Eragon Book Review

After I finished reading Eragon, I read a bit of criticism on the novel. My husband had already cued me in to the fact that the author was a teenager when he wrote it, so I knew not to expect mature writing. Some of the criticism though talked about how unoriginal it is and how it’s a total plagiarism of The Lord of the Rings. I wouldn’t go so far as that, but the work certainly wouldn’t exist, as many other works wouldn’t, without the influence of Tolkien on the fantasy genre.

Eragon is the story of an epic hero, true to every bit of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.

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By Verlagsgruppe Random House (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41207422

So when it reads like other stories, it’s because they all follow the cycle of the hero: Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, even Shrek. Many of the creatures come from Norse Mythology: elves, trolls, dwarves. Dragons and dragon-slayers are part of many cultures’ storytelling. As stories reuse the hero’s journey and the same mythical creatures, they can sound tired or unimaginative.

I would argue that the world and the adventured Paolini created in Eragon are imaginative. Paolini created a fantasy world that unfolds as a map as Eragon travels across the land. He put together this kingdom and its borders, considering also the land that lies beyond.

My favorite part of the book is the dragon, Saphira. She’s young and playful yet also wise and ancient. She has memories of dragons before her, but also has to learn about this world with her young companion, Eragon. They communicate using something like telepathy, which helps to create depth for both characters. She serves as Eragon’s protector and also as his guide after his original mentor dies (All good mentors die- it’s part of the journey- Obi Wan, Gandalf, Dumbledore- I hope this isn’t spoiling any stories.)

Eragon is an epic tale of a young boy whose background is mysterious and also misfortunate. Ill fate follows him, but he’s also been called on a quest, chosen by a dragon in a yet unhatched egg. It’s a tale of good versus evil. Yet unlike some other tales, where the good and bad sides are clearly formed, Eragon must choose who to ally himself with, knowing that no side is entirely good. His journey involves learning to wield magic which drains him and could eventually kill him. He also must become a skilled fighter, a quick thinker, and a dragon rider.

I would claim that Eragon is entertaining storytelling, especially for its intended audience (young adult), but I would not claim that it is good writing. The prose isn’t well styled, descriptions aren’t beautifully written, and the dialogue feels forced sometimes. It is, however, easy and quick to read, and because of this can be used to grab some reluctant readers who might be interested in the fantasy genre.

I will likely not read anymore of the Inheritance Cycle. The story didn’t personally leave me wanting for more, but I can see the appeal to some to continue on Eragon’s journey.

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Falling Out of Love

My previous post detailed the joys of running and writing and training with your athletes in the same way you would write along with your students. But what happens when you fall out of love with running and with teaching? Both happened to me.

Some days, running is really painful. I have tendinitis in one ankle from an old high school injury, patellar tendinitis (pain in the middle of my knee), and a neuroma that flares up between my 3rd and 4th metatarsals (just imagine a nail going into your foot with each step, and that’ll give you an idea what it feels like).

In my most recent half-marathon race, all three of these things hit me, and by mile 7, I was ready to call it quits. But the problem, I figured out, was that even if I stopped, I would still have to walk to the finish, and moving my legs and feet at all was terrible, so I decided to just keep on running and get it over with sooner. I also had a wonderful lady who thought we were wearing the same shoes, run with me for the last three or four miles. She thought I was helping her, but really, she was keeping me going. I’ve never been more happy for a race to be finished.

So, after that race, I realized that my long distance career was over. I used to love those long runs because they were freeing, and I was really proud of how far my legs could carry me. But now, it’s just so painful, there’s nothing freeing about it.

Five years ago, this is how I felt about my teaching career. When I first starting teaching, I told myself that I knew I would have bad days, but when I had an entire week that was bad, I needed to do something about it. And then it happened. A whole bad week.

It was my first year teaching freshmen. Over half the class of 33 were repeaters and a third had specialized learning plans. I was at my wit’s end. I felt like I had no support from administration, all of my subject-matter colleagues were teaching that same block, so they couldn’t help me, and I was losing control. To top it off, I battled mono that semester and then shingles. Teaching wasn’t enjoyable anymore.

A school year later, I found myself in a job outside of the classroom, working in instructional technology. I found a bit of peace in not having to discipline students or failing them (literally, figuratively). I’ve been out of the classroom officially for three years now, but I’ve spent that time working with teachers and faculty members, developing instructional practices and online courses.

I haven’t stopped running since my last half-marathon, but I certainly haven’t been running as much or as far. I’ve actually discovered I really like biking and rowing and taking long walks with my husband and dogs just as much as I like running. This diversity of exercise helps to keep things interesting, but also means that on days when I do run, it’s not nearly as painful.

Sometimes we have to step away from what we love, or used to love, in order to renew our passion for it. And maybe the passion never comes back in the way it once was, but now it’s something new, and something shaped by a variety of experiences rather than a tunnel-like vision on one goal, one activity, one classroom.

In my time outside of the classroom, I actually spent a lot of time in classroom, they were just other people’s and not my own. I got to see good teaching, great teaching, and moments of teaching we all wish we didn’t have. I got to have conversations with people about teaching, literacy, technology, assignment design, caring for students, and curriculum planning. I got to hear their ideas, create collaborative presentations and truly learn from my colleagues. I also got to see what I didn’t like about myself as a teacher and how I could fix that.

This past semester I was able to teach a course; just one single, three credit hour course. It was fun again.

I think someday I’ll return to teaching. Someday too I’ll return to racing. And when I do, I’ll be a different teacher and I’ll be a different athlete. What’s important, when I do return, is to make sure that my life, and my workouts, have more balance.

The Running/Writing Metaphor

I wrote this post in 2010, but I wanted to republish it today because I have a follow-up entry coming on reflecting on running, teaching, reading, and writing as my relationship with running has changed over the years.

The Running/Writing Metaphor (inspired by Cindy Urbanski’s book)

“Beginning to write is like standing at the bottom of a hill…The hardest part is putting one foot in front of the other and getting started.” -Urbanski, p34

I am a runner, and I’m proud of it. I’m not intimidated by other runners because I fit into the sport. They won’t judge me; they’ll see me as a fellow runner. I’m not so confident about climbing. I like climbing, but I don’t call myself a climber. I know some of the lingo and I could climb a 5.9 pretty well, but every time I go into the gym, I feel like I’m being judged. I’m not a part of their culture. And so I should remember that feeling with my students when I’m writing. It’s a culture as familiar to me as running, but most of them probably feel like I do when I walk into a climbing gym: like people will judge me for not being as good as them or for not knowing what to do when they tell me to “smear.” And what would make me feel more comfortable in that culture and what would make my students feel more comfortable in the writing culture is to immerse myself in it daily: practice until I can climb a 5.13, take a lesson on lead, use the vocabulary. If I were to climb on a regular basis, I could call myself a climber. If my students were to write on a regular basis, they could call themselves writers.

As runners, writers, and climbers, we have to practice every day to get better, and we have coaches and teachers who push us through those daily practices and exercises. It was never my goal or dream to be a high school cross country coach, but that’s exactly where I find myself now. When I start connecting coaching and teaching writing, it gets me thinking: Would I give my cross country kids random workouts without understanding the physiology of their bodies, they way different workouts affect them, long term consequences, and short-term benefits? No. Why not? Because I don’t want to injure them; I want to train them for the appropriate event in the most efficient way possible. I want them to get the most out of each workout so I’m going to ground myself in things like lactic acid buildup, fast twitch vs. slow twitch muscles, and so on. But coaching isn’t just understanding the science of running; it’s knowing your kids, motivating them, working with them, encouraging them, etc. And so when we go to teach writing it’s the same thing. It’s studying theories, reflecting on practices, keeping a “running log” of what you’ve been doing to see what works and what doesn’t.

My high school cross country coach never ran, well once he did, but he didn’t even make it all the way around the lake for the warm-up lap. This is not how I view coaching and teaching. Once we get our students introduced to the culture of writing, we can’t just leave them with a blank page and a pen and say, “Go!” We have to be a part of the training with them, run with them, write with them. But when you get down to it, running can be downright miserable. I know some of those workouts I give my athletes in 90 degree weather or in the freezing cold rain are downright miserable. I know this because I’m out there doing it with them. Sometimes it’s just really hard to even motivate myself to go on a run, or it’s easier to take the flat route instead of the one with hills. Sometimes I even want to stop and walk. It’s the same with writing. When I write with my students, I am reminded of the frustration I feel sometimes, or the joy I get in accomplishing my goals. That’s why it’s so important to write with our students so that we don’t forget how intimidating a giant hill can be, or how far away three miles seems to be, or how difficult it is to fill a blank page with coherent ideas, or how daunting it seems to write an eight page research paper. They appreciate it too, seeing you suffering with them, and all the while growing yourself as a runner and a writer.

The Secret Adversary Review

Secret_Adversary_First_Edition_Cover_1922Agatha Christie begins The Secret Adversary with the dedication, “To all those who lead monotonous lives in the hope that they may experience at second hand the delights and dangers of adventure.” In this novel, Christie takes her readers on an adventure, now of the past, through 1919 England, and it is truly delightful.

The mystery genre has become one of my favorites, but I’ve found that few people do it well. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie have set a high standard for writers. Most of my experience reading Christie have been through the tales of Hercule Poirot. While these tales are entertaining and often plot-twisting, and Poirot a worthy detective, his character often reads as pompous. Not so with The Secret Adversary’s Tommy and Tuppence.

The two young detectives, or rather, founders of The Young Adventurers, are refreshing characters, mixing in luck and personality to solve the crime. Tommy is well-described in the book as deliberate in his thinking and hard to read; some even mistake him for being slow. Tuppence, on the other hand, is quick-thinking and witty yet sometimes impulsive. The two personalities complement one another well. Christie created characters that have a lot of chemistry between them, and this plays out well as friends and partners.

The story begins in 1915 with the handing off of secret government documents to a young American woman upon the bombing of the Lusitania, as she is more likely to be rescued. Then we skip forward to 1919 where we meet up with Tommy and Tuppence, post-war, searching for steady employment, but instead seeking adventure. The Young Adventurers are formed, and are handed their first mission to recover this lost document, more dangerous and potentially deadly than they imagined.

The novel shifts back and forth between Tommy and Tuppence as one goes missing and the other continues the adventure, even after facing the possibility that their partner could be dead. They are aided by Julius P. Hersheimer, millionaire and self-proclaimed cousin of Jane Finn, the missing girl who received the secret documents, and Sir James Peel Edgerton, prominent London attorney. The back and forth story between the characters makes for an entertaining read, and Christie gives us a good glimpse of the clues. While none of these four know all, the reader can piece the final puzzle together, even as Tommy and Tuppence stick to the advice to “never tell all you know – not even the person you know best.”

The story is intertwined in the history of the time: the labor party, the Bolshevik movement, the fear of the Red state.  The mission is perilous. There are Russians, Germans, intelligence agents, and spies. The release of the document could mean certain victory for the Labor Party, and a forever change in history. But the seriousness of the setting and the mission are well counterbalanced with the playfulness and energy of the novel’s main characters. Christie balances the tension of the novel well with comedic relief.

Tommy and Tuppence truly make this novel a delight. Agatha Christie is a master of her craft, and I’m so glad I stumbled upon these young adventurers. While Hercule Poirot will continue to be a part of my reading, I’m looking forward to reading more of the Tommy and Tuppence series.

Practice makes perfect, right?

Playing handbells has me thinking about practice. We played a particularly challenging song on Monday night, note that “challenging” is relative here. I was horrible. I had to stop playing and just listen because I lost my place, couldn’t read my notes, and in general gave up on the song. I need a lot more practice.

sheet-music

Many of our students need a lot more practice. But is all practice equal? Is merely trying to master the concept or skill over and over again effective? Much research says no, it isn’t. Hence the term “deliberate practice.” Here’s a good general description of deliberate practice: What is Deliberate Practice?

There are strategies we can use to help learners practice. Going back to my handbell music, it’s pretty useless if I just play it once a week during our dedicated “practice” time. I know myself, and I know I really won’t get much better for week to week, at least not enough to figure out this song. So I found the sheet music online, and now I can practice on my own, but that’s still not enough. The following are practice strategies:

  • Chunk the task into smaller tasks for mastery. With sheet music, that may literally mean only practicing a few measures at time. In problem solving or a task, it’s mastering one step at a time: addition first, then multiplication; writing an opinion, then forming a sentence, then creating a developed claim statement.
  • Go slower; fewer beats per second. In some cases, students might need more time. Others might need help slowing down so they can think about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
  • Use decoding strategies. In my case, colored highlighters for each note and big, flashing words when I need to change from a sharp to a natural bell. Students need help using the language of the discipline,
  • Give practice tasks at the appropriate level. There’s a section of the music that has more notes than I can count in beats, so I can’t practice these measures. They’re currently too difficult. If I practice them, I’ll practice them wrong, over and over. Practice that’s too hard or too easy, doesn’t take learners toward the mastery goal.

Yet there are times when practicing on your own just doesn’t cut it. At home, I have no handbells to play, so I pretend-ring pens. I also don’t get feedback like I do during rehearsals; there I can immediately hear if I’ve played the wrong note because it clashes with everyone else’s. Being at home, away from resources like other students and the teacher creates a difficult situation for some students because they need feedback. Some students might even lack proper materials, like I lack handbells, but there’s might be calculators or highlighters or even a quiet space to work. So students need a low-stakes way to practice in the classroom as well, with peers and on their own, and with feedback.

Like many students, I hope that when I go back to “class” next week and play the song again, my peers or my instructor will make note of my improvement. A little encouragement that all of the practice is paying off goes a long way.

 

Becoming a Learner

I stumbled across this blog post through the portal of a podcast and YouTube. http://myteachingnotebook.com/index.php/2015/08/29/my-journey-to-the-joy-of-learning/ And what I read and saw and heard from Michael Wesch was a reminder, that if I’m going to be a teacher, then I need to remember what it’s like to be a learner. I can’t remember what it’s like to learn to write an essay for the first time or go online to find resources for my research, so really the only way to remember what it’s like to learn is to LEARN.

So this thought stuck with me for a while. I’m really good at intending to learn things, HTML, watercolor, knitting, but I’m not really good at actually following through with those things. I still intend to learn to knit and code and paint awesome pictures, but my intention isn’t helping me to experience learning.

Then I realized that even before I read that blog post, I actually was learning something new, or mostly new. For the past two months, I’ve been playing handbells. I learned basic music growing up. I know the different notes and how to read a measure and where to find my two notes on the treble clef, but I haven’t read or played music in nearly 15 years, so I consider myself a novice. I’m having to learn how to count beats and play on time, what words like forte and martellato mean, and how to ring a bell and turn a page almost simultaneously. I’m learning to play handbells, and I’m enjoying it.

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Chiu, N. (2009) Handbells. Flickr.

I want this blog to be a reflection on my learning journey. I don’t want it to be about my intention to learn, but rather written memories on what it’s like to be the student. My teachers may come in person like the music director or they may come in the form of internet tutorials, online courses, or self exploration and failure. I need to push myself to learn a outside of my comfort zone because the courses I’ll be teaching, while housed in the department of English, will consist of very few English majors who self-elected to spend their college careers reading and writing, and so the content might be a little (or a lot) outside of their comfort zones.

I also know that if I’m asking my students to write, then I should also be writing, so sometimes I’ll be doing what I’ve already learned to do, but as with every field, you can always learn to do it better. It’s just that I’ll never get to go back to the first time I wrote my own research paper (it was on the dying out of frogs in our ecosystems) or the day I discovered the writing of Ernest Hemingway.

Learning to play handbells has already taught me some about what it’s like to be a learner. I experienced not understanding the lingo of a particular field. At one rehearsal, the music director said to me as least 5 times, “play the take.” My stand partner circled a note for me and said, “You play that one too.” And on about the 6th time through, it finally dawned on me exactly what it meant to play the take, and I played my note. But the language was a total barrier to my understanding, even with all the cues I was given. And so now I know it’s important to consider how you phrase feedback or directions to novice learners.

Playing handbells truly is a challenge for me. I have yet to play a song to perfection, nor do I ever think I will. While playing a song I will inevitably either miss a note, play the wrong bell, lose count, forget to take the repeat, play out of turn, or any combination of the above. But I’m okay with making those mistakes because I’m not made to feel like a failure of a musician when I do those things; we just keep practicing until we make fewer of them. The music director believes that anyone can play handbells, but that some just take more time and practice than others.

Isn’t that how we should look at all of our learners? All of them can learn; some might take more time and practice, and some might make fewer or more mistakes than others. But if they ever feel like they can’t or that they just weren’t born with the natural talent to be a writer or a musician or a scientist or a whatever, then they’re defeated before they even get started. So what can educators do for learners? We can believe in them, and we can empathize with them. We can create a space for them to make mistakes, to practice, and to perform, and sometimes all three might be happening at the same time.

I’ll hope you’ll join in learning with me. Here’s to a wonderful journey for us all.