Tag Archives: teaching

Badgers do care.

hogwarts

I’ve been reading Deathly Hallows with the boys, and thinking a lot about the Professors. Voldemort had risen. The ministry had fallen. Power had shifted in Hogwarts, yet the professors remained at their posts… for the students. When it is safest to run and boldest to fight, sometimes the strongest people are called to do something much harder. They are called—for the sake of others—to hold the ruins on their backs so that those beneath them are not crushed by the wreckage. They are called to endure and lift up. It calls for a sacrifice of one’s pride and prestige, the hardest thing for a Slytherin. It calls for one to knowingly enter into a situation any intelligent mind must realize will not end well, counterintuitive to a Ravenclaw. It calls for one to suppress one’s passions and instincts to act rashly, the Achilles heel of any Gryffindor. It is a time to be the strongest and kindest of all the houses. When conditions are at their worst, when the Battle of Hogwarts is on the horizon, it is a time to be Hufflepuffs. Together.

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Lady Science!

There are a lot of things that I can’t believe are still things in the 21st century. The KKK. Homophobia. Tab cola. Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the gender gap, another inexplicable thing that’s still a thing. You know the one—it’s that thing where 50% of the population are so poorly represented that they qualify as a minority. I’ve been thinking about the gender gap in the sciences in particular.

The fact is, women may have long since won the rights to vote, to have careers, and to wear stylish yet functional bedazzled pants, but men still hold 70% of all careers in science and engineering. White men alone hold the majority of these positions, but men of every demographic outnumber women of the same category. All women of color combined barely add up to a tenth of the total professional scientific population.

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In my novels, I write about a young woman living a century ago with a background in science. While writing, I constantly need to remind myself that it wasn’t the norm. It comes far too naturally to me to envision scientifically-minded women. I’ve learned plenty about Ada Lovelace and Florence Nightingale and Irene Curie, but more than that, my own grandmother, Mary Campbell, practically wrote the book on Medical Mycology. In fact… she DID write the book, and if you studied medical mycology at university, chances are it was on your required reading list. Incidentally, if you studied Medical Mycology at university, you are probably also doing more important things with your life than writing novels that feature a magical detective. Good for you.

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My family is full of female professors, nurses, veterinarians, computer analysts, and research scientists; when I was growing up, I couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a smart woman. I know. I tried. My sisters tattled and I got grounded for it. It continues to shock me, therefore, that the image of a woman as an intelligent professional is a concept that needs normalizing.

The trouble is ingrained in our culture. Women are encouraged to be supporters while men are pushed to be competitive. If that’s not blatant enough, loads of brilliant successful women have been actively cheated out of their notoriety by male colleagues.

3 Women Scientists Whose Discoveries Were Credited to Men

6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism

8 Inventions by Women that Dudes got Credit For

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“Who cares?” one might argue. “Those men probably stole credit from other men, too, that’s just the cutthroat nature of the field.” But when there are so few women in the field to begin with, each overlooked achievement represents a greater loss.

The problem with the erasure of women is that as a result, countless women just don’t get to see a future for themselves in the sciences in the same ways men do, and that matters. With good role models, possibilities blossom, and limitations drop away. Without any, invisible walls grow and self-doubt takes hold.

A few years back, my sister followed in the footsteps of Medical Mycology Mary and co-authored a book called THE ULTIMATE GIRLS’ GUIDE TO SCIENCE.

Girls Guide Science

Her role models mattered to her, and in turn she has became that role model through books and camps that she helps run for kids. Her latest project is the culmination of years of research that is both practical and awesome and involves fire… and also happens to be literally rocket science. Her Kickstarter for the ROCKET MASS HEATER GUIDE has just a few days left if you want to support an awesome woman in science RIGHT NOW, by the way, although she has already doubled her goal because the concept is just so damn cool!

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Women are a part of the scientific community. They just are. Awesome though their accomplishments might be, the fact that they exist should be the most boring thing in the world. Sadly, it’s STILL an anomaly in the 21st century for a woman to be seen as a scientist. I don’t want writers of historical fiction a hundred years from now to look back at 2016 and find themselves astonished at how unusual it was for women in our time to be recognized for their contributions.

So, let’s share a little recognition right now—who are your favorite female faces in the field of science and engineering?

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For the Book Pushers

(This post is modified slightly from a speech I had the privilege of delivering to my fellow book-pushers in the Pacific Northwest.)

My name is William Ritter. I write books, I teach high school, I raise kids, and I worry.

Mostly I worry.

As a FATHER, I worry that my own kids—kids who love reading and discovery—will be dulled by school instead of inspired by it. I worry that they will start to see reading as work and discovery as a chore. It’s hard for me to watch them go into a place where I can’t hover around them like a helicopter. I can’t remind them to be good or shield them from pain. I want to slip little cheesy inspirational notes into their backpacks. Make good choices! You can do it! Be kind! Be yourself!

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As a TEACHER, I worry about my students. I worry every time I ask “What stories did grown-ups read to you when you were little?” because every year one or two students simply cannot answer because their parents never read to them. Their parents never read. The only reading material in their house is the back of a cereal box. These are the kids who struggle most—not only in reading, but in math, science, and social studies.

As a WRITER, I worry that what I do doesn’t matter. I worry that my YA novels are frivolous “genre fiction.” When I first signed with Algonquin Young Readers, I realized the list of books they would be publishing alongside mine were meaningful stories about war and persecution, about racism and homophobia, about overcoming loss and confronting mortality. My novel, on the other hand, was a fanciful tale about a magical detective. I worried that I was fluff in a world that needs substance.

But what I do matters. What we do matters. Books matter.

Truth time. By third grade, literacy scores have a direct correlation with high school graduation rates. Readers see more success than non-readers. Raising readers matters. If teachers do nothing more than promote a passion for reading, they achieve infinitely more good than drill-and-kill literacy lessons and high stakes tests. Students who read for pleasure see even greater success—and as it happens, readers like reading books that they LIKE. Who knew? What’s more, studies have repeatedly shown that reading fiction—yes frivolous genre fiction even more than serious non-fiction—increases empathy. In a world so full of greed and fear and hate, we need empathy. We need readers.

So I try my hardest to help books reach kids. I push books.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing from a student in my care that our class novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, was the first book he had ever read.

“What?” I said. “No, you read a novel last year with Mrs. Walloch.”

“No,” he said. “The class read a novel. I never read a single chapter.”

“Well,” I said. “Congratulations. How do you feel about reading a novel?”

He looked thoughtful for a moment. “I want to read another one.”

BAM.

There it was. I felt the instant self-satisfied pride that I imagine is usually reserved for really talented drug-dealers.

It was awesome.

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I taught an ESL class the next year. There were some great kids in that group, including a tricky pair of boys who had not only never read a book, but who took real pride in being non-readers. I went on and on about how that was like a toddler taking pride in never learning how to walk—I told them they’re limiting themselves! None of it got through. So instead of lecturing, I pushed a book across the desk at S.S.R. time. Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time-Indian. I pretended not to notice when the student reached the naughty bit in the first chapter and shared it with his friend. I knew I had him when I caught him reading during break. He finished that book and then told his friend that he HAD to read it next, because “it’s actually GOOD.” That book was later stolen from my room. The thief copped to taking it because it was “the first book that got me, ya know?” I let him keep it. He needed that book more than I did.

That’s how you get ‘em. The first one’s free, kid. Come back for more when ya start jonesing. Soon you’ll be forking over money to a stranger in a dark alley for Ray Bradbury, the Bronte sisters, maybe a heavy dose of William Shakespeare. I have become an unabashed pusher.

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I pushed If You Could Be Mine on a self-conscious, self-critical, self-described “loner” from a conservative family. She read it twice in one night. She was changed. That summer she corresponded with the author, Sara Farizan, and gained the confidence to come out for the first time to her parents. She took over as president of the school’s GSA and as a peer mentor. She has become outspoken, bold, and brighter.

I did more good for all of those students by pushing books across their desks than I did in all of my lesson-planning and teaching. Pushing books matters.

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I can’t tuck cheesy little inspirational notes into every single backpack, so I tuck them into the books I write, instead. Make good choices! You can do it! Be kind! Be yourself! It helps me worry a little bit less. It helps me remember that what I do matters, too.

When you suggest a good book, post about one on a blog, push one across a desk, or read one to your kids—it matters. Push books. My students need those books. My sons need those books. The world needs those readers.

To all my fellow book-pushers out there, what you do matters. With each push you make a difference, you make a brighter world, you make a reader. Keep pushing.

Pusher_Book

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K—

“What will you do with your life?” I asked my sophomores. “You’re the hero of the story. You can be anyone. Do anything. Who will you be?”

K—‘s turn. “A trophy wife,” she said. Proudly. Defiantly.

I might have cried. I worried about K—.

I worried about what all those beauty pageants had done. I worried when I learned what he had done. I worried when they made her relive it all in the trial. I worried.

Years passed. I worried more. With each year, I found new students to worry about. I worried about so many girls growing up aspiring to be worthy little objects. I taught lessons. I graded essays. I worried more and more.

“What will the moral of your story be?” I asked my senior class last week. “What will future generations learn from the tale of you?”

K—‘s turn. Chin up. “Be your own trophy wife,” she said. Proudly. Defiantly.

I might have cried. I worried less.

K—

 

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Powerful Things

I try to instill in my students meaningful lessons, inspire creativity, and encourage deep thought. Conversations such as this one occasionally ensue (direct transcript of a recent dialogue):

SandmanPoster

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Normal

A student recently asked me if writing fantasy is harder than writing “normal” stories. For me, writing strange & impossible is infinitely easier than writing normal. This may be because the longer I pay attention, the less I believe that normal exists.

I’ve heard the phrase “write what you know” countless times. It’s good advice, but it doesn’t lead me to normal. I don’t know normal, and I’m yet to meet anyone who does. Everyone has that peculiar aunt with that curious hobby, or that pet that does that thing. Everyone takes that moment to prepare a friend before meeting their family. “Just so you know,” you’ve probably said, “my family can be kinda weird…” as though there exists a family in the world that isn’t.

My own grandfather, William Campbell, didn’t want his kids to be ashamed of their bodies, so he frequently went nude around the home. Apparently this caused a stir when a work colleague popped by one weekend—but my grandfather hardly batted an eye. From behind his morning paper, old William Campbell welcomed his associate. “Lovely to see you. Johnny, be a good boy and show my friend to the living room, would you? Katherine, darling, would you fetch my pants? Splendid, thank you.” Normal as can be, right?

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Statistically, the most normal person in the world is a male, Chinese, Christian farmer named Mohammed, but people who meet ALL of those qualifications are rare. So, how does anyone write “normal” stories? My writing draws on many things—stories I’ve read, things I’ve done, and mostly people I’ve met. I write about weirdos quite simply because I don’t know anybody else.

Once, while waiting tables on a graveyard shift, an unassuming man who had been sipping coffee for an hour suddenly called me over to his booth. He had a stack of amateur photographs spread across the table. “Hey, wanna see a proof of a UFO?” he asked.

“Yes.” I replied without hesitation (I had been rehearsing my response for that question since I was seven).

He showed me three pictures of faintly blurry clouds, earnest as could be. He then invited my only other patrons over as well, a young couple from a nearby booth, to see proof of fairies in the same pile. “Fast little f***ers,” he said soberly as the couple nodded at a photo of a bush. “They’re hard to catch on film.”

He concluded his visit with a trip to the restroom, during which the young couple and I exchanged glances as we began to hear loud harmonica music emanating from the men’s room. It went on for a few minutes before the photographer emerged with the instrument still on his lips—not halting his boisterous melody once as he strode out the door and into the night.

I don’t know what a “normal” diner night shift looks like, but on mine I met musical cryptozoologists, elderly swingers, polite strippers and rude clergymen—oh—and Santa Clause. That one was Christmas morning. I worked all night on Christmas Eve, and as the sun rose, a plump, jolly fellow with a white, bushy beard and a kelly-green tank top (in spite of the below-freezing weather) strode in and took a seat at the counter.

“Mornin’,” he said with a smile. “I need me a slice of pie before I head home. I earned it tonight.”

He looked tired. “Long night?” I asked, setting down the pie.

“The longest,” he said. He had rosy cheeks and a twinkle in his eye. Using my cell phone camera, I snuck a blurry picture of Saint Nick that would’ve made the harmonica-playing photographer proud. (He had a cover story about being a biker named Rebel who cleaned taverns after-hours—but I knew better than to believe the jolly old elf.)

Life is weird. Not long ago I was serving pie to truckers and oddballs at 3:00 AM. Since then, my path has made me a father, made me a teacher, made me a foreigner living across the world, and made me an author back home.

I write what I know. My narrative voice is from a gender, country, and era that are not my own. Her story is filled with creatures I have seen only in my imagination and with characters who exist only on the page… but I know the strangeness of my fantasy more intimately than I have ever known anything “normal” in the real world. I was raised on stories about myth, magic, and monsters. I’ve seen proof of UFOs and Fairies, and I met Santa Clause on Christmas morning—but I will need a great deal more evidence before I will consent to believe that normal exists.

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