Category Archives: Teaching

Rethinking Education…Again

antique cars for history class

Students learned about the early 20th century by exploring antique cars at Massabesic High School in Waterboro, Maine this spring.

Here’s what I was talking about with the Teen this morning.

What if we gathered together a bunch of high school students interested in studying literature/writing/journalism and planned an entire education program from there? We would start with that passion and incorporate all the disciplines. For instance…

Literature: We could read and write various genres and analyze their conventions.

History: We could write historical fiction–and do the historical research necessary.

Math: We could talk about the biz of publishing, learn accounting, statistics, and maybe create some marketing or distribution algorithms. I’m unclear about algorithms but this sorta explains my idea

Economics: Maybe we would create a “virtual” magazine and learn the ins and outs of publishing, sorta like those classes where students trade stocks, with all the learning implied in that kind of endeavor.

Social sciences: We could study sociology and psychology and philosophy to inform ourselves about character development and conflicts.

Science: We could do some nature writing/science reading and writing and learn about those subjects and/or incorporate what we learn into fiction. We could visit a lab and interview scientists (or better yet, go down to the science-learner wing or school and interview students in their lab).

Art: We could write about art and artists. We could look at paintings and sculptures for inspiration for new stories. We could practice art as a way of accessing different parts of our brain, stimulating creativity.

Health & Fitness: We could do some yoga and walking/running or any other form of exercise because authors need to get up and move to stay healthy and their minds working properly.

Industrial Arts: We could build bookshelves or maybe personalized writing desks.

Music: We could write music lyrics and learn some music theory while we are at it. Of course we could also participate in chorus or band.

Now….if I were interested in say, science, how could I create a similar program for the science-learners?

Math & Science charter schools are already creating this kind of learning environment…so why shouldn’t we create schools geared toward artists? Or philosophers? Or writers? Or athletes? (Actually, there is a school for skiers up at Sugarloaf called Carrabassett Valley Academy.)

What if we truly started with students’ interests and built programs around them? Video gaming? GREAT! Website design? Fabulous! Auto mechanics? No problem! Agriculture? Be still my heart.

For those kids who want to be college professors, academics, doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc, then a traditional liberal arts education might just be what they need. Fine! Create a classical academy school for them.

The point is, different learners have different interests, so why shouldn’t we have different schools or classroom clusters for them? This is not a new idea. Some high schools have created schools within a school similar to colleges within universities or majors within colleges.

What is the point of education, after all, but learning what you need to actually DO something? If you were a student again, wouldn’t this sound like fun?

Homeschool advocates already understand all this. Homeschooling is the ultimate individualized learning program.

Charter schools geared toward particular types of learners and interests are springing into life all over the place.

How does standardized testing and a common core curriculum match up with how and why students really learn? Isn’t this is a question legislatures and administrators might want to ask themselves as they move forward?

And what about employers? With the cost of college spiraling ever higher and student loan rates becoming prohibitive, maybe the economy should consider criteria for employment other than the ubiquitous college degree. Does an administrative assistant NEED a bachelors degree in business administration or could an office management training program do the trick? Does an entry-level library assistant really need a bachelor’s degree or even an associates degree? Vocational training, geared toward specific professions, makes much more sense to me. Couldn’t we have aptitude tests and on-the-job training? Apprenticeships?

I suspect it is time–past time–to radically rethink education and human resources. What do you think?

For further contemplation:

Between the Ears

Cool School

If Our Current Education System Implodes: A Radical Idea for A Local, Sustainable Alternative.

A letter to our local school board was sent out this week from our superintendent. Basically this letter talked of the dire budgetary issues the school district is facing, the major cuts in funding from the state, and the need to reduce staff and increase class size, cut already strained programs and services, and further erode our school’s ability to educate our children.

If this trend continues, we may be forced to look for alternatives–and soon.

I have a radical idea for education in a local, sustainable community if the time comes that we can no longer afford the system we have today. I suggest that in addition to parents teaching their own children at home, teachers also open their own small schools in their homes similar to the daycare centers and preschools that are so ubiquitous in our society now.

Granted, I haven’t asked any teachers if these ideas could ever work, but if we can educate our pre-schoolers at small, home-based schools, why not elementary-age students? Why not teenagers? There could even be a certification process, for the ease-of-mind of those parents who don’t trust their own judgement.

Here’s what I like about the idea: Self-employed teachers, greater school choice, walk to school choices (as the small-schools would be scattered throughout many neighborhoods), leverage to kick the trouble-makers out if they chose not to behave and learn, smaller classes, and greater flexibility. Teachers could choose to focus on the kind of education and populations they are most interested in serving. They could, if they wished, coordinate activities and lessons with other small-schools in their area. And the best teachers could command the best salaries. And the best students would be wooed by the schools. And a parent wouldn’t be hindered, necessarily, if he or she did not have money. Agreements for bartering and exchange of services could be worked out or parents could simply chose to educate their own children.

With internet and iPads and curricula out there, do we really need to shove our kids into sprawling industrial-era school buildings for six hours a day? Do we really need to spend all that gas money hauling them back and forth five days a week?

I think this could certainly work for K-8, but school would not necessarily be organized according to age or grade. Students could learn in multi-age classrooms.

Maybe high school could be in the former elementary buildings with sign-ups for classes and open campuses, similar to the way adult education is organized now? Maybe there could be internships and apprenticeships and pick-up softball games and/or a bunch of intramural teams that get together at the community fields/elementary gym to play games instead interscholastic sports? Of course teachers could offer music and art lessons–or just about any kind of special interest out there. Jewelry-making? Why not! Animal care? For sure!

How about converting some of the sports fields to school gardens? What about a school-run vegetable stand or Community Supported Agriculture program? Students could have even greater educational opportunities in the areas of agriculture, cooking, marketing,retail management, accounting, and more.

I’d also be inclined toward voluntary but rigorous exit exams, providing motivation for those who wish to enter college.

How would we pay for this kind of education system? Well, how do we pay for daycare and preschool? Charitable organizations and churches would, probably, offer to subsidize some schools that fit their mission-statements. Those with means and inclination may offer scholarships.

Perhaps there could be some assistance via local taxpayer money for those families who cannot afford the cost, but with all the savings in retirement, benefits, heating, gas, building maintenance, state and federal mandated programs, etc., and with all the choices that would be available, we could probably afford it.

I’m not saying this is ideal, but it can’t be much worse than what we are looking at if budgets continue to take hit after hit, year after year. Teaching, as a profession, will be radically different, but I hate to see teachers lose jobs and our students continue to lose the opportunity to learn from talented individuals because those teachers are let go or choose to leave for more lucrative, stable professions.

Some teachers might see this as an opportunity for self-determination in their careers, and I think the earning potential could be similar to what it is today (which isn’t great, let’s face it). If a teacher had space for fifteen students at $200 per week, that’s $156,000 a year gross.To compare, average daycare costs in the U.S.A. are $11,666 per year or $972 per month.

Hefty tax deductions for parents with children in school would make sense, as well.

All this is very radical, but not that long ago in our history, one-room schoolhouses were the norm. Prior to that, children were taught at home by parents or tutors. In ancient Greece and Egypt, teachers gathered a group of students who learned, literally, at their feet.

All this underscores my fundamental belief that education takes place in one space: between the ears of the student, most times with the guidance of a teacher or teacher-parent. You don’t need a sprawling building with little boxy rooms and a gymnasium and a cafeteria for learning to take place. A kitchen table can work just fine.

What A Character!

Teen Characters by The Teen

Dear Reader:

Last night was Teen Writing Class night, and this week we discussed the craft of characterization. I am enjoying this process of teaching narrative and fiction writing techniques and terms. The students are remarkable writers–open, observant, funny. Teaching also forces me to write examples, and I’ve been rather amused by the characters and scenes that have popped out of my subconscious with just the teeniest prodding around in the psychic storeroom.

Following is a short scene showing characterization techniques–dialogue, vivid verbs, and sensory details. Mostly we hear the character’s voice, though, and I think we learn quite a bit about Penelope Perry just by listening to what she has to say. Also note that we don’t know much about the narrator. He or she is a classmate of Penelope’s, that much we can gather from his/her point of view, but everything else about him or her is still hidden in that storeroom of story ideas in my subconscious.

If I wanted, I could probably dig a little deeper, find some more pieces of the story, and put it all together. I have a feeling, though, that frantic Penelope is seeing the light of day for the first and last time this week.

Back she’ll go to whatever dusty shelf in the storeroom she has been languishing for who knows how long. Perhaps since my own elementary school days? Maybe she’ll be tossed into the recycle bin someday, emerging in another form in another story, and maybe not. Who knows? The truth is, we don’t really know where stories come from. They are just there, waiting for us to find the pieces and put them together. If the end product is sturdy enough, it will last for centuries (think Shakespeare and Dante). If not, well . . . at least Penelope had her moment in the sun.

Penelope Perry’s hand shot up into the air as soon as Ms. Walker swooshed through the classroom door after recess.

“Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh!” Penelope bounced around in her seat, a pink-cheeked, over-pressurized steam-engine about to blow. The rest of us slouched behind our desks and glared at her, but, as usual, she was oblivious.

“Yes, Penelope? What is it now?” Ms. Walker exhaled as she spoke and her eyes slid toward the clock.

Penelope sat with both palms flat on the table, elbows jutting out to the sides. You could see her arms shake with barely-repressed excitement. Her knees bounced up and down beneath her desk as she spoke in her girly-girl-goody-two-shoes voice. “I know you said we weren’t supposed to touch the goldfish, Ms. Walker. So I thought you should know that Timmy Landry stuck his hand in there and grabbed the fish which is now floating on top of the water and I think its dead and you’d probably want to know that. Plus, Marissa and Lolly were fighting over who had the prettiest pencil eraser–Marissa said pink and Lolly said green–and Marissa called Lolly a swear which I won’t repeat because I know you don’t want us to say swears in your classroom. And then Derek called Marissa a swear and I had to cover my ears because it was a really, really bad word and my mother would be mad if she found out. I’ll probably have to tell her when I get home and she’ll call the principal.” Penelope took a breath and then she was chugging off again, her voice rising higher with every word. Her eyes widened. “And I’m pretty sure how you feel about kissing, Ms. Walker, so Colin and Tami really shouldn’t have gone into the art room closet when the were supposed to be taking a note to the office for you. And . . .”

“Enough!” Ms. Walker held up a large, firm hand. “That’s quite enough, Penelope.” She lowered her voice to a near whisper. “Class, please take out your math books and start working on page 56. I need to take a look at that fish.”

Creating multidimensional characters is challenging. Listening to conversations, taking in the rhythm of speech, observing people’s unique ticks and habits, analyzing body language that demonstrates inner emotional landscapes, trying hard to be honest about what we see, hear, know about people–these practices help us to write characters that are vivid, sympathetic, real.

Listen. Practice. Stretch. Work. If you do those four things, you’ll get better.

If you’d like to read the entire lesson, please click HERE. Or you can find it under the Teen Writing Class tab at the top of the page. Remember, to be a writer all you really need is a notebook, a pen, and a block of uninterrupted writing time a day. Go ahead. Be a writer. I dare you . . . Outside the Box.

Lesson Two: Life Is in the Details

Tree Frog?

In this week’s Teen Writing Class, we talked about using vivid details to bring our stories to life. The scene below was extended from a couple of sentences to a descriptive little section complete with figurative language, inner dialogue, secondary characters, and sensory details. If you want to read the entire lesson, click HERE. Otherwise, hope you enjoy this scene that could be part of a longer young adult story or novel.


I loiter in the hallway outside Room 15, slipping through the doorway at the last possible second when the bell rings. The sharp chemical stench of formaldehyde hangs heavy in the room, inescapable. When I try breathing through my nose, I can taste the smell on the tip of my tongue. Dissecting day.

‘Larrisa Boucher! Put that knife down before someone gets hurt!’ From her perch behind the desk, Ms. Cameron screeches at a five-foot ten inch basketball player pretending to threaten her teammate, Brandi Ellerby, with the silver dissecting tool. The Lady Hawks goofing off at the corner station snicker and shuffle in a loose clump of sharp elbows, hooded sweatshirts, Amazonian legs. I shoot them a look, eyes narrowed. Mutants.

A feel a nudge at my elbow. ‘Are you okay?’ Angela Greer whispers, breath minty from her gum. ‘You look kinda pale.’ Her long, orange hair brushes my elbow.

Shaking my head, I say, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’

Angela leans closer. ‘You have to. If you don’t bring up your grade in Biology, you won’t be allowed to go to drama camp with me this summer.’

‘I know, I know!’ Holding my breath, I glance down.

There it is. The frog.

Reaching out, I slide a tentative finger along its back. The skin is cold and slimy and weirdly stiff. Not like a real frog. Nothing like.

I remember when I was a kid how my cousin and I would walk down to the stream on summer mornings and catch them–big, green croakers hiding close to the muddy bottom among the cattails. We’d plunge our hands into the cool water and grab one by his leg. They were slimy then, too, but in a live way, wiggly. This frog is dead. And I have to cut him open. It isn’t fair, I think, stomach hollow and queasy. Why do animals have to suffer for us to have this stupid biology class, anyway?

Slippery Details

Cool Pool

Details. Description. This week, prepping for my Teen Writing Class on Wednesday, I’ve been inhaling writing-craft books one after the other, trying to get a handle on this most slippery subject. Why slippery? Because just when you step onto what you think is the firm footing of “add sensory details to make the story more vivid,” the slickness of “but don’t overdo it; don’t let the description get in the way of the story” causes you to slide right into a pool of cold, deep panic.

Okay, so I’m exaggerating, but I’m beginning to see why I’m not a critically-acclaimed literary writer. I have trouble concentrating on the nuances of the craft. I’m in awe of Monica Wood, a Maine author, who happened to write a book, DESCRIPTION, as part of the Elements of Fiction Writing Series put out by WRITER’S DIGEST magazine. I’m tempted to just tell my students to purchase a copy of this book and study it. There is everything here they will need to know about using detail and description to create vivid stories, to move the story forward, to develop character and setting.

But I’ve made a commitment to teach this class. I can at least share what I know and give some encouragement. Gasping, I hold my breath and swim for shore, one stroke at a time. “You don’t have to grasp every single concept all at once,” I tell myself. “You don’t have to teach all the material in a 170-page book. Start simply. One stroke at a time.”

This is good advice for any craft. When you are learning to knit, you don’t try to create a multi-colored sweater with intricate cables the first day you pick up the needles. Instead, you learn to cast-on a row of stitches. You learn how to slip the loop in a knit stitch and then in a purl stitch. You make a scarf, row after row, serviceable and simple. You focus on not dropping or adding stitches. You bind off.

In my class this week, I will focus on adding sensory details. Sight, yes, but also touch and smell and sound and taste. I will caution against overuse, but will tell the students to err this week on the side of overabundance. I will talk about simile and metaphor. We will practice. We will talk about looking at their now vivid description with an eye to the “telling” details–which details resonate with the theme of their piece (Is the story about despair? Which details reinforce that theme?) or the development of the character (Is she confident? Which details “fit” a confident character? Or maybe a shy character will discover confidence. Is there a telling detail that hints at such an inner strength?)

What I realize most about this process of preparing to teach is how much I’ve relied on “instinct” in my own writing; this is the reason why “read alot” is one of the cornerstones of all writing instruction (the other being “write alot). When you read good writing, you pick up the techniques almost by osmosis, but I’m beginning to suspect that a more rigorous and systematic program of study would be beneficial to my own writing if I am going to continue to develop my craft.

The old truth bears out, I guess. If you want to learn how to do something, teach it.