Category Archives: freelance writing

Some musings on writing and teaching in 2018 & some goals for 2019

2018 A Look Back: Writing and Teaching

I wrote my goals for 2018 in the front of my planner last year. As I transferred info from one planner to another, I was pleasantly surprised; I had actually accomplished a few of my bigger goals. I finished Stagecraft—a novel I’ve been working on longer than I care to say. I started it back when we lived in New York after reading Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, a noir thriller about cheerleaders. I thought to myself, I can do this type of story with musical kids. And that’s exactly what I set out to do.

Unfortunately,  the first go needed a lot of revisions. My agent’s feedback was good but included major changes. And then we moved to Austin and had Darcy and moved to Dallas, etc. So, finding the time and space to work on a long piece of fiction became more and more challenging. But I’m proud to say that in May of 2018, I sent a finished manuscript to my agent. Now, we wait. Margaret sent the book to five editors, all imprints of large publishing companies.

I also set a goal of publishing two more articles. I know that’s a really low number and I’ve pitched upwards of 10 different stories but only two got published. Between finding the time to do good work and matching myself with a publication for that work, two new articles felt like a manageable expectation. I wrote a short story for The Dead Mule School ofSouthern Literature and a braided essay about my son’s school farm for Thrive.

I wanted to expand my tutoring services in 2018. When I started tutoring, I really hadn’t anticipated how much I would enjoy working one-on-one with students. My only experience was in the classroom where I had to manage anywhere from smaller groups of 10-12 to a class as large as 32 seniors (Hello,Class of 2007!). I decided that I would take on a few more students and offer a writing class in the summer. Everything went really well. Having consistent clients is the best possible compliment to my work as a tutor. And it’s always nice to get a phone call from a new parent that begins with, “Hi! I’m a friend of [current client’s] and I was hoping you might be able to fit in my son/daughter…”

Finally, I wanted to do a great job as a long-term substitute at Hockaday, an all-girls K-12 private school here in Dallas. I haven’t taught in a traditional classroom since Jackson was two-years-old. I went back to teaching right after he was born and then for two years after that as a part-time teacher. It was one of those work situations where it was great and convenient until it wasn’t.

So, when the chair of the Hockaday English department contacted me about the position last winter, my initial reaction was “Sounds like a lot of unnecessary stress for me. No, but thank you for thinking of me.” But I think that reaction was borne out of fear. I thought about all the reasons it would be wrong. I hadn’t taught in six years. Preston was far different from Hockaday (really, the only thing the two schools have in common is the all-girls factor). I have two kids and two schedules to juggle. C.K. travels more than he did when I was teaching at Preston. And I hate grading papers. And I’d have to do so much reading to get ready for it. The reasons piled up and so did my fear.

But I’m happy I said yes. Hockaday is a lovely school with even lovelier students. I enjoyed doing the reading over the summer. I got to read or reread some amazing literature. With the help of my husband and parents, juggling the kids’ schedules was doable—not easy, but doable. I kept up with working out (Hello, 5:30am class!) and I kept up with the chores (mostly) and even better, I learned to ignore the stuff that doesn’t need to get done. (Yes, it’s okay that the playroom is a mess.) Most importantly, I learned that I could work and be mom. And I found a little piece of my pre-motherhood identity that had been lost, a piece of my soul that is fed by great literature and even better class discussions.

2019 Goals: Writing and Teaching

My great hope for Stagecraft is that an editor will love it, have to have it, and publish it right away. Picture a lady named Maxine wearing big tortoise-shell glasses saying that. And then it gets published and the readers just love it and have to have it and tell their boozy book clubs about it.

After talking to Stagecraft beta-readers, I have a good idea for a sequel. I have about 8K words of the sequel. The working title is Curtain Call and it’s a flash-forward ten years to an alumni show back at Whispering Hills Country Day school. I want to answer the questions I left open-ended with Stagecraft and put to rest the conflict between main characters Skylar and Hannah once and for all.

Just like last year, I want to publish two more articles. I think I’d love to pitch an article about my grandfather and his time at the FDNY. Maybe I’ll pitch that to the new NYT column “TIES.”

I’m also working on a NSFW short story that follows a character from my pilot Soccer Domme into a neighborhood New Year’s Eve party that turns into a swinger party. I’ve been meaning to “play”with Kate Wright’s character more. Maybe it will turn into a good short story. Maybe it will turn into a chapter from Soccer Domme the novel.

Either way, one of my main writing goals is to be more disciplined about my craft. You don’t get better at something without a lot practice. Even if you are talented, you still have to hone your skills. I want to start writing every day. Whether I’m working on fiction or personal essays or posting more to my blog, I want to carve out some time in my agenda just for writing.

I’m good at focusing when it comes to teaching and grading and prepping classes. I think it’s because teaching is so structured. Class starts at 8:30 so that lesson better be prepared. It forces the time management on you. But writing is different. All the motivation comes from you. All the drive to sit at the computer and draft or revise comes from within.

And writing a long piece of fiction requires reflection time—so much thinking about your characters and their back stories, and their anxieties. All that thinking time doesn’t show up on the page, but you have to do it. Characters won’t be authentic unless they live with you. I find focusing on this aspect of writing difficult as well. I want to start drafting. I want to be editing sentences already. I don’t like spending time with bigger ideas, with characters and the many tentacles of their personalities.

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Helping Your Middle School Student with his/her failing grades [FULL TEXT]

Originally published on March 30, 2017 in On Parenting, the Lifestyle section of the Washington Post. It needed trimming for WaPo but I wanted to put the full text on my site. It was really well received and even tweeted by the National Council for Teachers of English & Dad 2.0 Summit. 

Treat your middle schooler like a rattlesnake.

So it’s the end of March and your middle schooler’s grades are still unstable. And, to make matters worse, poor performance at school is eroding your child’s self-esteem. I know a few students who feel like their academic life is happening to them. Furthermore, parenting a middle school student is complicated. Questions about when you are helping or when you are helicoptering loom large.

But there’s still last quarter/trimester and that means there’s still time for improvement. I’ve taught English at secondary level, tutored middle school students in writing, and I’m a parent myself. Below I offer practical suggestions for helping your child become more self-directed and advocating for him in a way that’s not *gasp* helicoptering.

First, gather as much information as possible. There is so much lost in translation between the classroom and the home. Here’s what you need to know:

What are my child’s grades in each class? What are the consequences of failing a class?  How can I monitor those grades in between progress reports and report card distribution? Many schools use an online grade book where teachers, students, and parents have access to scores. This makes for fewer surprises when report cards are distributed. Find out what the consequences of academic failure are. Most schools address failing grades by removing students from extra-curricular activities. This policy is usually explicitly stated in the school handbook. If your child is highly invested in the musical or soccer team, this policy can be an effective motivator to improve those grades.

In each class, how is the final grade for a marking period computed? Not all grades count equally. A quiz usually counts for far less than a test, project, or research paper. This information was probably outlined at the beginning of the school year. And while it’s likely that each department calculates grades differently, it’s unlikely that your child will remember how the grading in each class works.

What units will the teacher cover last quarter/trimester? What are the big assignments? Many teachers already know due dates for projects or can approximate dates for tests. Teachers plot out each marking period with learning objectives and assessments.

 Does the teacher have his/her own website where students and parents can access information? When I taught English, I had a simple website powered by Google sites. I uploaded PDFs of short stories, assignments, graphic organizers, and informational handouts. I updated my site regularly with homework assignments or “housekeeping” items (i.e. field trip money due). Browsing teacher websites is a good way to keep yourself informed about what’s going on in the classroom without having to email the teacher multiple times and wait for replies. Moreover, you can synthesize the information on the websites along with your child. This makes for teachable moments about web literacy at home.

Where does my kid lose the most points? Is she crumbling on tests? Does he hand in essays late? As a teacher and tutor, I can usually identify the defining factor in a student’s failing performance. For some it is time management. For others it is lack of study skills. Some come alive when we read aloud in class but have problems reading at home. If you want a full picture here, this conversation with your child’s teacher is best done over the phone or in person. Email works perfectly when your questions require concrete answers. But when a situation is emotionally charged (like one about your child failing at school), email fails because it requires too much nuance.

Second, make a plan with your child. I realize this is easier said than done and will require an unremitting amount patience and energy.

Choose what to focus on. If you get answers to the questions above, you can use them to help your child budget her time. If your child knows what big assignments are coming up, he can focus on tackling one task at a time.

Get extra help. You don’t have to hire a tutor or pay tuition at a learning center (i.e. Mathnasium). Those are viable options, sure, but many teachers offer extra help. Encourage your son to ask when and where extra help takes place. It’s usually after school but sometimes teachers give extra help during unscheduled periods. And extra help is typically a smaller group. There’s more opportunity for your child to build rapport with her teacher and get questions answered.

Incentivize good grades. From sticker charts for chores to promotions with larger salaries at work, reward systems work regardless of age and stage. The key is identifying the right incentive. Set some challenging but doable goals with your middle schooler. Then establish something worthwhile to motivate your child. Be explicit in your conversations about both the goals and the rewards.

Invest in a planner. Transitioning from one teacher in elementary school to 6-7 teachers in middle school is jarring to students. Moreover, assignments have longer lead times. When I taught freshmen, I spent some time at the beginning of the year going over the school’s planner (a combo handbook, calendar, weekly organizer). Most adults keep some form of calendar. But maintaining an organized planner is not intuitive to most adolescents.

Teach your child how to email his teacher(s). Speaking of skills that are not intuitive, your child might be well-versed in new apps, but in sixth grade, she probably doesn’t know how to compose a good email. Writing polite, focused emails is necessary for success today. A few weeks ago, as my tutee Owen and I discussed his current English project, I realized he didn’t know enough about his teacher’s timeline or expectations. Instead of aimlessly circling the issue, we spent part of our session that night sending an email to his teacher. Owen asked questions about email etiquette like why does it need a subject or how do I write the salutation and closing. He was amazed at how quickly his teacher replied and how easy it was to get clarification. He’s a confident and capable adolescent. Knowing how to write an email is going to give Owen more agency in his academic life.

Third, work the plan. Consistent and clear dialogue is key as you move forward. I’m willing to bet that once you have the necessary information and a plan, you and your child will feel less anxious. Less anxiety will make conversations with your child go more smoothly. I’m a believer in frontloading: invest a good amount of time in the beginning and you’ll be able to pull away the scaffolding as your child builds his/her own study skills. Good luck!

 

 

 

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The 90s Nostalgia Writer Position at Bustle Mag

 

Hey Mariah! Go back like babies and pacifiers.

There’s a part-time position open in the Lifestyle vertical at Bustle. One of the questions on the application is “Give us sample pitches” that pertain to this vertical. I thought it would be fun to share my possible articles for Bustle.

Headline: How Mariah Carey saved 90s music.
Vision of Love was released in 1990 and since then, the ubiquitous diva has proved she’s not going away. Like her or not, she outlasted the one-hit wonders and released the greatest holiday album of all time. And you know you’ve tried to hit those high notes.

Headline: The Teacher Took It: An Index of Confiscated Artifacts from the 90s Classroom
Don’t get caught adjusting your snap bracelet over and over. Don’t get caught feeding your Tamagotchi. And definitely don’t get caught passing a note.

Headline: The Best Literature of the 90s (No, this list doesn’t include Oh, the Places You’ll Go)
You think you know 90s literature because you read Harry Potter when it first came out? You don’t. Expand your mind and have snobby books to namedrop in conversations with these titles: The Things They Carried, Infinite Jest, Underworld, and The Love of a Good Woman.

Headline: My Pager: An Essay about Life before the Tyranny of Smart Phones

(I forgot to write the first few lines for this one. I blame my kids. Insert anxious emoji here.)

Headline: Sh*t We Were Scared of in the 90s (and the sh*t we should’ve been concerned about):
Y2K? Clinton’s taxes causing a massive market crash and recession? No.
Climate Change? Apparently scientists in the 90s didn’t think it was an issue.

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