Mrs. Winkler’s Last Summer Book, but She Keeps Reading

The last book I finished before the craziness of teaching all online, synchronous and asynchronous, was a book my brother gave to me a while back, and I finally pushed through the stack to get to it.

I’m glad I did.

No one Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts is marketed to be a retelling of The Great Gatsby, and there are certainly echoes of Fitzgerald’s iconic novel here. The twists, however, make the novel rise above a simple re-telling. Jade Chang in her New York Times review describes the novel as a “skillful riff on ‘The Great Gatsby,’ which revolves around a contemporary black family in a declining North Carolina town,” an apt description of the novel.

Jay Gatsby is recast as JJ Ferguson, a young man who has left Pinewood, a small town in the Piedmont, to seek the American Dream. He returns a wealthy man, and begins to court Ava, our Daisy, who is now married to a weak man who is unfaithful to her.

Sound familiar?

Yes, some of the same themes are there, but the novel reveals the importance of setting in a novel. This is not a New York story. It is not one Nick Carraway could have told. It is not a story that any one person can tell, so we discover the hidden truths from multiple points of view, all circling around the most unlikely of Nick-type characters, Ava’s mother Sylvia, who is rooted in the soil of her Southern home.

Perhaps because I am about the same age as Sylvia, her perspective resonates the most with me. Her transformation is quiet and not earth-shattering– acceptance of herself, her past, and her place in life. Forgiveness. During the extraordinary days that have been the Summer of 2020, I have found myself learning these things, too.

And feeling good about it.

Here is a passage that captures Sylvia’s self-deprecating mood at the beginning of the novel, one of the passages that drew me into this amazing woman’s story:

“None of that hoping and believing girl was left in Sylvia now or at least she couldn’t be found. The woman she was now didn’t yearn for sophistication, and as far as she could tell she’d stopped yearning for much at all. The woman she’d become was fat and weighed down, but not just fat, dumb too, and always in the process of adjusting, like there was two of everything, the real thing and the shimmering copy that her brain had to work with focus and concentration to integrate. Her brain in slow-mo or she felt slow–same difference. The result was the girl she’d been had evaporated from her body like an emancipated soul.”

What I like is that Sylvia makes an honest appraisal of herself here. She is not eliciting pity–simply telling the truth.

I find that refreshing.

That is why I liked No One Is Coming to Save Us. Although it first seemed to focus on the deprivation of a black community in the South, I quickly saw it isn’t only about the African-American South or even about poverty in the contemporary South. It is about the American Dream and how these people, in this special place and time, define it, how they lose it or make it come true.

My next book review will be about the next Western Carolina University Book Club read, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. I have seen the movie version of the book, too, so maybe it will be a book/movie comparison. Spoiler alert: the book is better than the movie, but the movie is very good.

Also, I will soon be unveiling the 2020 fall/winter edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal, slated to appear October 1.

So come back!!

Mrs. Winkler Keeps Reading

Updated June 16, 2020

NOTE: Scroll to the end to see additions to this review. CAUTION: SPOILERS

I joined an online book club for Western Carolina University alumni, and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is the first book we are reading. The book has given me some food for thought and its simple formula for changing habit (cue, routine, reward) has been actually working for me. I have completed short yoga routines for 80 days in a row and am regularly meeting my quota of 600 words a day towards completion of my novel, writing six of seven days a week for the past three weeks, just to name two examples.

Not bad.

One of the main themes of the book is not trying to suppress bad habits but to replace bad habits with positive ones through changing the routine. Duhigg explains and gives examples of the idea that habits are born of cues that trigger the behavior and lead to some kind of reward. He calls it The Golden Rule of Habit Change: “You can’t extinguish an old habit. You can only change it.”

He shows how this works by using a multitude of examples. In the first part of the book he shows how mainly positive examples, including Tony Dungy, coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who changed the team’s habits to eventually lead them to the Super Bowl and Bob Wilson, the founder of AA, how the program’s success for so many people comes in part from establishing new habits.

But in both cases, Duhigg talks about belief, not necessarily a spiritual belief, but some sort of faith must be present to successfully form good habits and this faith is normally found by being part of a group.

The chapter that will be most useful to me as a teacher is “Chapter 5: Starbucks and the Habit of Success.” This chapter talks about how Starbucks had become a powerhouse coffeehouse chain by, simply put, teaching willpower. At the same time, Starbucks has found that giving employees a voice is one of the ways to help develop the self-discipline and willpower needed to train and retain productive employees.

The implications for teaching are obvious–our students need to have more power over what they are learning. If they feel they have choice, they will be more likely to exhibit the self-control necessary to complete their studies

Interesting.

One of the most relevant parts of the book for today is “Chapter 6: The Power of a Crisis.” Duhigg gives an example of a Rhode Island hospital that made radical changes for the better by changing institutional habits following the senseless death of one of their patients.

Following the example, Duhigg states:

“But sometimes, even destructive habits can be transformed by leaders who know how to seize the right opportunities. Sometimes, in the heat of a crisis, the right habits emerge.”

Updated June 16, 2020

In response to a question posed by our book club leader, I wrote the following about the chapter in the book I appreciate in some ways but took exception to in others:

Overall, I have a positive reaction to the book and its author, but my perspective changed quite a bit towards both as I was reading Chapter 7, especially the Target example. The author seemed to treat this example in a positive light at first–as if intrusion into a woman’s reproductive privacy is no big deal. It is only when the marketing team and the data researcher finally question whether his intrusive data collection would actually make money or not that they apparently begin to question how pregnant women might feel.

Interesting also that the author gives an example of an angry father to make his point about negative reactions from the public. I found myself wondering what was happening to the poor young woman who was the daughter of that angry father. How did she feel about the father talking to a manager at Target about her pregnancy? Did the father kick her out of the house because she got pregnant? Did father and daughter reconcile? Is he forcing her to keep the child or marry, or not marry, the father of her child against her wishes? How does the young woman’s mother feel about all of this? But none of this matters to the data collectors or the author of the book, it seems. Maybe it does, but not enough to find out and give examples of how any individual woman feels about this kind of marketing strategy, I guess.

Perhaps the author being a male and the subject of his example being a male was my cue to go to the routine of rolling my eyes at this obtuse behavior. The reward is another great example for my students of sexism and manipulative advertising tactics.

After reading this chapter I was reminded how important it is to continue teaching my students about the power of persuasive techniques that are legal but border on, or are downright, unethical but widely accepted as the norm because they make a lot of money. It is up to my students as consumers to use critical thinking when viewing advertising and recognize the incredible powers of data-driven marketing. It is up to me as their instructor to provide proof of these questionable tactics and for that, I am grateful to the author and his book.

One final question: Why did the author not comment on the initial question the marketers asked the mathematician to solve?

Here’s the question: “Can your computers figure out which customers are pregnant, even if they don’t want us to know?” (182). (Emphasis mine).

That’s okay? I guess so because “Figuring out whose pregnant…could make Target millions of dollars” (184), and this little gem “So for companies, pregnant women are goldmines” (192). Oh, I get it. Priorities.

I think if there is a new edition, Duhigg should consider leaving out Chapter 7. It was the reason I gave the book four stars instead of five. At the very least, he should spend some time trying to get at least one pregnant woman’s view of this kind of advertising.

I know I have harped on the bad, but there is much good to be gleaned from the book as well, so I am glad I read it and have taken part in the discussion.

Mrs. Winkler’s Summer Reading Continues

I will be adding more to this post in the near future to give more details about these two books, so stay tuned!!!

Also, updates on the novel and on Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal.

I have had this book for years and started reading it but put it aside. I’m not sure why; perhaps the time is right for it now, but it is a marvel. So much of it is resonating with me now, especially as I am working on a novel that satirizes higher education in the world today. It’s like I’m doing accidental research.

One of my alma maters, Western Carolina University offered an online book club for alumni, so I joined. Why not?

This is the first book we are reading. I am about half way through, but I got distracted once I started reading Berry’s book. However, I am going to be excited to get back to it because I am definitely learning a great deal.

Five Easy Ways

rear view of man working in office

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The first semester as a graduate assistant working on my Masters in English Education at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, I was required to take a course in teaching methods. Because I already had five years of teaching experience, two years in a private school in Pennsylvania and three years in Rome, Georgia, teaching English and German, I was arrogant enough to think I didn’t need to take the course and was somewhat annoyed that I had to do so.

However, during the course of the semester, I found out how much my professor, Dr. Gayle Miller, had to teach me. One of the best activities Dr. Miller had us complete was teaching to the class. Each one of us had to pick something we were interested in and instruct the class. My friend, who later became a colleague at the school where I teach now, taught a lesson on writing apprehension, offering suggestions I still use today. Another interesting topic was finding a word in an English/Chinese dictionary–surprisingly difficult.

Even the few times Dr. Miller was not there, she always had an interesting person to come in and lecture. It was a long time ago, and I can’t remember her name, but one speaker who came to Dr. Miller’s class made a lasting impact on my teaching by introducing the class to five easy ways that can help students improve their writing.

Although I have modified the list somewhat over the years, I still introduce my freshman composition students to The Five Easy Ways, which I have found especially useful when teaching community college students who may not have been strong writers in high school. The beauty of the The Five Easy Ways is students can improve their writing without knowing much grammar.

Don’t get me wrong! I love grammar, but I have a great deal to accomplish in a short time in freshman English, so I have found that The Five Easy Ways jumpstarts revision among students who may have never truly revised a paper. They just don’t know how!

So here are The Five Easy Ways in their latest iteration:

  1. Avoid the use of first and second person pronouns.
  2. Avoid beginning sentences with There and It.
  3. Eliminate overused expressions and vague modifiers, such as like a lot, lots, very, really, good, bad, awesome, etc.
  4. Avoid over-coordination.
  5. Read backwards and aloud.

Okay, maybe I should not have said they were easy. These five ways may make finding sentences that need revision easier, but fixing them is not always easy.

Okay, okay, there is a little grammar here, too. I usually must explain what first and second person pronouns are and also over-coordination, but most students know the grammar; they just don’t know that they know it. After a few minutes of review, the majority of students begin to remember.

Today, let’s look more closely at the first Easy Way. Students are so used to writing about themselves they find it difficult to think from any other perspective, something we want college English students to do; therefore, I don’t allow first person at all in finished drafts. Also, students learn that stating one’s opinion does not require the phrases I think, I believe, or I feel to precede them. Furthermore, eliminating second person forces students to think more about broadening their audience and often leads them to develop a more mature voice. They can also learn to avoid pronoun errors caused by using the second person incorrectly.

Example: After reading my paper, you can see that it is for the best if you start recycling. 

Oh, me. So many things to talk about–where to begin?  Start with eliminating the first and second person pronouns.

Revised: After reading the paper, most people can see that it is for the best if everyone starts recycling.

Still some things to work on, but for a freshman who doesn’t even know where to begin revising, the sentence is already improved by making just a few simple changes.

Okay, okay, okay. Perhaps you, gentle reader, are thinking how I am forsaking The Five Easy Ways even while explaining them, but I am much more conscious of overusing the first person or inappropriately using the second person. Now, I am consciously looking for this overuse when revising. Looking at the draft of this blog, for example, I noticed the overuse of first person pronouns and have worked to eliminate some pronouns while reconsidering others.

I have incorporated The Five Easy Ways into freshman English classes, which now begin with an assignment that is a personal narrative written in third person.  After completing this assignment, students seem to grasp how avoiding first and second person can strengthen their overall sentence structure.

Here is the assignment and an example:

One of the easiest ways to make writing sound more academic is to eliminate first and second person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours, your, your). Although finding the instances of first and second person is a snap, rewriting sentences to get rid of these pronouns can be time-consuming at first. The good thing is once writers begin using third person only, they soon become used to it and will write in third-person more often, making revision easier and easier.

Therefore, in this exercise students will write a one paragraph (five to ten sentences long) narrative. The trick is to write the paragraph totally in third person .  Here are some suggestions for the paragraph, but students are not limited to these topics:

a car accident

                      an event during a family vacation

learning to drive or learning to do something else

winning or losing a game

failing or succeeding at school or work

the first day of elementary school, high school or college

any other topic as long as it is a personal narrative

IMPORTANT NOTE: The paragraph should begin with a topic sentence and be no shorter than five sentences and no longer than ten well-developed sentences. Telling a story in such a short time is difficult so narrow the paragraph down to the climax of the narrative. 

Take a look at the following example to get an idea of what I’m looking for:

Example:

Katie and a Horse Named Butterball

Katie only rode him once, but she will never forget riding Butterball through the Grand Tetons. She was nine and a half, on a trip back from California to Alabama with her parents and siblings when the family stopped at a dude ranch in Wyoming for two nights. The owners found out that Katie and her sister loved horses, so they decided to take the family on a trail ride. Everyone was given a horse that seemed to suit each one, except Katie, small and scared, who was put up on Butterball–the biggest, fattest golden palomino gelding anyone ever saw! Katie’s little legs stuck straight out across the horse’s wide back, and at first, she was terrified. However, when she realized that the horse was a gentle giant, she relaxed enough to look down on her older sister and brother, even her parents. That’s when she began to feel much better. As she walked the trails through the glorious mountains in late summer, she saw sights she had never seen before or since–the Grand Tetons early in the morning, a moose cow and her calf drinking by a lake, wild horses led by a buckskin stallion–all while riding high on a horse named Butterball.

This first assignment does not cure students of overusing or inappropriately using first or second person, but it certainly gives them something to consider when they begin the revision process as college students, and for some, knowing where to begin is the start of a whole new way to look at writing.

Next blog post, I will tackle Easy Way #2.