Summer Writing & Smiles

I smiled today. It was nearly involuntary. It emanated like a ray of light piercing through a small hole. That smile was summer.

I’m finishing up my second year of living in Saudi Arabia and a whole two-month writing bonanza stares me in the face. Oh sure, there’ll be family and barbecues and fresh berries and cherries. There will be baseball games and fireworks and long bike rides through the forest. And there will be writing.

Summer is when I become a ‘full-time’ writer. It’s when my brain can focus for long periods of time on items I’ve been itching to get at for an indefinite amount of time.  It begins in five days.

I’ve accomplished a lot this past school year. I’ve produced two original shows which I wrote, and I’m very happy with how they turned out. I finished the editing and publishing process for book three of my trilogy. I’ve written four or five short plays. A couple of which have already been produced. A couple more will be part of next year shows. I’ve even made some series in-roads into my 9th novel — some 10,000+ words already on its way.

So as I sit on my back deck, sipping a cold beverage, with my laptop in front of me, I’m smiling at what I hope to be able to accomplish this summer.

Finish novel #9 – It’s my first novel set in Malaysia. It is also looking like my first YA novel with four of the five main characters being teenagers.  This novel premise wasn’t even on my radar until about 6 weeks ago when a curious phrase popped through my mind. That’s how novels germinate for me. Usually a phrase, followed by an image, which grows into an idea worthy of long-format writing.  Then I develop the characters and let the story loose to see where it will go. This one is flowing, so I hope a good month of steady writing will produce a solid first draft.  Maybe by mid-July? Let’s see.

Start novel #10 – Actually, I already have. This idea I’ve been playing with for over a year and a half. I even wrote the first chapter already and I know where it’s going. But it requires a little research, so it will take some more time. I hope to have a solid start to this novel by the end of August. How about half-written? Nice goal.

Play-writing – I never discount play-writing because that’s the form that comes the most naturally to me. I have a show I wrote last year called Crazy Love, but I want to add one or two more pieces to it, so when the muse strikes, I set aside my novels for the afternoon.

Excited for summer? I hope you are at least half-excited as I am, and if you are, you’re plenty excited.

Sally, Where are you?

I’ve been rummaging through boxes of old mementos, and I came across a letter from a former student of mine. Here name was Sally. That’s not her real name. She’s Chinese from Dalian where I spent the summer of 1993. I remember her well. She taught me to play Chinese chess, which I have since forgotten. She had a bubbly personality and was a pleasure to chat with. When I left China, we exchanged a few letters and as time would have it, the summer of 1993 faded from our memories. The letters stopped as our lives continued in new directions. But I still remember Sally. Here’s the short letter she wrote to me that I found today:

“Mark, how are you? I’m eagerly to hear from you. I’m too busy to write to you. I have a lot word to talk with you, about my new work. So I write another letter to you. Post a book you’d like to read. ‘Selected Stories of Lu Hsun” and a very traditional Chinese disc. I hope you like it. Ok. God with you!”

Sally  93.02.09

Thank you, Sally. I wish I remembered your Chinese name and knew how to find you, but I don’t. I wonder where you are now. I wonder where your English language skills have taken you. You must be forty years old now with a family. Do you encourage your kids to learn English? Did you stay in Dalian? Have you had a happy life?

People come and go in one’s life. Sally is one who has gone. But I still remember her and I wish that the years have treated her well and that the brief moment I was her teacher in the summer of 1993 played a small role in her being able to accomplish her dreams.

God with you, Sally.


Cool Your Jets, Teachers. I know I have.

Between my writing and dramas and other pursuits, I do this regular thing called my day job where I teach for a living. I really do enjoy it. I’ve been doing it in various settings for the past twenty-two years.

I’ve noticed one thing that’s changed about my approach to teaching the last couple of years. I’ve cooled my engines. I’ve stopped coming at students with both barrels blazing. I’ve stop being the stickler for rules just because rules have to be followed.

In other words, I’ve cooled my jets! And I’m convinced, it’s for the better.

Example. In the past, when I required a paper to be turned in, I gave everyone a due date and expected it to be turned in by that time. Usually it was. If it wasn’t, I’d knock off 20% the first day, and perhaps more after that. At least, I thought, I’m not as hard as some other teachers who don’t even except late work.

Even if it was turned in on time, I would consider what they gave me to be their grade-able work, whether or not it was good enough or whether or not they followed all my instructions. If they didn’t include in-text citations, they would fail. If they messed up their works cited page, it would count against them. And so on and so forth. Punishment upon punishment for not getting it right. That’s what I was supposed to do, right? Grade their effort? Grade what they turned in against my expectations?

Maybe not.

Perhaps I’ve softened. Perhaps I’ve seen my own kids struggle through things in school, and I have a little more empathy. Or maybe I’ve just learned as a teacher that it’s okay to teach. It’s okay to have kids turn in assignments late. It’s okay to let them re-do in, and, as it turns out, they may actually learn something in the process. Isn’t that what they are supposed to do?

Recently, I had my US History class turn in their papers. I had the soft due date. Slightly harder due date. Firm due date. And drop-dead due-date. This was meant to give the kids some flexibility in their lives in case they were busy, and these kids are very busy doing all kinds of things.

So as the drop-dead due-date came and went, I started reading the papers and realized that there were some major problems in some of these papers. And if I kept reading and graded what was turned in, it would significantly lower their grade. Some might even fail.

Well, as it turns out, there is life after death!

I gave back their ungraded papers and we took some time in class to reinforce important issues such as in-text citations, formatting, and the works cited page. We talked about their importance, not just being a set of foolish rules, but how it allows every reader easy access to the important information that they are trying to  communicate.

Now, I’m getting in some revised papers which are much better. I don’t give any penalty for late work. They simply ended up doing their papers correctly, the way I wanted them to do it in the first place. They learned some lessons along the way. It was good for them. It was good for me.

My poor students who had to suffer through my previous self. I thank you for tolerating me. Sorry about your “C”. But hey, we are all learning. Some just take a little longer. I’m sure glad I haven’t been penalized for my slow learning.

Public Shame in Education: Some Cultures Use It

This article about a teacher being terminated for supposedly “bullying” a bully made me think about an amusing incident when I was living in Vietnam.

I know nothing about the situation in the article, so I cannot comment whether the school administrators were right or not. However, the contrast in the educational philosophies between the United States and Vietnam are quick stark when you hear what happened to me.

When we were living in Thai Nguyen, Vietnam back in the late 1990s, we enrolled our eldest daughter in a Vietnamese grammar school. (I will have to post photos another day) My blonde-haired daughter was the only foreigner in the whole school. She learned all her subjects in Vietnamese, making lots of friends and becoming proficient in the language.

After several months of daily school activities, we received a note from the teacher that she would be holding a parent-teacher conference and that all parents, with their students were expected to attend.

I showed up to the classroom on a Saturday morning to find everyone there at the same time. We each filed into the room and were asked to sit down in the small desks as the teacher came to the teaching platform and greeted everyone.

Then to my amazement, the conference began. In Vietnam, everyone has a parent-teacher conference at the same time in front of everyone else.

The teacher began going down her list, talking about various students and their strengths and weaknesses. Let me reiterate: IN FRONT OF EVERYONE!

It was fascinating.

And then she came upon the name of one particularly naughty boy. She began to scold his parents because of his lazy attitude and how he wasn’t working hard enough.

This was getting good!

And then she added this: “And Mr. —, your son is doing poorly with his math. Look at Brittany. She is a foreigner. And she is only learning the Vietnamese language, but she is doing better work than your son!”

I gulped. I looked at the father’s face and he beaming with a grin from ear to ear. The other parents were laughing and looking at him, and I just had this awkward feeling in the back of my throat.

Talk about peer pressure! The father kept smiling, and left the scene without making a fuss. But I am sure that that little boy had the whipping of his life when he got home. I’m also sure that his grades and effort dramatically increased from there on out.

Public shame and humiliation is a powerful weapon that a Vietnamese teacher will use. Why? Because a Vietnamese teacher has the power. The teacher has status. The teacher is revered and respected. When the teacher calls someone out, behavior changes will be made.

I’m not sure public shame in America would do any good, but the underlying values and philosophy of the two systems at least should give us reason to think.


Is this an opinionated question? (An example from Truman & the A-bomb)

As a teacher, sometimes I’m asked this question about the questions I ask my students: “Is this an opinionated question?”

“Yes it is,” I reply.

“So you can’t mark it off, right? It’s just an opinion.”

“Oh no, you can most definitely get it wrong.”

“But how can an opinion be wrong?”

“Perhaps an opinion can’t be wrong. But an opinion can be poorly researched and bereft of logical reasoning. Therefore, it can be wrong.”

They usually don’t respond after I use the word ‘bereft’, and they go about their business in answering the question.

People, of course, are entitled to whatever opinion they want, but all opinions are not created equally. For example, take this exam question:

Was Truman justified in dropping the A-bomb on Japan?

There’s no right or wrong answer, and there are people who hold extremely polarized views of this issue. But there are poorly reasoned and supported answers, even by those who demonstrate passion on this issue.

How about this: “Truman was an inhumane person who ultimately killed upwards of a half-million people with two A-bombs. He should have been tried for war crimes.”

That may indeed be someone’s opinion, but they’d get low marks in my class for such shoddy reasoning because they have failed to demonstrate the ability to understand both sides of the issue in a non-inflammatory way. A response as is written above shows little understanding of WWII and the Pacific Theatre in specific. It is an emotional appeal resting only on the fact that lots of people died, so therefore it’s bad. Yes, it’s true that when lots of people die, it’s bad, but that is drastically over-simplistic.It would be the same type of opinion which might equate Naziism with Trumanism because, after all, didn’t both of them kill a lot of people. Of course, level-headed people would see that there is in fact a huge difference.

What about an opinion on the other side of the same issue?

“Truman was justified for dropping the bomb because the Japanese were savages and didn’t deserve anything but death.”

This opinion is also inflammatory in an unnecessary way. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been people who have had this opinion. The problem with this opinion is that it too is simplistic and emotional, only taking into the account the barbarity of the Pacific battles. It shows no understanding of Japanese militarism, Japanese culture, or the human cost of such an undertaking as dropping the A-bomb.

But it is entirely possible to craft good and solid opinions which would support both sides of this equation.

It’s not so difficult for an American who spends time talking to a member of the Greatest Generation to see that the A-bomb was the right move. The casualty estimates of a US led invasion of the Japanese homeland were staggering. Based on what the US forces faced in places like Guadalcanal, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa; Americans learned that the Americans that the Japanese would not surrender. The Japanese home front was bracing for invasion with every man, woman, and child ready to defend to the death. It may have cost one half-million American soldier casualties to completely defeat them. It also would most certainly have cost millions of Japanese lives. So when Truman was confronted with an alternative, it was quite simple. Two bombs in three days and the war was over. No contest.

But what about the other side. Truman was not justified because … I have heard arguments that once Okinawa was taken, there was no need to invade right away. Truman could have put Japan under threat of nuclear bomb – could have given a demonstration of its power in an underpopulated area – could have used blockades and threats against the emperor – could have waited longer for the Soviets to surround the north … etc … Some may question the validity and effectiveness of such ideas, but on humanitarian grounds, these are solid opinions that could at least be discussed.

So I hope through this example that we can see how tangible and helpful dialogue about opinionated questions can be achieved without allowing the type of inflammatory remarks which are so prevalent in this day and age. Opinions matter when they are reasoned out in logical ways and supported with fact and concrete examples.

Getting what we earn. Nothing more.

Each new school year I am confronted with a new crop of students who tend to think they deserve what they have not earned. Now don’t get me wrong, I have incredibly motivated students who do earn a lot. But it’s never enough. And here is, invariably, where the situation arises.

After I return a test we always go over it point by point so the students understand their mistakes and to verify that I have not made any mistakes in correcting it. Unfortunately, I do tend to make mistakes. The students are quick to point them out when it benefits them but are more reluctant to bring it up when I marked correct an item which is clearly wrong.

But once again, let me clarify. I have very honest students and I believe that in 90+ percent of the situations that the students point out an error which is not in their favor. I always thank them for their honesty, and then I adjust the score lower.

Without fail they say something like, “but shouldn’t I get it right for being honest” as if their honesty should be rewarded. Can you imagine a society in which people only were honest if they were rewarded for their behavior? I think you can see how disastrous that would be.

But the additional point beyond the honesty issue is the question of why they think they should deserve a point for a question they answered incorrectly. Where else in life would that logic hold?

Knock down nine pins during a bowling game, write it down as a strike and see if your competition will mind?

In baseball an umpire rules a batted ball a home run. On challenge the video shows that it should be a double, but the opposing manager agrees to let the home run stand because it was an honest mistake by the umpire?

Has the IRS ever said this to you: thank you for informing us that you under-paid your taxes. Since you were honest, you no longer owe that money.

Have you ever heard of the College Board saying this: I have to inform you that the 2100 you scored on your SAT was calculated incorrectly. Your actual score was 1500. However, since it wasn’t your mistake, we will let you keep the 2100.

The world doesn’t work that way and neither should the classroom. Students should be encouraged to be honest because people of integrity are honest. Students shouldn’t expect to get special treatment simply because the teacher made an honest mistake.

Many times the students say, “Well, Mr. So-and-so doesn’t adjust our score down when we are honest about a mistake.” Well, either he believes in unfair grading practices or he practices unwarranted grace. And while as a theological argument, the concept of unwarranted grace has its certain merits, it doesn’t belong in education.

Students need to earn their score.

The broader point here concerning our society at large is that we all need to take responsibility over our own education, our own achievements, our own successes, our own failures. Honesty is the first step – even if it hurts us in the short term. The next step is accepting the fact that we get what we have earned. No more. No less.