Monday, May 29, 2017

Almanac: Pomp and Circumstance

This is NOT Part 4 of my grading series. 
It is, however, an appropriate blog for this time of year. 
We'll get back to grading next time.
I mean it.

The recording of Edward Elgar directing Pomp and Circumstance Marche No.1 is the “go to” music for just about any school graduation. I don’t know why?

The rest of this blog has nothing to do with marching. I will reference P&C again.

I started teaching high school in 1973. Protesting was a national pastime for many students. Graduation ceremonies, even high school graduation ceremonies, were targets. While many of the protests were ideological in theory, many were times for people to do things they “had the right to do”—even if they didn’t have that right.

I’m not a fan of graduation ceremonies.
I remember my 8th-grade graduation (1964) more from photographs than from RNA pathways. It’s probably because I got an award.
I remember my high school graduation (1968). I was the closer on a 5-part valedictory address.
I remember my college graduation from San Diego State (1972) in Aztec Bowl—now a parking structure—for two reasons. 
  • First, Pauline Frederick was the speaker. Her speech was anti-Vietnam War biased and did not go over well at a university in San Diego, California. 
  • Second, my wife came down to the field after the ceremony. I split as fast as I could because there was nobody between me and my car. Since cell phones were sci-fi then, she didn’t know I’d left, and I didn’t know she’d come down. Forty minutes later, my parents pulled into our driveway and asked where Leanne was. I hot-footed it back to SDSU and found her waiting on the sidewalk with a kind passerby who waited with her.

I remember the graduation ceremony for my Ph.D., only because I got to wear a snazzy outfit known as regalia.

Faculty attendance at Monte Vista High School graduations was optional in 1974, 75, and 76. We did have a nude motorcyclist speed around the track at one of those, but nothing else of consequence happened that I remember.
Then beach balls and tortillas began to fill the air during the ceremony. The administration requested that all faculty members sit with the students to, “emphasize the academic nature of the event.”
“You mean, you want us to be police,” I said.
They held to the party line.
“When you admit that we’re police, I’ll go down on the field.”

For the next 18-years stood at the top of the stairs next to what was then “the wrestling room” during graduation ceremonies. I was the “door monitor.” Students had to return the robes because the school had rented them for the occasion. My job was to keep students from entering the wrestling room with the robes on because, once inside the room, they had to throw the robe in a cardboard box and pick up their diploma. Disrobing in the room would have seriously disrupted the flow.
I enjoyed doing that for two reasons.
First, when Pat Carroll was principal, his goal was to finish the entire graduation ceremony—from the time Pomp and Circumstance ended until mortarboards were tossed—in 30-minutes.
MV averaged around 500 graduates each year.
There was an invocation, the Pledge of Allegiance, acknowledging the Honor Graduates, and a student speaker each year.
After all that, every student’s name was called over the P.A. system as they walked across their half of the stage and received their diploma from one of two dignitaries.
Two dignitaries were required because one side of the graduates entered from stage left and the other from stage right.
It was a quick-moving sight to behold.
After two 40-minute ceremonies, he managed a 35-minute one.
Those of us on “robe recovery detail” anxiously awaited his final graduation—the year he retired.
Thirty minutes and forty seconds after Pomp and Circumstance, mortarboards flew like Frisbees.
He’d done it!

The second reason I enjoyed being “door monitor” was my “position” at graduations, I got to see every graduate. I am proud to say that more than a few took photos with me.

Top Row: Ph.D. Grad. MVHS as "door monitor" in 1984 w/ Babi Scott.
Middle: Doug and me "on the field" after his graduation in 1998.
Bottom Row: Emily Marsh and Julia Wright in 1993. Bobby T at GOHS (keep reading).
Hmmm.  It doesn't look high school males were "in the mood" for photos after graduations!

I was on the field for one MVHS graduation ceremony after my “police” boycott. Because my son was a graduate, they allowed me—in my regalia—to hand him his diploma in 1998, two years after I’d left to take a faculty position at Point Loma Nazarene University.
I was on the field for two graduation ceremonies at Great Oak High. The first is the only time I broke tradition and asked if I could sit with a student for her graduation. Her name is Baharak Tavafifard. I’m working on a blog about her, so I’ll leave it with this anecdote:
As a sophomore, I asked her why she never—and I mean NEVER—displayed any outlook except positivity. She looked befuddled, but only for a moment. “Why, Dr. Downing. Being happy is a choice. I make that choice every morning when I get up.”

The second GOHS graduation was because a specific student asked me to attend. I was ready to storm the podium when one of the speakers went off-script and needed to be shut down. I took admission tickets or was part of security for the remainder of my GOHS graduations.
Graduations at PLNU were mostly painless. Once you got past the students who wanted to wait until the last minute to line-up, things went smoothly. I opted to supervise one of the first two rows because we got down to the floor of the Greek Amphitheater early and my charges had little room to do much beyond wiggle.

I attended my daughter-in-laws Ph.D. ceremony on May 20, 2017. I was hot, but they did have a huge video screen so you could see each graduate receive the diploma . . . and a VERY long repetition of Pomp and Circumstance (20+ minutes).

The next high school graduation I will attend will by my granddaughter, Hadley’s . . . 13-years from now.

In one of my first three years of teaching at Monte Vista, one of my students asked to talk with me. She was very nervous. I waited for her to begin.
She talked with significant emotion about how, as far as anyone knew, she was the first person in their extended family to graduate from high school.
“People are coming from Oklahoma and Arkansas. This is very important to my family. I hope I don’t mess up.”
After I choked back a tear, I assured her that she would do a fine job.
It was then that it hit me.
This graduation ceremony is the major event in this young lady’s life. No one has the right to take that away from her and her family.
That was the first year I gave “the speech” to every one of my classes on the day of the second semester final exam.

I told them about the young lady I described above. Then I added,
“For many of you, this graduation is just a bump in your educational road. You’ll graduate at least once more, and some of you will graduate two or three more times. It’s tempting to blow off this graduation ceremony.”

I paused and put on my best “serious teacher face” at this point. My students all knew that “the look” that accompanied the serious face meant they’d better not only pay attention but do what I told them to do.

“You might be planning some prank or goofy act for the ceremony. If you, or any of your friends, do that, you will ruin what might be the biggest day in someone’s life. Your fun is not important compared to being the first in a family’s entire history to graduate from high school."

To the best of my knowledge, none of my students were ever involved in any disruptive acts. I did have several thank me on their way out of class after “the speech,” because they were going to use it on people they knew were planning something.

My sincere congratulations to all those graduating this year!

Next Almanac: Part 4 of the Grading Series
This will discuss how you can grade high-level content in class.

Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook:
My website is:

I'd appreciate your feedback as a comment on Blogger!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Authors: Lessons Learned from Young Writers – Part 1 of 4

This is an edited version of a post from one year ago.

In September of 2015, I started working with a group of middle and high school students on a project. The previous school year, I’d done a talk on Science Fiction writing. During the talk, the kids had a chance to write a bit from a prompt.

I got good feedback from the teacher, Debra Ray, about the presentation. Over the summer, one of the students drove over 40 miles to come to one of my books signings.

I had an idea.

Over the course of my teaching career, colleagues have heard the phrase, “I’ve been thinking,” hundreds of times. Some of them learned to excuse themselves from the conversation at that point. Others politely listened and performed the part of “bobble-head doll” with consummate excellence—nodding at appropriate times. But, some were willing, and a few were anxious, to hear my ideas.

I talked with Mrs. Ray about the possibility of meeting with a group, like a club. The club would be for students that were interested in writing short stories for inclusion in a self-published book.

She took the offer and expanded on it. She convinced the site administration to allow her to offer a “half-credit” elective class. When school started, enrollment was 11 students.

Mrs. Ray and I both thought we could have a manuscript ready for CreateSpace and Kindle by April of 2016. That didn’t happen.

We planned on publishing the book in September of 2016.

Here’s what I learned from the young writers that first year.

Lesson Learned
The kids were excited to share their ideas with one another.
Excitement should be an integral part of any writing process. If what you’re planning and writing don’t excite you, trash it and start over.
The kids were reluctant to make a commitment to a plot.
It’s important to set a course and start sailing. If you find yourself lost in the doldrums of the writing process, look to your plotline. If it’s lacking, fix it!
There was too much talking about the stories and not enough writing of stories early on.
Write. Put words down on paper or in an electronic document. Talking about and thinking about ideas, characters, actions, setting are all good things to do. But, set a deadline for yourself. Begin to write your story sooner rather than later.
Ending their stories proved problematic.
I’ll never forget reading a book by a famous author deep into his career. I'd enjoyed his earlier books. The storyline in my chosen book was good. 

Without foreshadowing of any kind, at what I’m convinced was his contracted word count minimum, “they all went into the basement and it blew up.” That was a terrible ending. I’ve not read another of his books since.

O’Henry’s “surprise endings” are surprising because of the outcome O'Henry chose to use. The surprise does not result from that ending leaping away from the storyline. The end of all well-written stories is based on what’s been written prior to that ending.
Editing is hard.
Nothing new learned here. What was reinforced was the need to understand what editing entails. Correcting spelling and grammar errors is essential. But, filling holes in plot lines, expanding the depth of characterizations, and transitioning between plot points instead of leaping from plot point to plot point must be addressed early in the editing process.
Editing takes time.
Most of our students had been successful in English classes. They were good at writing essays. But, they were used to editing to a final draft in under an hour. The difference in editing a 500-word essay and a 5000-word story is more than a ten-fold time commitment.

In spite of the steep learning curve for students and teachers, enthusiasm for this elective course is high. We thought that Mrs. Ray might have to limit the number of students enrolled.

That’s another expectation that wasn’t met.

Next Author’s Blog: 
Lessons Learned from Young Writers – Part 2

Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook:
My website is:

I'd appreciate your feedback as a comment on Blogger!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Teacher's Almanac: Grading Over The Years – Homework #3

What happens when you teach an advanced course—AP or IB, for example? No matter what “level” your course is, if you include higher level thinking skills in assignments, how do you grade that in class?

There are times when the only appropriate way to grade an assignment is for the teacher—you—to grade the whole kit and caboodle. That doesn’t have to be very often.

I’ll present two examples of how you can use PowerPoint to make your life easier. I have used the first example, scientific graphing, in all my classes from 9th-12th grade.

The second example is from AP Biology. It will be part of the next blog on grading.

The good news is this: You don’t have to know much about science to appreciate the explanation of this grading technique. The model works in any content area where you have repeating assignment types—graphing, in example one—or complex assignments with high-level vocabulary—example two.

When you grade an assignment of a type that is frequently assigned, you should teach how to do that assignment early in the year. Teaching the process, allowing students to make a sample, and grading that sample is the best way to ensure consistent grading over time.

The images below are from the PowerPoint used to teach scientific graphing.

During instruction, the top slide in the next set of PowerPoint slides starts with a blank X-Y axis. Labels and other components appear at the proper locations, reinforcing the previous slides’ information.

Using an appropriate scale is emphasized. Pretty much the goal is to fill a piece of graph paper with the graph. Next producing the line that "is" the graph is described.

Most students think their graphs are "done" at this point. They are not!
The title on a scientific graph is very important. It is worth one-third of the points for the graph. For that reason, an explanation of how to name a graph and why is critical, especially since graphs are often graded in class.

I apologize for the overlap of print in some images. That's because various items "appear" with a mouse click at specific times in the presentation.

Look at the image titled “Now put a title on the graph” in the pair above. The first text box to appear after the explanation of what information a title contains is, “The title should explain what you have graphed.”

Students discuss ideas for titles in pairs.

“For example: This title would be…” appears.

Last the actual title “Electronegativity Values of Selected Elements” appears in the proper location and the two previously visible text boxes disappear. This leads to the final slide.
If a graph has multiple lines, a key is needed. 
Students then are given time to make a graph and share it with their partners. They "grade" their graphs as practice.

After the first lab activity, students grade their own graphs.

They use the “grading pens” I mentioned in a previous blog for this grading. No pens or pencils except the grading pens are allowed during the grading.

During the grading time, slides appear in left to right, top row to bottom row.

Grading begins with the title.

The gray box containing the title appears after students have compared what they had on their graphs.
Students ask clarifying questions during the time the left slide in the bottom row is visible.

The last slide comes into view.

  • Each “burst” appears in this sequence. Title. Y-axis. X-axis. Curve. Key. Yellow box.
  • Students put the points earned in the same place on their graph as the “burst” for that feature appears on the screen.
  • Questions are addressed. The teacher is the final arbitrator in any dispute.
  • Points are totaled and written under the student's name on the graph.
  • On “random” assignments, graphs are exchanged after grading. Scoring in authenticated by the new grader. Differences in scoring are resolved by the teacher before the papers are turned in. Not knowing when this will occur helps ensure honesty in the scoring.
  • I check a set of graphs periodically, too. Again, this encourages the students to be honest in their assessments of point values.

This method does “take class time.” However, students learn from their errors while the teacher saves grading time for more complex assignments.

In the next blog in this series, I’ll explain my method for grading assignments with specific details required or that are based on “advanced” material.

Next Almanac blog: Grading Over The Years – Homework #4

Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook:
My website is:

I'd appreciate your feedback as a comment on Blogger!

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Authors: Letter to a New Author

Letter to a New Author

I consider myself an accomplished author. I’m not a best-selling author . . . yet. I’ve learned a lot over the five years that I’ve been “writing as more than a hobby.”

I was asked by a friend to contact another of her friends. The other friend had finished writing a novel and was wondering what to do with the manuscript.

In recent weeks, I’ve read several blogs about this situation. A common theme is to find an agent. That is the mantra if you plan on submitting your manuscript to a mainstream publishing house. I do not have an agent. Perhaps I should. But, that’s for another blog.

Today, I offer the content of the letter I sent in response to my friend’s request for her other friend. It is a succinct presentation of the publishing world as I see it at this time.

Congrats on finishing your novel!

I've had several experiences in the world of publishing. I'm happy to share with you.

I'm going to direct you to my blog first. This link
leads to a post on publishing through Amazon. I'd start there. 

Questions for you to answer:
1.    Have you had any professional editing or proofreading done on the manuscript? If no, you need to rethink that position and pay to have at least a proofreader go over the manuscript. See this blog post:
2.   How much control do you want over the book's look, advertising, and cost? Traditional publishers are decreasing in number and number of publications. Most won't accept manuscripts unless they come through an agent. Independent publishers are located along a continuum. Nearly all require money from you to publish your book. The return on your investment varies, but will most likely be less than you thought or hoped it would be. Self-publishing is the biggest now. It's fast. It can be free. It can be a great route to take. However, if you don't have a clean manuscript and an eye-catching cover, it can be your death as an author.
I've also published a booklet on story writing and another on self-publishing. Those are available through Amazon.

I recommend you have a website as opposed to just using Amazon's author page. I invite you to check out my website,, and other author websites. There are many options when it comes to building a website. WordPress - - is the platform used by many authors. They have several levels of support/cost.

I use Adobe Muse and build, revise, and update my site myself. My website is hosted by a private group at no cost to me. There are many options for website hosting. A Google search will provide more than enough options. Many hosting sites offer website-building software a little or no cost as well.

If you're not on social media, start immediately. That's the quickest way to get the word out about your book(s), but it's time-consuming. I'm on Twitter, facebook, and LinkedIn every M-F. Most of it is through Hootsuite, but I also do "real time" posting and reacting each week.

If you have specific questions, let me know.
I can provide additional information about most of what I've presented above.

Next Author’s blog: Lessons Learned from Young Authors

At least that’s my plan!

Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook:
My website is:

I'd appreciate your feedback as a comment on Blogger!

Follow A Day in the Life of a Science Fiction Writer by Email