Author’s Corner: Jan Cheripko
by Jan Cheripko
When readers, young or old, ask me which is my favorite work, I always say it’s the manuscript that has my current attention; the one I’m working on now. Since I work on many projects simultaneously – a discipline I learned as a newspaper reporter years ago – the answer to my favorite work may change from day-to-day. I work on different types of manuscripts. Right now: two novels, a biography, two works for educators, a book of principles for teens, a picture book with an illustrator, as well as several articles for various publications.
I enjoy moving from topic to topic and genre to genre. I have no set routine about how I do this; it’s simply what has my interest at that moment. I have definite views about facing writer’s block, but one thing I can be sure of is that with so many works in progress, I’ll always have something to work on. On the other hand, the threat of not finishing any of them looms large, too. One of my safe guards against that possibility is sharing works in progress with trusted friends who continue to prod me toward completion.
I’ve met many authors through the years, and each has her or his own approach to facing the demand of a blank page in front of them. But I have heard it said, and my experiences bare this out, that you shouldn’t have only one work going at a time. The old adage, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” applies. If the basket gets dropped, or worse, stomped on by an editor or agent, well, all you have left are a lot of broken eggs.
Sharing something in progress is somewhat like diving from a high cliff. Even though you may have done it before, your body still trembles. So at the risk of sharing something in progress that may never get published, (or a drought drained the swimming hole, to continue the strained metaphor) I’d like to answer the question, “Which is your favorite work?”
This is the beginning of a yet to be titled manuscript for educators about teaching writing and literature to at-risk teens. There’s a symbiotic relationship for me between writing for the teen audience and writing for teachers of at-risk teens. I was both. I feel a great kinship with young adults and a close bond with those trying to reach them. So that’s the focus of what follows. It’s the work that has today’s attention.
“JUST HOW DO YOU DO IT?
These ideas come from a sincere question offered by a teacher in Detroit, Michigan. I was there doing a talk to educators as part of the Michigan Reading Association’s annual conference. In the course of our wide-ranging discussion, she asked, “But just how do you reach at-risk teens?”
She was not a novice; had been teaching for several years. The collective nodding and exhalations of the other teachers throughout the room let me know that I owed her and the others an equally sincere answer. I started in, and realized quickly that we didn’t have near enough time, and, in fact, the answer was a good four-to-seven-day immersion in ideas, practices, methods, anecdotes, pedagogy, techniques, questions, suppositions, literary excursions, writing examples, sentence constructions, paragraph building, essay composing, narrative writing, arguments, expositions, and many, many tales of successes and failures.
So that’s what follows: My answers to, “Just how do you do it?”
THE SHOTGUN APPROACH
I just shoot out ideas, and some of them stick. Some times the ideas are really good, and some times they just don’t make much sense. Anyone who has been in a classroom knows what I’m talking about. Of course, I have a plan, but I need to be open to the magic of what education really is. There have been times when I’m really prepared. I’m excited about the topic; done my homework; walk in ready to rock the classroom walls with my incredible insights – and everything falls flat.
Or sometimes I might not be at my energetic peak. (I spilled the milk and it splashed on my shirt and pants, and so scrambling around trying to find something that’s clean and not too wrinkled, I rush out the door late and arrive angry.) And then some student says something profound, asks a burning question, or does something kind for another student; or is belligerent, rebellious, insensitive, even violent, and my world view changes dramatically and quickly.
What we do in those electric moments that follow is the essence of teaching. There may be courses that might help us recognize the moment, there may be lists of guidelines that we once got as a handout, there may be books that offer advice, but in the end, it’s each of us in the moment, paying attention. If what follows in the face of unexpected student behavior is a sincere response from deep within our souls, then there is the chance that someone in that room may learn something of true value. Including oneself.
Whatever the situation or scenario, you know that all you can do is be honest in whatever it is that you’re offering them each day. Some accept the offering, some don’t.
But here’s the really amazing thing about teaching – you never know who’s going to get it! The process of education is the ultimate experience of democracy. I know that might not seem an accurate observation, because of the long list of histories that trail behind every child like sooty smoke sticking to their beings, from IQ tests, IEPs, exam scores, and unfortunately, from lunch-room gossip, too – but in the moment of real learning, everyone’s equal, because you don’t know who is paying attention. And that is why we teach all of them.”
For more about Jan Cheripko, his books, and presentations, or to contact him, visit his website at jancher.wix.com/jancheripko