Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Writing and Teaching Outside our Comfort Zones

I joke at school visits that my speciality is writing about things I know nothing about. There are no jokes, a boss of mine used to say. She said it with a large measure of meanness, usually when someone had just made a joke. In fact, she was the boss who made me decide to become a freelance writer. Anyway...  

I do, often, write about things I know nothing about. Presumably by the time I'm done writing them, I do know some things. And yet....  A few weeks ago in the New York Times puzzle blog, Gary Antonick wrote about Paul Erdos on the occasion of his 100th birthday.  He included some excerpts from The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos.  

THAT was WAY COOL. I was dancing. But.... I couldn't understand a bit of the math in Gary Antonick's puzzle. Or in the comments afterward.  I didn't try that hard, really. Mostly because I went into a white hot panic. I was so far out of my comfort zone. I passed calculus in high school only because Mr. Hunsberger was a supremely nice human being. No math courses since. And yet I wrote a book about a mathematician. 

And I, the author of many science books, took one science course in college--biology for poets. Pass/fail. I passed, thank you very much.

Over the years I have written so many books outside of my comfort zone that I guess those zones have become more comfortable. But that took a long time. Teachers, especially elementary school teachers, tell me they often teach subjects they are not that comfortable with--usually science or math. And yet they find ways to teach outside their own comfort zones all the time. 

Recently on Twitter a professor at Fresno State got in touch with me. She was teaching Charles and Emma to her college class of students who want to be English teachers. She wrote: 

We're going to play with the idea of the writer as scientist, figuring out what your hypothesis was and what you observed

I told her I loved that idea! What a great way to teach that book! And then she wrote back: 

It also might be a how-the-English-teacher-can-infuriate-her-science-colleagues lesson. ;)

I told her I doubted it. Because the trick for her and her students, just as it is for me, is to find the way in. I asked her to tell me how it went. While I waited to hear the results of her experiment I thought more about writing outside my comfort zone--how I do it and why. It's first and foremost about finding a way in. 

For me the way in is almost always with the person and the personal story. I am, above all else, a people person.  How did Paul Erdos manage to live in this world being very much not of this world? Why was he the way he was? Was he happy? How did other people view him? What excited him about math? How did math change his world and how did he change the world with this math? In answering the questions about him and how he lived his life, I learned why mathematicians all over the world loved him, and still do. I understand the spirit of his math, if not the actual numbers. (Though I admit, I do understand more than Mr. Hunsberger would ever believe!) 

Kathee Godfrey reported back that her class was a success. Here's what she wrote:

Here is the photo of several of my wonderful students: Dana Resendez, Amelia Sarkisian, Marcella Camino, and Melinda LaRochelle. We're studying your book in a senior seminar on young adult literature and all these students plan to be English teachers. In class Thursday, they came up with hypotheses about what you wanted to illustrate in your book and then identified the evidence or methods to support their hypotheses. It worked surprisingly well!

Brilliant, right? She and her students found the way in, and you can see by their smiles they were happy and proud with the results because they connected. That's all that it takes, right? As E.M. Forster said: "Only Connect." 

To read more about the class, go to Kathee's own blog about it, which she calls it, by the way, The Writer As Scientist

So how do teachers connect when they are out of their comfort zones? Sometimes they bring in experts to help. Or ask friends behind the scenes. But mostly they rely on books--good, well-researched, entertaining, original nonfiction books for kids--to help them teach the subject. This weekend I'll be at IRA, talking with reading teachers and other authors about nonfiction and how to use nonfiction books in their classrooms. (Come say hello--here's my schedule.)  I know I will hear more ideas from teachers about how they teach out of their comfort zones. And I know they will tell me books are key. 

As to why I write, so often, outside my comfort zone... I think it's because I never want to be bored. I hate being bored. And I love to be challenged. I'm sure there's some other darker reasons, but why go there?

In college I took one art history class, also pass/fail. It was early in the morning, in a large auditorium. There were lots of slides, so the room was darkened. You know what I remember? It's where I learned the word UNDULATING. That is all I remember. I did, however, pass that one, too. With a certain amount of relief.  

And now back I go, into the dark, outside of my comfort zone, to my book about--an artist! 

I'm starting to think, folks, that my I.N.K. columns are in place of therapy. Thanks for listening. 

1 comment:

Deborah Heiligman said...

Everyone--I just have to say that I wrote this and set it up to post before the news about Boston broke. Then I was out all evening (at an amazing benefit for the National Dance Institute--check it out). I am heartsick and angry about what happened. Sickened at the depravity of a person or persons who can inflict such pain. I am also heartened by the stories of heroism, caring, and beauty. I hope as the story unfolds we will hear more of the latter and less of the former. Last night as the children danced and adults told stories of how this program had helped them become who they are today, I could not help but think of all the teachers out there who work with children every day, helping them to become the best that they can be. No matter what happens in the world, we have that.