Change the World

Yesterday was the first day of spring semester for Salt Lake Community College, and while I’ve never considered myself to be one of those movie-type teachers that inspires and changes lives, last night I decided to give it a shot — because the more I thought about it, the more it fit with the curriculum for my intermediate class.

When they came in, I had them answer three questions. The first two were just “warm-up” questions to get them primed for the third, but I didn’t tell them that:

  1. something nerdy about you
  2. your claim to fame
  3. one issue you’d tackle/change

(Originally, question three read “one thing you’d change about the world,” but I tested it on my intro class, and half of them said “war” or “world peace.” Oops. A little too broad.)

My answers were (1) I have my library card number memorized but not my bank account number, (2) I have students who like me enough to take both the intro and intermediate courses from me (about a third of the class last night), and (3) I’d change how English teachers teach grammar.

And my students had awesome answers. They’d change CEO overcompensation or disability awareness or put more reform in the healthcare reform or more initiative and inventiveness in education reform or stop the ways we put third-world countries into debt. I wish I could remember all the ideas.

Then I showed this clip from Pay It Forward:

Best of all, it’s not only possible to have one idea change the world, it happens all the time. In the newspaper over New Year’s I read about “People to Watch” in the next decade, and they were all working on different things: studying stem cells, mapping Down Syndrome genes, saving the Jordan River here in Salt Lake County, using saliva as disease diagnosis, running cities, serving in the senate, drawing alternative energy from waste lagoons, writing plays.

That’s how the world changes. You decide on the thing within your reach you want to tackle, and you tackle it.

My dad is part of the 29th Street Weed & Seed Coalition in Tucson — a neighborhood group that unites residents, schools, and businesses in working to reduce crime and build community. They’ve had some amazing success, including a 43% drop in crime compared to 15% in Tucson in the same period.

Also, my dad gets grants of all kinds to help improve the education of his middle school students and the lives of their parents. Last year he started teaching a weekend/evening workshop for parents that focuses on how to have stronger families. The course is free for those who are selected because of the grants my dad applied for. And it helps end cycles of domestic abuse, neglect, poverty, etc.

That’s how the world changes.

For my students this semester, they’ll be changing the world with a website. I showed them some of the ones from last semester, how one student’s site worked to educate people about the connection between drug abuse and gang violence, how another helped families of people diagnosed with a particular form of sclerosis learn how to cope, how one student used his experience working at a credit union to set up a site teaching people about avoiding debt, how another focused on finding happiness by avoiding consumer mentalities. (There are links on my English 2010 page for anyone who wants to see the sites.)

Now that I’ve taught one semester of this class, I realize that it is exactly like that Pay It Forward clip. It really is about changing the world and teaching students how, through writing, they can make things happen — the way my dad writes proposals and gets grant money.

Writing can change the world, and I like that thought a lot.

What about you? What’s something nerdy about you? What’s your claim to fame? And what would you tackle? How would you change the world?

Leave a comment!

Only for Humble Narcissists

I swapped manuscripts with a few other writers last Saturday. This week I read the first of their novels, and it was slow at first, but once I got to about chapter 10, I was hooked and stayed up late reading it. Since the point of swapping is to give each other feedback, it worked out well that I could tell her I love the story but also have plenty of suggestions about tightening those first ten chapters.

I should have gone straight to the second manuscript, but I’ve still got a week left, and — what can I say? — I suddenly wanted to go back to my own manuscript (Wendy and the Lost Boys) and see how it held up.

  • Did I have the same problem with a slow start?
  • Were there inconsistencies I had missed?
  • Would someone stay up late reading mine?

Writing is such a funny mix of arrogance and insecurity. I mean, even my students, when I told them they’d be creating a blog and website this semester, said they thought blogs were only for narcissists. And I guess there’s some truth to that. You do have to be a little arrogant (in a good way?) to think that people would want to hear what you have to say. But obviously the world would be a pretty quiet place if nobody said anything.

And at the same time, of course, whenever we say something we worry that it will sound dumb, or just not as good as someone else could have said it.

The arrogance goes deeper for people who are or want to be professional writers. As I read back through my manuscript last night, it was a sort of narcissistic experience. I’m so happy with how it’s shaping up, how much better it is than the first draft was, how clever some of the dialogue turned out, how perfect a few of the descriptions are, how fun some of the scenes are to read. I glowed with pride over all that stuff, thinking, “My group is going to love this!”

But my insecurities are just as potent. I found three typos and three or four obvious inconsistencies, and I cringed every time — and those are just the tiniest bits. Too often I end up thinking that the entire premise of the novel is flawed, and that I’ve wasted all these months (maybe over a year, by now) on something that is ultimately dumb.

I have to remind myself, as I think most writers do, that I’m contributing. I remind myself of all the books I’ve read and loved over the years and how sad it would be if some of those authors had been too scared to publish. Again, it’s arrogant to believe I could write something on par with the great things I’ve read, but it still goes back to the fact that there wouldn’t be any more to read if some people didn’t take the leap.

Why me? Well, because I’m arrogant enough to think I can do it, and humble enough that I’m willing to ask for feedback to make it better.

In my experience at writing conferences, etc, the humility is definitely the necessary factor for balancing out the arrogance. You have to be willing to swallow your pride and hear all the faults in your writing — whether the first ten chapters need to be tightened or the entire thing — and you actually have to get into the crazy mindset where you’re excited to be torn apart like that.

And I think I have hit that looney stage, because I can hardly wait for next Saturday.

After critiquing my group member’s manuscript and writing down all my suggestions about those ten chapters and such, I feel excited for her to get the feedback and make the story better, because I love the story enough that I care and really want to read a better version of it.

More than anything else, I want my own manuscript to keep getting better. So hooray for critique groups, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they like mine enough to hope it improves.

First Comes Twitter, Then Comes Blog

It’s time.  I started tweeting once I discovered the networking possibilities with other writers, and now I need a hub from which to reach out, whether to other writers trying to publish or to my students learning to write.  Today is not the greatest timing, since I’m very stressed about getting everything ready for the start of fall semester tomorrow (sure, you don’t HAVE to have the syllabus ready the first day, but I do), but part of what I’m contemplating for the syllabus in my 2010 class (Intermediate Writing) is having the students put all their work this semester onto a website like wordpress, and as well as being the sort of teacher who has to have a syllabus ready the first day, I’m also the sort of teacher who has to read everything and try everything that I want to have my students read and do.  Thus the creation of this site.

Ironically, the novel that I’m writing now includes a blog, so my characters have been blogging much longer than I have.  That’s another reason that it’s time to do this.  If I’m going to write about blogging, it helps if I’ve had experience with it.  Plus I intend to add an “about” page for the manuscript that will give me practice answering that hellish question: “So what’s your book about?”  You know.  Stuff.  Teens.  Growing up.  All that.

Yep.  Definitely need practice.  Especially since I intend to start shopping the MS to agents within the next few months.  Maybe six months.  We’ll see how much longer it takes to get the whole thing in decent shape.  I’m meeting with a writing group at the end of September, so their opinion of it might determine how much more work it needs.

In the mean time, back to prepping for the semester.  My Intro to Writing class is pretty much ready to go, but I’ve got a lot of tweaking left to do with the Intermediate course.  And then MAYBE (fingers crossed) there will be time for working on the novel.

p.s. while deciding on supplementary readings for 2010 (textbooks are never as good as you want them to be) I came across this satire about punctuation and spelling in today’s blogging, texting, and twittering world; funny stuff (at least to a writer and writing teacher)!