11: The Takeaway, AKA These Go to Eleven

“¡Hola, Miss Ramos!” Some of my students in my first teaching assignment, MacArthur High School, spring 1999.

“¡Hola, Miss Ramos!” Some of my students in my first teaching assignment, MacArthur High School, spring 1999.

A “takeaway” is the main point or gist from something that was presented, like a seminar or a report. “These go to eleven” is a line from the 1984 mock rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. The latter has absolutely nothing to do with the former. But when I realized that this book had eleven numbered chapters and eleven takeaways, I just couldn’t help myself. Writers (and English teachers) can’t waste a goofy allusion. So, without further ado:

 

Takeaway # 1 from “How a Navy Nomad Learned English”: If you (or your kid) has a chance to be bilingual, TAKE IT.

I can’t express how much I wished my parents had just allowed to let me absorb all those languages – Mandarin Chinese, Tagalog, Ilocano, AND English – when I was a little kid in Taiwan. Even if I wouldn’t retain the Chinese once we moved to the States, being bilingual (technically trilingual) in Filipino and English, like most of my cousins in California, would’ve strengthened my connection to the Philippines. As any native speaker knows, you don’t really know a people and their culture unless you know their language. Even if the words get translated into English, nuances from the first language will always get lost in translation.

As a result, with the loss of the Filipino language, I find a gap in my Filipino identity. Sure, I have kept the Catholicism of my Filipino heritage. I have similar funny stories shared by all adult children who were raised by weird, Filipino immigrant moms and dads. Filipino dishes like dinuguan (pork blood pudding stew) and sinigang (sour tamarind soup) are as familiar to me as burgers and fries. But being able to think, speak, read, and write ONLY in American English has disconnected me to a heritage that I am now at a loss to pass down to my son.

The closest to my parents’ language I have is Spanish, since Filipino has many nouns borrowed from Spanish. (Over four-hundred years of Spanish occupation will do that to a country.) I took Spanish in high school and college, as well as occasionally use my rudimentary (think talking like a two-year old) Spanish skills when I teach my ESL Hispanic students. It’s the closest thing to a foreign language I can give my son; it helps that we live in Texas, as we can hear Spanish around us. But it’s a poor substitute for my parents’ native tongue.

Also, as any adult learner of a second language can tell you, learning Ilocano or Tagalog as a forty-something year old woman is HARD. Both Filipino languages have grammar and syntax rules that are nothing like Germanic languages like English and Romance languages like Spanish.

ARRRGGGHHH!

But, as much as I can, I hope to learn Filipino (most likely Tagalog, since that’s the national language) as much as possible, if only so I can understand my parents when they talk to each other, read my relatives’ Facebook statuses, and teach a little to my kid. Here’s hoping!

 

Takeaway #2 from “A Brown Kid on Guam & Three Investigators on the Prairie”: Read what you like, and let your kid read what he/she likes.

Are the Little House books great literature? No. Are the Three Investigators books literature? Oh hell no. But I discovered them on my own, and I read them voraciously. Similarly, my eleven-year old nephew is hooked on the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. As far as his father – my brother Eric – is concerned, they are fan-freaking-tastic because his son is READING. I feel the same way when my kid reads SpongeBob comic-style books.

That’s why, even though Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Fifty Shades of Grey are not what I choose to read on my leisure time (what little that I have these days), I don’t deprecate those who do. In an age of little glowing screens and garbled texting, they are reading BOOKS. Oftentimes, those books are even bona fide paper books.

After all, I have a PhD in Literature, but the Harry Potter books on my bookshelf aren’t my son’s – they’re mine. (I bought the complete set after reading the library’s copy over and over again.) Also, if it weren’t for having to wait for the next Harry Potter book, I wouldn’t have discovered Ursula LeGuin’s excellent Earthsea novels, which a librarian recommended to tide me over. As for The Lord of the Rings books, they didn’t interest me at all when I was a kid, but post UD, I checked them out of the library and gobbled them up during my lunch hour in the summer of my first job, post-college.

So. Go to a library. Choose something that appeals to you. Read it. It’s really that simple.

 

Takeaway #3 from “Movies – the Gateway to Books”: Screen versions of books are great in making us crave more of the story, found in the books.

Looking over my reading history, you can see why I believe this. The Little House on the Prairie. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Romeo and Juliet. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Seeing the screen versions of them first spurred me to seek out the book versions once I knew the book versions existed. This was also true with T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Shakespeare’s Henry V, and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

In fact, my sister Wendy (she who endured The Tale of Two Cities in high school and isn’t usually a casual book reader) had seen the movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix but became curious about the book when our sister Cheryl ranted about how much the movie version was different from the book in key details. Wendy, who has always struggled with her slow book reading, checked out both the book and audiobook Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows so that she could read along with the audiobook’s readers. In doing that she discovered that Neville Longbottom – not Harry Potter – was Wendy’s favorite character. So when she finally saw the two-part movie version, she sounded like Cheryl as she ranted against the changes in the movie version about key details in Neville’s scenes.

Finally, as a hat tip, my son watching tons of Power Rangers episodes on Amazon Prime video streaming becomes “educational” when I have the “closed caption” feature turned on so that he’s occasionally reading the lines while watching the stilted kung-fu mechanoid action.

Yes. Screen watchers can become readers, too.

 

Takeaway #4 from “The Accidental Autodidact, or How to Raise a Nerd”: If books are everywhere in a house filled with kids, at least one of those kids WILL read those books.

The generosity of a family friend and the savings savvy of my mom allowed my family to have a home library early on in my childhood – a rare occurrence for many of my community college students who are also parents. However, the public library is free, and some schools (like my son’s elementary school) allow students’ parents to check out books from their libraries. While it would be nice for parents to read to their kids on a regular basis, that isn’t always possible for parents working long hours at work and (for my students) at school. But busy parents can start a family tradition of going to the library on the weekends with the kids, which is not only doable but FUN.

Also, with many people buying things second-hand these days, both online and in thrift stores, anyone can buy reasonably cheap books to start a permanent home library. Moreover, as most people – even those on a tight budget – have smartphones, you’d be surprised by just how many free books are available in app stores. For instance, I have the complete Sherlock Holmes in my smartphone, and it was absolutely free.

A house with no books is a house with non-readers. Between public libraries, used goods stores, and free book apps, filling a house with books is easy and doesn’t have to break one’s budget.

 

Takeaway #5 from “When the Reader Wrote”: Write what you know, and ALWAYS make a copy.

Oftentimes, my students think they can’t write anything unless it’s a “serious” topic about a profoundly serious issue or problem in society, like the death penalty or climate change. Usually what happens is that they pick a topic that they have very little experiential knowledge and struggle with writing anything at all. If they do manage to write something, it’s usually 1) filled with irrelevant and repetitive padding and 2) is boring to read.

“Write what you know!” I would say, repeating myself so much that I risk sounding like a skipping DVD. “I mean it. Writing — whether it be an essay, a short story, or even a letter – isn’t torture if you just write what you know.”

After all, this whole book that I’ve been writing is one big “write what you know.”

As for the second part, all it takes is for folks to lose their only copy to learn the hard way to make multiple copies. As more and more written stuff are composed and saved electronically, that means saving the files in more than one place. In fact, this book is saved in three places: in my laptop’s hard drive, on a “cloud” drive online, and on a USB memory stick.

Better safe than sorry.

 

Takeaway #6 from “The Lewis, the Library & the Dynamic Duo”: Teachers at school are not the enemy.

Even if Pa wasn’t stationed out of state and Mom wasn’t working crazy hours, my parents would still not be actively involved in my formal schooling because they were old-school traditionalists. They assumed my teachers, being professionals, taught me all I needed to know without parental intervention. Fortunately, I had teachers who took an interest in me as an individual, not just yet-another-student in a busy, crowded classroom. Those teachers made my public schooling on par with anything found in an elite private school. But unfortunately, I also had some teachers who seemed burned out or were over-glorified babysitters, so I found myself relying on my autodidactic skills, teaching myself more than they did.

For older students (as in later in high school and college), taking responsibility for one’s education is a regular part of the learning process. You’ll have great teachers, and you’ll have bad teachers. The key is to get through the class to the end and move on.

However, for younger students (like elementary, middle school, and early high school), we parents need to become advocates for our children’s education. That means seeing schoolteachers as partners – not enemies – in raising well-adjusted, educated kids.

As a teacher, I’m not the enemy. As a parent, my son’s teachers are not the enemy. We’re all in this together.

 

Takeaway #7 from “Pa’s Books”: Read books around your kids and let your kids read your books.

Nothing said louder that book reading was important than when I knew my dad read books. Nothing said louder that no book was off limits than when my dad gave me his books.

’Nuff said.

 

Takeaway #8 from “Portrait of an Anglophile as a Teen Girl”: If you’re still a fan of a childhood obsession, enjoy it. Likewise, if your kids are fans over something (and it’s mostly harmless), then let them enjoy their obsession.

While my Anglophilia has faded over time, my childhood love for science fiction and fantasy have not. So when I as an adult discovered Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Neil Gaiman novels, and the revived Doctor Who, it was the sci-fi/fantasy that was the primary draw – the fact that they are British was incidental. However, knowing how serious I was as a child in my Anglophilia, I know to take seriously my son’s various interests.

Right now, after being a fan of Star Wars since he was a little, little kid, he’s currently a fan of Minecraft, that world-building game that looks like virtual Lego blocks. Thanks to a recent themed birthday party, he has Minecraft books, action figures, and stuffed animals, in addition to the game app he already had. On his own, he discovered and now watches other people’s Minecraft gameplay on YouTube with the same interest as I would watch a Home and Garden TV program. Other than monitoring for inappropriate language in those gameplay videos, I let my son have the freedom to explore his current Minecraft-philia. He’s only seven-years old, so that current obsession may wane for a newer one in the future. But as I write this, I see my son reading an advanced-level Minecraft book that explains how to build more elaborate worlds and play mini-games in worlds (called “mods”) that other players have built.

There’s a reason my son’s first grade teacher is thinking of having him start on chapter books.

One more story: a male, twenty-something year old student from one of my English 1302 classes wrote an essay, defending the identity of being a “brony.” For those not familiar with the term, a “brony” is a teen or adult fan, often male, of the cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The essay was sophisticated, funny, and well-researched, earning a well-deserved “A.” When I returned it to its owner, I asked, “Are you a brony?”

He looked around, but his classmates were still settling down as class hadn’t officially begun yet. “Yes,” he mumbled.

I’m not a brony, but I still said, “That’s awesome!”

He perked up and grinned.

Then I noticed his Tardis T-shirt and gave a thumbs up.

We geeks need to stick together.

 

Takeaway #9 from “The How, Not the What, of Assigned Books”: Keep your past scaffolds – you’ll need them in the future.

The guides, templates, and lists – the scaffolds – that my high school teachers gave me, all of which I’d internalized, prepared me for university work. While my professors at the University of Dallas weren’t as mega-detailed as my high school teachers, they still gave scaffolds in the form of informative syllabi, assignment guidelines, and suggested books to read. Internalizing those scaffolds prepared me for graduate work, and I often gave those same scaffolds that I learned to my own students, which cut down on a lot of unnecessary lesson planning on my part. After all, why reinvent the wheel?

Speaking of not reinventing the wheel – newer, more complex scaffolds evolve from older, simpler ones. So keeping your old scaffolds makes it easier to learn (whatever it is that you’re learning) when the content and skills get harder. Since my memory sucks without writing everything down, I kept every single folder from middle school and high school when I went to college. This came in handy when I was stuck on essay assignments – I looked at past papers for topic ideas, and I even used a few of them (revised and expanded, of course) for my undergrad college essays.

When I moved out of my parents’ house and de-cluttered for my tiny efficiency apartment after college, I culled my folders, especially since I had binders of college work, keeping only the most important and useful ones. I kept two middle school folders (one being a thick one with all of my Chronicles of Narnia work) and three high school binders. I kept most of my undergrad college work, and two of those essays – a sophomore two-pager and senior eleven-pager, both on Flannery O’Connor – became the seed for my two-hundred page doctoral dissertation that earned me my PhD.

In between getting my MA degree and starting my PhD program, I worked two years in the corporate world as an entry-level manager of a tiny department in Quaker State Corporation’s corporate headquarters. Even though I had never taken a business class in my life, because of my internalized scaffolding, I applied what I knew to writing business memos, composing manager reports, creating spreadsheets, analyzing productivity logs, and utilizing databases.

So, if you’re a student (in school or in life) or a parent of a student, keep those scaffolds. You’ll need them.

 

Takeaway #10 from “Physicists, Philosophers & Fools for God”: Everything you’ve learned is connected.

One day, I drove my dad to three doctor appointments. The first two were follow-ups regarding his ongoing liver cancer treatment, and the third was a check-up with his primary care physician. My dad’s primary complaints were body chills that no diagnostic test could pinpoint a pathological cause and pain from a large keloid scar that developed post-liver cancer surgery. Both chills and pain the doctors said would hopefully resolve themselves with time. With my dad not happy with those remarks, I did some research and suggested that he gain more muscle weight to help fire up his metabolism (that is, eat more protein and do resistance exercise). Then I bought at a local drugstore a reputed over-the-counter treatment for keloid scars and gave it to my dad.

Next thing I knew, my dad called me up, saying that he was feeling much better (especially the keloid scar pain that usually only morphine pills could take away, but just temporarily). Then he said, “If I ever win the Lotto, I should send you to medical school!”

Now, the last biology class I took was Basic Ideas of Biology (a biology class for non-science majors) when I was a college sophomore. Prior to that was Honors Biology II as a senior in high school. However, everything that I learned from all of my teachers, from all of the school disciplines, taught me how to ask the right questions, research at the right places, sort between reputable and suspicious information, and reason towards logical conclusions. I knew how use this same process — to think critically and problem-solve efficiently – no matter if the issue was something I was personally an expert in, like writing and literature, or something that I knew little about, like post-surgical keloid scars. All the individual classes and different academic disciplines that I learned were just puzzle pieces that, together, made a picture called “an educated adult” – that is, me.

This educational “big picture” is a concept many of my community college students don’t see. They see their classes as discrete, separate items, to be taken, used, and disposed of as soon as their final course grades hit their transcript. More than a few of my English students have forgotten their prior English classes, so they use up precious time to relearn basic essay structure and even grammar. Also, some may have also forgotten their last math class so much that they have to relearn fractions and percentages, just so they could figure out how to calculate their own grades. They forget many things that they have learned because they have never internalized their teachers’ scaffolds, never made their classes’ content and skills become their own, and never saw their classes as interlocking pieces in a puzzle or ingredients in a recipe.

They never unified their in-school self with their out-of-school self, which results in a life that often feels imbalanced and fractured into opposing, conflicting pieces. The tragedy is that my students often feel that learning is just one of those pieces in their life that falls away. They end up dropping out – from a class or from the school altogether – in attempt not to fall entirely into pieces.

If those students dropped out because they found an overall passion that unifies them – for instance, a great job opportunity, an amazing travel opportunity, a call to service to family, God, or country – then they may have all the learning they need to pursue that life’s goal, what Thomas Jefferson called “pursuit of happiness.” But, from what I have seen, many drop out, ill-prepared for the complex, contradictory demands of modern worklife and society. Every day becomes a struggle as they only have enough in them to react from one crisis to the next, like a tiny bird in a windstorm.

Places like college allow students to stop their reactive responses to whatever crisis has popped up, look at the big picture, listen to what their heart says, and think things through, as they practice and then master all the learning and scaffolds they have available to them in a safe, controlled setting. In other words, college gives students the excuse to reflect and contemplate on what they know, what they don’t know, and what they need to know to be successful.

But the demands of “The Real World” is always loud, always insistent. When I look at any new class of students, I always feel the clock ticking, a race against time. It’s not just writing and literature I have to teach in one semester.

The sooner I can teach my students how to become autodidacts, the better. And the key to doing that is to tear away the illusion of separated class subjects, their belief that their classes are as ephemeral and airy as feathers. They need to see the sum of their courses as they should be seen: parts of strong wings that, together, can make my students fly.

 

Takeaway #11 from “The Takeaway, aka These Go to Eleven”: Share What You’ve Learned

I’m a teacher and a parent, so you could easily see why I have this takeaway. As a teacher I role-model what my students should achieve in my class. Similarly, as a parent I guide my son through all the pitfalls and milestones of growing up. But sharing what you’ve learned as some “wise sage” to his or her eager disciples is not the reason for this takeaway. (And as any teacher and parent fully knows, eager-to-learn students and children can be as rare as flying unicorns.) Sharing what you’ve learned to other people is important because they can teach you more than you thought you knew.

I learned this in my first experience as a teacher in charge of a classroom of students. I was a student teacher, having temporarily taken over the AP and regular senior English classes of a veteran high school teacher in the spring semester. The AP students, who were the majority of the teacher’s students, were easy to teach. They had an established class routine that they followed like clockwork. However, the regular students struggled under this teacher’s watch. The issue was that the teacher made no modifications between her AP and regular classes in delivering the British literature material.

Recognizing my sister Wendy in these regular students, I asked the teacher if I could modify the delivery of her course material. Now, I was winging it, thinking “What would Wendy need to learn this?” as I re-made quizzes, tests, and writing prompts and made the students work in groups of up to four people instead of the head-to-head competition found in AP and Honors classes. Also, one practice that I immediately eliminated was forcing the students to read aloud the passages after I heard enough of them struggling through John Milton’s Paradise Lost. They sounded like monotone robots and paused unnaturally after every line of verse. They were so worried about mispronounced words that they didn’t get any meaning whatsoever.

“Does anyone know what’s going on here?” I asked.

After a long, awkward silence, a tall Hispanic young man said, “No, miss.”

“That’s okay. Milton isn’t being easy to his readers. Here’s what’s going on.” I gave a quick summary of the plot of Book I in Paradise Lost so that they had some knowledge going in. Then I took a deep breath, battled my fear of public speaking, and gave a dramatic reading of the first 124 lines. I acted out the motions of a chained Satan on the lake of fire as he railed and ranted against Heaven and swore “eternal War”.

When I stopped and looked up, I saw all eyes on me. One African-American young man shook his head as he commented with disapproval, “Mmm-mmm-MMMMMM. That Satan’s a damn fool.”

The other students looked at him and then back at me, wondering how I would respond to him using a swear word.

“You’re right,” I replied. “He IS a damn fool.” In that instant, that teenaged boy taught me more about the character of Milton’s Satan in one simple sentence than in any multi-page analysis that I read for my undergrad English classes.

So my first students not only taught me how to teach – something no college Education class can ever be a substitute – but also taught me how to see these “classics” of academic literature with the eyes of a diverse, everyday group of people. Their teacher was right – AP British Literature material could speak to them. But, as I learned, it needed to be “translated” first in a delivery that hooked them fast. As soon as they were hooked into the story and felt safe from judgment, they were more than willing to come along with me on this wild ride called Shakespeare, Milton, and the Brontë sisters.

As a new teacher, what that class of regular English IV students (many of whom were just chomping on the bit to escape high school in June) taught me was eye-opening. In the case of my teaching career, they are the best teachers of teaching and reading that I’ve ever had.

So share what you’ve learned to others – and be amazed by what they will teach you in return.

 

Conclusion

Way back in the Introduction, I said that the key to creating a life-long reader (and therefore a life-long learner and teacher) is found in childhood and, once found, it unlocks everything. I also mentioned that I wrote this book for three groups of people: non-readers like my students, new readers like my kid, and the kids who grew up and never lost their childlike love for good books and good stories. Just as the books that I read as I grew up became my scaffolding for life, may this little memoir of mine serve as a kind of scaffolding for you, wherever you are in your reading life’s journey.

Find your books, and you will find yourself.

 

 

Advertisements
This entry was posted in AVOCATIONS, Creative Writing, EDUCATION, Family & Parenthood, Learning, Movies, Pop Culture, QUIRKS, Reading, Teaching, The Writing Life and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s