Community is everything, dumbass.

I waste time in my classroom. At the beginning of each block I like to talk to my students. I don’t give them any directions; I don’t tell them anything important. We just talk.

The moment the starting bell rings, I’ll lean back on the table in the front of my room and lob questions. I ask about weekends, sports, family, current events, and anything else that might be of interest at the moment. The only topic that seems to be off limits is English. When a class is new, they don’t know how to respond to this. They shift in their seats and glance at their friends. Eventually a brazen student will throw an answer back and a chuckle will drip drip drip through the room before shutting to silence. I’ll press on, though. I ask about jobs, and interests. I ask about boyfriends and girlfriends. I ask about pets. Students love talking about pets.

I siege them with questions. I hurl shot after shot into the room and latch onto what they throw back. Early in the year I’m satisfied with a couple of timid answers. After a brief statement about a birthday party or a complaint about work, I downshift and the class lurches into English mode.

Eventually they talk back.

Talking Back

The conversation becomes organic. The getting-to-know-you time (this is what I call it in my head) becomes an expected part of the lesson. Students anticipate. They no longer wait for my questions, but instead go on the offensive. Sometimes I’m flattered (when students want to know how I met my smoking hot wife). Other times I’m agitated (when students resolutely defended the stance that advertising had no effect on their lives.) Mostly, though, I enjoy a casual camaraderie with my class as I share interesting things I either know about (like the inevitable house centipede), or things I’ve been thinking about (anything from the value of dogs to why female students have better handwriting than male). They piggyback off my stories and share experiences of their own; they piggyback off my ideas and share ideas of their own.

As the year goes on, I inevitably see students grin widely. They ask questions about things that they suspect I might want to speak at-length about. He’s doing it again, they think as they ask about my projects, my travel, my outfit. We waste so much time in this class.

And a waste of time is, in fact, what it looks like. On my bad days, I’m torn with guilt. What should have been five quick minutes turns into fifteen, and I find myself rushing through some part of the lesson to compensate. Word of my class spreads to other students, and--by proxy--to other teachers. I see knowing glances and I feel a pit in my stomach. Is this bad teaching? It feels like bad teaching.

If tasked to defend this getting-to-know-you time, say, in front of an administrator, I might speak at some length about the conversational skills it builds. Students speak about their interests, I could say. Or they are required to listen and respond thoughtfully to their peers. I could argue that I am modelling good conversation skills and hitting speaking and listening standards in the process.

All of these explanations, though, are bullshit. We talk to each other for only one reason: It makes the class a better place to be.

Wrestling a Pig, Tug-of-War, and Other Mixed Metaphors.

I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.
— George Bernard Shaw
Tug of War

I’ve had classes that don’t talk. They don’t talk to one another and they don’t talk to me--not about The Odyssey and not about their lives. I’ve wrestled with these classes, and I’ve only gotten dirty (Metaphor 1).

These classes are a tug-of-war (Metaphor 2). My class and I are pulling in opposite directions and I have to fight for every inch of progress against 28 inert teenagers. If I let up, we move backwards. Nothing gets done in these classes.

A culture of conversation bends this inertia. Instead of pulling against one another, students begin to shift to my side of the mud pit. If I get enough students--or just the right students with the right pull--the momentum can swing. In the well-run classes the good guys reach a critical mass and are able to pull laggards to our side. In the best classes, all the students are on the right side of the puddle and we collectively pull against the content.

Now, I don’t want to build a strawman. Classes can fall anywhere on the spectrum between the pullers and the inert. Having a class full of pullers (read: talkers) is a problem as well. Once empowered, pullers can drift and tug in a direction all their own. If enough of these pullers drift in the right direction, they can change the direction of the class.

But here’s the simple truth: As a teacher, I am the captain of the ship (Metaphor 3!). My students do the rowing. I can encourage, cajole, or threaten them to get them to pull their oars. I can use a carrot, or I can use a stick, but if they let their oars drag we are dead in the water. Getting students talking is getting students rowing. Some students drift and do not row to the rhythm. Others row half-heartedly. If I do my job well, though, we row to a steady beat. In the end, though, the only power I have is to point the ship in the right direction. Any momentum forward is momentum I can use. That momentum comes from the community we build as a class, and the best rowers are those students who have bought into the classroom community. This starts with talking.

Community Trumps Content

We take ownership in the communities we belong to. It’s why they are so special to us. We recognize them at once as something that are ‘ours’ and something that are larger than us. Our communities give us strength and help us grow. That’s the takeaway. This is the role of the best classrooms.

Humans are hardwired to share. We are programed to tell and listen to stories. If you don’t believe me, try an experiment: The next time you approach a group of friends milling away in conversation, tell them that you have a story to share and watch as their attention snaps to you. We’re addicted to them. Our entertainment is stories; our social life is stories. Stories build the identity of our communities and tell us important things about them. Adding our own stories shape some small corner of that community into something cozy where we can sit.

My job is to teach English to indifferent high school students. Good teachers can structure activities and muscle their classrooms into a shape that can deliver content. The best teachers, though, harness the power from their students. They simply point the ship in the right direction and let the students do the rowing.

The best classrooms are the best communities. The best communities empower their members to share, build, and make them their own. This is why we waste time in my classroom.

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

― Haim G. Ginott



How To Get Your Writing Published

I received an email from a fellow English teacher the other day that asked me about getting published. She wasn't asking for herself, but asking for a talented student who was inquiring.

I had no idea how to respond.

It's a big question. A lot goes into it. What is the student writing? Where does she want to publish? Is she any good? 

Still, I thought the question was an interesting one. After a good deal of thought, I put this together:

I can give my two cents. This is by no means comprehensive.

The short answer is that it depends what she writes. Is she working toward a novel? Does she write short stories? The avenue to publish these things are very different.

Of the two, short stories are the easier (and less lucrative) path. There are hundreds of literary magazines released by universities that vary considerably in quality. With a solid piece (and good timing), this is the quickest way to get traditionally published.

The 'Traditional' route 

When we talk about publishing, we are almost always talking about traditional publishing. You submit a completed work to an agent, editor, or publisher and they tell you if it's good or bad. If it's good, they publish.

The Short Story Version

  1. Write an awesome short story.

  2. Revise, revise, revise.
  3. When it's good (and you dang well know it's good), go to you local library and pick up a copy of the most recent edition of Writer's Market. It will be in the reference section.
  4. In this book is a list of all the literary magazines registered in the United States. Their contact information and specific instructions are included with each entry. Follow these instructions to the letter.
  5. Submit, submit, submit.
  6. If you get any feedback, consider it carefully. It's a delicate balance to strike. On one hand, by the time you submit, you should feel confident about your piece. On the other hand, if you keep hearing the same notes over and over, there is something that likely needs to be addressed.

The Digital Short Story

You'll find many of these steps to be the same as the traditional short story. The difference comes when it comes time to submit. We've moved far beyond the time when a publication had to be physical to be considered legitimate. I would strongly encourage this young lady to explore the option of online literary magazines. Check out the things that are happening over at Electric Literature if you don't believe me. This will take a bit of leg-work on her end to determine who is legitimate, who is just looking for free content, and what publications will help her build her resume.

Short stories are often the first way that writers get published. There is no money in it (literally none...authors are often paid with 'Contributor's Copies'--that is, copies of the magazine that they can give to friends and family). The reason to publish here first is to build up your publishing credits. Think of this like your resume. Healthy publishing credits make you more appealing to agents and publishers when you begin to 'shop' larger works.

The Novel Version

  1. Write an awesome book.

  2. Have your friends, acquaintances, old English teachers, and anyone else you can find read it, help you edit it, and tell you (honestly) if it really is as awesome as you think it is (this last little bit may be the hardest part of the whole process, as pretty much everybody will tell you that they liked it...).
  3. Go back and make it awesome, because it totally wasn't the first time (trust me on this--it wasn't).
  4. Query agents. There's lots of help online about how to do this, but I've found Nathan Bransford's blog to be pretty on-target...
  5. Keep on querying/revising your query letter until an agent agrees to read it.
  6. Take the agents' advice. Chances are, they'll tell you a few things about your novel, even if they don't decide to represent it. this is the first real information you've gotten about your manuscript. Do not take it lightly.
  7. Repeat steps 2 - 7 until you've exhausted every agent in the country.
  8. Try small independent presses. These don't have the money or distribution of the big boys, they're also more likely to take a risk on a different type of book, and you often don't need an agent to publish with them. Be warned, though: they tend to be very specialized and highly subjective. Also, do your research first; make sure you don't sign on to an indy until you know they're legit, and at least big enough to get you book into some stores.
  9. If no agent or indy press will accept it, it's time to do some soul searching. Most likely (as in, in 99.9999999% of cases) this was the first novel you've ever written, and it just wasn't good enough. I'd say about 2/3 of published novelists I know threw away their first novel... some before trying to get it published, and some after. In either case, this brings you to step 10.
  10. Use everything you learned from steps 1 - 9, and write another novel.
  11. Repeat steps 1 - 10 until the cold hand of death pulls you, old and feeble and broken, from your barren, heartless keyboard...

Getting Published in 2015

The traditional paths to publication are alive and well, but they are as saturated as ever. I have some ideas about this, but--from here on out--I'm speaking solely about things that I have no direct experience with. With that said, I don't think you'll find these ideas far off.


There was a time when self-publishing was a naughty word among authors. If you were self-published, you weren't the real deal. This time has passed. In fact, many, many people are making a (pretty good) living off of publishing their own work. What has changed? Basically, companies like Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and Wattpad have cleared the biggest hurdle through their digital distribution.

In short, you write it, you set a price, and Amazon releases it (into a fog of other self-published's up to you to make your work stand out...more on this later), and you collect 70% of all profits. You have no overhead. 

My Honest-to-God advice

If I were going to try to get published today, this is what I would do. Again, we're in the realm of speculation here, but I've seen this pattern again and again, and I think there is something to it.

You need an audience

The surest way to get a publishing company to give you the nod is to show up with your own audience. Do you know why The Fault In Our Stars was such a dominant presence on Best Seller lists? It's not because it's an amazing book. Excellent work goes unnoticed every day. TFiOS was dominant because it is a very, very good book written by an author with 3.75 million Twitter followers and 7 million subscribers on YouTube. When you have an audience like that you can write anything and it will be successful.

This means you need a presence

And in 2015 this means an online presence. In short: You need a website. 

This will give you the chance to flex your writing muscles on a regular basis. You should write daily. This will get you used to the 'hard work' that goes in to great writing, and help you further develop your ear for the art. You can use it to not only practice your craft, but to build your audience. This is--I think--a must.

A Website isn't enough

You need active social media accounts, and you need to be diligent and clever in using them. Essentially, you need a brand--a way to interact with your audience and a way to promote your writing (self-published or otherwise).

A niche would be helpful

People don't follow writers because they are in love with the writing (at least largely). People follow writers because they love their subject. Most writers online have a specific topic that they write about: Sports, design, personal finance, humor, music...a dedicated subject matter will give you an outlet to establish yourself as a unique voice in the field. A niche will come with a built-in community that you can make your own. What do you know about? What do you love? What conversation can you add legitimate value to? This is not a 'must' but it's a dang good place to start.

That's it.

That's everything I know. Writing is hard, and writing well is even harder. The good news is that you are living in a world where it is a more valuable--and more visible--skill than ever before. Work hard. Find your voice. Treat it like a job. Opportunities abound.

Good luck.