Truth in Storytelling: The Reality of Teachers’ Lives
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Episode Show Notes
Author Roxanna Elden discusses her new satirical novel Adequate Yearly Progress, which tells the story of the teachers’ lives across one year in the fictional Texas high school of Brae Hill Valley. Roxanna’s book draws on her own experience as a K-12 public school teacher and her conversations with other teachers around the country. Roxanna says that past portrayals of teachers in popular media can be very unrealistic, and her book is meant to challenge that.
Our closing music is “Yes And” by Steve Combs, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.
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Pius Wong 0:00
What do people not know about what it's really like to be a teacher? Let's discuss, on The K12 Engineering Education Podcast.
Pius Wong 0:14
I'm Pius Wong. My guest is Roxanna Elden, teacher and author, here to talk about her new novel Adequate Yearly Progress, all about the untold reality of teachers' lives in America.
Pius Wong 0:34
Listeners might recognize Roxana Elden, because she's been on this podcast before when I was seeking her expertise about what teachers think and go through. Roxanna was a public school teacher for 11 years and previously wrote a popular advice book for teachers called See Me After Class, which often drew on her own interviews with lots of other teachers. Now, Roxanna Elden has a new book just released this August 2018, called Adequate Yearly Progress. And it's a novel about the complicated lives of teachers in the fictional Texas town of Brae Hill Valley. When I got the chance to talk to her recently, I started out by asking her when she did her writing.
Roxanna Elden 1:19
A lot of that was done simultaneously. So when I wrote See Me After Class, I was a teacher in the classroom. So I really was able to bounce the the writing off the reality. And same thing with this book. The majority of this book was written from the classroom, not necessarily, you know, the writing, but ideas would come to me as I was observing students in real-time or walking through the hallway and overhearing conversations, and then I would just send myself notes and write the book on the weekend, but it really, I think, has a perspective that is hard to capture unless you're getting up at 5am and seeing these things in real-time.
Pius Wong 1:59
You wouldn't have been able to write that book if you had stopped teaching and wrote it like five years later.
Roxanna Elden 2:10
Yeah, there is something about seeing those things and writing about them almost immediately, that I think is missing from, for example, the typical hero teacher movie. You definitely feel that as a teacher watching those movies. And I know that a lot of teachers do enjoy them, but I've never enjoyed them because I find myself just yelling at the screen like, the kid would raise his hand before he says that he hates you, or, you know, everyone wouldn't have done that assignment. And so the little moments that actually happened in the classroom I really wanted to get right even though the story is an actual story. It's not just about the day-to-day lives of teachers, but it was very important to me to get those details right and have it be something that rings true to people who spend a lot of time in class.
Pius Wong 3:00
Yeah, it sounds like you've got some of the same goals then as when you first started writing about teaching.
Roxanna Elden 3:08
Yeah, Adequate Yearly Progress was something that, when I sat down to write it, I had this idea of writing the kind of novels that I like to read, which are much more -- they have a lot of different perspectives. They aim for more complex characters and very realistic details. And that was something I hadn't seen a lot in school-related stories. Often you just have this one hero teacher who's battling the odds to save the kids. So the details in those stories never rang true to me as a teacher watching these movies or reading these stories. And I wanted to write a story that would ring true to teachers but in the same way that probably the TV show The Office rings true to a lot of people. It makes you laugh, there's a good storyline. But there's all these little details that they kind of nail because it's clearly been written by people who have experience in that work environment. So I wanted to write a story that captured teaching in the same way, as part of the story is aimed at teachers specifically, it's aimed at everyone in the same way that the TV show The Office is, you know, not just aimed at people who work in an office. But I do think that there's something extra that teachers will get out of it. That's just kind of a shout-out to them.
Pius Wong 4:35
The title, itself, that phrase Adequate Yearly Progress, probably has a lot of meaning to teachers, if someone doesn't know what that means. What does that mean, and why did you title your book that?
Roxanna Elden 4:48
Well, Adequate Yearly Progress is kind of education jargon that teachers will have heard a lot. To other people, I've asked around, like, people who are not teachers, what do you take from the phrase adequate yearly progress? And a lot of them just kind of say, Well, it seems a little, maybe a little bit sarcastic. It definitely seems jargony. But also, there's something about this idea that you are making adequate yearly progress, which is what everyone wants to do in all areas of their life. So I would say that both of those are themes in the book. There's definitely a lot of humor based on what happens in schools. But there's also the human element that we all want to make a little bit of progress every year that feels adequate.
Pius Wong 5:42
Yeah, I thought it was really interesting that you mentioned that you already asked other people about the title and what they thought. I got that same vibe of sarcasm in not just the title, but in certain parts of your book, or satire, I guess, is the better word. And you said that you also wrote the story from the point of view of a lot of people. Kind of like The Office, you have a lot of characters. It's an ensemble.
Roxanna Elden 6:06
Pius Wong 6:07
The first character that shows up in the book, I think, is Lena Wright, an English teacher at the start of the school year. I was wondering if maybe you could read an excerpt from the book where we first learn about Lena, and that way people can get a feel for your story.
Roxanna Elden 6:26
Sure. So this is Lena, right? Who has moved to Texas to teach at an urban school from Philadelphia. She's a Philadelphia native. And she's a spoken word poet. And she's hoping to be part of this community that she's working in and kind of get in touch with her own culture. And this is just after she's gotten out of her car. She's carrying a box into the school for -- not the first day of school but one of the prep days ahead of the first day of school. So this is her.
Roxanna Elden 7:08
She waited until a line of JROTC students marched past, then yanked open the door to a welcome blast of air conditioning. A familiar sign above the office door proclaimed at Brae Hill Valley High School failure is not an option. Though this was not an entirely accurate statement. In fact, near the end of the previous year, Lena had often joked that failure was one of the most popular options at Brae Hill Valley. Today, however, she entered the office with no urge to be sarcastic. It was August. Her spark of late summer hopefulness burned even brighter than usual. And the year ahead shined like the school's freshly waxed floors. Around her, other teachers shared their favorite seasonal greeting, How was your summer? Too short. Haha. Mine, too, Lena smiled but hoped she'd be able to avoid the small talk. As a spoken word poet she hated the feeling of wasting words. Plus, there was only one more day to prepare before tomorrow's marathon of meetings. She put down the box and checked her mail, flinging a summer's worth of catalogs into the recycling bin. They landed with a loud thunk. Maybelline Golan, who stood sorting her own mail according to some meticulous math teacher logic, looked up in disapproval. It's my new filing system, Lena explained. She grabbed the remaining envelopes and stuffed them into her bag, crumpling them in the process. Something about Maybelline's aggressively appropriate presence compelled Lena to flaunt acts of noncompliance. She turned away before Maybelline could react and spotted Katie Mahoney, whose blonde ponytail was, as always, a little loose and slightly off-center. Hey, you made it back for a second year, huh? A flicker of guilt crept into Katie's smile. She tugged at the bottom of her sweater as if worried it was too small. Girl, I'm just playing, Lena laughed, trying to backtrack. The truth was she liked Katie, an eager second-year teacher from the Teach Corp program, perpetually weighed down by an assortment of bags. Katie activated a primal feminine instinct in Lena that, put into words, would have sounded something like, I could give you a makeover. But this year, we have to get you to relax a little. Katie's smile returned to its previous wattage. No way. This year I have to work even harder. I've got OTWP classes for the first time. Ooh, ouch, said Lina. OTWP stood for Open To Wonderful Possibilities, the newest name for the remedial classes whose title changed every few years. Each upbeat term was a new attempt to outrun the previous name stigma. I feel you, though. I've got OTWP reading. No, no, no, clarified Katie. No, I'm actually looking forward to it. I just have to let them know that I don't expect any less from them because of that OTWP label. Well, sounds like you're on the right track. Lena tries to keep the doubt out of her voice as she bent to pick up her box. Nobody liked teaching OTWP classes.
Pius Wong 10:33
When I had read that, and when you are reading it now, I hear a tone of satire and sarcasm, I guess, about some things. You hear about people's thoughts about these remedial classes, about teachers' jargon, about how people will say hi to each other at the beginning of the school year. Why is Lena's point of view like this? Like, there is this satire in there, still hopeful, but mixed with satire and sarcasm. Why is Lena's point of view like that?
Roxanna Elden 11:06
Well, she's definitely one of the more sarcastic characters, personality-wise, and so filtered through her consciousnes, all of this stuff -- like, she's very against cliches. So when, you know, everybody is giving each other the same greeting at the end of the summer. That's something that she immediately recognizes as a cliche. The other thing about her since she's the English teacher, she's very descriptive. And she notices these little details. So I thought that she was a good character to start the book because as she meets everyone, she is going to make commentary on them in her own head. Whereas there's a science teacher who thinks of things in more of a scientific way. There's a math teacher who calculates things and always has kind of a math angle on everything. And then each of those people also has their own personality and life story that they bring to the table that filters everything that happens through the way they see the world.
Pius Wong 12:17
We already heard in that excerpt about some of the other characters. There was Katie and Maybelline, and there's a bunch of other characters that you introduce in that first chapter. Did you write the story on purpose to make it seem like real life? Pulling a teacher preparation program from real life, or pulling the way people think about science or English, pulling that from a real life person.
Roxanna Elden 12:45
I would say all of this is pulled from real life. My favorite authors are people like Tom Wolfe, JD Smith, Elisa Valdez Rodriguez. What they all have in common is they all have multiple characters, multiple perspectives, but also that their books are almost researched to the point where they're almost like journalists. Actually one of them is a journalist turned novelist, but they work really hard to ground all of their details in recognizable real-life situations. So I tried to do that. I had never seen a story like that set in a school. I love those stories, and I love how they capture their environments. So I mean, nothing is based on a one-on-one basis on a real person. But definitely, there might be, you know, 50 people blended into each character, but there's definitely reality behind all of the writing.
Pius Wong 13:49
And you already mentioned some of your important characters like the science teacher, Hernan Hernandez. Just a side note, you included a part where he had, I thought, this great lesson about scientific method and volume and stuff. I'm not going to describe it, but I saw at the end that you got that from a real teacher.
Roxanna Elden 14:09
Pius Wong 14:10
Okay. No, that was cool. I need to pull that in some of my science lessons that I'm doing. But he's really different, like you said, from your other characters. Different from Lena, the way he thinks about things, different ways of speaking, different backgrounds, different ethnicities, religions, you have a lot of diversity, I think in your cast.
Roxanna Elden 14:30
Yes. And that was important to me. Because if you go to any large city and you go to a public school, in that city, chances are you are going to have a diverse faculty. So I wanted to make sure that I represented that in the book, and you know, where my own experience fell short for any particular character, I really tried to do a lot of research, a lot of reading, a lot of sitting in people's classes, a lot of conversations, that would help me get the details right for everybody.
Pius Wong 15:02
Yeah, I noticed that, while we're in Texas, I'm in Texas, I'm in Austin, Texas, and you set your story in Texas. But you're in Miami, correct?
Roxanna Elden 15:10
Yes, I am now, but I began my teaching career in Houston.
Pius Wong 15:13
Yeah. So you have personal experience. You've been around, and you write about Philadelphia in the book and things like that. So do you use your own experience in these different places to inform your characters and your settings?
Roxanna Elden 15:28
I would say that a lot of the original sparks of ideas come from things I've seen or experienced in real life, because I guess there's no way around it. I mean, but it could be something as simple as just noticing on the bus, two people having a conversation and trying to guess the relationship between those people. And then from there, I will do a lot of work and a lot of thinking to try to make that into a part of this story, if it fits, so there's not too much -- there's not a lot of real stuff with the names changed, except for that one science lesson that I did use almost word for word from this teacher's lesson plan that he was nice enough to give me.
Pius Wong 16:13
So I just want to talk about real detailed stuff. And I'm not gonna give away too much, if people haven't read the book, but just little teasers here and there. One of your characters is a football coach. And in Texas, that's big, as you know, and as probably a lot of listeners know. Your coach, Coach Ray has a real complicated backstory. He really takes care of his students, his athletes, really seems like a father figure to them. But in his personal life, it's not so easy to be a father figure for him, let's say. And it struck me as I was reading this about Coach Ray and about your other characters that -- it seems so obvious, but I had to read it to make that connection that teachers' personal lives really can affect their professional lives. How much in reality do teachers' personal lives affect what they do in the school? And how do teachers cope with that?
Roxanna Elden 17:09
Well, that's a great question and also a complicated question. And it's almost one that I dealt with more in my first book, See Me After Class, where I specifically talk to new teachers who are trying to create a teacher persona that's completely different from who they are. And a lot of the reason is because you want to do the best for the kids. So if you personally are someone who doesn't open your mail for a week, you're still trying to be the person who grades papers within 24 hours. And often, you find that you're still the same person. So there's a professional twist on it. But you really have to work with the person that you are and the aspects of your personality that are kind of either built-in or pretty solidly stuck in there at this point. So that's definitely true for the teachers in this whole book. I mean, if somebody has a sense of humor, they're going to have a sense of humor in the class. If they don't, they're not going to. And if they take things personally, they're going to take things personally in the classroom. And in the case of the coach in particular, a football coach is a very specific role in a school because you are this kind of group father figure. But it's also limited to a specific subject. And even if you do give students or players, you know, tips on how to live their life and coaching on how to live their life, which a good coach does, it's still grounded in the sport that you coach. So now if you have a responsibility as a parent to a girl, for example, who's maybe a different age, and who you are now expected to be a parent in a more well-rounded way, being a football coach could mean that you have that in you, but it also is possible that you're going to struggle with that area of your life. And this person, and this particular character does.
Pius Wong 19:17
Would you say that teachers can successfully do what you're describing, successfully separate themselves into these two personas? Or does it end up more like, do teachers usually integrate their entire lives successfully?
Roxanna Elden 19:36
I think teachers have a lot of ways of doing this. And a lot of teachers, I should say, are excellent parents, partly because the skills that go into being a teacher are some of the same skills that go into a parent, and I say this as a relatively new parent. I'm a rookie again. But there are a few skills that -- and let me tell you, I'm not -- I don't feel that I'm that much better of a parent for being a teacher, a high school teacher. But there are a few skills that I have had more practice in than the average beginning parent. And there's also a few situations that I'm more prepared for emotionally. Like, for example, you know, the one-upper parent is a lot like the one-upper teacher down the hall. And I kind of know psychologically where that comes from. And it doesn't bother me as much as other mothers that I've talked to or other fathers that I've talked to, who are really bothered by the sense that they're failing in everyone else is -- And everyone else is just soaring through the challenges, which I don't think is true for either teaching or parenting.
Pius Wong 20:43
That's interesting, because that was one of my questions, too. You've got other characters in your book, who are parents, other teachers who are parents. And my horror stories that I've always heard from teachers is dealing with the parents sometimes. And I wonder if -- let's talk about the other question. If you're a teacher, and you're teaching a student. And the student has a parent who's also a teacher. Are those parents any easier to deal with?
Roxanna Elden 21:09
They can be harder. They can be easier because they get what you're trying to do. But they can also be harder because they know what teachers are worried about within their careers. They can definitely quote the jargon back to you, which can make for an interesting conversation. They tend to be very familiar if their child is not doing well. They tend to be very familiar with the exact protocol that you're supposed to follow, before giving their child a low grade, more so than other parents. But for the most part, teachers who are parents, they also understand how hard it is to have 20 to 30 of other people's kids in your class at the same time, and they do tend to understand better than the average parent that your attention is divided between all the students in those classes. And I hope that as a parent, I'm able to at least be the kind of parent whose understanding toward that aspect of teaching. I'm very self-conscious as to what kind of parent I am with my kid's teachers.
Pius Wong 22:21
Yeah, hopefully you might cut the teacher some slack. Or maybe they can cut you some slack, if they understand that. So, even though this is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast, I think it's really cool to talk to you because a lot of people who listen, they're not just teachers, but sometimes there's parents and engineers listening who might need to know a little bit more about what teaching is like. But for the engineering teachers listening, something that we always talk about is how effective it can be to bring in people from outside the classroom, like not just have the teacher's voice always talking to the kid about what engineering is. Like there's a point in your book where Lena the English teacher, she really wants to bring in a special guest. How do students react to special guests in reality, in your experience, and when you've talked to teachers.
Roxanna Elden 23:14
I will say this. I think students, and probably also teachers, love anything that breaks up the routine of the 180 day school year. So if you tell students there's going to be a special guest, they're probably going to be thrilled and excited about it. And as much fun as it is to listen to you talk, they're probably happy to hear someone else's voice. However, you do now open yourself up to -- how are your students going to behave in front of this other adult that you probably think highly of, or you wouldn't have brought them into your class? So it's definitely an opportunity for if your students are not behaving well, for the teacher to be a little bit embarrassed. And as far as the special guests that you bring in, often those are not people with teaching skills. So sometimes you have to mediate to make them understandable to your students. So it's always a delicate -- It's always, it's both a nice idea and can be a delicate situation, and you tend to be very nervous about how the guests will see you interacting with your students.
Pius Wong 24:27
So it sounds riskier, but could have good rewards.
Roxanna Elden 24:32
Pius Wong 24:35
Your educational leadership in the book is a huge player, I would say. Dr. Barrios is your principal. And I just read a phrase that was really interesting to me in there. There was a point where he was talking to someone outside the teaching profession, just out and about, and he says this woman was trying to tell Dr. Barrios how to run the school system, because everyone has their opinion about why schools are how they are. And that's reality. I think people see that all the time. And he was really working out his listening face, his listening muscles. And that struck me as like a very teacher thing. What is a listening face? How would you describe that?
Roxanna Elden 25:17
What is a listening face? I mean, I think we all have a listening face. It's just, if you are talking to your boss, and they are giving you what they think is a great idea. You are going to struggle very hard to have the same face whether you think it's a great idea or not. And especially this character especially, is very in tune with the politics involved in being a school administrator. He understands it to be part of his job to get along with his higher-ups and he thinks that that makes life easier for both him and his teachers. So this is definitely a guy who would have a listening face. And that listening face can definitely catch up with you, if you end up, let's say, like an a plane window seat next to somebody who finds out you're an educator and just wants to tell you the entire plane ride what they think needs to be fixed about the education system. And there is something about being an educator that makes people want to tell you how much better they would do this job than they presume you are doing it.
Pius Wong 26:27
Do you find that -- Do people, when they find out that you were an education, that they're just -- they want to spill all their opinions to you?
Roxanna Elden 26:35
The short answer is yes. And I really do feel that more than any other profession people think they know what teachers do. I don't think that people watch Law and Order and then go tell policemen how to do their job. But people watch Freedom Writers and they are sure that if they just, you know -- The next teacher they can flag down, they're going to tell you, you know, the secret to teaching is just, show kids you care and make it fun. Which to a teacher, it's not that we disagree with those ideas. But that is such a basic, oversimplified thing that we've tried to do from day one and often fail at, that you can't even possibly start a conversation from that point with someone who thinks they're giving you advice.
Pius Wong 27:27
When that happened in the book, and someone's just given the principal an earful, that was like one example out of many, where I feel like you're lampooning aspects of this whole education ecosystem. Where people think they know what's best for education. And you don't just target that. You target testing. I feel like you target the underperforming teacher who doesn't know that they're underperforming, but you also target students that are not so great, you know. You don't shy away from, I feel like, criticizing a lot of things in the education system. Is that just my personal reading of it do you think? Or did you want to poke fun at a lot of these things?
Roxanna Elden 28:09
I wanted to capture the education ecosystem. And I love that you called it that, because I think that's what it is. And to be able to describe what goes on in schools, I think you really need to describe, as realistically as possible, every aspect of that ecosystem and how they interact with each other. So, I would say that you definitely got it right. I'm thrilled with the things that you've gotten out of this book. Well, a lot of things that I intentionally put in there that you picked up.
Pius Wong 28:42
Okay. Well, one of my questions, though, that really made me wonder if it was real or not, was you have a part where I believe Dr. Barrios is on TV or he's at a big media event. Basically a really sensationalist program that was meant to, like, crown an education superstar. And in my head, I'm thinking, whoa, does this actually happen? Does media sensationalize people, or I don't know what the word is, but make someone a celebrity in education who doesn't deserve that?
Roxanna Elden 29:16
The short answer would be yes. But the longer answer is that communicating with the media is a very specific skill. And this is something I learned as a teacher, who also communicated with the media more than the average teacher because I had this nonfiction book for new teachers. The average teacher never needs to be on the news. But when they are, you often find that teachers are not great at speaking to the media. And I've put some thought into that, and I think it's because teachers are used to communicating complex ideas over a 45 minute class or more. And to a small audience. And make sure that everyone really gets the concept. Whereas to communicate with the media -- and I mean, there are people that you can pay $4,000 a day to train you to communicate well with the media. It all comes down to being able to say things in one sentence that cannot be misinterpreted. And so I think what you find is that the person who's the best at communicating about education to the media is not necessarily going to be the best teacher, because those are two separate skills. And teachers, I think, will recognize this sense that somebody is getting really, really famous talking about how they can solve the problems in education. And if you give us an hour at happy hour, we will come clean and complain and complain about that person's message. But no one, no one wants to listen to teachers complaining at happy hour. That is the least popular type of communication. So it can be a strange contrast.
Pius Wong 31:02
Yeah. Because in that moment, I was really wondering, is that just a moment for laughs? Or is it a reality, but it's something like that can happen.
Roxanna Elden 31:12
Everything in the book is based on parts of the education ecosystem.
Pius Wong 31:16
So in that respect, it was a little bit shocking for someone who wasn't in the K-12 -- Well, I mean, I met a lot of K-12 teachers with my work, but since I never was "in it" in it, there were parts that really were surprising. And I feel like, if you aren't a teacher, you would learn a lot, and especially hearing from you that it's all based on reality it's quite surprising. It's not just for laughs. If it's not just for laughs, then I'm a little afraid, you know? There's a pep rally for testing, for example. I didn't even know if that was a thing. But I guess people do that.
Roxanna Elden 31:51
Any teacher who works at an urban school who is listening to this podcast, as you said, "I don't know if it's a thing," they probably all yelled, it's a thing.
Pius Wong 32:02
Roxanna Elden 32:02
And if you picked up on the fact that I'm no fan of the test prep pep rally, that would be an accurate thing.
Pius Wong 32:10
I thought it was funny, that scene, but you know, now that I know it's more real than I knew, it's a little scary. Actually, yeah, that brings up a general question that I really need to ask. I mean, I think your book Adequate Yearly Progress is listed in online retailers in the humor section, because it's clearly a humorous story, or it's satire. But reading partway through I got a strong impression that it's not just comedy, it's like tragedy, in a way. Is that intentional?
Roxanna Elden 32:43
I guess and this is going to be the English teacher writing nerd in me. I think that actually describes a lot of comedy, especially satire, that there is an element of picking up things and holding them up to the light that are not always humorous by themselves.
Pius Wong 33:06
Yeah, The Office that you were talking about, like, I love that show. And it's for that reason, too. It's not always just straight-up comedy, but I can see where you were making that comparison. Does your story have a villain and a hero?
Roxanna Elden 33:23
That's a complicated question, because I'm such a, you know, I'm so down on the typical teacher hero story that I would say there's absolutely not a hero of the story. There are protagonists which are main characters that you follow a little more than the other characters. But nobody in the book is a hero. And also one of the elements of the teacher ecosystem in general is that teachers are encouraged to think of themselves as heroes and portray themselves as heroes. And so there's some of that in the story that is addressed in the story. But there's not a specific hero in the school. And I would say that at any school I've worked at, I mean, there can be lots of great teachers, there can be some bad teachers, there can be teachers who have bad moments where they were a villain for that day, or a hero for the day. But there's really not a hero of a school. And if there is, then you may be looking more at someone who knows how to promote themselves as a hero, rather than an actual hero. I think we need to be careful of the teacher hero story.
Pius Wong 34:44
So I could go on asking you about details forever. I don't want to spoil too much. So I want to actually step back before we run out of time. And actually, this is a good time to point out that, yeah, there were a ton of different characters, and it was interesting to see that different people had good and bad behaviors at different times. And everything kind of depended on many factors. When I was done reading your book, I thought of your school, Brae Hill Valley, and any school, as like a giant system. And maybe that's the engineer in me. Like a system of parts that work together. I'm always thinking of, like, a car. When we talk to people about what engineers do, we say, oh, someone designed and built the tires, and somebody made the stereo system and somebody did the engine. And all of them have to connect and work together. And that is exactly the picture that I saw when I was reading your story. Like you have a whole bunch of different teachers with different personalities and methods, and they're all trying to navigate this giant system of education. And if one thing goes wrong, it seems like it has a whole bunch of effects. And the other thing that that made me think of was, well, when engineers make a complex thing like a car, it takes forever. And it's really complex and involves a lot of processes. When you wrote your story about a real school or a school that is based on reality, that must have been really complex. How do you write something like that? What's your process for that?
Roxanna Elden 36:28
So until you asked this question, I really never realized how much fun it would be to talk to an engineer about writing, because there's so much that goes into writing, and there's so many technical things that you would never bore people with because it's just so infinitely nerdy. But...
Pius Wong 36:51
You can bore me with it a little bit. I won't be bored.
Roxanna Elden 36:54
Yeah, but there is an architecture to stories that, if writers are studying the craft, they will know how to break a story into its components. And also with a story that has multiple characters. I found myself after writing a few drafts, I found myself having to step back and do an outline, it ended up being a color coded outline, where for each chapter I would go into detail about the character that the chapter follows. But I also had to figure out what every other character was doing off screen during that chapter. That chapter could also turn out to be a turning point for someone else's story, even if it's just someone overhearing the main conversation. So there was a lot of outlining. There are a lot of charts and graphs saved on my computer...
Pius Wong 37:42
I would love to see that.
Roxanna Elden 37:43
...that will never see the light of day.
Pius Wong 37:44
Roxanna Elden 37:44
Yes, but I'm glad to be able to say that they exist, because I mean, I spent months on these very complex outlines, and then you go back and you rewire the story.
Pius Wong 37:58
Rewire. That's a great word. When you're talking about it, I mean, your storylines clearly have different threads, like one person does something, which makes this student act out, which makes this teacher react in a certain way. So there's this thread or wire connecting everything together. I'm imagining flowcharts or other tools. So I guess you represented your story, not just in straight up paragraphs.
Roxanna Elden 38:24
Right. Yeah, I started it during National Novel Writing Month when you're just supposed to blow through a first draft of a novel in one month. So I didn't give that much thought to it. But as I was trying to turn it into an actual story, which was something new for me as a nonfiction writer, trying to make sure it's a story that has forward motion, the main thing to remember -- and this is probably a lot like engineering or designing a machine -- is that everything makes something else happen, and nothing really happens unless something else has made it happen. So I think about it sometimes as one of those little machines where you lift up a ball, and then you let it fall by five other balls and that ball starts swinging on the other side.
Pius Wong 39:10
Roxanna Elden 39:11
You really need to think about what each of those balls is going to be and why they're going to transfer that energy to each other and make something else happen on the other side.
Pius Wong 39:20
Hmm. Engineers always have to redo their designs over and over. I'm wondering how much you had to look at your story again and rework it.
Roxanna Elden 39:30
A lot. A lot. I would say the average completed book has about 30 drafts,, from every author I've talked to. And my book was somewhere around that. Yeah. Well, and then you have outlines in between. I do a lot of going back and forth between drafts and outlines. Because there are so many different things that have to plug into other parts of the story, and you do have to -- if you're going to change something in the end of the book, it may be based on something in Chapter Two that you now have to go back and change the interaction.
Pius Wong 40:07
That is so interesting. That really does sound like our engineering processes. And it also strikes me then that you must have collaborated with others. Would you say that -- People think of writing sometimes as this individual thing. You're just Stephen King in Maine writing alone at your desk, but did you have help? Or did you bounce ideas off other people? How does that work?
Roxanna Elden 40:31
For a novel I would say most of writing is being alone in a room. But what you do do is you switch drafts with other authors and you comment on each other's stories. And you have a lot of input, and I also spoke to a lot of teachers and bounced ideas off of them. But in the end, it did come back to me sitting alone in front of my computer with multiple cups of coffee.
Pius Wong 40:54
Wow, I think coffee is the common tool amongst most creative people.
Roxanna Elden 41:00
Yup, and teachers.
Pius Wong 41:02
Yeah, totally. I guess for final question for the podcast, you had taught for a long time, and you still teach creative writing, but you're also a writer. And so I want to ask, why are you a writer?
Roxanna Elden 41:17
Why am I a writer?
Pius Wong 41:19
Why do you write?
Roxanna Elden 41:22
I think that it was an interest I always had. I mean, even since I was in high school, I kept a journal, and I still have all those journals, which are -- it can be embarrassing to read. And it was always something I did as a hobby. But there is something about the way that you're always correcting other people's writing, and you're trying to explain what makes for good writing and break it into its parts. And I think a lot of English teachers end up being pretty proficient writers, and there's got to be an interest in it if you're teaching it So, I mean, I didn't set out to be a writer. But when I felt that something needed to be communicated -- First, with my first book, I thought there needed to be a more realistic training manual for new teachers, and I just found that I had most of the tools that I needed to start that project. And then the same thing -- When I thought that there needed to be a more realistic story about teaching, I found that I was able to do a lot of it, and then you just bump up your own skills as you go. And you're able to share that with your students, which is kind of nice.
Pius Wong 42:33
Well, thank you, Roxanna. How can we get your book Adequate Yearly Progress?
Roxanna Elden 42:38
Anywhere that you buy books, you could search it and order it.
Pius Wong 42:41
Awesome. Thank you so much, and I'm looking forward to hearing more about what you write and what you're doing.
Roxanna Elden 42:47
Thank you. Great conversation.
Pius Wong 42:49
Pius Wong 42:55
That was Roxana Elden, former K12 teacher, current teacher of creative writing, and author of the new book Adequate Yearly Progress, for links to the book and to other topics mentioned today, check this episode's show notes, or visit the podcast website k12engineering.net.
Pius Wong 43:13
If you liked this episode, help us out by leaving a rating and review of the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Radiopublic, Stitcher, or wherever you're listening to us now. Tweet the show, follow us on Facebook, and email me your reactions or comments and your ideas. Episode transcripts will be available on the website thanks to supporters on Patreon. If you like what I'm doing, please help me out by donating to my studio on Patreon yourself. You can go do that by pointing your web browser to Patreon.com/pioslabs, or find links to Patreon from the podcast website k12engineering.net.
Pius Wong 43:54
Closing music is from the song "Yes and" by Steve Combs used under a Creative Commons Attribution License. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of my independent studio Pios Labs in Austin, Texas, where I work on several digital projects like this show. Thank you for listening. And please check it out again soon.
Pius Wong 44:25
Hey there, it's Pius, and I'm giving you some post-show notes for the first time in a long time. It's been a while. The only post show note is that Rachel and I, we have again submitted to South by Southwest, both South by Southwest proper, and South by Southwest Edu. So if you're a fan of South by or you're a fan of Austin, Texas, or you're a fan of us on the show, you should definitely keep up on the news of South by Southwest, because our proposals are going to be public pretty soon, and you can vote on it, and we are definitely going to ask for your help voting for them, because we do want to be there, and we want to share our thoughts and ideas. One of our proposals has to do with having a meetup for podcasters and podcast-lovers just like last year, because it was so much of a success. And we want to do that again. And we also submitted another proposal about having a discussion about career-changers in education and engineering. Basically, teachers who might leave teaching and go into tech and engineering, or vice-versa, tech professionals and engineers, maybe like me, who are kind of leaving the industry to go more into education. It goes both ways. And we just want to have an authentic, real discussion about that. And maybe it'll be part of our broadcasted podcast episodes. I don't know. Stay tuned for more, and thanks for listening.