Surviving Bad Days (What to do, what not to do)

For those who don’t know, I taught high school in Houston for a number of years. I also ran a Teach For America content team to support new teachers, and I still post regularly on TFA discussion boards for teachers.

This is the time of year when I start getting semi-desperate, despairing emails from new teachers (Teach For America or otherwise). Because about this time, idealism starts wearing thin and the hard realities and challenges of shepherding students–especially those who are significantly behind their privileged peers–begin to sink in. (Here’s one post with a page of angst from my writer’s notebook and some bad day antidotes.)

Once I get over my flashbacks to my own “dark days” at the beginning of teaching (including one session crying behind my filing cabinet during a planning period), I write these teachers the most encouraging letters I can. I tell them to focus on what they can change. I tell them that even their most out-of-control class can be reshaped. I tell them that teenagers forget quickly and that teachers can introduce new systems and expectations in their class whenever they have a plan to follow through with them.

But it’s also good to know what not to do when you are feeling desperate and overwhelmed as a teacher. Roxanna Elden has a great piece on just this topic. Here’s my favorite tip on what to avoid:

Watching “inspiring” teacher movies:

When you watched these movies before you started teaching, you probably thought, “That will be me one day! I’ll be the teacher who (pick one) shows I care/never gives up/makes learning fun!” Now, you’re just wondering why the movie teacher has only one class of high school students and why she never seems to grade any papers. Movies are a lot less inspiring when the non-Hollywood, unscripted version is playing full time in your classroom. Leave these films for their intended audience — the nonteaching public. 

Read the whole article, The Five Worst Things To Do After a Bad Day. And while you’re at it, if you have a teacher in your life who needs a dose of down-to-earth advice, send them a copy of Roxanna’s book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. It’s the tell-it-like-it-is kind of book that will help teachers realize they’re not alone with their challenges–and get down to doing something sane about it. You can read an excerpt of See Me After Class here.

Teachers: be gentle with yourself. Be patient, be persistent, and be peaceful. Oh yeah, that’s my personal motto, inspired by the challenges of teaching.

Top Five Blog Posts

This week I spied on my site using Google analytics. The biggest revelation? Finding out the blog posts that have gotten the most hits, including several with over a 1000. Who are all these people reading my blog? I’d love to know!

Here are the top five blog posts, based on traffic:

5. Personal Mission Statement: Be peaceful. Be patient. Be Persistent (the words that keep me sane)

4. The Tattoo Story (how I got my only tattoo)

3. On Sex: Teens Are (Sexual) People, Too (why sex has a place in YA)

2. Parent-Vision, Teen-Vision, and What It Means for Books to Reach Their Audience (in response to the Gurdon “YA is too dark” business)

1. My review of Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Interesting to see where people end up with their clicks. If you like something, check out other posts by clicking on the tags under the title.

Leftover Halloween Candy (from ten years ago)

When I was searching for a photo of my black-eyed “P” costume, I stumbled across this poem from a college writing class in 2001. It makes me feel really old to think that this was 10 years ago. Anyway, here it is, such as it is. 

More important than the quality (or lack there of) of the poem is that working on it–and all the other writing I did for the class–is  the fact that this was the beginning of me taking myself seriously as a writer.

That’s a treat that hasn’t gotten stale, not even after ten years.

Also kind of cool to see that, even then, I was thinking about how immigrants experience America.


Halloween and the Fifth Month

At dusk, autumn’s fingers tug at branches,

Sending the last leaves spiraling to the ground.

Neighbors tell Rosina, recently arrived, that tonight

Children will come knocking for candy.


This is to her empty as the turkey she helped prepare

Last year in Uncle’s home or the other days

With tiny printed names marked off in red on her calendar.

Celebrating what?  No one here seems able to say.


Rosina knows only the view from her own front porch,

The things she can touch, name in her own language:

The maple tree shivering, clumps of earth

Along the sidewalk, three figures approaching,

Faces shadowed and green in the streetlight.


The members of this raggedy band—Elvis, a cat, and a beheaded lizard—

Lift their sing-song voices that join on Sundays in chorus, chanting

Words that Rosina cannot make out.  She sees instead rows of tiny teeth

Punctuating smooth pink tongues. And then their fists plunge

Into her basket of taffies, which jostles against the early

Rounding of her belly.


She hears the rustle of wrapper against wrapper as candy

Tumbles into their bulging bags.  Elvis and the reptile

Scuttle away, but the cat wavers. Her whiskers

Droop from her jowls, and she looks at Rosina who gazes back.

Rosina imagines that the dim confusion on the cat’s face

Mirrors her own (it is, after all, a terrible time to be left alone),


But suddenly the cat pounces and snatches the heavy candy basket.

Her gray tail flops down the steps as she scampers away.

Taffies thud-thud across the path, forming a haphazard constellation

By which Rosina will chart her course.

Two Truths and a Lie: Halloween Deceptions Revealed

I know you’ve had a hard time containing your curiosity… so here’s the big reveal… I asked you which of the following was a lie:

1. I once dressed up as a naughty nurse.

2. I once dressed up as a black-eyed “P.”

3. I once dressed up as a Transformer.

And the truth is that it’s #1 is the lie. I’ve never dressed up as a naughty anything. Well, at least not for Halloween. #3 was when I was about four, and I wanted to be just like my brother. Somewhere I have a photo of the two of us in our Transform-ed glory. #2 was a failed costume effort with my husband. We had T-shirts with giant “Ps” on them, and we put black makeup under our eyes (like football players). BLACK-EYED Ps. Hilarious, right? A visual pun… only nobody, NOBODY got it.

Which brings me to something else that’s been on my mind: is it possible to write a chracter who’s funny if your sense of humor is this bad? I hope so. I really hope so. Because one of the characters in my new novel is the kind of guy who can make anybody laugh. Laugh, not groan. 

I have some work to do figuring that out.

Only make if it isn’t raining… A family recipe for chocolate cake

Lonnon Foster:

Here’s to recipes that speak directly to the heart. This cake says to me: childhood, love, comfort, laughter, consistency. Maybe food shouldn’t say those things to me, but when it does, I want to make sure that the cake lives on.

Let me explain. I have been trying for years to make my grandmother’s chocolate cake. I don’t have enough fingers to count all the times I’ve failed. This summer, though, we took the critter to Odessa, Texas, to visit his great-grandparents, and I watched and wrote down every single step of what grandma really does when she makes the cake. And now I’ve managed to prepare it successfully three times, to the great pleasure of husband and son.

Grandma Vicky’s Chocolate Cake

2 cups flour

2 cups sugar

1 t. soda

1 heaping t. cinnamon

1 t. salt

1 stick butter

½ cup shortening

4 heaping T unsweetened cocoa

1 cup water

1 cup buttermilk or sour milk (Grandma really uses: ½ cup well-shaken evaporated milk + ½ cup water and 2 T vinegar to sour the milk)

2 well-beaten eggs

1 t. vanilla

Grease and flour a 13×9-inch pan. (Preferably, this pan should be a simple, non-stick pan purchased at the dollar store. The kind Grandma uses has a plastic lid as well for storage.) Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Sift first five dry ingredients together in a large bowl. In a heavy pan, bring butter, shortening, cocoa, and water to a gentle boil (just until all are melted and simmered). Transfer to a mixing bowl, and then stir in dry ingredients. Next add buttermilk and mix. Finally, stir in eggs and vanilla.

Pour into the 13×9-inch greased, floured pan. Tap pan on counters several times to release bubbles. Cook 20 minutes at 400 degrees. If still soggy in the center, bake 5 more minutes, but be careful not to overcook.

Grandma Vicky’s Chocolate Icing

(Note: Grandma says not to make this icing if it’s rainy or humid.)

2 cups sugar

¼ cup evaporated milk

¼ cup water

¼ cup corn syrup

3 heaping T unsweetened cocoa

½ cup shortening

¼ t. salt

1 t. vanilla

Prepare a water bath in a pan or the sink (cold water to set pan in after cooking icing). In the heaviest pan available, cook all ingredients to a rolling boil, then time an additional minute and 15 seconds. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and place in the water bath. Stir continuously until the icing begins to feel a little thick. Pull pan out of water and pour onto cooled cake.

Two Truths and a Lie (the Pre-Halloween Edition)

Jessica R:


Here’s the special, pre-Halloween edition of TWO TRUTHS AND A LIE. 

1. I once dressed up as a naughty nurse.

2. I once dressed up as a black-eyed “P.”

3. I once dressed up as a Transformer.

Truths and deception to be revealed on Haloween! Stay tuned. Until then, feel free to email or post your guesses.

Knowing “the Rules” and Knowing When to Break Them

Guess what? Your writing is your playground. You get to make–and break–the rules.

A while back agent-turned-author Nathan Bransford did a “Five Openings to Avoid” post that takes a jab at some of the obvious and overused openings that circulate, especially among novice writers.

You know, the story that starts with a character gazing at herself in the mirror just so the writer can work in a physical description. That kind of thing.

I was in the final revision stage for The Knife and the Butterfly when I read Bransford’s post. The Knife and the Butterfly begins with Azael, the protag, waking up. So imagine my chagrin when I saw the following on Bransford’s list:

A character waking up: Sure, there’s probably a good reason the character is getting woken up. Maybe their house is on fire/they’re late for school/they just realized their insides are being sucked out by a sea monster. But not only is waking up overdone, what exactly is gained by showing a character wake up? Why not just cut to the insides-getting-sucked-out chase?

This is pretty true. But it’s also important to know that there are plenty of good reasons to do things that are, by and large, a bad idea. What to do in my shoes?

Sit down and make sure you have lots of good reasons for why you’ve written something the way it is. (And, no, the fact that your current opening is already written is not a good enough reason to leave it.)

Here’s a strategy that I use for endings: write 10 alternative endings to what you thought “had” to happen. You might still come back and decide your original direction was the right one, but you’ll also have carefully considered your alternatives.

For The Knife and the Butterfly, I spent a day brainstorming alternative openings before deciding that it needed to open as it does, that my reasons for breaking the rules trump the reasons the rules were in place.

But you be the judge. Here’s the opening few paragraphs from The Knife and the Butterfly. 

Im standing inches from a wall, staring at a half-finished piece. Even though Im too close to read what it says, I know its my work. I run my hands over the black curves outlined in silver. I lean in and sniff. Nothing, not a whiff of fumes. When did I start this? It doesnt matter; Ill finish it now. I start to shake the can in my hand, but all I hear is a hollow rattle. I toss the can down and reach for another, then another. Empty. Theyre all empty.

I wake up with that all over shitty feeling you get the day after a rumble. Head splitting, guts twisted. All that’s left of my dream is a memory of black and silver. I sit up, thinking about snatching the baggie from under the couch and going to the back lot for a joint before Pelón can bust my balls for smoking his weed.

Except then I realize I’m not at Pelón’s. I’m on this narrow cot with my legs all tangled up in a raggedy-ass blanket. It’s dark except for a fluorescent flicker from behind me. I get loose of the covers and take four steps one way before I’m up against another concrete wall. Six steps the other way, and I’m bumping into the shitter in the corner. There’s a sink right by it.  No mirror.  Drain bolted into the concrete floor. I can make out words scrawled in Sharpie on the wall to one side of the cot: WELCUM HOME FOOL. I turn around, already half-knowing what I’m going to see.

Bars. Through them, I take in the long row of cells just like this one. I’m in lock-up. Shit, juvie again? It’s only been four months since I got out of Houston Youth Village.  Village, my ass.

I sit back down on the cot and try to push through the fog in my brain from the shit we smoked yesterday. Thing is, I’ve got no memory of getting brought in here. It’s like I want to replay that part, but my brain’s a jacked-up DVD player that skips back again and again to the same damn scene, the last thing I can remember right.

You can read a longer excerpt from The Knife and the Butterfly here, or buy the whole book in February!

Best of the National Day on Writing


Yesterday, the third official National Day on Writing, was a huge success! You definitely don’t want to miss out on hearing from five writers via the National Writing Project’s blogtalk radio show. Listen to the show online here. I’m there in the last section of the show, talking about how writing with my students led to two published YA novels. Other guests include writers for the New York Times and The New Yorker and a teen who uses to share his writing. Really great stuff! Some of my favorite bits from the show include Katherine Schulten talking about “drinking the Koolaid” at the National Writing Project (I did, too!),  Fernanda Santos describing what it’s like to work for a world-class newspaper when writing in a second language,  Dana Goodyear describing how grew out of her experiences interviewing Japanese women writing novels on their cell phones, and teen-writer James Loveless describing his journey from closet writer to member of a vast community on Figment (apparently Figment users are called “Figgies”!).

Many partner sites are running posts with more extended reflections on why folks from different walks of life write. Mine for the National Writing Project is here. I love HEATHER WOLPERT-GAWRON‘s Edutopia piece on what writing has meant at different stages of her life. Here’s one section that resonated with me:

When I was 35, I wrote because a fire was lit within me and I discovered the National Writing Project. I was introduced to the greatest teachers of writing. I was introduced to a room of educators who believed that they could change education by teaching students to communicate their logic, their passions, and their dreams, through their writing, regardless of one’s subject matter.

Read Heather’s whole essay here. You can also cruise to the bottom of this NWP page to find annotated links to heaps of essays by writers from science teachers to memoirists to novelists. Really, really good stuff.

There’s also a nice recap of the #whyIwrite tweets at the fun, formidible, and f**k-where-were-you-when-I-was-a-teen site,· Of course, you ought to go explore the thousands of #whyIwrite tweets for yourself–that’s what hash tags are fore, after all.



Taking Paris by Classroom

Nanterre students being all hip and scholarly.

From American university to Paris university–it’s not a seamless transition. But it is exciting, and my new students have me all revved up to find new ways to make English relevant.

I’m working on a thematic curriculum for our 12 weeks together that will let us explore “Other Americas” through articles and novel excerpts. Some students I’ve talked to here see the U.S. as one big Hollywood Blvd; I’ll introduce them to issues and experiences related to Latino, LGBT, Black, Asian, and Native American communities. We’ll also talk about what it means to be disabled or mentally ill in the U.S.–and how these experiences compare to what they know from France. 

I’ve just posted a list of resources to jump-start English explorations outside the classroom. This list is geared toward adult English language learners, and it’s purpose is to help them discover authentic reading material in English that will make vocabulary-building natural. Here’s the English Artifact Weekly Assignment that goes with it, for those who are curious. Basically, each week, instead of assigning them a particular reading, I charge students with choosing their own English reading material and bringing back “proof” (their artifact) of the experience along with a reflection that will help them consolidate the learning. 

Bonus: students at different levels can find materials appropriate to their ability, thus avoiding frustration and boredom. And everyone gets to follow his or her interests. Yea for differentiation!

The idea for self-directed reading for language-learning came from following the blog Mis Musicuentos by a dynamic, motivated, and tired-of-the-status-quo Spanish teacher. Here‘s the post that got me thinking, “yeah, this would work for ELL learners of English, too.”

What the French Know About Food: No Snacking

Learn why the French don’t need this.

In Paris, there’s a bakery on every corner offering buttery croissants, but residents are still slim enough to fit into elevators the size of coffins. What do the French know? This is the first of several posts on food and lifestyle in the city of lights.

Among four health-related announcements required to be included in advertisements for salty/sweet junk foods, is the following:

“Pour votre santé, eviter de grignoter entre les repas.” OR “For your health, avoid snacking between meals.”

When I first read that, I thought I must have mistaken the meaning of “grignoter.” After all, hadn’t nutritionists been telling us in the U.S. to eat several smaller meals? What is a snack if not a small meal, right?

Well, I can tell you one thing: our “small” meals in the U.S. aren’t doing us much good. In fact, I’m inclined to think that we eat bigger-than-French-sized meals plus snacks. But I digress.

So I was saying, snacks basically have a bad reputation here. Unless you’re under the age of 10, you will get funny looks gnoshing in public at non-meal times. I’ve been using public transit in Paris for over a month, and I can count on one hand the number of times that I have seen people eating. Even in the halls of the university where I teach, there are no signs of the sugar/salt stimulants U.S. students rely on to get them through their courses.

For me, this seems to be the most powerful difference between the U.S. and Paris. In the U.S., wherever I am, at whatever time it may be, I encounter people who are eating, and I often think, “Hey, I’d like to be eating that, too.” In France, by contrast, when it’s not meal time, I just don’t see food out. I used to be a has-it-been-two-hours-yet-so-I-can-eat person. Now I actually forget about food for stretches of four hours at a time.


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