Friday, December 19, 2008

Visiting Writer: Emily Dressler

Emily Dressler obtained her MFA in 2008 and teaches writing courses at the University of Akron. Emily was copy editor for the Buchtelite as well as editor of the Akros Review for a number of years. Emily served a brief stint at Brown Mackie College and the International Institute. She is currently a fiction editor for the national journal, Barn Owl Review. Emily was runner up in The Atlantic Monthly college fiction contest and was recognized as a Coulter Emerging Writer by the University of Akron. Emily's story "The Bloody Nose" will appear in 10,000 Tons of Black Ink. Emily lives in Kent with her boyfriend Rob, cat Potato, and turtle, Spike. For a brief time Emily cared for a black baby squirrel. Emily was a vegetarian, but because she was too poor to afford to discriminate, she now considers herself a Freegan—someone who prefers free food*

Matt pointed out that his brother's turtle is named Soup. Emily felt this was a superior name.

Emily read the story "The Drought." The story was one in a series of stories following a central character, Helen, through childhood, young womanhood, and eventually, adulthood. Emily emphasized that the collection was not a novel and while perhaps the storyline would be more complete if it were conceived as such, she's not ready to write a novel, nor does she want to think of the Helen stories as a collection aspiring to be a novel.

"The Drought" follows Helen during the summer after her mother moves out. It is a story that has both a first kiss and a dead body. Helen spends a lot of her time with a boy named Alan, with whom she shares the kiss. They swim often in a pond behind the Edgerly's house. It is here where the kiss happens; it is here where Helen and Alan view Mr. Edgerly hanging from a tree, socks inside out. "It's not a mystery story," Emily said. Sometimes people stop loving for no reason at all, whether they stop loving a spouse the way Helen's mom stopped loving, or the way Mr. Edgerly stopped loving life itself.

Tony thought the awkwardness of Helen and Alan's first kiss was very romantic.

Emily talked about how she came up with the story. She admitted the spark came partially from reading two plays: one called "The Quare Fellow," which made her think of the phrase "hangman's daughter."

"It stuck with me," Emily said. Another play gave her the image of a man waiting by a hearth. Emily admits that the creative process is mysterious and urged the fiction students to use their own method of storytelling: "Even if it isn't a strategy, if it works for you, go with it."

Tony liked the story, and admitted that Emily must be very creative to have conceived "The Drought" in such a way. Tony confessed that most of his stories come from dreams, though he is working hard on a story about real life. Emily agreed that this was a good idea.

Emily confessed to writing a story that centered around Mrs. Edgerly after her husband's suicide. In the story Mrs. Edgerly sets out all her dead husband's things for a neighborhood garage sale.

We discussed in-class writing exercises, and because I have a tendency to assign a lot of them, I asked Emily if she thought they were a waste of time.

Emily agreed that all writing, formal or informal probably informs your serious work, but felt that a lot of in-class writing assignments could be crossing the line. Emily credits Eric Wasserman with assigning an in-class exercise that helped her understand her own story "What it Means." The exercise is: Imagine your character as the opposite sex. What do they want?

We discussed workshop. Geneva felt that sometimes workshop can be discouraging. Emily replied, "So can driving to work in the morning, getting out of bed, showering, tying your shoes. Especially tying your shoes."

* red meat, free or not, is out of the question.

Thanks for your reading, Emily!


Talia said...

Hello. I'm a new teacher this year (8th grade English), as well as a poet myself, and I really enjoy this blog. I'd love to read more about what you do in your classroom.

John said...

Hi Talia, and thanks for your interest in this blog. I did my student teaching in the eighth-grade and while it was the hardest thing I’d done up until that point in my life it was also a lot of fun. Just to give you an idea, I remember being so nervous while teaching my first lesson (I was 22, and I think it was a grammar exercise, something like bellwork, correct the sentence… you get the idea) I made a mistake on the overhead and grabbed the spray bottle to wipe away the ink. Well, I had the nozzle pointed at me, not the overhead glass, and you can probably guess what came next. I know it sounds like I’m making this up, but I swear I’m not. I was that much of a dweeb. Anyway, all the kids laughed, I laughed, and it really cut the tension.
Among the epiphanies I had back then, the realization that a teacher cannot address an entire room the same way one might address a single person was stunning. I also learned that the collective IQ of a full classroom is much lower than perhaps that of a single individual. While this may sound cynical I don’t think it is, and while it may be true with eighth graders, it is also true with seniors in high school and, I’ve found, most adults. I realized I really had to slow down what I was saying and be direct. I was used to writing convoluted and clever strings of direction and had to abandon that style for simple sentences. As my high school math teacher might have said, I needed to stop mumbling in my peach fuzz.
My cooperating teacher at the time was great—she taught language arts and was a total ball of energy. She arranged the desks in a horseshoe shape, and her system of classroom management was unique—she had cards up on the board that counted down from five to zero. Anytime the class would not listen when she wanted her attention, a five became a four and so on (one essential tip I leaned from her was to never speak while the class is talking). At the end of the period, the day’s score was recorded. When the class reached 100 points she threw them a little party. If the class reached zero for the day, there was an adverse consequence. Because I was a novice, she felt that when I took over her classes I should rearrange the desks in a way that might be easier to manage. So, we went to rows. I still use rows mostly because my classroom isn’t quite big enough to do something fancy, but we often form a circle for discussion.
I’m writing a lot about classroom management here, because it’s probably one of the most important and difficult skills to learn if teaching in the public schools. It’s also the one not many people want to deal with. When I tell people I teach I usually get one of two reactions: either they say, “Better you than me,” or “Summers off, eh?” I didn’t exactly student teach in the toughest district, but like most neighborhoods, there were “tough kids.” I remember, probably one of the reasons I didn’t get a job there, during announcements, while I was organizing my lessons at the front of the room, one kid got up, walked over to another kid and punched him in the face. Well, it was the forehead. If I had been a master teacher I might have been able to tell trouble was brewing, but as a novice I had no idea. There were no words, no shoves, just “POW!” I had to walk them both down to the office. I felt bad for the kid who got hit, because a welt was forming on his forehead and he didn’t try to fight back.
An incident happened in the classroom while I was on hall duty before the bell. My cooperating teacher handled this one—she had the kids write down what they saw. Everyone’s note pointed toward one particular student. It was brilliant.
I gave a few lunch detentions. When I got my current job, giving a detention was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. And I’ve done a lot of stuff. I’ve jumped out of an airplane, for crying out loud, and giving a seventeen year old a detention probably took more determination. Of course the punishment should fit the crime, so to speak, and I’m not one of those teachers that gives detentions for not having a pencil, but I figured out a teacher should have one rule on which they do not budge. Mine is being late to class: once warning, twice detention. If they see you’re not going to budge, most of the other stuff will take care of itself.
This all sounds negative, but it’s the work a teacher has to be willing to do for all the other really great stuff to happen. When I student taught I used stories from the collection by Kathi Appelt called Kissing Tennessee. It’s a collection of short stories that follows different characters during an eighth grade dance. It’s a marvelous book for young readers, especially eighth graders. There is one particular story in which a skater-kid is questioning his sexuality, and I was advised not to approach the subject with the eight-graders. I suppose it depends on your district, but if I were teaching that book today I’d probably teach the story anyway. What the hell, right?
Nick Hornby is another writer young adults appreciate. I’ve got a reluctant reader reading his book Slam in reading workshop right now. Another is reading Long Way Down. Reluctant readers always devour Stanley Tookie William’s Life in Prison. That was weird…when he was going to be executed, that book circulated the entire class. It allowed us to talk about our feelings on the death penalty in a more informed and mature way. You probably know the ALA (American Library Association) lists picks for reluctant readers. I find a lot of gems there.
Trying to be a writer and a teacher at the same time is tough. If you want to be serious about both, it’s like having two full time jobs: one during the day, one at night. Your family doesn’t ever see you, nor do your friends. When I was working on the bulk of my thesis, that’s pretty much how I was living. I got some writing done at school on occasion, during planning and lunch, but most of it happened at home with the door shut at eight or nine o’ clock at night. Now it’s even later because I want to spend time with my son when I get home. But for me, teaching informs my writing, so I don’t think I could have one without the other. It seems I do my best work during the school year. Writing in the summer is ideal, but it seems like more of a struggle to get to the desk.
If this is your first year teaching you’re probably at your lowest right now. My advice is to keep encouraged, don’t do any schoolwork over break and reconnect with family and friends. The first days of school are the toughest. Everything usually gets easier from here and you'll begin to see your hard work pay off!

Talia said...

Thank you so much for such a detailed response. I never thought I'd be teaching 8th grade. I always said I'd never do middle school, but this job is a situation that I couldn't pass up. And I'm really loving it. My student-teaching was with 10th and 11th graders. I taught Macbeth and Huck Finn. I am in a really conservative district. In fact, I have at least one Amish student in all of my classes. The district also has quite a bit of $$, comparably, so we have newish classrooms and technology. You're right. I've learned a lot. The first day of school was so dreadfully frightening. I was literally terrified of my students. But, we've been through Anne Frank, Poe, Autobiography & Biography, and we just finished up a mini-sci-fi unit. I'm lucky in that I sort of get to teach what I want, so I've been playing it by ear. After break we're starting Steinbeck's "The Red Pony." We are also working on a variety of 5-paragraph essays.

I'll keep reading your blog, indeed.

Bob said...

I'm so glad to see Emily Dresler came to your class. She is such a great and unique personality and an interesting writer.

I hope you'l check my blog, John, and write a brief entry for it about a reading experience:

Anyone is welcome.