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Monthly Archives: January 2017

Writing & Math: The Magic is in the Discovery

Writing & Math: The Magic is in the Discovery

This is my last week of tutoring before I go on maternity leave for the rest of the school year. As much as I’m ready for a break (and as much as I want time to prepare for the baby), I know I’ll miss my students.

The other day in both of my tutoring sessions I got to do one of my favorite things as an educator: make my students discover the answers on their own. When I was a full-time math teacher I tried to do this as much as possible, but with classes of students at varying levels and a long list of standards to “get through” before the end of the year, it wasn’t always realistic. In one-on-one tutoring, however, the “discovery” method is often the way to go.

I’m always telling my students that this is what real mathematicians do: they solve simpler problems and see if they can apply those ideas to more complex situations; they look for patterns and make theories; they test their theories and try different methods.

What I try to impress upon my Internet-age students is this: It’s okay if you don’t know the answer right away. It’s okay to try things that don’t work. That’s how you end up discovering what does work.

It’s similar to what I have to remind myself as a writer: it’s okay if my writing isn’t perfect on the first go-round. It’s okay if I write a whole chapter only to end up cutting it. (Or a whole book only to end up hiding it in a drawer.) It’s okay to take my time in order to discover what works.

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Here I am at my baby shower two weeks ago.

 

The other day I came home and my physicist husband was bemoaning the fact that no one does math anymore – they’ve forsaken it for computer simulations that, he says, don’t always have as much meaning as old-fashioned pen-and-paper proofs.

“I don’t know if this will make you feel any better, but…” Then I told him about how I made both of my students discover the answers to their homework questions on their own.

“And when he figured it out,” I said, talking about my ninth grade student, “he got excited and was like ‘oh I see it! I see the pattern! That’s cool!’ He had a little light bulb moment, and those are the moments that make kids love math.”

“I guess that makes me feel a little better,” he said.

My husband loves math. Not only is it what he does for a living, but he actually reads math textbooks for fun. Sometimes I feel bad that I can’t talk to him more about his interests. I minored in math in college, so there was a time when I knew Multivariable Calculus and Analysis. But most of that has fallen out of my brain by now, and besides, Paul has a Masters in Applied Mathematics and a PhD in Physics. His knowledge of math is way deeper than mine ever was, even at the height of my mathiness.

Luckily, he likes hearing stories about my students and how I teach them math. One day I was telling him about a student of mine who is smart but always making careless errors. As I was describing him, Paul said, “I know exactly what his problem is – I used to do the same thing as a kid.”

Paul said when he’s working on a problem (both when he was in high school and now), he often intuits the answer long before he understands the nitty gritty of why it works. “I’ll be thinking about the problem, and then I suddenly see the answer, and my intuition says it’s right, but I have to figure out how to actually prove it.  And that’s where I end up struggling and making mistakes.”

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I do a lot of fractions with my students..  Not exactly the same sort of math that my husband does on a daily basis.

 

It occurs to me that the way people do math is not so different from the way people write. A few years ago I wrote a middle-grade novel. I knew how it would begin, and I had a very clear sense of how it would end, but I didn’t quite know how to get from point A to point B. Like Paul, the middle — figuring out the nitty-gritty details —  was where I struggled.

Other times, I start out with a character or situation or inciting incident and have no idea where the story is going to end up. Like a mathematician, I try different things, writing scenes and doing character studies. I think about what might be possible for the story, I write and write and write to figure out what I’m trying to say, and then one day I have a flashbulb moment where I put the pieces together – I finally see the climax or conclusion I was searching for.  Those moments are what can make writing so exciting.

In the end, the most important thing to remember in both math and writing is that it’s okay to make mistakes.  Instead of being discouraged if you don’t get it right at first, learn from your failure and keep trying.  The delight is often in the discovery at the end of the tunnel.

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Paul, me, and our soon-to-be-born baby!  (Painting by Heather Renaux.)

 

 

The Voyage to the Magical North by Claire Fayers (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Voyage to the Magical North by Claire Fayers (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

THE VOYAGE TO THE MAGICAL NORTH by Claire Fayers

Published by Henry Holt & Co., July 2016

Suggested age range: 8 – 12 years

SUMMARY:

Twelve-year-old Brine Seaborne is a girl with a past–if only she could remember what it is. Found alone in a rowboat as a child, clutching a shard of the rare starshell needed for spell-casting, she’s spent the past years keeping house for an irritable magician and his obnoxious apprentice, Peter.

When Brine and Peter get themselves into a load of trouble and flee, they blunder into the path of the legendary pirate ship the Onion. Before you can say “pieces of eight,” they’re up to their necks in the pirates’ quest to find Magical North, a place so shrouded in secrets and myth that most people don’t even think it exists. If Brine is lucky, she’ll find her place in the world. And if she’s unlucky, everyone on the ship will be eaten by sea monsters. It could really go either way.

-courtesy of Amazon

 

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

Themes include history (What counts as history?  Who writes it?) and stories.  Also there are pirates and magic.

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Eva & Meagan. Read more of our opinions about middle-grade books here!

So what did we think?  

Eva:  There was so much to enjoy in this imaginative book.  I love the way magic is described in Brine and Peter’s world:  

“The magician takes a quantity of magic, forms it into the correct spellshape, and releases it.  The process appears mysterious because most people cannot see magic.  All they see is the magician’s hand moving and the flash of light as the spell is released.”  

I was tickled by the notion of a “magical north,” which is like the magnetic north pole except with magic.  I also liked that the famous and heroic pirate, Cassie O’Pia, is a woman, and that there is an island library where no men are allowed.

 

Meagan:  Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting detail in the imaginary world the author created.  The role of fish and birds as magical minions was funny.  I also liked that the librarians and the pirates both functioned as essentially “good guys” but neither were perfect.  They all did some wrong things.  

 

Eva:  Fayers earns an A+ for imagination and world-building.  I’m not so sure about the point of view she chose to use, however.  I suppose we can call it omniscient narration, but it wasn’t really.  It was more like close third — hopping from one character’s POV to another’s, chapter by chapter, as it served the story.  In some ways this is good — readers can choose to identify with Brine or Peter or even the pirates.  But because of the POV-switching, I had some trouble getting fully invested in any of the characters, and I didn’t always understand their motivations.   

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Meagan:  I had a hard time with character motivation as well, especially with the changeable relationship between Brine and Peter.  They were friends one minute and rivals the next.  That could be okay, but it often didn’t feel properly motivated.  In a given moment, I couldn’t predict whether they were going to work together or against each other until the author told me.  It’s like their motivations didn’t really grow out of the story, but rather were there to facilitate what needed to happen next in the story.

 

Eva:  I agree.  Character motivation can be really hard to show in writing.  One way to do it is through interiority — the character’s internal thoughts.  We definitely got some interiority in this book, from Peter especially, but maybe getting more interiority from him about his feelings towards Brine would have helped us understand their relationship.  

 

Meagan:  My favorite parts of the story were the scenes between Peter and the evil magician Marfak West.  Without giving too much away, it felt totally believable that Peter would be drawn to learning from Marfak West even though he knew he shouldn’t trust him.  This made for great tension because I never quite knew what Marfak West’s plan was, and I didn’t know how far Peter would go in aligning himself with Marfak West.

 

Eva:  Those scenes were interesting, and definitely a large source of tension in the book. My favorite parts were the little book snippets at the beginning of each chapter that gave us insight into Brine and Peter’s world.

I also really liked the beginning two chapters — they totally sucked me in.  But, they were also problematic in light of the rest of the story.  I remember hearing an agent talk about the “promise of the first page.”  Essentially, if you introduce a mystery or question on page one, it should be answered by the end of the book.  

On page one of The Voyage to the Magical North, we get this:  

“[Brine] had one clear memory of waking up in a rowing boat three years ago, surrounded by people, and that was all.  They’d asked her her name, and she couldn’t remember — she couldn’t remember anything.  So they named her Brine because she was crusted head to foot in sea salt.”   

Immediately, I was intrigued, and I assumed that the book was going to be about figuring out the mystery of who Brine is and where she came from.  But instead, Brine and Peter take up with some pirates and journey to the magical north.  It’s a grand adventure, but I was confused because it wasn’t the journey I was promised.

Towards the end there are some hints that Marfak West knows who Brine really is, and it seems like perhaps the sequel is going to be about Brine’s journey to find out about her past, but in some ways I felt tricked — I got invested in a mystery that was barely addressed.   

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Will we learn about Brine’s mysterious origins in the sequel?

 

Meagan:  You make a great point about the “promise” of the story.  It reminds me of the concept of Chekhov’s gun.  If you place a noticeable detail (such as a gun) in a scene, the detail must be essential to the story (someone has to fire the gun later), otherwise leave it out.  I think the same goes for statements like “she couldn’t remember her name.”  The reader is going to implicitly trust you that you intend to either reveal her name, or at least reveal why she can’t remember it.  All they must do is keep reading.  In fact, hooking readers with interesting mysteries is one of the major ways to get them to keep reading, BUT you gotta keep your promises in order for your reader not to feel cheated.

 

Eva:  That being said, I’m sure there are a lot of kids out there who will enjoy this book and not care a hoot about “the promise of the premise.”  As I’ve mentioned on Middle Grade Bookshelf before, sometimes it’s hard for me to reconcile my adult sensibilities with what I liked as a kid.  This is a very imaginative story with lots of adventure — sea monsters, pirates, magic.  Fun stuff that kids tend to like.  
THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Meagan:  I haven’t read the Pippi Longstocking books since I was a kid, but are those kind of similar, aren’t they?  Light, humorous, episodic adventure.

Eva:  I haven’t read them since I was a kid either, but I can definitely see that as a parallel.  They include some sea-faring adventures as far as I remember.  And I LOVED the Pippi Longstocking books as a kid.  I’m beginning to think that kids are much more accepting of episodic stories than adults are.  Maybe adults want a plot that culminates whereas kids want a story that just keeps on going?  Something to ponder…

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THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Imaginative world-building
  • Inverting tropes (i.e. female pirate, a boy who has to disguise himself as a girl)
  • Building tension

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  For me The Voyage to the Magical North didn’t fulfill the promise of the first page, and ultimately I was not as invested in the characters as I would have liked.  On the other hand, the world-building was incredibly fun and imaginative.  Kids who love adventure will certainly love this book.  

Meagan:  There can be a lot of successful anchors for story.  A story can be primarily character-centered, plot-centered, theme-centered, setting-centered, etc.  A story needs all of those things, but not every story is going to be equally strong in every area.  It seemed to me that this story was anchored in its setting.  The unique world and its fun details seemed like the freshest and most inspiring aspects of the novel.  They were enough to keep me reading, but not enough to push this book onto my personal favorites list.  

 

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Transitioning: In Writing and in Life

Transitioning: In Writing and in Life

It’s the beginning of a new year. A time for reflecting on what’s past and preparing for what’s to come. A time of transition.

My husband and I are in a very clear state of transition right now. We are going from being a childless couple to brand-new parents. Our baby girl is due February 4th. Among many other preparations (taking an infant CPR class, gathering supplies, creating a birth playlist), we are currently transitioning my office into the nursery.

Although, as it turns out, we don’t have enough space in the living room for my desk and filing cabinet and book shelf, so the room will have to be office on one side and nursery on the other. We’ll see how that goes. I don’t picture myself doing a lot of work at my desk for the first few months anyway.

As a person who loves order, it’s a little maddening to live in this state of transition. On the nursery side of the room, there are baby things in boxes and storage crates that need to be sorted and washed. We need to figure out where to put everything and how to decorate. I’m still doing work at my desk, but I’m hyper aware of the baby clothes and children’s books on the other side of the room.

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Office on the left, nursery on the right

 

A few years ago my friends Rob and Edith, who I hadn’t talked to in a long time, called me and said, “we did something interesting the other day… We had a baby.” I hadn’t even known that Edith was pregnant, and I sat there sputtering on the phone for a few seconds trying to decide whether or not they were joking (they weren’t). To me this is proof that there’s a good reason to post a few pregnant photos of yourself on facebook– so that people don’t go into shock when you one day show up with a baby in your arms.

Rob and Edith recently had another baby, but this time they told me about the pregnancy several months beforehand, and then I actually saw Edith when she was eight and a half months pregnant. When their birth announcement came in the mail, it was a lot easier to comprehend.  I didn’t need week-by-week belly pictures or anything, but knowing Edith was pregnant was helpful.

In other words, we need time to transition so that we can understand that things are changing, that we are moving on to something new and different.  This is helpful, both in our lives, and in our writing.  You don’t want to jump forward in time or skip to a new topic in your writing without giving the reader any warning.  It’s as jarring as being presented with a baby when you didn’t even know the mother was pregnant.

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Okay, okay, I’ll give you a belly picture.  This was taken on Christmas Eve, when I was 34 weeks pregnant.

 

I recently read the book Losing It by Emma Rathbone and was particularly impressed by a simple transition in Chapter One.

The main character, Julia, decides to quit her job in D.C. and take some time off. Her father suggests she go to North Carolina and stay with her eccentric Aunt Vivienne for the summer. Julia thinks this is absurd. “No. Nope. I’m not going there,” she says to her mother on the phone. “There’s no way I’m doing that.”

Then there’s a space break, and the very next line is, “One month later I drove down a thin driveway, gravel popping beneath the tires, towards a house with white columns in the distance…. I looked at the piece of paper on which I’d written Vivienne’s address: 2705 Three Notched Lane.”

I LOVE this transition because it’s very clear what’s happened, and yet we don’t know exactly how it happened. In that one month, Julia has obviously changed her mind about Aunt Vivienne’s, but we don’t really need to know the nitty gritty of her decision-making process.  I love that Rathbone cuts out everything else and hops us right to the catalyst moment. She bridges the gap from Julia quitting her job to Julia arriving in North Carolina with nothing more than a space break and the words “one month later.” Transitions are important, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be short and sweet.

This also shows us that a transition can be used to skip over trivial information. We don’t need to know what Julia did in that one month because it’s not part of the story Rathbone is telling, which is the story of Julia’s summer with her Aunt Vivienne. Good storytelling means skipping over all the boring and non-important parts, and good transitioning is what makes that possible.

In real life, we can’t skip over all the boring/messy/difficult in-between stuff. We’ve got to handle the decision-making and the organizing and the to-do lists before we can get across the bridge from one thing to the next. The story of how I sorted and washed baby clothes might not be a compelling one, but I don’t mind doing it. It’s helping me with my own emotional transition. Handling these little baby things, finding a place for them in my home – maybe that will make it easier to comprehend that there’s a freaking baby in my belly and that in one month she’s going to be in my arms.

If I were writing a book, here’s how it would go:  At the end of December, my husband and I started turning my office into an office/nursery. One month later, the drawers were filled with clean clothes and diapers, the books were lined up neatly on the shelf, and the walls were decorated with circus-themed art.  We were ready to meet our new baby.

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Paul and I commissioned a painting from artist Heather Renaux to commemorate the birth of our baby.  It’s not on the wall yet, but here it is.  Adorbs, right?