The Stories of Our Lives

Blog Post Prompt: Prepare a list of five works (fiction, poetry, drama, history, science, engineering, or business non-fiction) that you have read over the past year that you have most enjoyed. For each piece, write 3-5 sentences about your attachment to the work. Consider whether each reading was a non required reading or a text for class. How might we enjoy the reading we do for school just as much as the reading we do on our own?

  1. Blood of Olympus
  2. The Hobbit
  3. The Wide Awake Princess
  4. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  5. The Falconer

Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan  This book was the end of one of my favorite series of all time. I first met the main character of the prequel series Percy Jackson when I was in elementary school. His sass and his story have gotten me through some tough years, and it is a story I keep coming back to: reading and rereading even though I know the story by heart. When I first finished this book, I wrote a post about it to say goodbye and thank you to the characters who have shaped the person I am today, and to the author who provided me with hours of adventure.

The Hobbit by J.R. Tolkien  I’m not going to lie: this story was a tough one to get through. There’s a lot of detail in the not so exciting parts, and a fast pace in the exciting parts. I finished it on the flight back from London over winter break, which was a good time to be reading it because I got to sit on the top floor of the British Library while I read the chapter about The Battle of the Five Armies. But while I remember having a hard time reading it because of how slowly it moves, I also remember how good the story is and how cool it was to see Bilbo Baggins grow.

The Wide Awake Princess by E.D. Baker  I have read this book more times than I can remember, but still I come back to it. This book, Baker’s book Wings, and her series The Frog Princess are books I’ve been reading since late elementary school, but there are ones I return to time and time again. Her characters are spunky and sass and don’t take “no” for an answer, the stories make me laugh at the shenanigans the characters get into, and the books are the perfect read when I’m busy with school because since I know the endings so well, there’s no rush to the end.

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams  This was my summer reading for school this past summer, and is one of my friend’s favorite books. It reminded me of my summer reading the year before, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, because of the sci-fi qualities and the unpredictability. And as someone who is not a huge fan of science, I find it really interesting that I enjoy sci-fi books and stories. This book leaned more towards the biology side of science-fiction, rather than the physics side like in The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, with new creatures and new thoughts on old creatures, which reminded me of Doctor Who, one of my favorite shows.

The Falconer by Grant Lichtman  This list didn’t feel entirely complete without this book. I was pushed by Mr. Adams and Mrs. Cureton to read this book because of work that I had been doing on the topic of the redesign of education. I definitely thought of things differently after reading The Falconer: what school could look like, what it means to solve a problem, and what exactly a problem even is. I ended up writing a blog post based on a question posed in the book: Is Gravity a Concept or a Principle? I also got to talk with the author, which was an interesting experience in and of itself, and one I wish I had more often.

I’ve loved reading for a really long time – about 8-9 years now – and I’ve read a lot of books both for class and for me. I’ve found that personally, I don’t necessarily dislike a book just because we’re reading it for a class: I dislike a book because I dislike the story itself. I think a book, no matter what you read it for, is either going to be enjoyable or be terrible. And in my experience and from my observations, the people who don’t like the reading we do in class and so proudly refuse to read just aren’t reading the right stories. I have friends, too, who love to read but haven’t read a full book for school since middle school because they don’t like the books and don’t see the purpose of reading it if they can get by without doing it.

In short, I think it’s important to think about the culture students live in now and what they read for fun when picking the books they have to read in class, rather than just going with the “classics.” There are plenty of literary criticisms in today’s books, if that’s what you’re worried about.

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A Study in Style

Blog Post Prompt: Do we need to like everything we read? Why?

The definition of the verb form of need is “[to] require (something) because it is essential or very important.” So while we don’t need to like everything we read, we do need to read things we don’t like.

Everything written was written for a reason: to inform, to entertain, to intrigue. From all of these things, we expand our world-view and our knowledge. Many times, a work of writing will do two or more of the above things, and the pieces we like usually entertain us. On the other hand, sometimes an author’s writing style simply does not agree with what we like to read. In these cases, we learn more about our own writing style.

Many authors over the years have said that if you don’t read, you can’t write. Does this mean if you are a journalist you need to read novels? No, it doesn’t. A journalist should read articles written by other journalists to expand their writing styles and trick.

Every now and then, I will look back at some of my early writings in each of the forms of writings I do. Usually, I cringe. I also, however, have a chance to admire how much I’ve grown. In the six years since I started writing fiction, I have read a myriad of books and stories. Each of these readings have given me new phrases, new styles, and new knowledge. From this new information, the way I write has changed drastically, becoming partially a compilation of the styles of my favorite authors – the ones whose books I’ve read so many times that the plot line and phrases are practically ingrained in my mind – and partially a work towards perfection of the style I first started writing in. This combines into how I now write, which I know will continue to change as I continue to grow.

There have of course been things that I’ve read that I haven’t liked. From these I also grow. The interesting thing about not liking something you’ve read is that sometimes it’s not the content you disagree with, but the style. In these cases, I think our writing styles change more than from the things we do like.

It’s easy to pull from things you like. A sentence structure, a plot twist, or an interesting fact can all spark your own creative process. It’s far harder to create something from you would rather have left untouched. In these cases, it is important to figure out why you don’t like the other piece. Is it the content? Is it the format? Or is it the author’s style? If the last, we should figure out how we ourselves can avoid writing the same way, which can sometimes drastically change the way we write.

We shouldn’t like everything we read because if we did, we couldn’t learn everything we should learn about our own writing. So struggle through those long articles and boring textbooks. You’ll come out better for it in the end.

Adding Up the Things We Love

Blog post prompt: After reading The 100-Hour Knack, what do you think was the author’s purpose in writing this article? What point is he trying to make? How does he do it?

I remember being in AP World History class last year and the teacher saying it was insane to expect us to master anything in the course of a school year. And yeah, it is. We’ve all heard it: “It takes 10,000 hours to master something,” but have we every really thought about what that takes in the long run?

There are 8,760 hours and 15 minutes in every year. We spend a lot of that time sleeping, eating, and working.  Even if we were to work at something every hour of the day with no breaks, it would take us over 1 year and 52 days to master something. No one could do that. Instead, we break it up over years. And let’s be real, who has the time to do that with all of their hobbies or other things that take up their time?

Thomas Both of the d.school at Stanford wrote an article about this called The 100-Hour Knack, which points out that we can’t devote 10,000 hours to everything we do, but we need some amount of time to learn how to do something. Giving the example of the doodles he did for his boss’s book, Both argues that when we don’t need to master something, just become proficient in it, 100 hours marks the time we move from putting more into something than we get out of it to getting more out of something than we put in it.

Using stories and examples, Both leads the reader down a path from pre-conseved notions to a new idea, creating a solid argument for why he is right. By telling his own story, the author gives us a glimpse into how he created this idea, showing how he’s used it. He also shows the lasting benefits of spending 100 hours on something by pointing out that he started using his new found skill (sketching) in other aspects of his life: “I unexpectedly found myself sketching for other things: my friend’s baby shower, my class syllabus, and more.” Showing that the skills you learn will be used for more then their first application makes it seem more worthwhile to put in the time.

Acknowledging that there will be frustrations at the beginning, Both suggests that you have a reason behind learning something knew, and that you keep in mind that it will be useful later. Don’t do things for the sake of doing it, he argues. Instead, do things that you care about.

The Happy Ending

Prompt: What’s the importance of “The Hero’s Journey”? How has storytelling evolved from oral to written and where is the future of storytelling headed? Are we going back to our roots?  

(This post has spoilers for The Hobbit)

I would say that the first time I ever truly learned about The Hero’s Journey was in my 9th grade English class (shout out to Mrs. Chesser for being awesome!). I want to say it was the beginning of the year when we’re all sort of still clinging to the last rays of the summer sun and there’s still hope that this year we won’t feel like we’re drowning in school work and obligations and pressure to do well. We talked about how over time authors have developed a pattern to their stories, a road that almost every protagonist in almost every story follows (I say almost because there are usually exceptions to every rule).

As a lover of the written word, I’ve always been fascinated by learning new things about both the things I love reading and the things I love writing. I started to look at my favorite books in a new light. I of course knew that most books have predictable endings (the guy gets the girl, the evil person looses, the protagonist comes home), but I never really understood why. Or why that predictability appeals to humans so much.

In all of the years we’ve told stories, we’ve followed a simple pattern: meet the hero, the hero goes on an adventure, the hero returns home changed. Over time, that pattern has gained more steps, added more characters, and become more and more recognized.

I think out of all of the story I’ve ever read, the one that best fits The Hero’s Journey is The Hobbit. We start by meeting Bilbo, a normal hobbit totally opposed to going on adventures. Gandalf comes along and invites him on a journey sure to be filled with excitement and treasure, which Bilbo refuses. Promptly putting this encounter out of his mind, you can imagine Bilbo’s surprise when Gandalf and a dozen dwarves show up on his doorstep and eat all of his food. Somehow, they convince him to go win back the dwarves’ Mountain from Smaug, the great dragon who’s taken it and all of its gold. After a trek that involves goblins, trolls, giant eagles, elves, and humans, they arrive at the Mountain, and Bilbo – both the hero and the smallest of the group – slays the great beast, winning back The Mountain. After a battle for The Mountain between 5 armies, Bilbo finally gets to return home. After being gone for almost a year, his things are being sold off by his neighbors. We leave him grumpy about being thought dead, but a changed man (hobbit?) from who he was at the beginning of the book.

One thing that I’ve found interesting about this book is that the mentor isn’t with the hero the whole time. In other books, like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, there are times when the mentor isn’t with the hero because the author didn’t make them part of the adventure or there’s no need for them to be there, but in The Hobbit, Tolkien specifically had Gandalf leave the group just when they’re about to really need him. This form of forcing the hero to grow, adapt, and think is interesting to me because so often it is very obvious that the hero couldn’t have done it without their mentors and sidekicks. Instead, over and over again, Bilbo is left alone to figure things out by himself.

I think part of the importance of The Hero’s Journey is just that: the changes between it from story to story, but also the continuities. Obviously, things like the setting, characters, and plot change from one story to another, but we can always count on certain steps, and a happy ending. I think humans like that predictability with all of the unpredictable things that happen in our own lives. There’s something comforting about knowing that no matter what pains happen in the characters’ lives, they will always get a happy ending: the girl, the victory, the growth. I think we sometimes worry that after all of the pains we go through, we won’t get that happy ending, so we want someone else to get it.

We had a writing assignment last year in English class that I lost a lot of sleep over. Not because I was up late finishing it or anything like that, but because of the prompt: Is human nature inherently good or inherently bad?

I’ve continued to think about this question long after the due date of the assignment (I hope you’re happy, Mrs. Tussey, that your assignment has stuck with me). Not every day, but sometimes I’ll think of it again and rethink my answer. To be perfectly honest, I think most of the answers people gave were not what they actually thought, but instead what they could best defend with the sources they were given. I know my answer was because of that. Now, given the time to properly think about it, I think my answer is that in it’s simplest form, human nature is to make our decisions based on past experience. A villain is not born a villain, but experience has made them one. A hero is more often forced into that role than willingly takes it up. And for those of us who fall into the middle category, I think we wish the best upon those we don’t know but who look down on their luck, and only really wish harm upon those who have hurt us. Or maybe we wish good upon everyone, but if someone has hurt us there may be a time where we are indifferent to their lives until we forgive them. Or maybe that’s just me. The thing about human nature is that more often than not, we have only our own experience and maybe the experience of those we surround ourselves with to make our decisions, which creates incredibly biased opinions. We share these opinions through the stories we tell, both spoken and written.

Once, a very long time ago, our only means of telling stories was through spoken word. We would gather around fires or in amphitheaters or near our grandparents and hear the stories told, the ones the storytellers had heard when they were children. As we progressed, people started to write these stories down. With the invention of things like typewriters, we spread these stories to bigger and bigger audiences across the country, the continent, the world. We were exposed to thousands of different lives, and our knowledge and understanding grew.

The assignment Anya and I assigned to ourselves for summer work was to read (or watch, in the case of TED Talks) ten articles and place them in The Hero’s Journey. When we shared them with each other, we were curious about the ratio of videos to articles and discovered it was about 1:4, which brought up the discussion of the ways we tell our stories have changed and curiosity of why we looked at more articles than videos. When the iD mentors came in, we discussed it a bit more and wondered if part of it was that we read articles more in school than we watch videos, so it seemed like the more natural choice. We also wondered if oral stories were making a comeback, or if TED Talks and YouTube videos and other things like them were a combination of the two and that’s why they are gaining so much popularity.

With movies and TV shows, a script is (usually) first written, the actors are picked, and the movie/show is produced (with tons of other steps in there). One of my recent favorite discoveries is vlogseries. They’re all over YouTube and essentially it’s people making characters from books into YouTubers and telling stories that way. Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Little Women, Peter Pan, and Frankenstein are just a few of the many out there. These classic stories are told in 5-10 minute clips, sometimes from one perspective, sometimes from many, and provide a way for new generations to connect with stories and characters hundreds of years older than they are.

But why do people go to all of that effort just to make it easier for people to like the classics? I think it’s because humans like stories. We like feeling connected to others. We like to believe in a happy ending. And The Hero’s Journey means we get a happy ending, even if it isn’t for our own story.

The First Day

Well, we’ve officially started. Anya and I have created our own AP Lang course (link to Anya’s blog posts about it), which we will be taking this year.

Our course focuses a lot on what we want to do and what we love to do. In a few words: innovation, education, and the fine arts.

For a bit of background, this all started last year when Anya and I were complaining about the writing assignments we had to do in English class. Given how much writing we do for Innovation Diploma and on our blogs, Mrs. Cureton brought up creating our own AP Lang class, and it happened.

I’ll be honest, I was a bit skeptical at the beginning. Excited, but skeptical. After all, I’ve spent 15 years of my life with teachers deciding what we’re going to do each class with very little student autonomy (aside from the occasional “pick how you want to present the topic you picked” which I never really liked because I always felt so constrained, even with all of the supposed freedom), and to me, there were so many things that could go wrong. I also wondered how it would be perceived by the general masses. So far, it’s all been good, which is rather comforting.

After about half of a semester of on-and-off work, and a summer of getting together at school to work, the syllabus is finally ready to be submitted to the College Board. Now we just need it to pass.

As Anya talked a bit about in a blog post a while ago, this process definitely gave me a lot of empathy for teachers. Today, as we were finishing up, Mrs. Cureton brought up attendance and asked how we were thinking we were going to handle letting Mrs. Smith know we were both there. Honestly, we hadn’t. I think there’s especially empathy for first-year teachers because while most teachers start to figure out what works and what doesn’t, we have no idea how any of this will turn out. Here’s to hoping for the best.

Part of what we’re doing is a weekly blog post. We will alternate creating prompts around reflection, reading analysis, and argument based on probably either what we’re reading or current events. Those will be put up on these blogs, rather than our usual blogs (find Anya’s AP Lang blog here).

We may also upload a few of our other writing pieces that we are especially proud of here, so there will hopefully be a larger variety of blog posts than the three topics listed above.

Assessment has, of course, been a rather big discussion in all of this. We will not be submitting grades (we basically flat out refused), but we obviously still need some way to prove we’ve learned what we need to learn. We’ve worked out a system of self-evaluation and mentorship for essays and other writing assignments, multiple choice will obviously be handled by checking the key, and end of the semester grades will involve a dissertation. Crazy, I know.

That’s all I can really think to share on this first blog post to set down the base of we are doing and basic structure. Please let me know if you have any questions or if you’re interesting in getting in contact with us!