Monday, December 26, 2016

A Science Guy's Almanac: Do Teachers have a Favorite Student?


If you ask many teachers,
“Who’s your favorite student?”
they very likely to diplomatically respond with something like,
“Oh, I don’t really have favorites. I like them all.”
As a teacher in high schools and universities for 45 years, I submit this commentary with all due respect:
“That’s probably a crock!”

If you are one my students, all of whom are collectively “my kids,” please don’t be offended by what follows. I do have a favorite student. I always will.
My favorite of all time is Babi Scott.
That DOES NOT MEAN that any of the rest of you are not favorites—I can state without a twinge of guilt that I have been disproportionately blessed with outstanding young people in my classrooms.
I could list the names of many students of mine who made “above and beyond” efforts on my behalf. I won’t list any names, but I will list some of the generous acts on my behalf that have been made.
·      Flying from Chicago to San Diego to be at my retirement celebration and helping with the set-up.
·      Meeting me with regularity of coffee to talk about our lives.
·      Confiding to me issues that I now pray for daily—issues that demonstrate the character of those individuals.
·      Kept over a dozen letters I wrote in response to letters written to me by a student while in college.
·      Reading my blog posts.
·      Contacting me to relate a heart-warming story of how I impacated them.

It’s time to “get on with this blog post.” I hope you get at least a taste of how I feel about each and every one “my kids.” If you are in that group, may God especially bless you!

I got a phone call early in the morning on January 1, 2007. It was one of the worst phone calls I’ve every received. The tearful voice of Babi’s husband told me that she had taken her life sometime late New Year’s Eve. I don’t know how many people he called that night, I’ve asked myself many times since then:
Why call me? I was only her high school biology teacher.
I’ve given up wondering that. I realize that I wasn’t “only her biology teacher.” I was her friend. He called me because she often talked about our times together. I am humbled by that.

I wrote this for her memorial service in January 2007. I cried when I wrote it. I choke up every time I read it or tell the story.
I sent a copy to Babi’s parents. I was told they read it at her memorial service. I am humbled by that gesture.

What follows is written in loving memory of a life that was far too short.

Babi Scott is my favorite student.
Let me put that into perspective. I’m in my 34th year of teaching. I’ve had, as an estimate, 4000 students. Babi is my favorite. Not was, but is and will be as long as I have a memory.
I cannot imagine another student taking first place as my favorite from her. I suppose that is possible, but I don’t think any teacher is fortunate enough to have two like Babi in a career.
Babi was my biology student for two courses over two years. The second year course was entirely elective: Advanced Placement Biology. It was not, nor has it become since, and easy course. I’m not sure that Babi liked science as much as she liked my teaching, and me as a person; it was her fondness for me that caused her to take “the hardest class at Monte Vista” as an elective her Senior year.
I’ve had other students take AP Biology and tell me it was “because you are the teacher.” I’ve had many students not as academically gifted as Babi (not that she was a slouch, but some of my students were very bright people) who were favorites of mine. I’ve even had some students who took the time to make contact with me after graduation.
However, Babi went far beyond any and all of that. She made contact after she graduated . . .  for 22 years! She learned not only my birthday but how many birthdays I’d had. Every year, I’d get a “pig-themed” birthday card from Babi. Sometimes there were small piggy gifts as well. There were also letters and phone calls, and later, e-mail exchanges. Two friends were communicating, but she was the initiator.
She moved to Kansas, always a source of kidding from me. One year, I attended a conference in Kansas City. She drove a long way to have dinner and spend some time with me. In retrospect, I now know how much that cost her physically. I am deeply touched by the gesture.
I suspect I was one of the first to receive news of new jobs, or other events. I know that she always took the time to visit me and my family when she came back to San Diego. In fact, she’d call me first to find out how to arrange the rest of her time to be sure we could get together.
The living world is a lesser place without Babi.
I am honored to have been known as her friend.
With love and unabashed tears,
Babi’s teacher.

It is my hope that you got a bit of insight into the impact my students made in my life through this blog post. I wish I could tell each of “my kids” how much they mean to me in person.


Mr. Downing. Coach. The Chief Chuckaroo. Dr. D.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Sentence Structure - Part 2: A Challenge and My Solution


 In the last A Day in the Life of a Sci-Fi Writer, I investigated the most common sentence structures. I offer a challenge and an example today.

The Challenge
The sample below is from a yet unpublished story I wrote in the early 1990s. I’ve done no serious editing of the manuscript since then. Editing, revision, and expansion of the story are on my “to-do list.” I suspect it will be part of my Traveler’s HOT L series if it ever morphs out of its binary code on my hard drive.
I’ve highlighted the introductory phrase in all sentences that have one. Read through the excerpt concentrating on how you feel as you read.

From The Man Who Turned Out the Stars
"Finally, ladies and gentlemen, we see the sky as it would appear in the Northern Hemisphere at the winter solstice. While many of the constellations we saw in autumn remain visible, there are some 'new' ones which have been below the horizon due to the tilt of the Earth on its axis..." The voice droned on pointing out features of the night sky with uncanny accuracy, if not the most interesting of deliveries.
At the end of the presentation, the narrator flipped off the projection lamp. The auditorium filled with darkness encroached upon only slightly by the greenish glow of the exit signs above the doorways which marked the four major compass points within the room.
After several seconds, there began a shuffling of feet as a general attitude of uncomfortable restlessness moved throughout the audience. For several additional seconds, the man allowed the people to stir and wonder. Finally, as a ripple of panic started its spread through the crowd, he brought the house lights up to normal brilliance.
The audience visibly relaxed as the light expelled the offending darkness. The narrator smiled an enigmatic little smile while he uttered his closing comment.
"Please exit through any of the marked doorways.”
End of the excerpt

Six of the eleven sentences begin with an introductory phrase followed by a comma. That will not be the case when/if this story goes to press.

I invite you to take a few minutes and consider how you would change some/all of these opening sentences. You might even copy/paste them into your word-processor and do some editing.

This following Aside acts as a ‘spacer’ between the suggested activity in bold red above and my edit that follows.

Aside
In an upcoming blog, , I include some commentary on misunderstood song lyrics. I heard a song on the radio the other day that brought to my mind another song lyric issue. I call this issue “What does this have to do with the song?”

I was listening to Andy Williams sing The Most Wonderful Time of the Year by George Wyle & Edward Pola. You might recall that:
There'll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow

These are events and items one might expect to be mentioned in a song titled as this one is.

Then comes the stanza that I wondered about for decades.
There'll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of the
Christmases long, long ago
Two questions haunted me.
  1. What do ghost stories, especially scary ones, have to do with Christmas?
  2. The Christmases in which years of long, long ago were particularly glorious?


I consider myself to be above average is spotting the obvious. Why it took me into my 5th or 6th decade of life to figure this out is still a mystery.

 1. Ghost stories:   
In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, three ghosts visit Ebenezer Scrooge. At least two of those ethereal beings qualify as scary.

2. Tales of glory:
The very first Christmas is the one that finally registered. The text below is from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, quoted here from the New International Version of the Bible.
[T]he time came for the baby to be born, and she [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
 Problem solved!
Merry Christmas to you and yours!
And now, back to our regularly scheduled blogging . . .

My Solution - at least until I work on the whole story
Here’s my edit of the story opening above the aside.
The edits I made are highlighted in yellow.
The original text with common construction parts in bold.
"Finally, ladies and gentlemen, we see the sky as it would appear in the Northern Hemisphere at the winter solstice. Many of the constellations we saw in autumn remain visible. Additional constellations that have been below the horizon due to the tilt of the Earth on its axis are visible as well." The voice droned on pointing out features of the night sky with uncanny accuracy, if not the most interesting of deliveries.
The presentation ended. The narrator flipped off the projection lamp. Darkness engulfed the auditorium. Four feeble greenish glows from exit signs above the doorways were all that kept blackness at bay.
After several seconds, a shuffling of feet as a general attitude of uncomfortable restlessness moved throughout the audience. The narrator allowed the people to stir and wonder if something was wrong for several additional seconds. Finally, as a ripple of panic started its spread through the crowd, he brought the house lights up to normal brilliance.
The audience visibly relaxed as the light expelled the offending darkness. The narrator smiled an enigmatic little smile while he uttered his closing comment.
"Please exit through any of the marked doorways.”
"Finally, ladies and gentlemen, we see the sky as it would appear in the Northern Hemisphere at the winter solstice. While many of the constellations we saw in autumn remain visible, there are some 'new' ones which have been below the horizon due to the tilt of the Earth on its axis..." The voice droned on pointing out features of the night sky with uncanny accuracy, if not the most interesting of deliveries.
At the end of the presentation, the narrator flipped off the projection lamp. The auditorium filled with darkness encroached upon only slightly by the greenish glow of the exit signs above the doorways which marked the four major compass points within the room.
After several seconds, there began a shuffling of feet as a general attitude of uncomfortable restlessness moved throughout the audience. For several additional seconds, the man allowed the people to stir and wonder. Finally, as a ripple of panic started its spread through the crowd, he brought the house lights up to normal brilliance.
The audience visibly relaxed as the light expelled the offending darkness. The narrator smiled an enigmatic little smile while he uttered his closing comment.
"Please exit through any of the marked doorways.”


Notice the decreased number of sentences beginning with an introductory clause followed by a comma and an increased number of shortsimple—sentences in the edited version. Commentary on that strategy will be the focus of the next 
Day in the Life of a Sci-Fi writer: Sentence Structure – Part 3: Keep It Simple, Sagacious Writer
Look for it on January 10, 2017
Compare your editing ideas to my edit. Keep those ideas in mind for "next time."

Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor
My website is: www.crdowning.com

Monday, December 12, 2016

Coaching High School Futbol – Part 1: Learning while doing


It October of 1975, the head football coach at Monte Vista—for whom I worked coaching quarterbacks and linebackers—had a conversation with me as we were climbing the stairs to the coaches’ office.
“You know I was head soccer coach last year?”
“I didn’t know that,” I admitted.
“Doesn’t matter. I don’t want to head coaching assignments back to back.” In Southern California, high school soccer season overlaid the basketball season and began the day football season ended.
“Oh.”
“I told them you’d do it,” he said.
I stopped.
He walked on up the stairs.

I knew nothing about soccer at that time.
I take that back. I did know it used a round ball and you had to kick the ball because only the goalkeeper could touch the ball with his hands.
I had read a story in the Boy Scout magazine, Boys Life, about an American teenager who’d moved to Germany. He’d played linebacker in his American school, but opted for goalie in soccer since he’d never used his foot in a game except kickball.

I went to the school library and checked out The Sports Illustrate Guide to Soccer and a book on soccer practice drills. I discovered that soccer teams played with 11 players on the field, you couldn’t substitute players at will, and there was a rule about being offside that was very important.

Word of my new coaching job spread quickly among the returning soccer players. One of those players was the younger brother of a former college All-American soccer player. Since he’d graduated from Monte Vista—as I had—and I’d been in a class with him in my last semester at San Diego State University, he got in touch.

“Hi, Chuck. This is Pete Goossens.”
“Hey, Pete. How you doing?”
“Fine. I heard you were the soccer coach at MV.”
“Guilty.”
“I was wondering if you’d like an assistant.”
I’m certain my acceptance of his offer is one of the fastest acceptance of any offer in the history of oral communication.

Together, Pete and I were a great team. He did most of the actual coaching--pretty much all of it. 
I was in charge of conditioning. 
We finished in second place in our league.

We had two exchange students on that team. Tom and Otto.
Tom—tall and sculpted—was Scandinavian. His ball skills were superb. He was distressed by the American style of play, which involved a lot of hacking and wild kicking.
At least once each game, Tom would reach the limit of his tolerance for such crudity. The next time he got the ball, he would dribble all the way down the field and take a point-blank shot on goal. There was no stopping him. It looked like opposing players just bounced off him while he moved towards the goal. I can’t remember a time anyone took the ball away from him when he was in this mode.

Otto was a different story altogether.
Otto was from Germany where soccer is played on a much wider field than high schools used at the time. He was a defender and was used to having plenty of time to adjust his position before the ball arrived. The fast-pace of the American high school game bothered him—he was a slow runner.
More than once, Otto would align himself with the most dangerous offensive player—in perfect position to cut off the attack lane to the goal. The ball would arrive more quickly than Otto preferred. In a deft, obviously often practiced move, Otto would allow the offensive player to make the first step. Then he’d pull down the player’s shorts as he prepared to make his run.
Every player whose pants Otto pulled down stopped running—his man never scored a goal the entire season.


In spite of one of the wettest winters in San Diego in that decade—see the photo, the team made the California Interscholastic Federation playoffs that year.

By the time playoffs arrived, we’d lost our first string goalie to bad grades. Our backup goalie, while more than competent, didn’t want to miss class for the playoff game. 

Without telling me, he simply did not board the team bus when we left school.

Otto filled in as our goalie and did a serviceable job, but we lost 4-3 and were eliminated from the playoffs.

That was my last game in my first iteration as varsity soccer coach at MVHS.


Next Almanac: Coaching Futbol – Part 2: I thought it was a good idea at the time

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My website is: www.crdowning.com


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