On Revision with Elisabeth Dahl

Welcome to ‘Between the Lines’ – interviews with teachers, writers and writing teachers on specific aspects of their craft.

In this week’s conversation, Elisabeth Dahl (no, no relation) discusses the transformative power of words, with a special focus on teaching revision.

Photo courtesy Elisabeth Dahl

‘I worry for people who don’t write’

Author, illustrator, editor, educator: Elisabeth Dahl’s writing experience spans genres and professions. The through line quickly emerges in conversation – a deftness with, and delight in, words that is as contagious as a yawn. And a knack for detail that brimfills anecdotes with life and color.

The Baltimore, Maryland native grew up near Johns Hopkins’ main campus, where she completed her undergraduate degree. She returned to the city as an adult, and lives a few miles from the hospital where she was born.

“As a child, I loved school right from the start,” she writes in her online bio. “By the time I was in ninth or tenth grade, one thing had become clear: Analyzing stories and crafting sentences lit me up in a way that history, math, and the rest did not.”

Speaking on the phone, Dahl credits this to her high school teacher Joyce Brown (with whom she still exchanges emails). “She approached us as if we were college students. When we started [James] Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, we spent 20-30 minutes talking about his decision to use ‘the artist’ instead of ‘an artist’. To think this was even a question! It would have been one thing to debate writer versus artist, but to look at the article – the versus an – was incredible. As it turns out, [Ms Brown] led us to understand it made quite a big difference.”

Understanding the big differences a small lexical choice can makes is a sine qua non for a writer-educator. “I’m a better writer because I’ve taught writing,” says Dahl, who worked for Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth for the better part of a decade. “I was still making the same mistakes emerging writers were making: the stakes weren’t high enough, or I was padding the stories. Seeing these problems [as a teacher] was sort of teaching myself at the same time. It helped me incorporate the lessons into my own writing.”

Textures of language

For Dahl, a reciprocal relationship between teaching and literature was established early; her mother and grandmother (with whom they lived until Dahl was eight) were elementary school teachers who made reading a central part of her young life. They also gifted her with a fascination for the stories embedded in artifacts and moments. Her favorite space, as a child, was her grandmother’s walk-in closet. “It smelled like mothballs but had its own, not just aroma – aura. It had a history. It was a special occasion if I got to try on old dresses, like the one my mother wore to her junior prom. There was a scarlet red [dress], like what a Spanish dancer would wear, with tiers, strapless. It didn’t look like any of the other clothes in there. Jane Eyre had her red room; I had this red dress.”

The aural and visual qualities of words beguiled her: “I liked that if you said a word like ‘fork’ or ‘salad’ 25 times to yourself, it became nonsense, weird, you could almost hallucinate about it”. Another female relative, an aunt, was a graphic designer. Tracing pages in her books on hand-lettering introduced Dahl to the “tactile aspect” of language.

These formative experiences of words and stories as real and imaginative, concrete and abstract, primed Dahl to thrill to the challenge when Ms Brown assigned Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. “A light had turned on. I remember standing in her empty classroom, during a free period, talking about it with her, totally energized. I [still] don’t know if I know what the story means,” she says cheerfully. “But I love it. It’s like a Rorschach test.”

Inspired by Ms Brown’s example, Dahl prioritizes space for students to encounter epiphanies by “helping them get a new perspective, become a better observer, or express themselves better. As a teacher, you’re another voice in this person’s head. You have to take it seriously. You don’t know the other voices in their lives, all you can do is be respectful and help them grow.”

But why learn to write any more – aren’t there machines for that?

“Because to have a good relationship with writing is to have a good relationship with your own mind, your history, the world around you,” Dahl responds. “I worry about people who don’t write regularly. The memoir I’m working on has taught me so much about things I’ve been thinking about for 54 years. By laying out the words, revising the words, reconsidering the words, I’ve developed new attitudes towards certain moments, and people. It’s wonderful to be able to do that.”

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

On Revision

How do you create an open, accepting environment where students think beyond the binary of right/wrong?

One assignment I designed is based on Amelia Gray’s short story ‘Monument’. In it, the people of a town came to clean up a graveyard, then something changes, and they start destroying the graveyard, almost like Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’. I had students pick a character and rewrite the [third-person] story in the first person. We talked about what that changed, what opportunities it created, what it shut down.

This helped them realize that a piece of writing is many, many choices. It loosened students up. It was an act of playing around, like they might approach improv.

How do you push students beyond ‘good enough’?

Try to present revision as an opportunity. What if you wrote in a different point of view? What if you sprinkled some of these details throughout the story?

For students who are good but could be better, I call upon their sense of a challenge, their curiosity, intrigue. If a student is a tennis player, or pianist, say, I remind them how many hours they spend on the court or at the keyboard. Writing requires the same. It’s a lot of time, a lot of effort, yes.

I always tried to teach that we’re all on the same continuum. We’re writing. We’re writers. Getting started, revising, these things are always challenging.

How can students develop a feel for revision?

They need to be reading, copying out passages as a way of internalizing what good writing is. I encounter people who say, ‘I know I could write a novel’, then you ask what they are reading and they ‘don’t really read’. That’s never going to work.

How does revision differ between fiction and non-fiction?

With non-fiction you have to think about fact checking, accuracy, but the process is not all that different. You’re still asking about tone, voice, consistency, how the narrative is laid out, what is the best way to tell the story, whether you’ve grabbed the reader…

How do you approach teaching revision with different age groups?

With younger students, don’t talk down to them. With all ages, nurture their curiosity about where a piece of writing might go. Again, trying to relate writing to other endeavors, whether playing sports, or working at a grocery story. Remind people that revision isn’t just something we do in writing. We’re always revising things, always being asked to spend more time perfecting or altering, it’s part of being human.

What is a sign that the process is working?

When students say, this went a different direction, or, the character surprised me by doing this. That is exciting. It shows they are engaging on another level, not just trying to bang out the essay or the story.

Dahl recommends:

The piece of writing that changed your life as an adult?

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. She explores, in a graphic novel, growing up, the truths that were presented to her and the truths she had to discover later. It was fascinating, her level of honesty. I get most of my books out of the library, but I went straight to the book store and bought that one for full price.

A classic you love to teach?

‘Why I Live at the PO’ by Eudora Welty. It’s an unreliable narrator story, very subtle, hard to pull off. Every time I read it, I see new things.

A book about writing every writing student should read?

On Writing by Stephen King. Although I’m not a King fan, this book is so good, especially if students are interested in writing books and getting into publishing. It is full of good advice, very practical.

A book + film adaptation combo you love?

Ian McEwan’s Atonement – that was a great movie and a very good book.

A living writer you’d love to hang out with?

Ann Patchett. She co-owns a book store called Parnassus Books in Nashville; she has a wonderful personality, she’s smart, she’s a good writer.

Your perfect writing space?

My house, where I live and write, is suburban, there are beautiful trees but always people walking past. I like to have people around.

If you could publish anything, what would it be and why?

It would be nice if the memoir I’m writing eventually becomes a book. What got me started was realizing how much I loved reading memoir. There is something about a well-crafted, honest memoir that stands out; they are always engaging.

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On Reading Like a Writer

This is an article I wrote several years ago, based on interviews with three brilliant, inspiring writers. It is worth revisiting.

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“It is impossible to become a writer without reading,” says Paul Hendrickson, writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and award-winning author of numerous books including Hemingway’s Boat.

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There is a relationship between quality of reading and quality of writing. And a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. The difference involves attitude, approach and appreciation. Michael Schmidt, poet, professor and author of The Novel: A Biography recommends reading, “with eyes wide open, full of anticipation.”

With this in mind, here are seven ways to read like a writer:

1. Compulsively

“You can’t be a writer unless you have a hunger for print,” says Nick Lezard, Guardian literary critic and author of Bitter Experience Has Taught Me. “I was the kid who sat at the table and read the side of the cereal packet.” In Nick’s case, the lust for literature paved the way for a career as a book reviewer. But regardless of the genre or field to which you aspire, all writers are readers first.  And “it doesn’t matter whether the medium is the side of the cereal packet or a screen,” Nick says.

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2. Slowly

Cereal-packet readers tend to wolf words like they do breakfast. This is a trait writers should train themselves out of – at least sometimes. Paul defines reading like a writer as slow reading: dawdling on the page, delving, soaking in the style and rhythm. Don’t read everything this way, though. “I don’t read the newspaper ‘like a writer’,” he notes. “I don’t have time. Nobody does.”

3. Broadly

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Time is of the essence for the reading writer, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything apart from the classics. There are, to borrow Orwell’s term, good bad books. Nick mentions Ian Fleming as an example of compelling though less-than-literary fiction. Paul gives a nod to Raymond Chandler, saying writers can learn from his “hardboiled, imagistic lines.”

4. Selectively

That said, don’t make the mistake of reading widely but not too well. “Reading crap is no good for the eye or ear,” says Michael. “Read only the best, and read it attentively. See how it relates to the world it depicts, or grows out of.”

Nick, who has read his share of bad books as a reviewer, concurs: “If you just read books like 50 Shades of Grey or Dan Brown, you’re going to wind up spewing out a string of miserable clichés.”

 5. Attentively

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You get the most out of good writing by reading it with real attention. Michael advises writers to pay heed to metaphor, characters’ voices, how the author develops those voices and how they change. He recommends Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children as a rewarding subject of attentive reading: “There is a strong sense of development, nothing static there. I can think of no better pattern book for a would-be writer.”    

6. Fearlessly

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Reading like a writer means going out of your comfort zone. When Nick was in his teens he tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses. “It was a struggle,” he recalls. “It took me a year or two. But that’s how you [learn] – you find stuff that’s above your level.”

7. Imaginatively

Reading above your level is valuable, in part, because it challenges your imagination. Paul talks about savoring the terse beauty of poetry and imagining “everything that’s between the spaces of the words, the spaces of the lines.” By observing the work of your own imagination you gain insight into how writers evoke images and emotions.

You don’t have to read every book (or cereal box) like a writer. But the more you immerse yourself in words and cultivate these seven skills, the better your writing will be. “If you are writing a potboiler, imagine how wonderful it will be if the work you produce is actually a proper novel,” says Michael. “Read the best, and read the best in your elected genre.”

lighthouse

Writers’ Recommended Reading:

Ulysses – James Joyce
To The Lighthouse –Virginia Woolf
A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway 
Three Lives – Gertrude Stein
New York Review of Books

On Ungrading with Anthony Lince

This is the debut post of ‘Between the Lines’ – interviews with teachers, writers and writing teachers on specific aspects of their craft.

This week’s interview is with Anthony Lince, per his online bio ‘a Latinx educator and scholar who teaches first-year writing courses at UC San Diego and local community colleges.’

Photo courtesy Anthony Lince

Writing: From ‘terrified’ to teacher

In conversation, Lince has a ready beam and belies several notions of what a scholar of writing looks like. Figuratively, anyway. The dun-colored, round-neck sweater is classic English teacher chic, but he is quick to undercut the notion that he is a born wordsmith.

Growing up, San Diego, California Lince was happiest on the basketball court, running plays as a point guard through his high school years.

‘I was terrified of writing,’ he confesses, still smiling. ‘I loved to read, but as far as writing went, I never felt confident.’

Writing at all, much less teaching writing was so far out of mind as to be out of sight. After high school, Lince joined the Army and served as a military police officer. When he enrolled in college, aged 25, he planned to study criminal justice.

So where did writing come in?

‘Professor Bustos, who taught my first-year writing course. There were texts by Mexican-American writers like Pat Mora and Sandra Cisneros, which I connected with as a Mexican-American. And the Professor let me know he enjoyed my work.’

Despite struggling with imposter syndrome at the unexpected praise, Lince trusted his teacher enough to take a job at the writing center, at Bustos’ recommendation. There, he discovered he liked helping peers. His confidence in his own writing grew; he became an English major.

Lince didn’t set aside his thirst for justice, though: ‘As I started to get an education in the humanities, I saw a lot of injustices that needed work.’

Towards more equitable education

Lince is passionate about opening doors. One of the reasons he practices ungrading is to ‘create a positive, less-anxious, equitable, and antiracist learning environment’ (more on all that in a moment).

Lince was the first in his family to complete college. He understands the challenges and subtle (or blatant) inequities that non-traditional students, or those from marginalized communities, face. ‘It was unfamiliar terrain,’ he recalls of undergraduate study. ‘Take office hours – I had no idea you could go talk to professors. Things like figuring out a financial aid are hard if you don’t know anyone who’s done it before.’

After finishing his BA in English with an emphasis on Teaching, Lince qualified as a teacher and spent a year working in a high school before completing an MA in English with an emphasis on Rhetoric and Writing Studies. He graduated in 2022 with a thesis on labor-based grading.

Though peer-reviewed articles and conference proceedings sprout like kudzu on Lince’s academic CV, his primary goal is to lead by example. ‘I try teach from the perspective of authentic writing practices and share with students from the point of authorial expertise. If someone were a dance teacher, you’d expect them to be a dancer, right? So when I go into a classroom, I let them know I write academic articles, book chapters, blog posts, that I’m working on a book. By bringing this into the classroom, they see how writing works outside the classroom.’

Though he doesn’t use the word, Lince’s teaching practice is grounded in respect. Addressing students as fellow-practitioners of the craft is mark of respect. Seeking to ‘be equitable in my assessment and grading practices so students know they are having a fair education,’ is another mark of respect.

‘I want students to see that they are important. That they matter,’ he says. ‘I want them to be confident at writing. And to be able to spot potential injustices or biases that play out in writing.’

On Ungrading

  1. What is ‘ungrading’?

Moving away from traditional numbers and letters and moving towards authentic ways of assessment. Take my own experiences as reference points; when I write for publication, or even for fun, I don’t receive numbers or letter grades, assessment happens through feedback.

  1. Your Master’s thesis is on ‘labor-based grading’ – what is that?

There are a lot of sections under the umbrella of ungrading, one of which is labor-based grading. This method only uses a student’s labor to calculate their final course grade.

At the start of the course, students sign up for the grade they want. I tell them, you want a B, you need to do these things. If you want an A, you have to do all the B labor, plus more, to get the A.

All the activities [they complete] are based on the writing process: peer review, conferencing, visiting the writing center, drafting, revision. Students can complete more elements, or go more in depth, to get a higher grade.

  1. How did you become interested in ungrading?

When I taught high school, students were primarily focused the grade. I’d give feedback and they would just ask for a grade. During my Master’s, when I was teaching first-year students, I didn’t want them to be so focused on grades so started looking for an alternative. I was the first at San Diego State to implement ungrading, but it’s started to spread. It was great to see students come to conferences and listen to feedback, not just ask for a grade.

  1. Which student demographics does this technique best suit?

If the conditions are right, it could work for high school students. College [university], for sure.

Photo by Unseen Studio on Unsplash
  1. How do students respond to ungrading?

Sometimes there is confusion in terms of not seeing a grade, they’ll ask ‘how do I know how I’m really doing?’

But most students don’t like grades, so we discuss it. They start to see how this can work for them. And I check in throughout the term to see how they’re doing.

  1. How does ungrading promote an antiracist environment?

Biases can enter into grading practices and, even if unconscious, negatively impact students. A study was done of two students in 2nd grade, one called Johnny and the other Malik. Their papers were given to various teachers and Malik’s paper was consistently marked lower. The twist was the papers were identical; the only difference was the name.

If this happens in second grade, third, fifth, high school and into college it can negatively impact that student. With labor-based grading, that sort of judgement goes away because if the student does the work, they get the credit. The classroom becomes a space where students don’t have to worry about biases or subjectivities.

  1. What other benefits do you see in the classroom?

The hierarchy of A student/C student breaks down, it becomes a place of collaboration. When students ask for feedback, they’ll ask about specific parts of the writing, which is a very different conversation from talking about a grade.

  1. How do students get a grade for their GPA?

They get a letter grade at the end of the semester, per college rules. If someone signs up for a B, I’m checking throughout the term to see if they complete the agreed work. If they do, they get the grade they signed up for.

Lince recommends

  1. The piece of writing that changed your life before age 18?

The Fellowship of the Ring. I read it when I was nine and was so taken by the way the world was created, the multitude of characters, the important quest. It ignited my love of reading.

  1. The piece of writing that changed your life as an adult?

Anne Lamott on first drafts [in Bird by Bird: Some Notes on Writing and Life]. It let me know that all writers struggle, and that struggle is perfectly normal. I assign it to my students to show that they aren’t alone.

  1. A classic you love to teach?

George Orwell’s 1984. I teach a unit on surveillance and I like showing students this idea of a surveillance state.

  1. A contemporary work you love to teach?

I bring poetry into my classes, just to share. Shel Silverstein has some fantastic poems that are applicable to the writing classroom. Also, Percival Everett [a novelist The New Yorker describes as having ‘one of the best poker faces in contemporary American literature’]. He just won the PEN/Jean Stein Award for Doctor No, a satire on the James Bond trope.

  1. A book about writing every writing student should read?

Writing With Style by John R Trimble. It isn’t really well-known but he writes in a conversational tone students can relate to it.

  1. A book + film adaptation combo you love?

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was phenomenal. It was true to the essence of the books.

  1. A living writer you’d love to hang out with?

Percival Everett. I’d love to pick his brain, get a sense of his process and writing style. It also seems, from interviews, we have somewhat similar personalities.

  1. A writing tool?

Scrivener. It takes everything away from the screen so you’re only focused on the text. With so many distractions, its cool to have everything fade in the background.

Looking forward

Lince is at work on his first book, a writing guide tentative titled Questions to Ask for Becoming a Better Writer. Look for it in autumn 2024.

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On Freedom From Religion

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

BELIEVE AND YE SHALL BE SAVED?

Do parents have the right to indoctrinate their children?

For millennia, most cultures have acted as if the answer is ‘yes’ — using everything from physical violence to threats of damnation to ensure each successive generation followed like sheep.

Now, finally, someone, somewhere has said, ‘no’.

In December 2022, Japan announced a law to protect children from parental religious fanaticism. The law would protect kids from being a) forced to participate in religious activities, b) refused medical treatment, educational or social opportunities based on their parents’ religious beliefs and c) protect them from religious coercion, i.e. being pressured by parents threatening them with hellfire.

My husband, brought up Southern Baptist, and I (Evangelical then Seventh-Day Adventist) raised our eyebrows: if only.

To quote ‘Giest’, discussing the Japanese legislation on r/atheism: “Most Americans would loose their shit over this. Forcing religion on kids is a big part of our culture.”

FREEDOM FOR SOME

The United States gets mentioned a lot in the reddit thread because perhaps no other country so full-throatedly proclaims its hypocrisies. Individual personal freedom, including freedom of religion, is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution but few other nations match the United States’ fanatical zeal for enforcing minority religious practices on everyone.

Texas just passed a law demanding that the Biblical Ten Commandments be posted in a ‘conspicuous place’ in every classroom in the state. Florida wants to ban any mention of menstruation before sixth grade (12 years old), though which chapter of the Bible supports that blend of misogyny, gynophoby and science-loathing is not specified.

As anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see, the US Right believes only in the absolute personal freedom of wealthy, fanatical, embittered, power-drunk, humanity-hating men. The rest of us be dammed.

Hence the chances of laws to protect children from emotional, psychological and physical abuse in the name of God will remain unwritten and unenacted.

PERSON OR PROPERTY?

This isn’t just a United States problem, though; nor is it only a problem of religion in the States.

The real but unarticulated debate is this: are children people, entitled to the rights and privileges of personhood? Or are they, as the American Right, and so many other cultures construct them, property?

How a society answers this question is of existential importance for the simple reason that children become adults.

A culture, religious or national, that views children as property cannot prepare them for a successful adulthood. Responsibility, the ability to carry oneself in the world, cannot be conferred at an arbitrary age: 18, 21, whatever.

Children who are controlled, brain-washed, browbeaten throughout their youth aren’t going to suddenly blossom into self-sufficient, competent adults. Instead, they are turned loose on society as adult-sized toddlers, prone to tantrums and destruction.

I don’t believe it is any coincidence that the United States combines high rates of religious fundamentalism with catastrophic rates of interpersonal violence. Should we be surprised that children denied agency and personhood seek extreme and harmful outlets as older teenagers and adults? Is anyone surprised when a beaten dog bites?

Photo by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash

TOUGHER. BETTER.

The only way to rear children to become full citizens of humanity is to, quelle surprise, treat them like human beings. From their first breath onwards.

“Childhood is a time for gathering and developing the assets necessary for full autonomy,” writes Hollingsworth (2013). Developing the capacity for full autonomy requires independent trial-and-error, in the same way developing the capacity to ride a bike requires time spent wobbling up and down the street.

Adults can screw this up in so many ways: laziness, authoritarianism, over-protectiveness.

It is tougher to co-regulate, discuss, take time to listen to a child than it is to demand compliance, or at least the appearance of it.

But it is better.

Children learn respect by example. If we want them to grow into adults who respect the opinions, privacy and autonomy of others, we had better show them how its done. Treating children as full-fledged human beings is the best way to inoculate them against hateful ideologies that thrive on repression: nationalism, racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and the like.

As educators, we have the extra privilege and responsibility of making our classrooms safe for ideas and self-expression. When children express ideas we find difficult (as they will) we have to model an appropriate, adult, respectful response.

Once, I was teaching English to a group of 14-and-15-year-old Spanish kids. One of them came out in support of Vox, the ultra-nationalist, uber-misogynist far-Right party that had formed recently.

My kneejerk response was: ‘We’ll have none of that in here.

But I pulled myself together and asked why he supported them, and we had a class discussion. Who knows whether he changed his mind about Vox, then or later, but at least he had a chance to participate in a respectful debate, instead of being shut down.

Teachers, and parents, have to model the behaviours and responses they hope to see in children. If we want kids to become thoughtful, compassionate, self-respecting, respectful global citizens we better start working on ourselves.

How do you support your students/kids to develop autonomy? Share in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke

On Animal Welfare Education

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

Last November, I read about New Zealand children being taught to trap and kill rats. The story has nagged me ever since.

The child killers were ostensibly working towards the laudable goal of protecting native fauna.

What I have a hard time with is the gleeful tone of the kids, and adults, involved (quoted by McClure, 2022):

  • “My trap, basically the whole thing’s a layer of blood,” grins one enthusiastic vermin-slayer.”
  • “Even the five-year-olds are really into the idea. They know the end goal: they want kiwis back in their back yards,” said Emma Jenkinson, chair of the school’s board of trustees, who helped organise the competition.”

Do the five-year-olds really want kiwis back in their yards? Or are they learning a dangerous lesson?

Teaching cruelty

Research beginning in the 1960s has found consistent strong links between childhood animal cruelty and adult interpersonal violence (Holoyda & Newman, 2016; Glayzer, et al., 2002).

This is so well-established, Holoyda and Newman (2016) note, that: “Cruelty to animals entered the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the revised third edition (American Psychiatric Association, 1987) as a criterion for conduct disorder, the childhood precursor to antisocial personality disorder.”

But it’s rats, you may say. Vermin.

Rats — like it or not — are living creatures capable of feeling pain.

In April, 2023 New Zealand was prepared to offer children under 14 cash prizes for killing ‘feral’ cats. Fortunately there was enough public outcry to force the organizers to rescind the reward.

My point is, the category of vermin is dangerously prone to expansion.

It is a hallmark of genocide that perpetrators classify the objects of their violence as pestilential, invasive, repulsive.

“In the apocalyptic Nazi vision, these putative enemies of civilization [Jews] were represented as parasitic organisms — as leeches, lice, bacteria, or vectors of contagion,” writes David Livingston Smith, author of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others. He also notes that during the genocide in Rawanda Hutus referred to their Tutsi victims as “cockroaches.”

To be clear, I am NOT equating killing rats or cats with killing humans. That would be absurd and offensive.

What I AM arguing is that humans can be conditioned to treat other living creatures with regard, or the opposite, and that training children to delight in the death and suffering of any living being paves the way for insensitivity to other living beings.

If we teach kids it’s okay to torment and kill one animal, what’s to stop the category of vermin expanding? Again, numerous studies across more than half a century have found strong correlations between childhood animal cruelty and adult violence.

Taking responsibility

Another problematic fact of the New Zealand slaughter campaigns (at least as reported) is the lack of acknowledgement of how the problem started.

Neither cats nor rats are native to New Zealand, and they didn’t swim there. Humans brought rats to the islands (Innes, et al., 1995), and doubtless brought cats to kill the rats, in nursery rhyme fashion.

Photo by Jinen Shah on Unsplash

If anyone is to blame for endangering native fauna, it is the colonizers and invaders who arrived with these animals. It may be necessary and appropriate to take protective measures now, but any engagement children have with the issue should be framed in terms of human responsibility for the initial problem.

This means that adults need to deal with the situation instead of outsourcing killing to children. If culling seems the only way to protect endangered native species it should be done as humanely as possible by trained adult professionals.

Animal welfare education

Schools can, and should, educate children about animal welfare. At this point in human history, it is less about kindness than about a last-gasp chance to save ourselves from self-inflicted environmental meltdown.

We cannot slow the headlong rush to planet-scale destruction by continuing with the same mindset that got us into it — the mindset that says: when an animal (or plant, or person) inconveniences us, let’s call them a pest and kill them.

Educating children to treat other living beings and ecosystems with respect and consideration is a step towards self-preservation, in the immediate and (if we’re lucky) long term.

Immediate impacts include reducing interpersonal violence. Scheib, Roeper and Hametter (2010) found that children who taught about animal welfare, “acquire social competences such as empathy, consideration, and responsibilities. Thus, Animal Welfare Education plays an important role in preventing violence in schools.”

Tarazona, Ceballos and Broom (2020) argue for far-reaching benefits to animal welfare education, writing: “The basic concepts of biology, welfare, and health are the same for humans and all other animals. Human actions have wide consequences and we need to change the way we interact with other living beings. … Animal welfare should always be considered in our relationships with animals, not only for direct impacts, e.g., manipulations, but also for indirect effects, e.g., on the environment, disease spread, natural resource availability, culture, and society.”

Interdisciplinary connections

To avoid this outcome, teachers in all disciplines need to participate.

As long as environmental or animal-related topics are confined to science classes, they will remain easy for students to compartmentalize. And a thing that can be compartmentalized can be ignored most of the time.

What can I do, as an English teacher?

For starters, I can highlight relevant themes in texts. One of my classes just finished reading Doris Lessing’s striking debut novel The Grass is Singing, a book in which the physical environment plays an outsized role in the social, emotional and psychological environment. It explicitly deals with themes like land exploitation, too, and highlighting them initiated a thoughtful discussion.

I also love to draw from authors like Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin and Margaret Mead.

History class is another fantastic place to educate students about the environment. We should consider and highlight the impact of social change, war, technology, etc. on animals and the wider environment.

Math teachers can use problems that engage with the natural world, ranging from population expansion to epidemiology.

Children who don’t understand that all life is fundamentally connected will grow into adults who won’t see how their actions and choices affect their environment. They will be, in a profound sense, irresponsible. And it will be our fault for not having taught them better.

What is your view on animal welfare education? Have could it best be integrated into curricula? Share your thoughts in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke

On ADHD and Exercise

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

When I was 12 or 13, an older girl at my school taught me to run.

Like any kid, I was familiar with the concept of moving my feet faster when being chased, but she taught me to run with intent, to pick up my knees and let my body slope on uphills, to relax on the downhills, to keep my elbows light and my shoulders back.

Like the givers of most priceless gift, she never got a proper thanks. Thinking of it now, I’m touched and amazed a 15-year-old took the time to hang out with a chubby, socially awkward new kid.

Exercise is more than just a ‘good to have’ — especially for students who struggle. Depression, anxiety, body image issues and low self-esteem are just a few of the struggles running has helped me manage.

It didn’t surprise me, then, when I started reading about the effect of exercise on attention–deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). My assumption was that ADHD, like so many other physical and mental health challenges, would respond positively to exercise.

Research overwhelmingly bears this out.

Studies on ADHD and Exercise

Silva et al. (2015), who found that “groups of volunteers with ADHD who performed exercise (GE-EF) showed improved performance for the tasks that require attention with a difference of 30.52% compared with the volunteers with ADHD who did not perform the exercise (GE). The (GE-EF) group showed similar performance (2.5% difference) with the volunteers in the (GC) group who have no ADHD symptoms and did not exercise. This study shows that intense exercise can improve the attention of children with ADHD and may help their school performance.”

Haffner et al. (2006) studied yoga as a treatment for children with ADHD: “All children showed sizable reductions in symptoms over time, and at the end of the study, the group means for the ADHD scales did not differ significantly from those for a representative control group.”

Systematic literature reviews

Ng et al. (2017) conducted a review of 30 studies of exercise and ADHD found, “Both short-term and long-term studies support the clinical benefits of physical activity for individuals with ADHD. Cognitive, behavioural and physical symptoms of ADHD were alleviated in most instances… Physical activity, in particular moderate-to-intense aerobic exercise, is a beneficial and well-tolerated intervention for children and adolescents with ADHD.”

Den Heijer et al. (2017) reviewed 29 studies and reported, “the reviewed studies describe acute as well as chronic beneficial effects of cardio exercise on a wide variety of cognitive and behavioral functions in children with ADHD.” For example: “Sibley and Etnier (2003) observed acute as well as chronic effects of various cardio and non-cardio exercises on perceptual skills, intelligence, academic achievement, developmental level and performance on verbal and mathematic tests in children and adolescents (4–18 years). Furthermore, improvements of executive functions of children have been demonstrated following cardio exercise (Best 2010).”

Furthermore, a literature review of 91 studies (Suchert, Hanewinkel, Isensee, 2015) found, “strong evidence that high levels of screen time were associated with more hyperactivity/inattention problems”.

Photo by Rachel on Unsplash

How to Promote Active Education

This should be of particular concern to those of us educators who teach online. For all the benefits and conveniences remote learning offers, we should bear in mind the potential negative effects.

Is it ever fair to ask a child to sit still for six to eight hours a day? No.

But at least in physical schools there are halls to run in, playgrounds, a gym, a playing field. Online schooling asks a lot of kids, in terms of attention, and paradoxically the screen we rely on might make ADHD symptoms worse.

As online teachers, we have a limited influence on students’ activities once they log out of our classroom. This means we need to work with parents and make the most of online opportunities to support student activity. Here’s how that might look:

1. Inform and engage parents

All students benefit from physical activity, so the message should go to all parents. Teachers and administrators can communicate the benefits of sports and exercise through routine conversations, newsletters, blog posts, etc.

Educators should ask what sports students do and offer flexibility for training and competitions. If a kid has to miss class for a clinic, or to travel to a match, we should support that. It is a simple, practical way to commit to holistic wellness and development.

2. Make ‘movement moments’

There are plenty of exercises that can be done in front of a computer. Take a minute at the beginning or end of class to lead students in a yoga pose, do a dozen star jumps (jumping jacks, to my Stateside friends), throw a few jabs or march in place. The kids might think it’s weird at first, but they’re bound to appreciate the chance to bounce around.

3. Talk about exercise and mind-body wellness

Share your positive experiences with exercise (and if you don’t have any, please make time to cultivate some). With younger students you can make straightforward recommendations like, If you’re having trouble concentrating, try running up and down the garden really fast 10 times then go back to your homework. Older students will be able to understand and discuss in greater depth the benefits of exercise and strategize about how to include it in their daily routines.

4. Create opportunities for student sharing and leadership

Be a good example, but don’t hog the floor. Invite students who play sports to give presentations about them, or share their experiences of learning a new physical skill. Ask for volunteers to lead in-class ‘movement minutes’. Encourage students to keep exercise diaries or step counts — you could even make a chart where they can post their weekly totals!

5. Be positive, not preachy

Tone matters. Exercise can easily feel like another demand to over-taxed students. Kids with ADHD are likely more impulsive, more emotional, less able to maintain healthy routines; adding another weight to their shoulders isn’t a kindness, so don’t preach. Model positive wellness behaviors; verbally support students; encourage parents to prioritize physical activity; praise success; praise mistakes. When exercise is a low-risk, fun, habitual activity we all win.

How do you encourage kids to stay active? Share in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke

Why Assessment Trumps Judgment

For slightly convoluted reasons (suffice to say a Kindle subscription was involved, which I don’t recommend on either moral or practical grounds) I’ve found myself reading Daniel Kahneman’s doorstop Thinking, Fast and Slow. It merits the description perennial best-seller, though my guess is it is more widely acquired than read, but this isn’t a book review.

Among the many (interminably many) fascinating titbits Kahneman doles out is a story about interviewing soldiers in an effort to forecast future military performance.

Initially, he and his team conducted brief, routine interviews. The trained interviewers would then offer their judgments about the recruits’ likely outcomes. “Unfortunately,” Kahneman notes, “follow-up evaluations had already indicated that this interview procedure was almost useless for predicting the future success of recruits.”

So he designed an interview method that ignored the future but assessed past form on a selected set of traits (responsibility, sociability, etc.).

“I composed for each trait,” Kahneman writes, “a series of factual questions about the individual’s life before his enlistment, including the number of different jobs he had held, how regular and punctual he had been in his work and studies, the frequency of his interactions with friends, and his interest and participation in sports, among others.”

After conducting a few hundred interviews with this new assessment, performance evaluations showed that the questionnaires “predicted soldiers’ performance much more accurately than the global evaluations of the previous interviewing method, though far from perfectly. We had progressed from ‘completely useless’ to ‘moderately useful.'”

This may seem an intuitive finding to anyone who’s heard, much less repeated, the much bandied quote from the philosopher Will Durant: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

But how many of us — especially teachers — are guilty of acting contrary to common sense and relying on subjective judgments instead of thoughtful assessments?

Every educator has encountered students who have potential. We see flashes of brilliance and judge what a student might do. This is probably most widespread when it comes to writing recommendations. In fact, most standard forms ask teachers to predict how a student will perform in future.

If we trust Kahneman’s research even a little bit, we should be much more circumspect about prognostication and base our predictions, if we must make them, on students’ demonstrated performance.

Intellectual capacity, even if it is extraordinary, only yields positive outcomes when applied. A genius student who spends class time scrolling Instagram or staring into space is unlikely to outperform a hard-working average student.

Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

Take as an example my dear brother, the closest person to a real-life genius I know. He dropped out of high school because he was bored and skated through a BS in Economics without buying the textbooks. Inauspicious, to be sure. But he had a track record of deep, almost obsessive dives into topics that fascinated him; his laser focus, coupled with his intellectual gifts, meant he could take on any subject and become an expert once he applied himself. Eventually, he applied that ability to programming and has developed a robust, well-remunerated career.

It wasn’t sheer brainpower, although he has that in abundance, it was his capacity for work and focus that transformed talent into expertise.

To be blunt: smarts are nothing without elbow grease.

It is a pleasure to encounter gifted students. But it is our job as educators to live and breathe the message that being ‘gifted’ isn’t enough. Habits of work are more important to eventual success than the ability to quickly and easily complete a particular academic task. In fact, ease is probably the worst enemy of growth.

Didactic and assessment methods that reward superficial ‘mastery’ are likely to encourage poor work habits, hampering students’ chances of excelling as they continue their studies and move into adulthood.

As educators, it is incumbent upon us to challenge gifted learners, to ensure they experience authentic difficulties and even (whisper it) the occasional failure. Ultimately, diligence and a growth mind-set are more valuable than a few good grades.

How do you help students develop good habits of work? Share in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke

My Life in Music

As mentioned in a previous post, I have written for online indie zine Pennyblackmusic for the better part of a couple of decades. One of my recent projects was a series of interviews about my fellow writers, which concluded with one of my fellow writers interviewing me. As my editor, John Clarkson, put it:

“For the last two years in her ‘A Life in Music’ column Cila Warncke has talked to several of our writers and photographers about how music has affected and influenced them. We were interested in finding out in ‘A Life in Music’ what ignited a bunch of obsessives’ passion for music, and discovered that much of our team had lead lives that were just as fascinating as many of the bands. Now that column is coming to an end, and in the last in the series we have turned the tables on Cila and Nick Dent-Robinson has spoken to her about her ‘Life in Music’.”

This may well be the first time I’ve been interviewed in print so thought I’d share.

Cila Warncke: A Life in Music by Nick Dent-Robinson

Cila Warncke is one of the earliest contributors to Penny Black Music magazine, having started writing for them more than two decades ago. Penny Black founder and editor John Clarkson recalls that Cila’s first interview for the magazine was with Cinerama about their “Disco Volante” album. She was the magazine’s first female writer and, as John Clarkson says, he is proud that Cila paved the way for many more excellent female music writers in Penny Black Music over the coming years – as rock music writing was notorious for being too much of a “boys’ club”.

As a professional journalist, Cila says she was attracted by the scope for originality and independence (and lack of male chauvinism) at PBM – and she has produced a fascinating range of articles over her time there. Although she left Penny Black Music in the early 2000s and worked on the glossy London-based music magazine, ‘Q” she was welcomed back in 2012 and has been a regular contributor since then. She has written about the impact of the pandemic on those working behind the scenes in the world of live music, about the eventual demise of ‘Q’ magazine and she wrote a very thoughtful piece about Marilyn Manson. Plus she has produced excellent articles on so many other diverse topics.

Cila also originated the ‘A Life In Music’ series where she probed fellow contributors to PBM about their musical tastes, background and aspirations. – All done with great tact, sensitivity and diplomacy plus insight – key hallmarks of Cila’s style. That series is now drawing towards its conclusion – but not before we turn the tables and seize the opportunity to ask Cila about her own ‘Life In Music”’

Born in 1980 and raised in a small town in Oregon over on the West side of the USA, in her late teens Cila moved to the East Coast to study English at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia – an esteemed Ivy League institution. Subsequently she moved to London to undertake further studies at King’s College before becoming a journalist. She thrived in the UK, enjoying all the many cultural opportunities available just after the turn of the millennium as well as the proximity to Europe. She and her fellow-American husband Chris Hall, a production audio technician in the world of live music, have travelled widely and have now made their permanent base in Valencia, Spain. Cila was at her home in Valencia when I started to ask about her ‘Life in Music’.

What are some of her earliest musical memories?

“Well, my parents weren’t musicians and because my mother was an Evangelical Christian, anything that wasn’t a hymn or soft God-rock was not too popular. It was a cool, rebellious thing to listen to anything other than that. My sister and I would listen to local radio, though and so I got some of the sound of late 80s/early 90s rock and pop culture through that. But my brother – who is around 6 years older than I – loved The Smiths, The Cure and some of the other British post-punk/new wave bands. I enjoyed that sound and I recall some of the record sleeves up on my brother’s wall – brilliant images which made a lasting impression.

The first (non-Christian!) record I remember buying when I was 13 or 14 was Sting’s “Fields of Gold…Best of: 1984-94” and my sister (who was 8 years older and much cooler, always) bought me Green Day’s ‘Dookie’ – which I still think is a great record!”

Read the rest of the interview at Pennyblackmusic.co.uk

10 Sex Affirmative Books for English Language Arts

Following on from my previous post on the importance of affirmative sex education, here are 10 books English Language Arts teachers can reach for to open conversations about love, relationships, gender and sexuality.

These works were chosen because they treat sex with the openness, thoughtfulness, honesty and sensitivity it merits.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

This brief, moving book touches an many aspects of life: education, self-discovery, solitude, family relationships, etc. but Rilke’s comments about love and sex shine. Don’t be satisfied with conventional definitions of what a relationship ‘should’ look like, he advises. Instead, seek to develop yourself as an individual so you can truly respect and cherish the individuality of another person. It is humane, wise, timely wisdom framed in sublime prose.

Get it here

Frankly In Love by David Yoon

This YA novel centers on Frank Li, the teenage son of Korean immigrants, who finds himself trying to navigate the challenges of new love while wrestling with contradictory cultural expectations. Fast, good-humored and, well, frank, it highlights the importance of being honest with oneself and others — in life and in love.

Get it here

Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler

With a nod to Demi Lovato, this novel explores how issues of class and privilege complicate the already complicated issues of love and sexual identity. Are Lara and Jasmine really falling in love, or are they just cool for the summer? And what happens if Lara chases the hunky Chase…? A touch frothy, but heartfelt and affirmative of love, wherever one finds it.

Get it here

Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison

This Bildungsroman set in a well-to-do Pacific Northwest community hit home with me (though the community I grew up in wasn’t quite so well-to-do). In addition to being a welcome, thoughtful discussion of class, poverty and family tension, it has a romantic twist that is sure to get students talking.

Get it here

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Smith’s beloved coming-of-age tale set in early 20th century Brooklyn is refreshingly forthright about sex. It handles both positive and negative aspects of love and sexuality (including an attempted sexual assault) with a calm directness that can set the tone for open, non-judgmental classroom conversations.

Get it here

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Baldwin is perhaps my favorite writer on sex; certainly, the rare (American) author who understands and treats sex as the physical act of love. This short novel is appropriate for older teenagers, say 16-18, and explores the tragic consequences of prioritising social conventions over human relationships. To paraphrase Baldwin, the protagonist’s problem isn’t his homosexuality, it’s that his capacity for love has been crippled by his anxiety about what people might think.

Get it here

Genderqueer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

Contemporary writers are creating a robust canon of books about gender identity and nonconformity. I love this graphic memoir for its matter-of-fact tone and authenticity. It highlights that gender identity is fluid and finding one’s path isn’t necessarily a linear journey — nor does it need to be.

Get it here

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi

Lest you get the wrong impression about the back-to-back graphic memoir recommendations, let me quote one of my students when asked if he liked graphic texts: ‘No!’

He and I share the view that other people’s pictures get in the way of the (superior) moving pictures in our heads.

That notwithstanding, Persepolis 2 is an evocative, eye-level portrait of Satrapi’s struggles with language, culture, love and sexuality after she moved from Iran to Germany. This is a particularly strong choice for children who have immigrated or come from a cultural/familial context that distinguishes them from their classmates.

Get it here

Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker

For younger readers, this is a charming, uplifting novel about a trans girl coming into her own. Details like Zenobia stressing out about which restroom to use add verisimilitude and the plot touches on vital issues like deadnaming, cyberbullying and the importance of community without ever feeling preachy.

Get it here

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen

Sometimes, I read a book and think, wow, that was brilliant.

Sometimes, I read a book and think, wow, that was brilliant and I really want to be friends with the author.

When I Grow Up… is in the latter category. His poems about growing up as the child of immigrants, cultural tension, sexual identity, homophobia and the search for love are surpassingly deft, raw, funny, tragic, playful and defiant. They also communicate (don’t ask me how) a deep, fundamental good-personness. In a perfect parallel universe, Chen and I would go for drinks.

Get it here

What texts would you add to a literary discussion of love, gender and sexuality? Share in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke

Let’s Talk About Sex Education

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Last year, for the first time, I taught about gender and sexuality in literature. My kneejerk reaction was, I can’t talk about sex to teenagers. Arrggh!

On reflection, this reaction had everything to do with my hangups (to use a good old-fashioned word) and nothing to do with my students’ needs.

This is a common problem in sex education, with the current brouhaha in the United Kingdom serving as an example.

British prime minister Rishi Sunak has, according to the Guardian, “asked the Department for Education to “ensure schools are not teaching inappropriate or contested content” in the subject of relationships, sex and health education… Sunak confirmed the review… after a Tory MP, Miriam Cates, said children were being exposed to sex education classes that were “age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate”.”

Numerous Tory MPs are on board, one of their complaints being that young people are being taught about oral sex — a classic case of adult prudishness being prioritized over teen well-being.

Chambers et al. (2004) is quoted by Leung et al., 2019 saying Britain’s “value-led approach [to sex education] merely reflects the interests and principles of stakeholders, while overlooking the actual needs and wellbeing of youths.”

Sex ed in the internet age

Does anyone with two brain cells to rub together think not discussing oral sex, or any other sexual act, proclivity or topic, is going to prevent kids from knowing what it is, discussing it, watching it and even doing it?

Children are handed internet-connected screen devices almost as soon as their chubby baby fingers can hold them, in many cases.

Statista data show that 58% of British children own a smartphone by age 8; by age 12, that jumps to 93%. You can bet the farm they aren’t just using it to watch Sesame Street.

Sexuality isn’t a switch that flips at puberty. Sexual behaviors and curiosity are apparent in early childhood.

This might make grown-ups uncomfortable, but our discomfort isn’t useful. Parents and teachers have a duty to help kids navigate this vital part of life.

If we don’t step up, the internet will.

Student needs versus teacher discomfort

In an op-ed, 25-year-old journalist and editor Sasha Mistlan writes (re: Andrew Tate and the importance of proactive sex education): “My friends and I didn’t get any proper education about sex, consent or relationships until we were 13, by which time we had learned it all from internet porn and lads’ mags.”

How can educators ignore this need?

I am a literature teacher; the biology of the birds and bees are beyond my remit. But it isn’t the birds and bees that students need to know about.

They need models of relationships and ways of relating that affirm sexuality as an important (but not overwhelming), natural part of adult life, and of sex as a source of joy and connection. They need love stories with happy endings. They need, also, stories that are unhappy or ambiguous; stories that show mistakes and heartbreaks as a navigable part of human sexual experience, not reasons to drink poison.

However awkward I may feel, students need a safe space for curiosity and discussion. Because lord only knows, they are talking about sex outside the classroom.

Sex positive education

Does the phrase ‘sex positive education’ make you a little uncomfortable?

It does me.

But what does the alternative imply? Sex negative education doesn’t prevent young people from having sex.

Data from the worryingly puritanical United States show that even students who promise to abstain from premarital sex… don’t.

Research published by the American Academy of Pediatrics peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics found: “Five years after the pledge [to abstain from sex], 82% of pledgers denied having ever pledged. Pledgers and matched nonpledgers did not differ in premarital sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and anal and oral sex variables. Pledgers… did not differ in lifetime sexual partners and age of first sex. Fewer pledgers than matched nonpledgers used birth control and condoms.”

Scaring teenagers away from sex has never worked; ignoring sex in the hope teenagers won’t notice it is ludicrous.

The best, bravest, least-comfortable option is to say: hey, sex is a huge part of life, however whenever wherever and with whomever you do it (or don’t), and it can be one of the most joyous parts of life, or one of the most damaging. Let’s talk about how to make it joyful, empowering, pleasurable, safe and beautiful.

Affirmative literature

As a literature teacher, I can do my part by teaching texts that articulate the delights and challenges of sexuality and sexual identity, and working with my colleagues in health, science and psychology to create a safe, affirmative atmosphere for conversations about love, sex and gender.

This requires making careful choices about what my students read. Many of the canonical ‘love stories’ of European literature are anything but — think Wuthering Heights or Romeo and Juliet where ‘love’ and violence are inextricably mixed.

The search for affirmative literature requires looking beyond the cano and seeking stories that reflect a variety of experiences, cultures, orientations and gender identities.

Next week, I’ll share a list of powerful literature that treats sex with the openness, thoughtfulness, honesty and sensitivity it merits.

Suggest your favorite teen-appropriate, sex-affirmative story, poem or film in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke