Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Lessons from Being a Reader and a Writer

Twenty days until I'm back at school, twenty-two until the students return. This means that my brain starts examining everything around me for lessons that can be pulled into the classroom. And honestly, it's not hard. There are lessons everywhere.

I've always said it is easy to be a reading teacher because since I was young, I've always been a person who reads. Being a reader is so woven into my identity, I cannot imagine myself without it. It is what others identify with me too. Just this morning my kitchen was filled with four high school boys - they had gone on an early morning run for Cross Country with my son and come to our house to make pancakes. As I walked in and began talking to them, one (a former student) immediately pulled out his phone and began telling me about who his new favorite author was. It happens all the time. People in town will see me and ask for book recommendations. Former students delivering pizza to our house will confess they have't read for a few weeks and apologize. Former students come up at track meets and ask for what to read next. Being a reader is who I am.

I've not always been a writer. Actually, as a kid, it is what I fantasized about. Yet, years of having papers returned with blood red ink took their toll. Grammar rules and punctuation confounded me. I gave up. It was only in starting this blog that I found my writing voice again and slowly began to share. You wonderful folks that read it have been beyond kind and helped me find my wings to try this new fiction venture I've been at for the past few months. I'm learning.

Last year on July 23rd, I placed an Amazon order for my first romance book ever - Kristen Ashley's Breathe. I quickly found out that it was the fourth in the series, so I ordered more. In doing so, I never realized I was beginning something that would change the way I read and wrote. Here are some lessons I've learned over the past year, lessons I will bring into the classroom.

In regard to reading...

A Genre Rut Isn't Bad
Since last July I've purchased and read one hundred and seventy romance books. Good Lord. How often have I reminded my students to read outside of their favorite genre in the class? Quite a few. I never require it, but I often ask if they are bored. Well, I can say for certain that I'm not. And I'm reading, a lot. Most of these books run from 300-700 pages, so that alone adds up. But then, there is the other reading I'm doing - young adult, middle grade, picture books - I've read those too, just not in the volume I used to. Reading these romance books has made me laugh out loud more than once. I've connected to other friends who love the same genre, which has been wonderful. Sticking with a favorite genre has brought my joy, and I want my students to know that too.

Rereading and Skimming Favorites Brings Comfort
I remember presenting at a conference last summer and a teacher told me one of her colleagues didn't allowed books reread to "count." I'm guessing I looked at her with horrification written all over my face. I've always reread books. I know not everyone does, but it is what makes me calm. I can pinpoint certain books for certain time periods of my life. High school and college - I likely reread Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove over fifty times. When I was pregnant with Luke and Liam it was The Mitford Series by Jan Karon. Now it's anything written by Kristen Ashley, but especially The Rock Chicks series - which I've read in its entirety four times since beginning them last summer. I've dealt with anxiety for years and rereading old favorites is like revisiting friends. When my heart is racing, I can pick up those books and I immediately calm down. Sometimes I just need to read a passage, sometimes the whole book, but it absolutely counts as reading. 

Friend Recommendations are Everything
Romance reading is a new genre for me and there is a ton out there, so recommendations are key. When I mentioned to a former student's mom last August that I had read a book by Kristen Ashley, she immediately began telling me to read Rock Chicks. My friends Cindy and Karen have given me recommendations as I leave them Voxer messages on a regular basis. Ditto to colleagues online and in real life, talking books adult to adult has become an even bigger part of my life in the past year. This is what I want for my students and I can model it in my own life. 

In regard to writing...

Finding Large Chunks of Time to Write Is Important
I started writing this fiction novel on April 1st. In the past one hundred twenty-one days, I've written 60,587 words. That seems both not enough and an unbelievable amount at the same time. What I've learned is that I can make time for writing, even when I'm busy. I've also discovered that large blocks of time work best for me because I can get into a flow and write so much more. That being said, stealing 15-30 minutes here and there if it is all I have is worth it to keep a habit going.

Write What You Know
My story takes place in a town of 10,000 people called Highland, located in Central Illinois. There is a beautiful park outside of town that the male protagonist, Max, works at. In town locations that factor into the story include: a pizza place, a brewery in an old barn, the middle school, the library, yoga, a cafe, etc. The female protagonist, Emma, works at the library and loves to read, especially romance and young adult books. Her best friend, Maggie, works as a language arts teacher at the middle school and loves Pearl Jam. My point is, if you know me in real life, you know how heavily influenced my story is on my own life. Not to the point that it is my story, it's not. But you can see elements of me in lots of it. You can see people I know, pets I have, phrases I use, favorite actors/ actresses/ bands/ songs/ etc. Inspiration is all around you, and to write, I have to use it. I need to teach my students this because they believe if the story doesn't pop in your head fully formed, they can't write it. Sometimes you just need to look around.

Keep a Notebook With You
Which brings me to this. I used to have a quote hanging in my classroom and wish it was still there because I don't remember it exactly or who said it. It was something like, writers don't lead more interesting lives, they live their lives with their eyes wide open. My life hasn't suddenly become more interesting because I write fiction, but man alive, story possibilities are everywhere. For example, I went to Meijer the other day to pick up some groceries. The store was dead and three cashiers were standing at one check-out. They were all around my age and began telling me about one of their boyfriends who didn't want them to dress in revealing clothes. The cashier had a lot to say about that and the conversation ended with all of our hands up in the air as she said, "If you've got it, flaunt it." I have no idea how it all happened, but I wrote it down.

My Inner Editor is Evil 
I call mine Helga and she's awful. She will pop up and tell me that I cannot write, that someday I really should figure out how to use commas appropriately, that no one would ever want to read this drivel, and so forth. I can't stand her. She grew from years of feedback as a kid where no one told me anything I did well as a writer, but every single thing I did wrong. To combat this for my students, I tell them about Helga. I tell them why she is in my head. And then I find something awesome about each one of their stories and talk about it. Hopefully one day Helga will go on a vacation and not come back, but I doubt it.

Sharing Your Writing is Scary
I think, before I ever began a blog, that I discounted how scary it was to share your writing. I wish I could apologize to all of my former students for that. The first person who saw my current story was Cindy. This week I sent it to Karen. To say it made me nervous would be an understatement - would they just confirm all of Helga's comments? Fortunately, they have not. It helped to ask for specific things in terms of feedback. It helped that they were ridiculously kind. This is an important note to remember in the classroom - the more that my students are invested in a piece, the more they've poured of themselves into their writing, the harder it will be to hear criticism back.

And so, my journey into reading romance books has had lasting consequences in my classroom. It has reminded me of lessons I shouldn't have forgotten, but did. And hopefully it will make me a better teacher to a new group of students in just a few weeks.