This author found a way to sell books with sticks and leaves and a little bit of twine.

Last weekend I took my children to Winding Trails in Farmington, Connecticut, to a Fairy House Tour. I had never heard of such a thing and had no idea what to expect.

I wasn’t expecting much, to be honest. But it was brilliant.

Based upon author Tracy Kane’s Fairy Houses series, local organizations were invited to construct elaborate fairy houses from natural materials that were then placed throughout the woods for the children to find and examine. There must’ve been three or four dozen houses in all, each one more elaborate than the next.

The kids adored it.

image

At the end of the trail, the kids were given the opportunity to build their own fairy houses using materials provided by the camp.

The event culminated with a reading at the entrance to the trail and a book signing. A brilliant bit of marketing by the author, who sold many books.

image image image imageimage image 

It led me to wonder what I might do to similarly market my books.

Invite people to recreate life-sized versions of their imaginary friends and bring them to a Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend cocktail party?

Create a Something Missing book club game wherein each guest is sent into a room and tasked with stealing an item that would go unnoticed?

Design an Unexpectedly, Milo online game wherein players watch video diaries in order to determine the biography of the person speaking?

None are nearly as good as a Fairy House tour, I’m afraid.

image image image image image

Posted in Books, Marketing and Publlicity | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Our unusually dark and strange family lullaby

About two years ago, I sat down with my infant son to rock him to sleep. Regina Spektor’s song On the Radio was running through my head, so I decided to sing it to him. He smiled and slowly fell asleep.

That same night, my three year-old daughter asked me to sing to her before bed. With On the Radio still in my head, I sang it to her as well.

image

Two years later, this song has become my children’s lullaby. It is the most requested song at bedtime, and my song specifically requests it by name. Both of my children know all the words, and my son will often sing it with me.

It occurs to me that this is not your usual lullaby. While the song has a slow, steady beat, the lyrics are oftentimes odd and nonsensical and cover topics that you wouldn’t expect to find in a lullaby, including:

  • Driving a hearse into a crowd of people
  • Laughing until you’re dead
  • Locating worms to increase the rate of decay
  • Being stung by a million bees
  • Diseased loved ones
  • A Guns N’ Roses song
  • Growing old
  • The end of love
  • Breathing your last breath

I anticipate many questions when our children get older.

Questions like, “What the hell were you thinking?” and “Of all the songs you could’ve chosen, why one about decay and death and worms?”

My answer will be simple:

“You liked it.”

Posted in Family, Music | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Grecian Bend was stupid, but no. Heels are still stupider.

Slate’s Rebecca Onion recently proposed that the Grecian Bend was the most preposterous ladies’ fashion trend of all time.

In the 1860s, it was fashionable for American women to wear their skirts gathered at the back into panniers, with a bustle serving as the base upon which all of that fabric could be pinned. The style required the woman to lean forward in an exaggerated way, in order to compensate for all of that weight at her back. This lean, exacerbated by corsets and high-heeled shoes, came to be called the “Grecian Bend,” named after the way that women in some Greek sculptures hunched their shoulders in implied modesty at their nudity.

image

I disagree. As stupid as the Grecian Bend may have been, heels are by far stupider.

Heels, which were originally worn by men before they sensibly abandoned them, cause lower back pain, sciatica, shortened Achilles tendons, spider veins, bone and nerve damage, osteoarthritis, knee problems, foot problems (including ball-in-foot pain, metatarsalgia, bunions, hammer toe, and the “pump bump”). Heels can also permanently alter a woman’s posture and create serious problems with hip ligaments and tendons. They are also the leading cause of falls and sprained ankles in women.

Not to mention the vast numbers of women who die in disaster movies because of their inability to run quickly or climb in heels.

Of all the fashion trends over the centuries (including those horrifying earlobe expanders), the heel is by far the stupidest and most dangerous of all.

If heels of all kinds disappeared from the planet tomorrow, women would still be just as beautiful as they are today.

Even more beautiful, since some of the heels that are worn today look downright ridiculous. 

More importantly, they would also be safer, more comfortable, and much healthier over the course of their lives.

I have a five year-old daughter. My hope is that she will never indulge in both heels and the Grecian Bend.

But if I had to choose one, I would opt for the social debilitation of the Grecian Bend over the physical debilitation that will inevitably result from the wearing of heels.

Posted in Critic | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

There was a dead man in our hotel room.

Slate asks:

What protocol does a hotel follow when a guest is found dead?

Turns out I have a little bit of experience with this question.

When I was 23 years-old, my friend and I went on vacation to Myrtle Beach, South Caroline and Orlando, Florida. We drove south by car, stopping in Myrtle Beach for three days before proceeding to Orlando and Universal Studios. We were scheduled to stay in Florida for four days, but after two, we decided to head north and spend our last two days back at Myrtle Beach.

We liked it much better.

We drove all night from Florida to South Carolina and spent the morning sleeping on the beach. With our funds running low, we searched for a cheap room and found one over a liquor store less than a mile from the ocean. When the liquor store owner opened the door to the room, we saw the chalk outline of a person in the carpet in the center of the room.

image

“Haven’t had time to shampoo the rug,” the man said. “But he’s long gone.”

Since police don’t normally draw chalk outlines around heart attack or stroke victims, we assumed that the man had died via nefarious means.

Turns out that the chalk outline wasn’t so bad. The enormous cockroach that we found in the bathroom was far more terrifying.

Posted in Autobiography | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Star Wars is nothing without the music

Posted in Film | Tagged | Leave a comment

Procrastination: Are the resulting lower grades really all that bad?

A new study suggests that students who turn in homework at the last minute get worse grades.

Of the 777 students involved, 86.1 percent waited until the last 24 hours to turn in work, earning an average score of 64.04, compared to early submitters’ average of 64.32 — roughly equivalent to a ‘B’ grade.

But the average score for the most part continued to drop by the hour, and those who turned in the assignment at the last minute had the lowest average grade of around 59, or around a C+.

It’s a bit of a no brainer and something that a reasonable person might have accurately assumed absent this research, but I think a more important question remains unanswered:

Are the procrastinators learning less?

image

I am a strong advocate of purposeful procrastination in all non-critical tasks. If I report is due to my boss on Friday, I will wait until the last possible moment to begin working on it, filling my time in between with more meaningful and enjoyable tasks. Being constantly concerned with the prospect of death, the last thing I want to do is spend my final day on Earth completing something mundane or ultimately unnecessary that I could’ve been done three days later.

Many think that factoring in the possibility of death into my to-do list is fairly insane, but those critics will die someday, and it will probably be on a crisp, September day that they spent sorting receipts for next year’s taxes.  

As a purposeful procrastinator, I’m left wondering if the procrastinators in this study who are turning in work at the last moment and achieving slightly lower grades are actually learning less, or are their grades merely a reflection of a rushed effort that contains all of the learning required but less polish?

And if so, do these lower grades actually matter? If the procrastinators and the non-procrastinators are equal in their learning, do the slightly higher grades of the non-procrastinators yield a greater number of job offers? Higher starting salaries? More rapid advancement?

In most cases, I don’t think so.

I’d also love to see the differences in happiness between procrastinators and non-procrastinators. In my admittedly biased and anecdotal experience, the procrastinators of the world seem to be a more relaxed and less anxious group of people. They seem to handle stress and uncertainty better. They appear to be less concerned with the opinions of others. They are not the ardent people-pleasers that aggressive completionists tend to be.

Don’t get me wrong. All procrastination is not good. Allowing your laundry to reach the point that you must devote an entire day to it is probably not a good idea. Waiting until the last minute to write your novel will probably result in a poor effort. Forgoing your oil change for another 5,000 miles is not a wise decision.

But a fairly innocuous college assignment?

Maybe the slightly lower grade isn’t such a bad thing if you fill the time that you spend procrastinating with something that is meaningful or joyful or more valuable.

And perhaps the process of completing the assignment at the last minute has its benefits as well. By purposefully procrastinating, maybe a person learns to manage stress better. Focus more effectively. Handle uncertainty with greater deftness.

This is the kind of research that I would like to see. 

Posted in Productivity Tip, Quandry, Science | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The tyranny of the syllabus

I know a handful of college professors personally. I know a handful more via Facebook and Twitter. I have known many, many more throughout the years. Right around this time of the year, the discussions about their fabled syllabi begin to appear, both in real life and on social media.

Their comments can usually be boiled down into the following statements:

  • I am working on my syllabus.
  • I feel angst about my syllabus.
  • The work that I’m doing on my syllabus is complex and time consuming.
  • I am proud of the work that I have done on my syllabus.

As a teacher, I find this never-ending conversation about syllabi both amusing and disturbing.

image

Let’s start off with the dirty little secret of higher education:

Professors are not teachers. The great majority of them have almost no formal training and have never studied the art and science of teaching. They are experts in their specific fields of study, and if their students are lucky, they have received a modicum of training from the college or university where they teach (usually a week or two before the semester begins), but for the most part, they do not have any actual teaching certification, scholarship, or meaningful training.

This is not to say that their instruction is ineffective.

However, in many cases, it is highly ineffective. I have attended classes at six different institutions of higher learning, and I have met many professors who are experts in their field of study and utterly inept in the classroom.

Thankfully, I have also been taught by professors who are incredible teachers, too. For the most part, I suspect that these people possessed many of the innate qualities of an excellent teachers long before they entered the classroom. I also suspect that these professors have chosen to study the art and science of teaching with the same vigilance and rigor as they study in their field of expertise.

These people are teachers disguised as professors. They are highly effective, oftentimes inspiring, and sometimes life changing.

Unfortunately, they are too few in number.

Which bring me back to the syllabus:

The carefully designed plan for the entire semester. The source of both angst and pride of so many professors and students.

Also one of the most disastrous and ridiculous documents in the field of education.

The syllabus represents a professors plan for instruction for the course of approximately four months. It is disseminated to students at the beginning of the semester, and in most cases, it is adhered with rigor and fidelity. Due dates are predetermined and enforced. Readings are assigned and expected to be completed by the date indicated. Lectures and coursework is paced in accordance with the schedule set forth. Everything that students will be doing over the course of the semester is listed in clear, explicit language.

Ask a teacher to teach using a similar plan and he or she would laugh you right out of the classroom.

At its most fundamental level, teaching is a process that requires engaging instruction, ongoing assessment, constant differentiation, and relentless adjustment.

A syllabus is the antithesis of this. It represents uniformity. It dictates a predetermined pathway for instruction. It sets expectations that apply to all students, regardless of talent or ability. It predetermines precisely how long a group of learners will pursue a particular topic.

This is, of course, ludicrous. This is not teaching.

An example:    

My hope may be to finish reading Macbeth with my fifth grade students by September 28. That is my plan, and I have communicated it to them (though being fifth graders, I’m sure that most don’t remember this). But if my students don’t understand certain concepts in the play or are incredibly enthusiastic about the text or ask unexpected and surprising questions or despise Lady Macbeth with every fiber of their being, that September 28 deadline could easily drift forward or backward.

I will assess understanding and enthusiasm and adjust accordingly.

This is the essence of good teaching.

I will also adjust my instruction based upon my students’ individual needs. I will seek to understand those differing levels of ability and differentiate instruction based upon my students’ specific skill levels.

Nothing is static. There is no four month plan, because there can be no four month plan. I work with human beings. Not widgets. 

My plan is to study four Shakespearean plays before our winter break. That number may increase or decrease based upon any number of factors.

My students may be so thoroughly enthralled with tragedies that I decide to skip the comedies entirely. Or at least delay them until the spring. 

A graphic novel of Macbeth may be released that I decide to add to our study. Or a film. Or a play at a local theater. Or a student-created puppet show.

Any number of factors will alter content.

This is what teaching is all about. Engaging instruction and relentless adjustment.

But this is how many, and perhaps most, college classes are typically taught. The syllabus determines the what and when.

In a college classroom, assessment rarely drives instruction. The syllabus drives instruction. Assessment is used for determining grades. It does not determine which students require additional instruction. It does not signal to professors that their students require additional time or increased levels of challenge in order to achieve their greatest academic potential. 

“Greatest academic potential” is a state that all teachers seek for their students. But in order to achieve this state (or even strive towards it), a teacher must constantly monitor, assess, adjust, and differentiate.

I have almost never seen this process take place in a college classroom. 

Rarely is work at a college level differentiated. Despite obvious differences in the backgrounds and abilities of students, instruction is delivered to all students at the same time in the same way.

In college, differentiation is not done in the classroom. It is not handled through instruction. It is parceled out in 15-30 minute chunks known as office hours.

To an actual teacher, this is insanity.

I believe that it’s this relentless march though the syllabus that has led to the rise of online learning and MOOCs. Rather than acting as teachers, professors have presented themselves as content delivery systems. They set forth a plan and adhere to it, lecturing, assigning grades, and marching through their semester regardless of circumstance. 

You will read about Subject X before Monday. I will lecture about Subject X on Monday. We will engage in a class discussion. You will write a paper on Subject X, which is due the following Monday. I will assign you a numerical score based upon your adherence to a rubric that I have determined.

What about the student who struggled with the reading?

What about the student who was not challenged by the reading?

What about the class who does not find Subject X nearly as engrossing as you do?

What about the class that wants to spend another week discussing Subject X?

As a teacher and a former college student, I would like to see the college syllabus become more of an approximate plan for the semester, with fairly rigid timelines in place only in two week increments.

“Here is what we will be doing this week and next. It includes the readings and assignments. We’ll see how it goes. Then we’ll figure out the next two weeks. Because we are learners. Not robots.”

Teachers do not speak of their curriculum or lesson plans with nearly the same consternation or affection as a college professor does his or her syllabus because the teacher knows that curriculum and lesson plans are great until class begins. Then the real teaching starts.

As German general Helmuth Von Moltke said:

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

image

A majority of college professors do not subscribe to this belief. They encounter the enemy (their students) and march forward, regardless of obstacle or resistance. 

Follow the syllabus. Administer the tests. Finish the semester. Ignore the wounded who litter the battlefield.

This is not teaching. It’s content delivery.

It’s a damn shame.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

My children visited a bookstore on the last day of summer. Their behavior was shocking.

We spent the last day of summer on the Connecticut shoreline. Among our choice of activities was a visit to our favorite bookstore, R.J. Julia in Madison, Connecticut.

image 

Elysha and I once spent hours in bookstores, but when our children entered our lives, that changed. We tried for a while to do some tag-team parenting.  One parent relaxes while the other stops the monsters from ripping every book off the shelf.

It wasn’t fun.

But something happened on that last day of summer. I brought the kids upstairs to the children’s section of the bookstore, and within a minute, with no intervention on my part, this happened:

image image

Not only did they plop themselves down and start reading, but they remained this way for a full 30 minutes.

Just imagine how much better it will be when they can actually read!

I probably couldn’t leave them unattended and descend to the adult section, but while my wife browsed below, I browsed the children’s section, which I sort of love anyway. I’ve written a few picture books that I am hoping to  eventually sell, and I missed out on these books as a child, so I still have lots of catching up to do. 

Even if this weren’t the case, this is a huge improvement over chasing them around, shushing them, and returning strewn books to the shelves.

This is good.

There is hope for the future.

Posted in Books, Family, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My best piece of parenting advice

It takes a special and exceedingly wise breed of parent to ignore a temper tantrum like this and instead retrieve the camera and document the moment for posterity.

My wife is that kind of parent. She gets it.

image

I have a great deal of parenting advice to offer. Most people think that I am full of bluster and hubris. You probably do, too.

But I believe that my 16 years of teaching experience, in combination with my experience raising a former stepdaughter to the age of 16 and my two own children has given me wisdom that would prove valuable to anyone willing to listen.

Few admittedly do.

A colleague recently suggested to a parent that she ask me for advice on a childrearing issue. The person laughed. So did two other people at the table. The notion that I could have anything useful to offer was ludicrous in their minds. 

Regardless, this photo of Charlie’s tantrum reminded me of my best piece of parenting advice that I have to offer:

Don’t become emotionally attached to your child’s poor decision making, regardless of their age. If your two year-old son is having a tantrum because he isn’t getting what he wants, that’s his deal. You can help him process his emotions and calm down, but the fact that he is having a tantrum should not impact you emotionally.

It’s not about you. 

Instead, ignore the tantrum and take a photo. Capture the moment for future blackmail.

Posted in Parenting | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Just like his mom. And his dad, actually.

Our son, Charlie, spent the evening cooking dinner with Elysha. He spends most of this time demanding his mother’s attention and hanging on her legs, so involving him in the cooking was a great way to keep him from getting underfoot.

He loved it.

They made chicken nuggets, breading them in Cornflakes.

It occurred to me that as much as he reminded me of his mother while cooking alongside her, I have made my own share of chicken nuggets, too.

Tens of thousands of them, at least, during my tenure at McDonald’s.

His chicken nuggets were probably admittedly more nutritious than any chicken nugget I ever made.

image image

Posted in Family, Food and Drink | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment