When I was younger, I wanted to be two things. I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to teach choir and theatre. I wanted to have my own classroom and come up with cool and quirky stuff to hang up, and thoughtful, fun assignments. I wanted to direct plays and touch lives and on and on.
I also wanted to write books. I wanted to give physical form to the stories that ran through my mind. I wanted to write a series (several, actually), and have cool cover art and see my name there.
Fast forward. I'm sitting in my classroom after a long rehearsal. I just finished tidying the room up for Parent/Teacher conferences tomorrow. I'm grading papers and entering them in my grade book. I have a headache and my feet hurt. I'm tired and a bit grumpy. I need to spend some serious time doing revisions on the third book in my series tonight.
I have what I wanted when I was younger. Everything I hoped and dreamed has come true--in a spectacular way! I spend my days teaching 130 choir students. I have my own classroom--after years and years and years and more years of using borrowed spaces and wandering from room to room. I direct two plays a year with enthusiastic kids and supportive parents. The third book in my series will be published in March.
I could go on and on, but the point is this: I have everything that I wanted when I was young. I have been blessed beyond what I could have hoped 20 or 30 years ago.
But instead of turning cartwheels and counting my blessings, the first reaction is to think how tired I am, and how much work I have to do, and how much grading there is, and on and on and on.
I don't think I'm the only one who does this. In fact, I'm sure I'm not. I think it's human nature to work and hope and pray for something--and then focus on the small aspects that are difficult, or the things we want more of, etc.
Essentially, we move the goalposts. We get what we want and then we change what we want. I suppose some of that is healthy to a degree because we keep striving and don't get in ruts. Still, I realize I need to live joyfully in the moment--focusing on all the really wonderful things and events and people that fill my life. No more moving the goalposts for me!
I've written before about this, but something reminded me today just how important this is. Adolescents need specific, clear, and direct instructions. Today at play rehearsal, we got the props in. So, during one of the musical numbers, the stage managers distributed some gardening tools to some of the actors. They performed their number then walked off-stage. About 15 or 20 minutes later, I looked back and noticed they were all still holding the implements.
I asked them why they were still holding them and they looked a little surprised. "Because you never told us to put them down," they said.
These are bright, intelligent kids. But it never occurred to the to put down the props once the song ended.
This might seem silly, but it's an excellent example of how an adolescent brain works. They need detail. They need specificity. They need things spelled out in very clear and basic terms.
So, if you tell your child to do his or her chores, you might not have success. If you tell him or her to pick their things up, you might not have success either. These can be too broad for this age. Likewise, if you just assume that they will do what you would do in the same situation, you are setting yourself up for frustration.
There are days when I look at myself and wonder how in the world I manage to tie my shoelaces and drive to work. You know--the days you start to wonder just how dense you can be?
Today was one of those days. I realized something and wanted to kick myself. Let me explain.
Last week, my MSM post was about rewarding and reinforcing good behavior rather than trying to change less-desirable actions. And I really believe that. But you have to be careful with what you reward.
Last spring, during March Madness, I came up with an idea I thought was pretty good. You see, the boys in my middle school chorus classes tend to grumble and growl instead of singing. They don't want to sing high notes and so they try to sing everything an octave too low. But their voices don't really go that low. So it ends up in a sort of monotone growl.
We working on a song and I was at my wit's end. Could not get them to sing the right notes. They weren't even high--just higher than the growls they were doing.
In a flash of inspiration, I had them line up in my classroom and take turns shooting foul shots in the basketball hoop I keep there. They each did and then we talked about baskets. Some shots miss completely, so barely make it, and some arc up over the rim drop down through the hoop and swish through--nothing but net.
We talked about singing like that. Singing up and over and landing down on the note. Going high if it needs it, but not shooting too low on our singing. Nothing but note (see what I did there?).
Well, I felt like it worked. We did that exercise and then sang and it got better. I developed a specific conducting motion to remind them of this idea.
The next day things were bad again. So I had them line up and do the same thing. And again it improved a little.
Do you see the problem? Do you see what I did without meaning to?
I rewarded their bad singing. Everytime they did this badly, they get to shoot a basketball.
I stand by the initial idea. It was a good idea, I think. A way to help them translate a concept into something familiar and kinesthetic.
But to be more effective, once we'd had the initial lesson, I should have let them shoot hoops whenever they did it well--not when I wanted to remind them of what to do. Without meaning to, I set up a powerful incentive to not sing the way I wanted them to.
So, I believe in rewarding good behavior and positive actions.
However, you have to be careful with the way you do it!
And now I have learned and will be changing this situation tomorrow.
So, here is a little scene from Luminescence. It's one of those that I really liked, but needs to go because it doesn't really advance the plot and offers a little too much detail. I enjoyed writing it, though, so I thought I might post it in case anyone else wanted to read it. Note: since it's being deleted, I didn't spend too much time editing or tweaking or polishing this.
In this chapter, the Twilight Phalanx has a lead on a place where Dr. Timberi might be imprisoned. They're taking Conner with them so he can practice using his new powers:
After getting permission from his parents, Conner streamed over to the school athletic field. Since no one was there yet, he practiced streaming, shooting laps around the track. He was hoping to break the one-second mile when the sky to the east started to glowed like the clouds had swallowed lightning and caught on fire.
A familiar noise filled the air around him. He’d described it once like the high-pitched roar of a hundred race cars all shifting into higher gear. That noise got louder and higher—and then a sonic boom shook him to the ground as a blinding flash of hot white light sizzled through the air.
Conner jumped back up as as rainbow-colored ring of Light appeared over the field, swirling like a satellite image of a hurricane on super-fast-forward.
Two comets, dusty brown and emerald green blasted down from the spinning rainbow, landing next to Conner and becoming Lee and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Miranda Grimaldi.
“Howdy Dell,” Lee said. “Grimaldi, you got Dell’s issue?”
“Here, you’ll need this.” Miranda tossed something gray to Conner. It was fabric—folded up. When he shook it out, he saw the gray combat suits the members of the Phalanx wore—gray with a silver Magi emblem gleaming on the chest.
“No way!” Conner said. “I seriously get to wear this?”
“We don’t want you to stand out any more than you already will,” Grimaldi said.
“Sweet!” Conner stared at the suit. The issue of the Twilight Phalanx. Did this make him a full-fledged member? He looked up to ask the question, but Lee cut him off.
“You know Dell, that suit ain’t made for looking at. The idea was that you’d put it on—no, not over your clothes. You have any idea how hot you’ll get?”
Conner stammered and felt heat on his cheeks. “But, uh—” He nodded towards Grimaldi. Lee laughed. “Oh, I didn’t think about that. The Phalanx is sort of all one big happy family. We don’t have many secrets. But yeah, I see what you’re saying. Grimaldi, could you turn around for a minute?”
Grimaldi laughed and turned her back to Conner. “I have little brothers at home.”
Well that’s really great, Conner thought. But I’m not your brother and I’m not changing in front of you.
With Grimaldi’s back turned, he pulled off his jeans and t-short, then pulled the suit on. It felt amazing. Cool and soft on his skin, perfectly flexible—almost like a second skin.
“That will keep you warm in freezing temperatures,” Lee said. “Or cool in the tropics. Amazing stuff. Okay—now listen, Dell. We’re flying in formation. That means we’re going to be streaming in a circle, like we’re all chasing each other. That covers our individual Light signatures and also provides a sort of aerodynamic flow in the Lightstream. It’s the equivalent of geese flying in a ‘V’. It allows us to travel longer distances and go faster than we could on our own. The leader—that’s me—will guide the circle in the trajectory we need to follow. It sounds complicated, but it’s not. Once we get up there, just chase Grimaldi’s comet and keep doing that until you hear me give orders to stop. Got that?”
“Yes, sir!” He saluted, feeling official.
“Okay,” Lee said. “Let’s go.” He jumped into the air, flipping backwards and blurring into a dusty, brown comet that shot towards the swirling Light above them. Grimaldi spun around once or twice, also blurring into a comet. Conner took a running start, and found himself turning into a comet within three steps. Not as elegant as Lee and Grimaldi. But it worked for now. At least he didn’t trip.
When he joined the swirling Light above him, everything sped up. The first thing he noticed was that the Phalanx streamed much, much faster than anything he’d experienced. He also noticed that going much faster was easier than he’d ever experienced.
Twelve people streaming in a circle created a powerful current—almost like a whirlpool. So the whirlpool made them move faster, but the faster they moved, the stronger the whirlpool seemed to get. Way cool. He could see the advantage of the formation in traveling long distances.
At the same time, moving that quickly also heightened his perceptions, so he could see, in a really cool way, each of the twelve people streaming. They kept at precisely the same distance from each other no matter how fast they went, following Lee with perfect precision. Actually, the whirlpool motion helped with that.
He also noticed that it looked a lot different on the inside than on the outside. Outside, you only saw white light—the result of everyone moving so fast, so their Light trails blurred together. But inside, when you were part of it, all the individual Magi colors became much more obvious.
It took Conner a few minutes to get used to the feeling, and he struggled to keep the required distance from Grimaldi. At one point, he shot past her, almost hitting the person in front of her. Then he over-corrected, slowing down too much and avoiding causing a major traffic jam only because Grimaldi shot in reverse and grabbed him, pulling him forward to his place in the circle just before he crashed into the person in back of him.
Dell! Lee growled.
Sorry, sir, Conner said.
Don’t be sorry, just don’t do it!
Lee seemed unusually tense today.
Just relax, Dell, Grimaldi said. You’ll get it.
Conner focused and within a few minutes, he got used to it and if he didn’t keep his place with perfect accuracy like the others, he didn’t cause any collisions.
Where are we going? he asked Miranda after a few more minutes of successfully not causing any crashes.
That’s classified, she said. Only the Colonel knows that. We just follow him.
Pardon the apparently self-aggrandizing title. To understand it, you need to realize that, more often than not, I leave work wondering if anything I did actually mattered. No, I'm not veering off into self-pity. Stay with me here.
I teach middle school choir and I direct middle school plays. Every year I spend hours and hours trying to coax musical notes out of throats that are addled by hormones and obstructed by insecurities. If I work my guts out, and really push the kids, we perform for their parents twice a year and do a reasonably good job. It's not usually all I hope it will be. Those adolescent insecurities are very powerful things. They make it hard to project and sing out. What if someone hears them, after all? (Note: Last year was a unique and amazing exception, in case any of my recently graduated 8th graders are reading this).
Theatrically, I spend my time trying to help the kids create a performance that honors their potential while accommodating their current limitations. The school spends a great deal of money and the parents spend prodigious amounts of time on costumes, props, scenery and on and on. Enormous resources are poured into this play. And then it's over. The students graduate and move on. They go on to other activities, or to more advanced theatre programs.
This is not a complaint--it's the natural order of things.
Still, I sometimes wonder: "Is what I do worth it?" Is it worth the time and effort and money? Does the benefit exceed or at least justify the cost? With all that's going on in the world, does coaxing adolescents to sing a song really matter? Even at best, our work is so transitory, so fleeting. Is this a good use of my time?
I imagine I'm not the only person, teacher or not, who entertains these or similar questions. I think they are the common lot of mortals.
But today, I got one of the reminders that come on occasion. I think sometimes they are little messages from God, perhaps.
Like many of these messages, this one came at an unexpected time: today, during 7th grade chorus.
7th graders are noisy and squirrely and unfocused. They have lost the charm of childhood but have not quite obtained the gifts and abilities that come with young adulthood. They are right in the middle. I love them, but they are crazy. They are generally every cliche or stereotype you have heard about middle school students.
They are the way they are because all sorts of unimaginable changes are taking place inside and outside of them. Chemical, physical, emotional. Their bodies are changing, their brains are changing. Their friends are changing, their whole world is changing. They are chaos made flesh; disorder and creative destruction incarnate.
On Fridays, you might imagine it is particularly difficult to corral them. To add to the mix, today, before we sang, a thoughtless act by one student gave great hurt to another.
Against this backdrop, I organized them on the risers (it took an enormous amount of time to do so and made herding cats look orderly and efficient). Our warm-up did not go well. Singing a single, sustained note and following dynamic cues was nearly more than they could do without interruptions of laughter, poking, jabbing, or intentionally singing in a weird way.
We moved on to the song we are currently practicing. And then, we sang. Suddenly, somehow, something happened. Amid the chaos, they sang three-part harmony. Beautifully. Three distinct parts. Each note actually a chord. A distinct, discernable chord. Unity without sameness. Beauty in diversity.
For just a few minutes, order appeared in the chaos. For just a few minutes, their manic energies were channeled into the creation of beauty. Social problems, insecurities, stresses, and everything else was put aside, swallowed up by music. The power of art transformed this most chaotic and unstable of groups into a moment of transcendence.
I'd like to think such things could change the world, that art and beauty and music could help bring order to chaos. But art has been around for a very long time and we still live in an ugly world.
I'd like to think that perhaps, if it won't change the world, it might change a student. What is the impact on a student's soul when they can have moments where they transcend themselves? I have to think it has an impact somewhere, at some level.
But these things are beyond my control, ultimately. Outcomes for which I can hope and work, but which may or may not happen.
Still, whether or not it will change the world, or even a single student, there is something that I like about spending my professional life trying to coax order and beauty out of chaos. There is so much ugliness in the world today. Working to create beauty, to bring order to chaos, seems almost naive. Or perhaps, counter-cultural.
Ugliness is everywhere. In the way we treat each other, in what we see and hear in the media. It seems to have gripped nearly every aspect of life with gray, scaly hands, choking out what is lovely and good and beautiful and true.
The recent discussions about Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke missed a key point: we live in an ugly world. In fact, we live in a world where professional artists now use their talents to increase and augment the ugliness.
I will rebel.
I will teach my students to sing beautiful music and we will sing loud enough to drown out everything else for a few minutes, at least. We will seek order in chaos, harmony in differences, and transcendence and beauty in the mundanities of every day.
In this light, what I do matters. Not because of any virtue I posses, but because beauty matters. It matters a great deal. It matters that any of us try to bring beauty into the world, in any way. It is rare and what is rare is valuable.
I can't stop the tide of ugliness, but I can stand against it, defiantly pushing back with everything I can. The effort may or may not make a difference in the long run, but it's what I can do, and I find solace and meaning in that.
My marketing guy found a leftover Advanced Reader Copy of Penumbras. And I found an iTunes gift card. Which means we have a prize package. So, we need a contest.
At the same time, I'm starting to think about the book trailer for Book 3 (Luminescence) so casting is on my mind.
So, with those two things percolating in my brain, here's the contest. To enter, just leave a comment suggesting which actor you would love to see playing which characters if The Kindling series were to be made into a movie.
You get one entry for reach actor/character pair you name. Please leave a separate comment for each one. You may comment on this blog or on Facebook. Contest ends on September 18th at midnight. Winner gets the ARC and a $10 iTunes gift card. I reserve the right to toss out silly, annoying, or frivolous entries (solely defined by me). Facebook and Twitter, and any other company, are not involved in this giveaway.
May the Force be with you.
Many years ago, when my wife and I had three small, active, and headstrong children, we turned to a parenting book for help (link here. I know the cover looks dated, but it had good stuff in it).
I don't remember everything I read in that book, but there was one point that the author made over and over and over. In fact, he ended every chapter with a quote to this effect: "It is far easier to reinforce good behavior than to change undesirable behavior."
I have come to believe that. Granted, there are times when a parent or teacher must correct bad behavior. You just have to. But I also believe that for many of us, this is our default. That is, we take good behavior for granted while disciplining for bad.
I'm not arguing that we should just ignore bad behavior. There are times when consequences are necessary if a child is going to grow in a healthy, happy functional adult.
Still, I maintain that we spend far more time focusing on the "dont's" than we do reinforcing the "do's."
This summer my family and I attended a sea lion show at the St. Louis zoo. It was really delightful. One thing I noticed is how often the trainers rewarded the sea lions. Every time the sea lions did something good, the trainers reinforced it with a handful of fish.
I understand that students are not sea lions. They have to learn to do the right thing for the right reasons. In life, we don't get rewarded every time we do the right things.
But, think for a minute about why you do the things you do. I would guess that much of what you do during the day is done because you want a reward. You go to work because you want a paycheck. You exercise because you feel good or want to lose weight. Etc. etc. Most adults, I believe, act more out of the hope for a desired reward than they do out of fear of punishment.
How many people do you know who speed? The potential punishment does not modify behavior. And yet, I think most of us expect kids to just be good because they should be. We act because we want rewards, but we expect adolescents to just do the right thing--or be punished.
This has changed the way I work with kids--my own and those I teach. Instead of setting rules and punishing them if they disobey, I now try to find ways to reward good behavior. I still do give out consequences, but I give them out far less than I used to, and the whole energy and dynamic of my classroom has changed. Allowing them to earn rewards draws on a number of powerful human tendencies and
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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