle), and, conveniently, there’s one for each house. Michael, I knew immediately, is a Slytherin; he’s quiet and sneaky and always assumes his way is the right way. His dad, Vito, is also very intelligent but, generally speaking, using his genius for good; he’s a Ravenclaw. Sonny is a Gryffindor because he has a good heart but mistakenly believes he can solve everything with his fists. And I put Fredo in Hufflepuff because he just wants everybody to be happy. Obviously, I’m dealing in broad strokes here; I’m just making a fun comparison, not trying to say anything profound about either universe, so please don’t pick a fight with me about the oversimplified way I defined the houses.
  2. If you want a more perceptive analysis of what the houses mean, check out this post that our Slytherin correspondent shared with me over the weekend. Lots to think about here.
  3. I watched the first two Lord of the Rings movies over the weekend (extended version, of course), so I want to take a couple of minutes to wax eloquent about one of my favorite honorary Hufflepuffs, Samwise Gamgee. Yes, I guess Gryffindor could make an argument to claim him too (he’s brave and a little impulsive), but a Gryffindor’s not writing this post. 😉 And besides, Sam is the quintessence of loyalty. You really see it in The Two Towers when Sam and Frodo are following Gollum through the wilderness. About 95% percent of the time, Sam thinks Frodo is making bad choices (and Sam is right, I would add). And he says so. But he never leaves, and that’s not only or primarily because he agrees with the abstract cause of Frodo’s overall quest, but because he cares about Frodo. A truly loyal friend doesn’t stop being your friend because you’re making bad decisions; a truly loyal friend realizes that when you’re making bad decisions, you need a friend more than at any other time. Sam also functions as Frodo’s connection to reality. Even fairly early in the quest, Frodo needs Sam to tell him to do basic things like eating and sleeping. And as the journey goes on and the Ring’s increasing pull causes Frodo to fade out of the physical world and nearly become pure spirit, it’s almost as if Sam becomes Frodo’s body, fighting off Shelob and the orcs, and, in the end, carrying Frodo when he is powerless even to move. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ll know my life has truly been fulfilled if I can say that I’ve had and that I’ve been a friend like Samwise Gamgee.

Well, there you have it. Consider your professional development for this week done.