Being a Good Sports Fan

I’ve come across some very annoying sports fans. We all recognize the type: opinionated, unwilling to take gainsaying, trash-talking, loud, obnoxious. I’ve heard it said that the modern sports fandom is a socially sanctioned way to express the fanaticism and warrior-like need to denigrate an opponent that in past centuries would have been reserved to the battlefield in defense of ones homeland.

Whether that’s true is debatable, but I would like to posit a way to be a sports fan that is centered on camaraderie, tactical enjoyment, and constructive support of ones team. I’ll be sticking to football (soccer, for the Americans) as that’s the sport with which I have the most familiarity, though I imagine this would work equally well across other sports.

Picking a Team

There is no one approach here, but frequently we inherit the team we support from a family member or a group of friends. For example, my father has been a Bayern Munich supporter since he was seven. Naturally, whenever we watched the Bundesliga together when I was growing up, I too supported Bayern and do to this day. In middle school, most of my close friends were Manchester United supporters, so it was not hard to make that my Premier League team—though I had lived in England, I’d never even been to Manchester. I’ve supported Manchester United since seventh grade, whether they’re winning under Sir Alex Ferguson or going through a series of very lean, often disappointing, transition years.

Those with a more stationary upbringing than my own are likely to support their local team. I sometimes envy the passion and genuine connection supporters of much smaller teams have, not only because of family or friend connections, but because that’s the team that plays in a stadium down the road. That level of fandom is closed to me, but I admire the strength of the fan support they have.

Whatever way a fan comes to their team, one should support them whether they are winning or losing. Support doesn’t mean blind allegiance; it can entail criticism. But it also means not jumping ship to another team at the first sign of trouble. Whether they’re not playing well, whether the owners have a bad transfer strategy, or the coach is a jerk, we keep supporting our team.

Watching Games

Being a fan means watching games, either in a stadium or on TV. And that means in their entirety, not just the highlights. It means not just following the players’ instagram accounts, buying the newest kit, and smack-talking the opposition fans. Spending time and enjoyment in taking in the actual games is paramount.

And that’s not just for when my team is playing. Yes, I feel a closer investment when watching Bayern, Man United, or the German National team. But watching other teams play can be just as rewarding. There is a freeing relaxation in knowing that I can simply watch skilled players without being in any way invested in the outcome of the game.

This can lead to an understanding of the underlying frameworks of the game. My wife likes to joke that when she watches football with me, it just seems like a bunch of sweaty men chasing a ball across the grass. But with the investment of time and many years of joyful watching, I see much more. I can tell what a team is doing well, which players are pulling their team along, where the coach may have made a tactical mistake in setting up the team formation. This understanding brings a deeper appreciation when watching and makes the successes that much more satisfying.

The Opposition

It can be hard for some fans to remember that those who support another team (even a rival) have the same passion for the same sport. There is even the false sense of accomplishment that comes when an opponent loses even if it is to another team.

It took me numerous years (and watching a lot of Premier League games with the Varsity coach at the school I teach at) to understand that that’s not necessary. My support for my team does not hinge on bashing or belittling another team or its supporters. Among close friends, a little joking can be lively, but I’ve met enough fans—unfortunately a lot of Manchester United fans—that seem more bent on tearing down the opposition than supporting their own team.

The truth is, I can appreciate watching good football regardless of who is playing. I’m a big fan of Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool coach. I do not support Liverpool as a fan, but I very much look forward to watching their games because I like how Klopp engages with his players, am very impressed by Mohammed Salah, and am entertained by their football. The same can be said for others coaches, players, and teams.

Once I realized this, my enjoyment of watching all football increased significantly. I can talk to fans of Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, or other teams and genuinely engage in the conversations of how their teams are doing well, where they are struggling, and what new players they might bring in. And I find that those fans are then much more willing to discuss the teams I support in an even-handed way. We have great conversations that aren’t simply about which team is better but as people who love the same sport, even if it is through different teams.

Play the Sport

I’ve never been very athletic. The day of the mile run in middle school was usually my least favorite day of the school year. I have almost no hand-eye coordination and short of having pretty good balance, anything that requires physical prowess is hard for me to be good at.

Yet I love playing football. I’m not very good, never made a team, and was usually one of the last people chosen in a pick-up game. But I’ve been playing for years, first on the dead-end street where my family lived in Nairobi, then some intramural games in college, and now a weekly game at my school. And in over two decades of playing, I can say I’ve gotten a bit better. But I’ll never be a great player.

It’s easy to criticize the football players through the screen and imagine that we could do it better. We can play through all sorts of scenarios in our heads of what we’d do on the field, but when we actually get there, it is significantly harder. Those fans that have been in stadiums and watched the professional athletes up close will recognize the sheer level of athleticism that they inhabit. The least significant player in the lowest team in the Premier League would stand head and shoulders above anyone on a high school varsity team. But that’s doesn’t always translate through the screen. Playing the game can give us a more accurate perspective of what is actually happening on the field.

We should enjoy the sport. Enjoy watching it, playing it, talking about it. And that should come from a place of genuine investment not a misguided sense of antagonism.

A Jens By Any Other Name

My first name is incredibly common and yet most people I meet have never heard it or know how to pronounce it. I guess my parents wanted me to experience the double benefits of having a recognizable name and also deal with the constant battle of teaching others how to say it correctly.

Jens is prevalent not only in Denmark, where it originates, but also in Germany, where I originate. There have been a few well-known Jenses out there, most notably the German goalkeeper who played for Arsenal for a number of years. So at least most Premier League watchers of a certain age have heard of someone with my name. Why Germans insist on using Jens, instead of the German form of the name—Johannes—I’ll never know. I guess I could ask my parents. Maybe it’s because there are so many Johanneses in Germany, and we wouldn’t want to be mixed in with that lot.

In fact, most of the versions of my name are quite common in their countries. Go to Spain or Latin America, and you’ll find a lot of Juans. Go to Russia or Eastern Europe and you’ll find Ivan’s everywhere. And in English, of course, the name is John. See, very common, like a potato dish in a German restaurant. Perhaps my parents knew that I would grow up and live in so many countries and cultures that having a name that was both common and uncommon would aptly represent both my sense of belonging in many places and simultaneously my perennial observer status.

I think it’s the ‘J’ that trips people up most. In German, the ‘J’ almost always only appears at the beginning of a word and then it makes a ‘Y’ sound. (What does a ‘Y’ sound like in German, I hear you ask? We don’t really use it, so stop asking.) So no, it’s not ‘Gens’ or ‘Gents’. Occasionally it’s not the ‘J’, but the straight forward parts that become the stumbling block. ‘Ee-ahns’, ‘Yenz’, even a ‘Yonse’. My wife came up with perhaps the best pronunciation guide: “starts with a ‘y’ and rhymes with ‘fence’ not ‘lens’”. Good thing she gets my name right or I’d start to really question who I was.

For a few years, right before and after moving to the US for university, I went by Jimmy. It was just easier. No need to spell my name after every introduction, no need to have the ‘J = Y’ conversation, and especially no need to answer the “Cool name, where are you from? You sound American” non-questions. But besides my American accent and uncanny ability to blend into social situations, I didn’t need yet another thing about me that would connect me to a culture and place that wasn’t really my own. I slowly went back to introducing myself as Jens and so reclaiming the paradox of common yet uncommon that has defined so much of my experience.

Because I realized that it is actually a name with profound meaning. I’d sometimes wonder what it was like to have an easy-to-pronounce name, or a really unique one. But most of all, I thought about those names that carry inherent meaning and what sort of certainty that must embody: to walk through life carrying a name of purpose, identity, and definition. Did I consider looking up what Jens/Johannes/John meant? Nope—not sure why that didn’t occur to me until a few years ago.

Johannes comes from the Greek, ‘Ioannes’, which in turn comes from the Hebrew ‘Yochanan’. (See, the ‘Y’ sound is right after all.) There are more books in the Bible named after that guy than any other; I can just see the Apostle John getting to the end of his life, writing down Revelation and debating with God on what it should be called: ‘Can we call it the Second Gospel of John? What about John 2? John Returns?’ That’s about what you’d expect from one of the sons of thunder.

I’ve always felt drawn to John’s gospel before the other three, probably because it starts with a cryptic passage about ‘the Word’ and I like books and stories. But it also is less literal, more interpretive, and written specifically to also include those outside of the Jewish culture. One of its aims was to encompass the entire world, to shine light out rather than to hold it in. That resonates not only with my experience but with how I think everyone should live: shine out light, goodness, kindness and compassion, rather than holding it in.

When I finally looked up what my name meant, I felt a sense of profound peace:

God is Gracious.

That little phrase encapsulates so much of my 32 years in this world. It reminds me to be grateful, it enlightens the darker moments, it shows me the goodness of God in every situation. Above all, it points to my worth despite the paradox of having a name that is common/uncommon.

And it’s a kick in the pants when I get needlessly grumpy. Especially about having to coach someone through the ‘Y’ sound for the third time.

De-grading the AP Lit classroom

One of the first things I tell new students that come into my classroom each year is that I don’t care about grades. For years, I’ve worked to de-emphasize grades and so hopefully to promote learning. It works for some students, while others never quite get beyond that need for validation from a number/letter that doesn’t really sum up their learning.

Last year, I realized I need to put my money where my mouth is (metaphorically, of course) and figure out how to actually teach in a such a way that I don’t use grades at all. With a dear friend and colleague, I embarked on a several month long journey of research, discussion, and initial tinkering to implement a workable way to teach my AP Literature class without assigning grades to any of the individual assignments.

After this preparation, I’m finally starting it. As of the last two weeks, I’ve introduced the concept to my 10 AP Lit students for the year, have approval from my principal, and have begun this journey in which we focus on what we’re learning, trying again when we don’t get it the first time, and hopefully changing mindsets of what education can look like.

I chose the AP Literature class for a variety of reasons for this experiment. I first stumbled on this idea by hearing from other AP Literature teachers that have used this approach successfully. It showed me that it is possible because it has worked. These are also seniors, most of whom have taken a previous AP class and all of whom have chosen to be here. That evidences a level of investment in the course that isn’t shared by all students in some of my other classes. Finally, as much as I downplay the importance of the AP exam at the end of the year, it does give us a benchmark by which to measure ourselves at the end of the year, an immovable task that we’re working towards.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of this strategy to teaching the class will be our approach to failure. I hope to see in both myself and my students a different philosophy of risk-taking. I’ll be honest and admit that this is somewhat intimidating; I’ve done my research, I’ve prepared as best I can, I’m reasonably confident that this will go well. And yet, trying this is a risk. What if it just doesn’t work? And yet, if I’m not willing to try something new, launch into an untested space, how can I expect my students to? I want them to try a new style of writing, to risk a novel approach on an assignment, to be free to attempt an unknown task with joy and abandon. So frequently student’s avoid the risk because we punish failure with a poor grade.

And that poor grade affects their entire experience of success for the year. Talk to the student that bombed one quiz in September and spends the rest of the semester trying to bring their overall grade back up. In this new way of teaching, an initial failure is never held against a student. It’s just an encouragement to try again, perhaps several times. And that mindset will take some time to settle in. After over a decade of having numbers/letters associated with their academic work, it’s hard to shift gears and see learning as an opportunity for success rather than a way to divert failure.

I told my AP students that we’d be doing a short quiz on some figures of speech, just to make sure we’re all starting the year on the same page. I want them to know the terms, their definitions, and most importantly to recognize them in a work when they see them. They heard the word ‘quiz’ and I saw them shrink back, their defenses coming up right away, asking questions about how long the quiz would be, when we would do it, and how much it would effect…and then it dawned on them. If they don’t get it right away, they just try again until they get it. No grade, just learning until they’ve mastered the content. And I watched the tension drain from them in a freeing moment.

That’s exactly how I hope this year goes. I want the tension, stress, anxiety, and concerns of learning to slowly diminish as they discover that their learning, their growth, their love of reading, their struggles with writing, and their worth as a human do not in any way hang on a number or letter.

I’ll likely be writing about this a few more times over the course of the year as we discover what works, what doesn’t, and how we’re growing into a different way of looking at learning.

Additional reading — this is one of the articles that first launched me on this path: https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/degrading-de-grading/

The Sin of Making Academic Success into an Idol

It would be futile to try and count the sheer multitude of assignments I have completed purely to get the grade. I’ve written elsewhere about how I wasn’t really that great of a student when I was in school (I Was Not a Good Student) and my attitude towards learning stemmed mostly from my view of Academic Success as the end-line of the race after having successfully managed to overcome the hurdles of assignments, tests, classes, and degrees. One hurdle down, chug to the next—jump—and keep running. Rarely did I ask myself what I was running towards, what these hurdles were that I was jumping over, and what the overall purpose of the race was.

In my years of teaching, I’ve encountered students all along the spectrum of sleepily apathetic to diligently studious. And yet, only occasionally do I teach students with a pure desire to learn. Academic Success and education/learning are by no means the same thing. Getting the grade or passing the class is not the same as having learned something. So frequently we’ve set up a system (teachers, schools, parents, peers) in which we enculture students towards ‘Academic Success’ and so actually rob them of a desire to learn, educate themselves, and grow into multi-faceted adults.

The altar of Academic Success is adorned with the bright accumulation of class awards, stickers, high GPAs and glowing recommendation letters. Students sacrifice countless hours that should have been spent asleep in memorizing the rote liturgy they must perform on the next day’s exam. The sins of sloth, friendship, childhood innocence, and rest are cast out of the holy classroom which demands serious and mediated worship.

Students frequently feel shamed into obedience and working harder, are driven to cheating not because it helps them learn but because by getting a few percentage points higher they hope to somehow redeem themselves from feelings of academic inferiority. Some get very good at ignoring the guilt they feel when procrastinating, and others revel in the short-lived divine ecstasy of the report card covered in A+s.

And then it all begins again, this unholy merry-go-round of offering up their essence and being to the glowing shrine of Academic Success. Does it work? Have they learned anything? What, if anything, does that transcript, that diploma represent? Academic Success?

I may have gotten a tad carried away there with my hyperbolic use of religious language (which I’ve also helpfully underlined so as to club you over the head with it). In attempting to be obvious, and presenting a caricature of ‘Academic Success’ I hope to get us thinking about what happens in classrooms a bit differently than we sometimes do. So why the religious imagery?

Religion, as I’ve portrayed it above, has almost nothing to do with faith, personal belief, spirituality, or the many ways that so many people daily embody these things. Instead, these images are meant to convey the oftentimes unhealthy, legalistic, manipulative, and shaming aspects of religion at its worst. As a person of deep faith and as I dedicated and invested educator, I hope that the distinctions start to become clear. When we strip the core out of something and leave only a rigid framework supporting worn-out rituals performed without meaning and use platitudes to corral those that stray, we’re no longer serving the true purpose of that house of worship but have supplanted it with a hollow idolatry.

So when we talk about Academic Success, what do we mean? Is it the same as when we talk about the value of a good education? When we preach about being ‘life-long learners’, is it truly about continually being open to new ideas, recognizing that our educational journey will never be over, and that no diploma or report card can ever capture the learning that has taken place?

Most importantly, what can we as teacher and students do in the classroom so that what happens there is done in pursuit of knowledge, learning, and true education instead of in service to the enslaving idol of success?

I’ve been a part of many healthy, thriving, and holy faith communities. Similarly, I believe that the classroom can escape the trappings of simulated academic success and rise to the level of true learning, expressed with joy, laughter, sincere questioning, curiosity, and changes in thinking. I haven’t been teaching for that long, so I’m still figuring out how to foster this type of authentic learning; I have some ideas and I hope to keep trying (and occasionally failing) to make my classroom that type of space.

Students and educators: if you have any suggestions, let me know. I’d love to hear your experiences of what worked, what didn’t, and how we can all learn better.

Consume Post-Apocalypic Literature

In times like these, we should all consume more post-apocalyptic literature. This thought has been circling my mind the last few weeks and in examining its origin, I found it rooted in my lack of immediate concern surrounding the current situation. As street and foot traffic slow significantly, store-shelves are emptied, and panic sweeps from media to ear to mouth, I realize that I’ve seen this all before. And so I’m not only mentally more prepared, but can cope with the strangeness of these times.

Literature shows us the world. It exposes us to stories, places, characters that are different from ourselves. Particularly speculative fiction has the quality of estrangement, distancing the reader from their own world, showing them another world, and then allowing them back. And on that return journey, many of us carry back lessons, ideas, themes, feelings, and even hopes into our own realities.

I’ve brought a lot of those back with me from my post-apocalyptic wanderings and find that they help to focus and direct my thoughts now.

In rereading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a few months ago, I had no idea what was coming. The sparse punctuation, the bleak landscape, and almost purposeless plodding stood in stark contrast to my own vibrant surroundings. Yet as this father and son journey, as they continue to have the same conversations over again, each assuring the other that there is purpose, I took away the importance of having something to live for. Having purpose, future, a plan, a goal, and even a potentially impossible destination make life worth living.

The other morning I finished rereading Richard Matheson’s novella I am Legend. I tend to disregard the film (the recent one—haven’t seen the older ones) as it upends Matheson’s narrative goals entirely. Feeling with Robert Neville as he combats the loneliness of being the last man alive is a haunting experience. He too leans into purpose, but ultimately he is left to reflect on the source of his motivations and why he allows his convictions to drive him. He is forced to reexamine his beliefs about societal structure and his realization at the end is powerful and poignant in a way that only Matheson can deliver.

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, having come out only a few years ago, is eerily prescient now. Yet the beauty of not only her writing but the descriptions and interactions overshadow the horrific events. There is beauty beyond catastrophe. Eventually, there are new norms that begin to congeal into a new reality. And those things that make us human, those live on as well.

Parable of the Sower by the sadly departed Octavia Butler is similarly insightful and forward looking. No plague, no war, just the slow decay of decent values and the ever tightening vise of corporatism slowly devolve the world around Lauren Olamina into chaos and ever greater change. And as she goes out from what used to be a safe community on the journey of growth and discovery, she continually affirms the value of compassion, of sticking together, of caring for others in community, and embracing change when it comes.

In rewatching ‘The Book of Eli’ the other night, I was reminded of why I love the film so much. It went beyond the tropes of bleak, dilapidated towns, blighted landscape, and anarchistic struggle. Eli walked by faith, not by sight; his determination not to let religion be used as a way to control people but instead as a daily light, to be lived out in each moment, is inspiring and humbling. May we all see the world as he does.

So what will our rainbow be? When the floodwaters subside and we step out of our cocoons, what will remind us to have hope? How do we hold onto our greatest values, the power of compassion, and the beautiful parts of humanity? Reading or watching post-apocalyptic fiction shows us the way. The real struggle is within us, and if we win that war, we’ll come out the better for it.

The Beautiful Game

We walked into the pub late that July afternoon in 2014. Even though it looked mostly empty, my dad and I were told all tables had been reserved but that there were to places left at the bar. We’d been walking for a while and each locale told the same story: small reservation signs, large screens and projectors, and a plethora of black, red, gold.

The stools at the bar would do, and so we waited beside two English gentlemen who were visiting Germany. By the time 9pm rolled around, the pub was packed to the rafters, as was every other in Berlin. The whistle sounded and Germany kicked off against Argentina at the biggest single sporting event on the planet.

France ‘98 was the first time I really took any notice of football. I vaguely remember Germany winning the Euro in ‘96, but other than a few images of watching football in a darkened room, it’s all gone. We’d moved to Kenya in ‘97 and I distinctly remember the day my dad brought the very boxy black television into the house. I don’t recall us ever owning a TV before that, mostly because we’d moved around quite frequently. He said, “We can’t have a World Cup without a TV.” And so it began.

I remember buying huge quantities of bubble gum; each piece came with a small picture of a football player and my brother, friends, and I were trying to collect as many as we could. All of my Kenyan friends were rooting for Nigeria, Germany lost to Croatia, and there was Zinedine Zidane. It was through watching him play that I first recognized there was something more to football than, as my wife says, “some sweaty men running across the grass chasing a ball.” Zidane always knew where the ball was and it wanted to do his bidding. He was magnificent.

With each successive tournament, I cared a little bit more. We used to play on our street in Nairobi, using shoes and rocks as goalposts and climbing over gates to retrieve mis-kicked balls. I wasn’t every any good, but I loved playing anyway. Someone usually had a ball, though occasionally we’d fashion one out of newspaper, plastic bags and string. I tried out for the school team once, but even the JV team was way out of my reach.

The ‘06 World Cup in Germany was my first experience of how football not only brings a country together, but the entire world. I’d never seen so many German flags; the excitement was palpable in ever tiny town. When Germany scored, the cheering echoed across the land and when they won a game, half the country hopped into their cars, driving in long processions, honking and waving flags. A close friend, my dad and I traveled to Berlin for the end of the tournament. We sat in the ZDF arena at the Sony center, watching Germany lose to Italy while the great Pele stood not 10 meters away lending his expertise to the analysts (including a young Jürgen Klopp). My friend and I went to the Berlin fan-mile at the Brandenburger Tor for the game against Portugal; us and half a million crazy fans cheering on an amazing Schweinsteiger performance, yelling ourselves hoarse and getting beer sloshed onto our pants.

Football has a way of uniting. It truly is a global sport, with fans and leagues across the planet. Tiny villages in the rural extremes of underdeveloped countries have little kids kicking around a ball. People gather around tiny television sets or a rusty radio when their team is playing and youngsters dream of emulating their heroes.

Much of the beauty of the game is in its diversity. Sure, it’s got its bigots, buts lets not focus on them. Football is a truly universal sport, where players from across the world play together and against each other equally. It, more than any other, is a human sport. At its best, it reminds us that differences are negligible and there is more we have in common with people from distant parts of the globe than we may have thought.

A love of football can create an instant bond between vastly different people. You might have little else in common, speak different languages, and still fall into each others arms at the final whistle of a world cup game. Because there’s something special about the beautiful game that goes beyond just kicking a ball across meticulously manicured grass. Football can unite the world; it’s not just tactics, fancy moves, and slick passing. It’s about recognizing the same goal, a common humanity, the value of working together, and singing encouragement.

Guest Post: Lindsey Duncan

This month, I have the honor of hosting my friend Lindsey Duncan, who just published her most recent novel Scylla and Charybdis. I asked her how it is different from her other works and what drew her to writing speculative fiction in general. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I’ve ordered my copy and am eagerly awaiting its arrival.

 

Lindsey Duncan: Thanks for inviting me to talk about my newly released science fiction novel, Scylla and Charybdis, and other things writerly!  The big thing that separates Scylla and Charybdis from my other works is an obvious one:  the genre, or specifically the subgenre.  I write plenty of speculative fiction, but mostly on the fantasy side.  It’s my comfort zone, my home base.  Worldbuilding is something I can do both in-depth (for novels) and sleight-of-hand fake (for short stories).  I do write the occasional science fiction story, but since the hard sciences are not my forte, I’ve stayed in the short fiction realms where I can gloss over the seams.

Scylla and Charybdis started as a short story, in fact.  It ends on a cliffhanger:  which of two problematic societies will Anaea choose to live in, when there is no good choice?  At the time, I thought it was a complete narrative.  Editors, however, thought differently.  I received quite a few positive rejections, but the underlying theme was, “This is the opening of a novel, not a short story.”

So it went into the archives.  And stayed there for a few years until I was hunting for a new novel project.  I approached it with some trepidation.  And I fell back on one thing that was in my comfort zone:  the worldbuilding.  I was dealing with future history and planetary details, but it was the same principle.  I filled in details of axial tilt, sun size, planet climate, etc, not because I intended to use them, but because their hidden framework would help prevent me from making assumptions /  mistakes that a “real” science fiction author wouldn’t have to think about.  And even in unfamiliar terrain, it was a lot of fun.

I don’t think I ever consciously chose to write science fiction and fantasy.  I’ve been writing since I was a tiny thing and dictating stories or struggling upon a typewriter.  My mother bribed me to practice cursive by suggesting I write a story about the denizens of a castle.  As I continued to write, I dabbled in stories without speculative elements, but they never really kept my interest.  And in the end, why choose?  A fantasy or science fiction story can also be any other kind of tale.  Why not write a romance … and add dragons?  Why not write a mystery … and add magic?  (Actually, there’s a good reason why not:  it makes things much harder.  When magic can potentially commit a crime, conceal a crime or solve a crime, the rules of magic have to be very clear from the outset.  But I enjoy a challenge.)

For the matter of that, every story plot is, in a sense, a mystery:  what will happen to the character(s)?  Will they get what they want?  How?  And just like a mystery, the author has to abide by (a version of) the rules of fair play.  Complications, resolutions and twists all have to be based on what comes before, and the reader has to have some chance (however slight) to follow the threads.

I’m particularly fascinated by the idea of a fantasy mystery … not a contemporary detective and world with fantastic elements, but a secondary world (non-Earth) fantasy setting in which an investigator – formally trained or spontaneously stumbled into the role – follows a murder.  The novel I’m currently editing, Unnatural Causes, tackles this concept as a mage’s familiar and apprentice attempt to unravel the circumstances surrounding her death.

One of the best things about being a speculative fiction writer is that the world is full of entertainment.  You can never quite take anything at face value again.  Phrases and metaphors become literal.  I wonder if I could write a story where it rains men?  What would that society be like?  Yes, it’s a silly example, but that’s one of my favorite things to do:  take a premise that sounds comic or absurd, and turn it into a serious story.  But at least for me, pieces of history, news stories, even jokes and commercials inevitably get me wondering:  what happens next?  How else could this play out?  What if …

I wish I could say that means I’m never bored.  Unfortunately, it seems to mean that it takes more for me to be fully occupied.  My brain doesn’t slow down or hold still, at least not for long.  I typically have multiple projects going at the same time, though usually each is a different type / phase.  For instance, I might be writing a novel draft, editing a short story, and writing poetry as well.  My writing process needs a lot of incubation:  I develop projects on the backburner of my brain.  So being able to switch to something else is hugely helpful.

That probably also has some relevance to the other creative endeavors in my life.  Besides writing, I perform (and teach) the traditional lever harp, sometimes known as the Celtic harp … and my day job is as a chef / pastry chef in a catering operation.  Both of these require a lot of creative energy, but at different paces and in different ways.  My life is often intense and intensely busy.

When I was little, I dreamed of being a full-time writer.  Now, even if I were successful enough to quit my other work, I don’t think I would do it.  Having a life, especially a creative life, outside writing has made me a better writer, and continues to do so.   I suppose it’s the same impetus that made me a fantasy writer:  why choose when you can combine the best of both?

Thanks Lindsey. Check out her book here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07B54QJYL/

Also available here with free international shipping: https://www.bookdepository.com/Scylla-Charybdis-LINDSEY-DUNCAN/9781911497523?ref=grid-view&qid=1526645653615&sr=1-4

Scylla and Charbydis DIGITAL Cover

Why I Write in English

I’m asked with surprising frequency why I write in English instead of German. German is, after all, my mother tongue, the language I learned first.

Partly, it’s because most of my schooling was in English. I read mostly English books and my assignments were always written in English. I sometimes say that while German was my first language, English is my primary language. I’m surrounded by it more frequently, feel more comfortable expressing myself in it, and find my thoughts more naturally there.

In high school, I took AP German, which was my first exposure to German in a more formal setting. I spent most of the year learning the written conventions, but to this day, it still doesn’t come naturally. It takes about a week of being back in Germany before the right words pop up automatically rather than me having to dig through an old bin of dusty German words and phrases to find the appropriate one. I’m particularly caught off guard when suddenly required to speak German in my predominantly English setting. I guess my brain just doesn’t switch over that quickly.

Of course the switching goes both ways. After a weekend visiting extended family one summer, I had a really hard time giving my wife accurate directions in English as I’d spend so much time over the previous days speaking and hearing German.

But I think my desire and comfort writing in English goes beyond just common usage and familiarity. It’s a magnificently frustrating language and I’m very glad I learned it as a young child when we moved to England. I can’t imagine having to wrap my head around all of the exceptions; it either sounds right or it sounds wrong. And as I an English teacher, I can now usually tell you why (though not always). It’s a complex language to learn from scratch, so I definitely benefited from learning it early.

One of the reasons it’s such a muddy language is because of its very colorful and sometimes violent history. I really enjoyed taking an Introduction to Anglo Saxon course not too long ago. As I already spoke German and modern English, it was really fascinating to see the language in between. A lot of the grammar and pronunciation of Anglo Saxon is very similar to German, while quite a few of the words are recognizable from modern English. The language was more structured and organized back then. It didn’t start moving towards what it is today until the Norman conquest at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (Thanks, Mr. Schwandt).

With the Anglo Saxon as a sort of base, speared by some viking Norse, infused with the occasional Latin, and the French invasion, this new, wonderfully versatile, and rich language was born. And it’s not done changing yet. Even over just the last few hundred years it has morphed and expanded into so many different dialects across the world. I’m fascinated by how it mixes with other languages to form a sort of local fusion language, like Manglish, or Sheng.

Maybe it’s the vocabulary that offers so much variety. It’s hard to make a claim that English has the largest vocabulary, mainly because it’s difficult to make comparisons like that (see article below). But if not the largest, the vast ocean of English words available to a writer certainly stretches outward past the range of regular eyesight. I love looking up lists of words that have fallen out of common usage and trying to incorporate them into my writing (or launch them at unsuspecting students). Especially when writing poetry, it’s fantastic to have so many words to choose from, whether they fit better for the meter or have just the right shade of nuance.

Teachers often get the question: Why does English have so many words that mean the same thing?
They don’t. They are similar, but there are tiny shades of difference, and in a poem, those shades can make all the difference. Whether it’s the sound of the word, or connotation, or the way it plays with another word later in the sentence.

Perhaps it’s because I read so much in English. It reveals possibilities in style, usage, and tone that I hadn’t considered. The time I’ve spent exploring the literary greats of the English language has served to make me aware of the depths it contains. I can test out a word, a meaning, a sound, and know that it fits or that it’s not quite right.

Every year when my 11th graders get to do their poetry unit, I’m reminded of the treasures available.  First, I go through a few simple steps to help guide beginners with the poetry writing the process, then we spend some time outdoors just writing poetry. It helps to give them a framework so they’re not left staring at the blank lines on their lap. I always take the opportunity to write a poem or two myself and again discover the beauty and infinite possibilities that English offers to a writer.

https://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2010/06/counting_words

Resting

One perk of being a teacher is getting built-in rest times. It helps to make up for the exhausting hours put into our classrooms during the school weeks and the much needed breaks come like a breath of vibrant spring air.

Coming off a three-week Christmas break is a great time to reflect on the benefits of rest. We need rest daily – that’s why we sleep. Our bodies come with a function that requires us to lie down so that it can heal, recuperate, process, and grow. It’s no wonder that people who lack sleep begin to grow sick more easily and can suffer from other negative side-effects.

Similarly, we need rest from our work. I think God was on to something when He created the world and then rested, not because He was tired, but because rest allows for peace, reflection, and appreciation. We also need rest and whether that’s the smaller rest of a weekend or the longer rest of a break/vacation, our bodies and minds thank us afterwards.

I really enjoy baking and cooking, but find it hard to make the time or summon the energy once I’ve plopped myself down at home after a school day. Over the past few weeks I’ve made my traditional German Christmas goodies (mostly my grandmother’s recipes), roasted a duck, made Kartoffelpuffer (German potato pancakes) and apple sauce, and a passionfruit cheesecake. It’s so rewarding to eat food that has been labored over and cooked to personal taste and preference. It takes longer to make than to eat, but part of the joy is in the process.

We went away for a few days, spent time reading on the beach, played lots of board/card games and were able to spend quality time laughing and talking with friends. I cleansed out my fish tank and repopulated it with some new plants and seven angelfish; the hours of work required are easily forgotten when watching the new inhabitants exploring their domain.

I can’t lounge anymore. I did that quite a bit in high school, but somewhere in college I realized that the icky feeling I got at the end of a day doing nothing but watching movies or playing video games was in direct proportion to how little I had personally achieved that day. I learned to set goals for myself for breaks, even for individual days. These are often fun goals like baking or writing a short story or reading a certain amount of time. I get to the end of my day and know what I spent my hours on and that they helped me to rest and become a better person.

Breaks are a time for me to catch up on those things that haven’t been done. Whether that’s reconnecting with old friends, cleaning out the air-conditioner, or mentally processing events that have been pushed into a brain-drawer somewhere; it’s great to get to them, move past them, and feel like a person who is all in one place and time.

Angelfish

Teacher Autonomy and Classroom Atmosphere

I love my classroom. Despite the loose window latch, the occasional leak above the door, and the dipping of the floorboards under the carpet, there is not another room I would rather be teaching in. The walls are lined with bookshelves and quotes by inspirational authors. I’ve acquired the world’s most comfortable couch and a long table stretches across half the room, occupying a central place. The curtains can be drawn across the windows for film viewing and small lamps hidden in the recesses of some of the shelves allow me to turn of the overhead fluorescent lighting when it’s not needed.

This year I get to share a classroom with one of the math teachers, and I’ve really enjoyed it. Observing how the space is used differently in her math classes has opened my eyes to different possibilities and confirmed the importance of teacher autonomy in how a classroom is set up. It’s fun to see a portion of the spectrum within teaching, both across disciplines and teaching styles and also classroom utilization.

We had a middle school student walk in a number of weeks ago and observe that it was by far the best classroom in the school and then proceeded to ask whether that’s why we had to share it. Shortly thereafter, an alumna came back to visit and proceeded to explain that the room had a ‘literary-ness’ to it. The room exudes a sense of peace, calm, and quiet while promoting reading, discussion, and collaborative learning.

I think it is important to allow teachers to set up their own classrooms, put their individual stamp on a space and give them the opportunity and resources to really make it their own. I spent several weeks at the end of the last school year mentally rearranging the furniture, before I began to physically move it around. I like giving a variety of seating options and allowing students to choose their own place where they find they will learn best. Some like tables, some prefer their own desk, while others share the couch or the long table. I can always move a student if they make poor seating choices, but allowing students autonomy in where they sit is an extension of the autonomy I have over my classroom.

My 10th grade Honors English class begins every year reading Reginald Rose’s play 12 Angry Men. I have twelve volunteers seated around the long table, reading the parts out loud. The space, the arrangement of jurors around a physical table, and a calming atmosphere really brings the play to life. It is the students that bring this life, but the space that enables it; just reading the play out loud from individual desks would not have the same effect.

Similarly, teachers need some autonomy over what they teach. That’s not to say that there should not be a set curriculum, but teachers must be able to teach it in a way that suits their style, allows them to build on their strengths, and adapt content to better teach the learners in the room. Especially in English, there are so many ways to teach the required content that there really are no two teachers who do it the same way.

I’ve been very fortunate to work at schools and under administrators that have given me leeway and freedom in my classroom. They let me bring in couches, allow me to try out crazy and out-of-the-box ideas, and want me to experiment with new and better ways of teaching and arranging my classroom to better facilitate the learning that takes place there.

I am very aware that many teachers are not as fortunate as I am in this regard. Many are not just told what to teach but exactly how they must go about it. They are given sterile rooms and little margin for how they can change or personalize them. And students can always tell. There is value in students going through their long school days and entering into different spaces, rooms that reflect different atmospheres and types of learning. If all classrooms look and feel the same, it becomes that much harder for students to go through their day. Shouldn’t an English classroom have a sense of ‘literary-ness’? Science classrooms should be designed for science, art rooms necessarily require extra storage space and tables, while maps and time-lines belong on the walls of social studies rooms. I think that intentional classroom design is just as important in high school as it is in elementary school and should intentionally reflect a teacher’s style and the type of learning that will occur there.

I enjoy walking into my classroom in the mornings before any students come in. I get to quietly survey the space, drink my coffee in peace, and prepare for the learning, laughter, and great discussions that will take place there that day. I’m glad that I get to enter my classroom every morning with optimism and joy and recognize that quite a bit of this is down to the autonomy I have over the space and how I get to teach my classes.