Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Train Station - Part I

     The train stopped in Philly.

     Train #165 departed from NewYork City Penn Station on its way to Union Station in Washington, D.C., but never arrived. Something besides the storm rained down that night. It took investigators ten years to figure out why all one hundred eighty-seven passengers disappeared. Once they did, government officials stepped in and silenced them.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

     "You know what, Trish?" said a young woman scrolling through her iPad, a single earbud clinging to her right ear.
     "What?" said Trish from the seat across the isle.
     "This has been the longest day ever."
     "I know. It's like never ending."
     "You're telling me," said the girl with the iPad, her eyes never leaving the screen.
     A young man lay sprawled across the pair of seats behind Trish. He tried to sleep, half listening to the conversation the two women were having. He found it difficult to drift off with his knees pressed up against his chest. The gym bag beneath his head also provided little cushioning.
     A man behind him stared at his laptop screen. He was watching an Olympic qualifying match, checking his stocks, and listening to the news. The screen flickered, but quickly collected itself. Rain spattered the windows.
     A voice sounded through the speakers built into the train:
     "Ladies and gentlemen, please be informed that we may be driving through hail. The storm is not expected to last long, and we'll be crossing through in a matter of minutes."
     The cabin lights flickered. Outside, the rain poured with ferocity. Impenetrable darkness swallowed the train cars as they glided over metal tracks. Hail began to fall.
     "Dang, that is loud," said Trish.
     Her friend did not reply.
     "Tanya, pay attention. You don't hear that?" said Trish, trying to get her friend to respond. 
     "What?" said Tanya, ungluing her eyes from the tablet in her hands.
     "Girl, don't you hear that?"
     "What the hell is that?" she said, standing up suddenly.
     "It's just hail."
     "Dang, that's loud."
     "I've been trying to tell you," said Trish.
     The girls smiled at one another and returned their attention to their gadgets.
     "Excuse me," said the young man who had been trying to fall asleep. "Would one of you mind lending me your charger? My phone's about to die."
     "Sure," said Tanya, unplugging her device.
     "Thanks. I'm Victor, by the way."
     "Nice to meet you."
     "You don't seem to be doing so well, Victor," said Trish.
     "I know. I think I'm getting sick."
     Victor took the charger. He plugged in his phone and resumed his wrestling match with the gym bag. Rest continued to elude him. 
     A muffled thud traveled down the cabin like electricity through a nerve.
     "Hey, what happened to the Wi-Fi?"
     The man sitting behind Victor hit the keys on his laptop, hoping to fix the problem. 
     "Did you feel that?" said Tanya.
     "Oh, my Wi-Fi's gone, too," replied Trish, ignoring her friend's question. 
     The lights in the cabin flickered off and on again. Rain and hail beat the aluminum casing of the train car.
     "I'm going to talk to someone about this," said the older man, impatiently.
     He stepped out of his seat, walking with purpose towards the front of the car.
     "Ladies and gentlemen, we will be stopping the train temporarily," spoke the voice in the speakers.
     "What now?" yelled the older man who was nearing the junction leading to the next car.
     The voice came back on. "It looks like we..." 
     "Something's not right," said Trish.
     The two women sat up and stared at the front of the car as if expecting someone to walk in and explain what was happening. A few other passengers sat up to look around. The train continued to roll gently through the darkness, the sound of rain and hail intensifying.
     A muffled shriek pierced the air.
     "What the hell was that?" said Tanya.
     No one spoke, hoping the silence would bring more information. 
     "I'm going to find out what's going on," said the older man who had been standing in the isle. He reached out to open the door to the next car. 
     The train shook violently, its right side temporarily coming off the tracks and landing back down with a loud clang. The passengers yelled, grabbing onto whatever they could reach to keep from losing balance. Luggage fell onto the walkway between the seats.
     "Oh my god, Trish, we're going to die!"


     (End of Part I of IV)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Written by a good friend...

Beautiful poem.

Caracas, You and I

Caracas, you and I, what will we do tonight?
What movie shall we watch at the drive-in theater in the sky?
On what are we going to spend my last Bs. 3.75s?
In what stolen car shall we escape
at 180 km/h or more?
And tell me, where shall we hide
to cry out everything that hurts us?

Because I can’t forget about her, Caracas.
She’s everywhere.
On all the covers of Bazaar,
of Cosmopolitan, of Playboy.
On all the backlit propaganda in the city.
At this moment, she is entering
10,000 hotel rooms
on the arm of my 10,000 rivals.

Everything reminds me of her.
The smell of cherries at three for five;
the ballad that managed to jump
out the window of an ’81 Mustang,
and even the face of the young man
that sells El Mundo on the corner
in some way resembles hers.

Why don’t we kill ourselves, Caracas?
It would be the most spectacular
of the passion suicides of the century.
Let us sink ourselves in a colossal earthquake.
Let us get into a radioactive cloud.
Let us burn like a Rome with skyscrapers.

But we’re both cowards.
You will continue to sow your concrete hyphae
on the cadavers of more than a million marginalized
and I, surely, will go one more time
to prowl beneath her window before dawn.

In the meantime, it will become night;
Pietro, the café owner,
will kick out his last client
and one more leaf will fall
from one of your trees.
Her and you, Caracas,
sink into me
like a stone dagger.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

NCTE Annual Convention - Part II

Finally, the other side of the convention has arrived. Having returned slightly jet lagged, I took a week to recuperate and mentally chew on the experience. Without a doubt, Sir Ken Robinson's morning speech on Friday took the convention up a notch. In his usual funny manner, he raised an issue, not a particularly innovative one, nor particularly new, but extremely pertinent: the standardization of the education system--testing only being a part of that--goes against the very fabric of human individuality. It could have been the sausage I ate for breakfast, but I felt even my bowels trembling in agreement. If you're interested, he delivered a similar speech in a follow-up to the first TED talk I included in a previous post. Check it out at the end of this post.

Publishers, authors, and vendors or all kinds littered the exhibit floor at the convention. I weaved my way through the stands, seemingly hypnotized by the abundance of resources, but more so by the abundance of books! Everywhere I turned, books followed. Having spent a few days at the SCBWI conference some weeks ago, this almost felt like a continuation, or a part II--the consumer side. From conception to consumption, books fascinate me. On the last day of my stay, I grinned from ear to ear as I packed half-a-dozen free ones I picked up at the conference.

I left excited about the power of books to impact children and stimulate their creativity. I also left having met a very interesting individual, Dr. Shannon Mortimore-Smith from Shippensburg University. Serendipitously, she had given a talk on "gamifying" the classroom, the same topic I had been writing on for the past month and a half as a contribution to a larger work on STEM education. My chapter was due that very weekend! Kindly, she allowed me to interview her and write about her experiences. It turned out to be a great addition. Funny how God works sometimes.

From both a writer's and STEM educator's perspective, the NCTE 2012 Annual Convention turned out to be one of the best conferences I have ever attended.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

NCTE Annual Convention - Sir Ken Robinson (Video)

I'm incredibly excited about the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention. That's not just because I get to be out of the office for a few days--though it doesn't hurt. For three days I'll be hearing from experts in literacy, English studies, and fine arts. They'll be discussing the Common Core standards (math and English language arts), which is important for educators, nonfiction children's writers, and even science content specialists like yours truly. But the highlight of my trip will probably be getting to hear from Sir Ken Robinson. Sir/Dr./Mr. Robinson is known across the globe as a leader in education, particularly bringing creativity and innovation back into the classrooms. This should be a fun conference and I hope to share some of my experiences when I return.

If you haven't watched Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk on creativity, you should definitely check it out, and not just because he's funny--though it doesn't hurt:

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Children's Books and Science Standards

"When the Next Generation Science Standards are released, what will that mean for nonfiction children's books?" This is really the million dollar question being asked by editors across the industry. For publishers, the release is an opportunity to appeal to librarians, teachers, and curriculum developers. Really, it is an opportunity to make books more appealing to consumers. Sure, there are plenty of opinions on this topic, but the following comes from a proven STEM educator.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are really the result of a document put out by the National Academies of Sciences called "A Framework for K-12 Science Education." In it, the authors describe a new way of teaching science courses using a combination of three dimensions: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. While the ideas in the framework are not completely new--they are a combination of years of reports and research--they are new in their elegant presentation. Using the framework, the NGSS are being put together through the leadership of the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve.

By "practices" the document generally refers to students actually "doing" science, where science is more about generating knowledge rather than absorbing it via lectures or textbooks. This goes beyond hands-on labs, and taps into the heart of science: inquiry, investigation, gathering evidence, analyzing evidence, developing conclusions, sharing knowledge. "Crosscutting concepts" refer to the scientific truths that are applicable across most fields, such as the relationships between matter and energy, structure and function, and stability and change. Last, but not least, are the "core ideas" that pertain to each specific field of science, be it physics, chemistry, biology, etc.

The key for publishers will be finding a way to incorporate the "practice" of science. Recently, I read several nonfiction science books written for girls ages 9 to 12. They were part of a series that presented girls with fun, interesting science experiments. One book contained ten "biology" experiment, another ten "chemistry" experiments, and so on. The experiments were cool and designed to appeal to young girls. In fact, even I wanted to try some of the ideas. There was just one problem (and it had nothing to do with me not being a girl): the era of these kinds of scripted science labs is ending. Ideally, the NGSS will bring it to a near close.

While some may think incorporating science practices in children's books will be difficult, it does not necessarily have to be. With a few leading questions, books can help children begin to think like scientists, particularly in pushing them to ask more questions, develop experiment variants of their own, analyze evidence, and share results. The scripted labs that I read could have included leading statements: "what would happen if..." or "how would you get this result:..." Also, better online content can be developed where children contribute their variants, evidence, and thoughts. This would create truer science engagement and possibly even collaboration. These are the kind of things that would appeal to me as a science educator and curriculum developer.

Yes, there is more to this conversation than can be covered by a single blog posting, but the idea has been presented. The "Framework for K-12 Science Education" did a very good thing for the field, and hopefully, the release of the NGSS will do the same. Many are seeing it as a game changer, and it will be. Most likely, it will be a game changer for the nonfiction children's book industry, as well. This does not need to be a reason to panic, but rather to put a little more thought into getting children to engage in science. The important thing is to remember that science is more than just following a set of pre-scripted directions; it is about contributing to a living network of ideas.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Are Book Reviews Helpful?

I actually prayed to God that I remain alive at least long enough to read the last installment of J. K. Rowling's wizarding adventure. Sure, it might be a little embarrassing to confess that, but the sentiment is indicative of a morbid truth: I will not be able to read everything I'd like to before I'm called to eternal life. There just aren't enough hours in an entire lifetime to read everything. If you're a bookworm like me, that's reason enough to get sweaty palms and nausea. Which means, whatever I pick to read better be worth my time.
In my youth, I'd read books all the way through to the end, even if they sucked; not anymore. There are many great stories out there better deserving of my time and imagination. Granted, there are very few books I've actually stopped reading (mostly self-help, Christian spirituality tomes), but the satisfaction of knowing I can move on to something more worthwhile is priceless. The problem is how can I know something is worthwhile before I read it?
If you happen to enjoy a book from a particular author, chances are you'd probably enjoy--in different degrees--other books written by the same person. This is perhaps the most sure way of selecting a good book. It's like going to see a movie because one of your favorite actresses is in it. Sure, some of her movies will be better than others, but even if you pick a bad movie, you can always enjoy her skills. But that's not enough. Actors and actresses can only make so many movies a year--not nearly as many as you'd like to see. So, you try to branch out, maybe watch a movie someone recommended.
Watching a movie a friend recommended is like buying a book because you read a review: some recommendations are great and some are not so great. It's hard to gauge. Personally, if a friend tells me I should read a particular book, I do. I figure that if they go through the trouble of verbally encouraging me to read a book, it must be good. But I don't give book reviews the same weight. That's not because I don't think they're worth it.
I judge books by their covers all the time, and if not for well-written reviews, I'd be duped every time. Book reviews have helped me from throwing away money on an underserved volume. The other side of the coin is equally valuable. I've purchased books because they've received great reviews. Yet, because I don't take the time to get to know and trust one particular reviewer, it usually takes a group of collective reviews to help me make up my mind.
This gives me renewed respect for good reviewers. Good reviewers don't tell you whether or not you should read a book. Instead, they describe enough of the characters and plot to give you and idea of what the book is about, and present its major strengths and weaknesses. If they did their job right, you should be able to make the decision to purchase on your own.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Children's Literature Review

     Starting a new job can be daunting, but starting a job that doesn't pay is exciting. What makes unpaid jobs exciting is that people who agree to them have vested interest in what they're doing--usually. It certainly is the case for me.
     At the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic conference I received a flyer from Children's Literature about seeking new reviewers. It seemed like something interesting. I love to read and I love writing media reviews. Plus, they promised I get to keep all the books they send me! I decided to contact them.
     The person I spoke with was very friendly, and the more I spoke to her the more excited I became about this new project/hobby. Roughly every six weeks, I'll receive a batch of five books, anything from board books to YA novels, and I'll get to write a paragraph for each about my perceptions--positive or negative. Children's Literature will then add the reviews to its database.
     I got my first batch of five books today. It's a test batch. Hopefully, I will pass. I am looking forward to reading, enjoying, scrutinizing, and then adding them to my collection or donating them. I'm pretty excited about it.
     So, next time you flip open a book jacket or open a magazine and glance at the children's book review, check to see whether it came from Children's Literature. It may just have my name on it.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Many Interests

     This past weekend, I attended SCBWI's Mid-Atlantic Fall Conference. Asides from learning a great deal about the importance of research when writing non-fiction and catching up with market trends, I realized that my search for a niche has only just begun. As usual, just when I begin to think I am beginning to sort of get this writing thing, somebody shows me there is much more to go.
     It all really started with a manuscript review. A talented author took a sincere look at a picture book manuscript I submitted. While she praised its humor and affirmed some of my writing abilities, she made a suggestion I had not expected: "You may want to consider expanding this into a chapter book." This is supposed to be a picture book. What's a chapter book?
     I have some idea of what a chapter book is, but not really. I barely understand what a picture book is despite having spent the past couple of years really studying this craft. I knew chapter books existed, but I figured I should focus on mastering one thing. The only chapter book I could think of is Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and I think that is more middle-grade fiction than chapter book. I have not even read it.
     Sure, I see where my manuscript's criticism comes from. It is a little violent, which will work against a commercial publisher taking it on as a picture book for six-year-olds. Plus, it seems the humor is geared for slightly older boys, and older children are apparently reading chapter books as early as first grade. Still, I am committed to this story being a picture book and would rather tweak it, but this idea of chapter books has latched on to me.
     I will probably spend the next couple of months purchasing and reading contemporary chapter books to become familiar with the genre. I think I might like it. That is the problem. I like picture books. I like nonfiction books for children. I still enjoy writing poetry and short stories. Perhaps, someday, I will feel confident enough to write that novel I have had on my mind for so long.
     Then, there are all the other crazy decisions I have to make regarding my interests. What higher degree will I pursue: education? science? creative writing? What about my love for playing music? There is not enough time in my life to do it all. Or maybe there is, but how long will it take to see the fruit of their mastery.
     I do not want to complain too much. It is nice to enjoy and be able to participate in all these things. But because my time is spread more thinly across my interests, it may take a little longer than I would like to really master any one of them--at least one! This makes me quite impatient.
     Is there a solution? Persist. I cannot accept any other option. Soon enough it will pay off, I hope. It is much like musicians practicing. Sometimes they practice scales, sometimes they study theory, sometimes they work on reading, sometimes they obsess over the metronome, and sometimes they just groove. The improvement occurs in small increments across various parts of their playing. Years later, the practice will pay off.
     In the meantime, I need to keep distracting myself. That should not be too difficult.