Saturday, 30 March 2013

Why Do You Blog?

So Michael Pershan has me thinking again. Last time that happened to the extent of my blogging, I ended up with the awkwardly named Line Dancing In Sequence, about how line equations and sequence equations start at 0 vs 1 respectively. I'm not surprised if you haven't read it. Frankly I'm surprised if you're reading now.

Because while I may be writing for you, I'm not necessarily writing with you in mind.

That said, I hope you'll stick around for the explanation.

BLOGGING FOR OTHERS


There's probably an art to better blogging.  For that matter, there's probably an art to better teaching.  I'm probably failing on both counts, but I'm okay with that.  Sort of.

Let me rewind to the aforementioned Twitter conversation, which actually involved a few people, and effectively boiled down to: Do you blog for OTHERS or for YOURSELF?


THE WORLD WOULD BE BORING IF WE ALL AGREED
 
My link there was to my post way back in August 2012 (If You Build It... So What), when I pretty much decided I was doing it for myself.  Does this mean I'm producing a pretty bad (auto)biography? Maybe. But it's one that's making me reflect, not only about teaching, but about my place in the world. (If you hadn't noticed, this post involves the latter. Sorry, you want some math pedagogy, wait until April 1st, I do have an idea for it.)

I originally threw myself on Twitter to see what it was about, and - to be honest - to see if it would drum up any additional hits for my web serial, the personification of math. I then started blogging, not merely to improve my teaching, but just to improve myself generally. (In fact I started by talking about writing.) Who is my audience?

Yeah, I've never been able to figure that one out. I feel a bit in synch with internet reviewers, or ViHart, in that I'm doing what makes me happy, putting it out there, and if it makes you happy too, bonus!

By contrast, Michael Pershan knows who his audience is. They're educators who can make him better at his craft, and in his career.

WHY HE IS AWESOME

Now that is blogging with a purpose.  Where I blog with the thought that like-minded people may find me (passively), he blogs to pull in an audience (actively).  Where I blog to better myself (through reflection), he blogs in order to get other people to help him do the same thing (through interaction).  Where I can live with myself even if no one says anything about this post (goodness knows I'm used to it), he... might not be able to?

He may also completely disagree with me here, so I'm going to stop trying to interpret.

My point is, we have two styles at cross purposes.  His style is (presumably) working for him.  My style is... well, as I said above, there's an art, and I don't think I have it.  But at the same time, I don't think I can change my style to be so dynamic, and still have it be genuine.  In fact, even assuming I did, and could, I feel like I'd be changing too much of myself.  Frankly, I don't want to become the best (or even better) if it means my style leans less weird and unpredictable. As in:

ANIME vs SQUARE ROOT.  FIGHT!

BETTER BLOGGERS


The other thing that prompted this post was Michael Fenton's post about The Great Blog Exchange. (Is your name Michael? You too may be a teacher one day.) Essentially he's looking for personal blog recommendations.  (He has a bunch in the comments already, but if you really want to go nuts, check out David Wees compilation of Mathematics Education Blogs. You're welcome!)

So here's the question - would I recommend myself?

After looking at what I said above, no.  No, I don't think I would.

I don't know who my audience is (aside from myself).  I only get a large number of hits when I do event posts (like Mystery Teacher Theatre, Day in the Life or Twitter Math Camp), so you won't be networking much.  I post sporadically, have relatively few good teaching stories, and suspect my posts are all far too long.  (I've started adding subheaders.  I read somewhere that it can help.)

So... yeah.  Guess you should stop reading, I'm unrecommending myself.  In the sea of awesomeness out there, I am the voice of mediocrity.

However, just because I'm not worth reading, doesn't make the writing less worthwhile.  And maybe, just maybe, if you do read, you'll say something that makes me better. (Change my story!) Or at the least, you'll see something you can use, or something that makes you smile.

COULD BE WORSE, COULD BE THIS GUY

For what it's worth, I hope you enjoyed reading.

Friday, 29 March 2013

The Web Serial: How


This is a multi part blog series. Excuse me, a serial.
1- The History (What)
2- Teaching Now (Where)
3- My Contributions (Who)
4- *Writing One (How)

As for the why, read. As to when: The time is now. Jump on board.


WE ALL HAVE TO START SOMEWHERE


WRITING SERIALS


So you want to write a web serial. Good news, you're kind of in the middle of reading one already, since you don't have to have read the previous parts to understand what I'll be going on about here. Which is the general idea.


HYPER: "Damn it, Para, it's funny in the context
of the previous parts, right?! I mean, really!"
Now, one early decision you'll have to make is whether you want to do it in a "static" sense (it's all scripted in advance) or "dynamic" sense (you make it up as you go). Dynamic/Static are my own terms, but let's look at some advantages of each:

ADVANTAGE: DYNAMIC

1) Writing as you go, you don't have to invest as much time off of the front in planning, you just have to make sure you schedule in time as needed to make progress.

2) If a reader notices a problem, or asks a question regarding the setting or characters, you can address it in the narrative shortly after the issue came up. Similarly, you're not faced with revising (or throwing out) tons of stuff later on, based on an invalid assumption you made. (We likely all have times we Did Not Do the Bloody Research...)

3) Since it's dynamic, you can more easily change course according to reader input - not unlike being the GM during a D&D session. Readers become more invested in your work that way. (Though, at the same time, you're free to ignore huge deviations that would take you too far away from your plot...) 

ADVANTAGE: STATIC

1) With plot points laid out in advance, it's easier to plan and stick to a regular schedule. So readers know when to expect updates, and they'll keep coming back at those times.

2) Foreshadowing is easier, since you know essentially what the climax is going to look like. You can build appropriately, and are less likely to go off on pointless deviations that ultimately lead nowhere.

3) Collaboration is easier if we're talking about multiple authors. The serial can also continue if something happens such that you have to hand it off to someone else for a while... which in the extreme case is Author Existence Failure. (The thought only occurred thanks to Andrea's comment back in part 1...)

Either way, the whole point is - your story is out there. You can't go back to change it, even if you run into issues (even mundane ones such as the One Steve Limit). But it's harder than simply publishing the different chapters of a novel. See, the kicker is each part should (ideally) be SELF CONTAINED. (Not unlike a 3-act problem.) I should be able to read Chapter 3 and walk away content, perhaps even with a desire to read Chapter 1.


SERIAL KILLERS


If I start reading, and very quickly I'm wondering 'who are these characters and what's going on?', I'll go elsewhere. But at the same time, if I'm a regular reader and you're introducing the main character to me for the third time, I'll go elsewhere. There's a fine line you have to walk. Fortunately, I have some ways you can approach this.

1) Character Archetypes. Sherlock Holmes was originally written as a set of serials. You didn't have to know about Holmes in order to appreciate a good mystery, but the more about him that you read, the more you learned about him.

Similarly, my "Taylor's Polynomials" series personifies mathematics. Does it make sense that a square root would be a bit bipolar? And you also don't have to know that Hyperbola is a mad scientist with eccentricity > 1 in order to appreciate the way she puns at ArcTan in this entry. (In fact, notice I was able to sneak in her coffee preference and Nat's medial background, for those who may have joined late, or forgotten.)

Another example is the very inspiration for my series: "Hetalia". That's an anime (former webcomic) which personifies different countries. So even before the show starts, you'd have some idea of the relationship between France and England.


CAN'T VOUCH FOR THE ACCURACY, BUT SURE.

2) Split the Party. Bad for role play, practically a necessity for serials. If Chapter 3 involves a completely separate group, why couldn't I start there? This also means when the groups meet up, they can compare notes, and a recap is sensible in the context of the story. Also, as an author, if you go back to work with an earlier group, and there's details you've forgotten, your audience probably did too; doing this forces you to reread what you wrote.

Back to "Taylor's Polynomials", my Series 4 actually had three separate groups, though only two I was using in depth. I toggled back and forth between them. (In a way I hope wasn't confusing, but I don't know, no one tells me this stuff.) Alternatively, in "Time Trippers" I followed one group to the end line: "Ten minutes later, the gun went off". Next part? Rewind 12 hours, follow a completely different set of people to the same event, and then beyond.

3) The New Guy. Someone else shows up in the story, and they don't know anything about the regulars. This doesn't have to be a new member of the team, it can be someone the characters want to interview, or an old mentor who's wondering what's new, that sort of thing. You can review current plot details or character traits through them.

Again, consider the movie "The Avengers", where people from previous movies were brought together. Seeing the previous movies wasn't required, though it would have added to the experience. My "Time Trippers" story toes the line too, in that each chapter is a self contained experience adding to the whole - though I grant I don't reintroduce characters there as much as perhaps I should have. Which brings us to:

4) Recaps. A short blurb at the beginning of the chapter to explain key details of what came before. Sort of like the "LAST TIME ON" television serials of old. Dedicated readers can then choose to skip this, but it provides necessary context to newcomers, or those who missed a part. (Heck, even dedicated readers might need a reminder.)

If I had something like that in "Time Trippers", it would probably fix the character issue I mentioned. "Taylor's Polynomials" segments are really too short to warrant it, but I've been thinking of adding a link at the top of every entry to a generic info post, for clarity purposes.

Now, the other serial killer, in my opinion, is random updates. You need to have a regular schedule, something that people can rely on. Sort of like webcomics. If people get into the habit of always checking for your series at a particular time of day, eventually it becomes second nature... conversely, if they're never sure when the next part is coming out, at best they may be frustrated, and at worst, they may give up entirely.

You might hope that someone spots your new update in their reader as they're scrolling through, but don't count on it. Might even be part of why I don't get much traffic here. (Though I'm deluding myself if I think teachers follow me with a reader...)


SOUNDS EASY ENOUGH


It's not easy. Writing a serial is incredibly difficult. Sort of like doing improv comedy - writer's block is not an option. I've cobbled together some thoughts of others, including:
Claudia Hall Christian: "Even if you write a few chapters ahead, some day you're going to get to the moment when your chapter is due and... it's your birthday, you're sick, you're on vacation, your mother died, or fill in the blank."
Dani Amore: "Conventional wisdom has it that if you introduce a character early in the book, that character had better play a part later. Not necessarily with serials. Depending on how many episodes a serial has, if every character with a sizeable role were to play a part in the finale, it could potentially be a cast of hundreds."
Andrew Eckhart: "Creating work with the explicit thought that someone will soon be reading what you've written fundamentally changes the sort of writing you're doing. A few writers I've told that to say that makes writing stressful, hard work."
Icy Sedgwick: "Unless you write a chunk in one go and then break it up into installments, make sure you go back and re-read your last few installments before writing the next one. If you don't, you risk introducing elements that you never use again."
Sheri Gormley: "The first and most essential component of a good e-serial is the ending hook. Each and every issue must start off with a bang and end with a cliffhanger. Most readers will try a new serial for a few issues before committing to a longer subscription."


NOTE: MY RESEMBLANCE TO
NAMURA-SENSEI DOES NOT
EXTEND TO HIS PLOT.
I agree. In fact, you pretty much need a separate document to track everything that you're doing. You also need to be able to "kill your ideas" as it were, if it looks like that climax you were building to... just isn't going to work out anymore. Or perhaps some symbolism you were using now actually has to represent something completely different... but what? (True story, the very name for the manga/anime series "Marmalade Boy" is based on changed symbolism. The show is also a good example of something you may want diagrams to track. In fact, seems that manga itself is a graphic variant on this sort of writing.)

Of course, since a lot of this describes how I write ANYWAY... it's kind of a natural fit, bizarrely enough. (Even my NaNoWriMo had distinct serial-style sections as Melissa Virga worked through her cases!!) Regrettably though, there's no way I have the time to devote to going pro with it. Besides, I enjoy my day job of teaching just as much. Euh, well, some days.


DOES THIS MAKE MONEY?


If you're in it for the money, you're doing it wrong. (Does blogging make money?) That said, it might, if you're willing to invest a lot more time and effort into it than simple internet posts. However, my first part in this series, about the History, mentioned a few publishers who are looking at using this format. Most lean "static" in that they want a large chunk of the story (if not all of it?) at the outset - which makes sense when you consider that it's a rather big gamble for them. Kindle Serials might be something to look into for the future too; not sure.

A couple final notes. During my searches, I turned up a (40 min) podcast featuring Sean Platt about Writing and Making a Success of Serial Fiction. Some good points there. There's also a website, Tuesday Serial, that seems dedicated to the genre (leaning to updates of 1000 words). They're also on Twitter.


COLUMBO: ALSO A GOOD SERIAL

Going forwards, I hope I find more time to check this stuff out. That is, after parent interviews. And the school play. And report cards. And the conference where I'm presenting. So, Mid-May. Maybe I'll have time in Mid-May. Or maybe you can chime in here with more information - or simply to tell me if any of this made sense?

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Web Serial: Who


This is a multi part blog series. Excuse me, a serial.
1- The History (What)
2- Teaching Now (Where)
3- *My Contributions (Who)
4- Writing One (How)

As for the why, read. As to when: The time is now. Jump on board.


APPARENTLY I'M A HOLOGRAM ONLY SOME
PEOPLE CAN SEE AND HEAR


TAYLOR'S POLYNOMIALS


The last couple of posts have already talked about the Who in terms of other people. It's time to actually hit the climax, which is me, because it's my blog, so there. Also because I've been writing a web serial for coming up to two years now, all about math. (Read it, damn you!)

Of course, I had no idea that's what I was doing.


HYPER: "Damn it, ArcTan, it's just a
bunch of clip art, right?! I mean, really!"
Oh, I knew I was writing a story where all the characters were mathematical relations, and that it was filled with hidden mathematical connections, web links, and puns, but I tended to refer to it as my "webcomic-like web series kind of thing". I finally know it's a math web serial that updates on Wednesdays and Sundays. As it's been going since July 2011, this may be the first time I was ahead of the game for, well, anything.

By the way, if you're a teacher only here for the assessment and evaluation stuff I promised, jump down two subheaders.

Because now that I know I've been writing a serial, I think I know why it's frustrating as heck sometimes. First, because as a serial, every entry should be self-contained. You should be able to jump in anywhere, or start at any point, and pick up the threads. Yet... no one seems to be doing that. Is it not as self-contained as I thought?

Second, because I want "Taylor's Polynomials" to be a dynamic serial, and it's very much static. Not that static is bad - my other grand effort, "Time Trippers", which I recently blogged about, would be a more static variant. Let me clarify what I mean...

I see a static serial as one scripted in advance. The parts are published a bit at a time, but the author already knows the major plot points. Minor details (or perchance major ones) might change based on new ideas, or fan input, but the author knows where they're going with it. Picture, well, I suspect anything by Joss Whedon, which probably extends to the Buffy Comic Book Series too. Speaking of comic books, I think Linkara uses this style in his online review series too. (ie- He has a defined story arc, but it fluctuates according to real life issues such as costuming.)

The opposite (inverse) to a static serial would be something like the X-Files or Lost where even the writer(s) have no clue what they have in mind, or they're changing things so often based on response that the result is a huge dysfunctional mess. Leading to the Chris Carter Effect.

The counterpoint (reciprocal - looks very different) to a static serial would be a dynamic serial. It has not been written in advance. The author has some conflicts or events in mind, but that's it. The details are vague. They'll write more as inspiration strikes. Which describes the writing process for most people, but again, here the early parts are posted AS THEY COME.

This has both huge advantages and huge disadvantages, which I'll go into in my last post in this blog series. For now, suffice to say that "Time Trippers" is a static serial (I know how my time machine works and what happened to Carrie's mother, even if you don't) while "Taylor's Polynomials" is a dynamic serial (Logan's gonna fly around in his gazebo for a while).


Gazebo: Built by Professor X


MY FUNCTIONS NEED INPUT


Something I am very good at is taking inputs and synthesizing them into something that makes rational sense. (I think that's part of what makes me a good teacher.) I am also very good at coming up with reasonable explanations for things completely out of the blue. (I try to avoid doing that to students.) Yet regarding "Taylor's Polynomials", my so-called dynamic web serial, the majority of the input and explanations have come from within, and I want them to be external.

For those who HAVE read my math serial, or who are curious, here's a few things that were completely unplanned from the beginning, and simply morphed out of what I was doing:
-Lyn attempting to infiltrate the Conic Mansion dressed as a Directrix.
-Command Trig (Sin, Cos, Tan) wearing red and Science Trig (their inverses) wearing blue, to model Star Trek.
-Sine doing a mind meld (replicator style) with Lyn, to create a graph that synchronized with Tangent's asymptotes.
-Using the Sign Function (Signum) to point the way back towards the Math Curriculum, because she knows Direction while Modulus (Maud) knows Distance.

Did anyone think any of that had been planned from the start? Nope.


YES, PARA CAN ALSO COMBINE
VERTEX AND FACTORED FORM.
To the credit of the colleagues at my school, I have had a bit of feedback. That's why Para's factored form uses a wand, rather than a cane, and why I was able to discuss elements of mathematics outside of math with the Beta Group in Series 4. But I need more! I want people to tell me if Versine was a worthwhile trig function to use, or whether Para's vertex form looks like Sailor Moon, so I'm not constantly having to discover this stuff all by myself.

Because here's the other thing: You have no idea how much else I'm holding back. Holding back, and keeping things dynamic, in the hopes that a better plan will occur. You might have what I need! Yet, I posted up asking for New Personifications a week ago. I've had 30 views (slightly above average on hits for me), with absolutely no thoughts.

So, yes. I'm frustrated because I want the math-tans to become more than simply MY vision. I want them to be part of a community. (Of course, maybe I'll become frustrated by the suggestions of others...? Uh, at least it's a different KIND of frustration?) It's also possible that I haven't been making that idea clear, but what more can I do aside from constantly blogging about it and asking for commentary? Unless I want to fall into the publicity trap I blogged about last week.


I CAME HERE FOR ASSESSMENTS


Right, sorry. I'm subconsciously working on serials there too. Admittedly, I'm constrained first by time, and secondly by curriculum expectations, but in my Statistics (Data Management) course, I've been able to pull off a few things. First, here's a rough excerpt from one of my probability tests:

1. When Dorothy first landed in Oz, she learned that the Munchkins liked joining special guilds. Given the following information ... : A) Create a Venn diagram to classify all 300 munchkins. B) Determine the probability that a munchkin is in the Lullabye guild, if you know he is NOT in the Lollypop guild.

2. Before seeing the Wizard, she's advised to bring a gift of fruit. A bag contains 15 apples and 10 oranges. What is the probability she will randomly draw two apples in sequence, assuming: A) She replaced the first apple, thinking it was a bit small. B) She did not replace the first apple, having decided to take two.

3. To defeat the Witch, the plan is to sneak into the Castle. The Scarecrow thinks this has an 85% chance of working. If it works, there's an 80% chance they'll beat the witch, but if it fails, there's only a 5% chance to win. Determine: A) The probability they sneak in, and then are defeated. B) The overall probability of defeating the witch, regardless.

I have another version involving Bingo and Agnes' lucky hat. Now, this is obviously easier to do with some course units as opposed to others. I'm also sure there's some of you out there rolling your eyes saying this is not a rich assessment, it's just artificial scaffolding, and why am I wasting your time. Let me then point you at my prior blog entry, Choose Your Own Exam, which has a rather interesting way of formatting the whole thing.  Helpful?


I SHOULD QUIT BEFORE I'M BEHIND, MAYBE.

So, these are the things I have to contribute to the world at large, at least in terms of my own serials. At the time of first writing this (Saturday afternoon), based on prior experience, I estimate a 95% chance that there will be no reader reaction, and hence, next to no change in any aspect of what I'm currently doing - both in teaching and "Taylor's Polynomials". At the time I am posting this (Wednesday evening), I'm thinking that quality trumps any random percent, but also had a day which put me in a very cynical mood, so whatever.  My projections are likely more realism than cynicism anyway.

But maybe you'll have better luck writing your own serial! So I'll talk about how you might do that in the last part of this set. Back in another two days.

Monday, 25 March 2013

The Web Serial: Where


This is a multi part blog series. Excuse me, a serial.
1- The History (What)
2- *Teaching Now (Where)
3- My Contributions (Who)
4- Writing One (How)

As for the why, read. As to when: The time is now. Jump on board.





IN TEACHING


If you're involved in math teaching, you probably already know Dan Meyer (and/or his TED Talk). But for those who don't, here's his blog entry that I'm going to refer to: The Three Acts of a Mathematical Story.

Dan clarifies how storytelling is the framework for certain mathematical tasks. Act One: Visual Introduction. Act Two: Develop Tools. Act Three: Set up the Sequel. Hey, it's just like a serial! Right down to my pull quote from last episode:
HYPER: "Damn it, ArcTan, why am I still
going on about visuals?! I mean, really!"
"Illustrations were also an important feature of serial novels and Victorian artists, like John Everett Millais, were well known for their illustrations for serial fiction."

What's old is new again, and many educators out there are already nodding their heads and saying "tell me something I don't know". Here's the thing. I was seeing the 3-act format as an entire novel, an entire movie. Or perhaps that we start with the real world in Act One, hook in the maths for Act Two, then release back to the real world for Act Three. Except, I'm pitiful at real world applications, I'm so much better at the pure maths. Second, I feel now a single 3-act is only one piece of the novel.

To start with, it doesn't seem like it HAS to be applications. (Possibly it's better if it is, but we're not all at that level.) It's with this realization that I discover, in my own small way, I'm incorporating it. Or... maybe I just like to think I am? But here's one scenario: I'm wrapping up a unit on exponents. Traditionally, I start this with some models, shift to the exponent laws, then representations, then consolidate back with more application questions. (Kind of a three act, if a sucky one, since it lacks investment.)

This time, I motivated the negative exponent by asking what happened before the first model began. I didn't have a keen Act One visual, but I think it's something. It led to division, and the idea of exponential models going into the past, with negative exponents, involving division. THEN we go into exponent laws, and the idea of starting with 1 and dividing, making a fraction, rather than multiplying. Staring with 1 because, in the pattern, that's the zero exponent, that's what we have right now. Better than before? Maybe?


I CAME HERE FOR SERIALS


So, yes, as I said, the actual 3-act is a serial. While the math course itself is the novel. (The next grade level is the next in the series, if you bought in. Though you really need to understand the characters in THIS course, in order to understand the sequel, or you'll be all "what do you mean the Expona/Logan relationship is like Parabola/Root?") Of course, I realize here we're forcing all the students to read this math book series until at least age 15. Because Shakespeare! Anyway.

My point is, because teachers are faced with the challenge of curriculum, and they HAVE to get through this novel... they're faced with the decision of which serials to present and investigate, and which ones to summarize owing to time constraints. Not only does everyone have their own opinion about that ("You can skip over this bit about the Time Turner, it's cool but not relevant to any of the later books"), a good 3-act serial itself can fit somehow into the broader context - not just of the real world, but of the course itself.

As such, I think it's the individual teachers that provide the course throughput there, and that arbitrarily tossing in a 3-act could be as confusing and damaging as suddenly reading a chapter about a gruesome murder in the middle of your romance novel. There's a finesse here I'm still trying to grasp.

Now, I'm hardly the first math teacher to make storytelling connections (and maybe the analogy works better with history), but... I suddenly think I'm less inclined to get down on myself for what I'm (not?) doing. A quote that often comes to mind when I see what everyone else is putting together out there is Picard to Crusher, in the TNG episode ETHICS:


"Beverly, he can't make the journey you're asking of him. You want him to go from contemplating suicide to accepting his condition and living with the disability, but it's too far! The road between covers a lifetime of values, beliefs. He can't do it, Beverly. But perhaps he can come part of the way."

Of course, if you decide I'm off base here, tell me. Change my story.


IN BLOGGING


The other facet of education that's getting bigger and bigger involves collaboration. In my previous post about History, I noted how blogging is effectively an autobiography in progress, one that others can weigh in on. This is the culture of today.

But other websites are taking this further, they're creating a serial that involves different authors writing subsequent "chapters". You don't even necessarily have to have read all the previous parts in order to contribute. Look at what's happened in just the last six months.

Exhibit 1: Estimation 180. The site went up in October 2012.

Exhibit 2: Visual Patterns. The site began in December 2012.

Exhibit 3: Productive Struggle. The first post was January 2013.

Exhibit 4: Daily Desmos. The first graph was March 2013.

Exhibit 5: Infinite Tangents. The first podcast was March 2013. A recent show there mentions other initiatives, like global math.

At this point, I think I'll let the sites speak for themselves, but there's probably some elements of those "ongoing novels" that I should be using for my own purposes. (Possibly even contributing to.) As to what's next, there's currently talk of some sort of database for assessments and evaluations. I might have my own contribution there too, serial style, but to end on a cliffhanger, I'm saving it for my next entry! See you in two days.

Do you see this sort of thing happening in your career as well? Because as I've said, I think there's an entire cultural shift going on here. We're on the brink.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Web Serial: What


I write serials. Teacher colleagues, so do you. Listen up.

What shocked me was in realizing that I have been doing this for a rather long time without being consciously aware of it. It's only just surfaced on my radar because the genre is growing in popularity. How did I miss noticing? Excuse me, I'm having a moment.


This will be a multi part blog series. Excuse me, a serial.
1- *The History (What)
2- Teaching Now (Where)
3- My Contributions (Who)
4- Writing One (How)

As for the why, read. As to when: The time is now. Jump on board.

THE HISTORY


Literary serial novels have been around since the Victorian Age. Picture buying one chapter of a book every week until you have the complete set. Or for present day context, The Harry Potter Series. Or, you know, every anime I've ever watched and enjoyed. (Slight hyperbole, see below.)

From that website I linked:
"Throughout the Victorian period, novels in serial parts were published in abundance in newspapers and magazines .... serial publication enabled middle class readers to purchase novels that would be too expensive for them to purchase as a single edition."

"Each chapter had to engage the reader as a single unit as well as working within the context of the whole novel."

HYPER: "Damn it, ArcTan, who draws for
their own novels these days?! I mean, really!"
"Illustrations were also an important feature of serial novels and Victorian artists, like John Everett Millais, were well known for their illustrations for serial fiction."

Now who did this back then? Charles Dickens is a big name. Susan Kaye Quinn points out that even "Great Expectations" was written as a serial. The comments below her post chime in with even more big names, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes, also seeing a resurgence these days) and Jules Verne.

That same blog entry also points out how serialized novels are coming back. Why? Let me divert for a moment.


THE PRESENT


Serials is not just in writing. Consider television, perhaps obviously. I was stretching a little bit with anime above, as a key element in individual chapters (lessons?) should be to further the plot and leave on a cliffhanger, so that readers are sure to return (teachers, still with me?). With anime, you'll get a throwaway (swimsuit) episode, and TV has inconsequential episodes too.

Still, the idea of a stand-alone episode as part of a greater whole is HUGE now. Think Marvel's "The Avengers". If you'd seen the previous movies, you'd get some extras, but that doesn't detract from the movie as a whole.


Now, why is the serial seeing such a rise in popularity? I can think of a few reasons:

1) Attention Spans. Let's face it, we're all becoming a little Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), at the same time looking for instant gratification. (Curse you, internet!) Many may not have the attention span for an entire book anymore... unless it's broken down into small chunks. Like, you know, chapters. Why NOT publish them separately? Which leads into:

2) Packaging. I may not want to buy something for $20 - what if I don't like it? Yet I may be willing to spend $2 for the first chapter to see if I want the rest - particularly in this economy. (There's also a connection here to music and selling singles versus CDs.) We see that The Hobbit has been broken down into several movies. Same thing happened with the end of Harry Potter and Twilight. Really, what was keeping these tales from being several separate publications originally? There's no forced length for books.

3) Sequels Sell. Okay, there's an element of the cash grab here too. If you buy into the first book of the franchise, you'll come back for the rest. Moreover, if I get with you with the fourth book of the series, you'll go back to see the first! The longer this goes on, the higher the chance is that I'll rope you in. (What the execs need to realize is that, if you chop a $20 book into two parts, you don't sell both parts for $20...)

4) Blogging. A couple friends of mine have posted extended short stories on their blogs (check them out over at The Chaos Beast and Pegraelian). There's an obvious connection to points #2 and #3, but what keeps people coming back to blogs? My opinion: They're all little pieces of the whole... of the whole person, of the whole pedagogy, of the whole story. Also they evolve over time - if you're really interested, you'll have gone back to look at earlier entries. Almost like you're investing in an autobiography. Oh, snap, non-fiction!

5) Webcomics. These have been steadily gaining in popularity for over a decade, and while there will always be room for the one-panel sight gag, or the same characters punching the reset button, so many incorporate arcing story lines. Which, let's face it, is a serial in graphic form. (New television shows are doing this more now too, except the studio execs only want absolute guarantees, so if they're not seeing the returns after two episodes/chapters, fuhgeddaboudit.)

6) You Have Your Say. This is the true Web Serial. It's something the last two things have in common: YOU have the power to change the story. Yes, you. Just post a comment to that blog, or on that webcomic feed. (Some authors have even been known to even change their endings, when the audience sees what's coming a bit too soon!) It doesn't even have to be a plot speculation or a dramatic insight. Simply give a name like Doctor Whooves to that background character on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and see where it goes. As the risk of sounding overdramatic... 
"I'm a pony now.
Ponies are cool."

This changes everything.

People love when they have a part in something, no matter how small. Same way, incidentally, with students in a classroom.


THE FUTURE


So, aside from the web, where is this going? Here's a blog entry interview with a new publisher called JukePop Serials, still technically in beta. They expected a 2-3 week lag before getting submissions, as word spread; they got submissions the first day. Here's another interview with Plympton, a new digital publishing startup, partnered with Kindle. Finally, here's a site that talks about Virtual Tales, a website which used to handle e-serials - it closed down in 2011 owing to the owners still working day jobs and needing to cut back on stress.

It's in the media too; here's a news article from last month, talking about how Plympton raised nearly double its Kickstarter funding target, and is now selling through Amazon. I'm sure there's more out there if you look.

But wait, let's come back from the future. Where else are we seeing serials in the present, aside from publishing? In our careers, perchance?

SEE ALSO AWESOME ART OF THE ABOVE, DRAWN BY HAND

For my career, I'm thinking we can see it in a teacher's 3-act lesson, or the math blogging efforts over at Productive Struggle, Visual Patterns and Estimation180, web serials with tons of diverse writers. Yes, we're going there next. Honestly, HOW did I miss the link?

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Activities are a Problem

I've mentioned (at least in passing) that activity based lessons, involving students gathering a bunch of data to work with, makes me uncomfortable. Why is that? Thought is needed, and I'm posting so anyone else is welcome to chime in. Doing it now because I ran a couple of activity classes today, and I think I have some reasons.

TECH


One of today's periods involved four different stations where students would gather data.  At least 10-15 minutes of the time was shot trying to:
-Get calculators that actually worked with the CBL probe and CBR ranger, because the ones I'd initially selected had linking errors, and some of the other ones in the bin didn't have the appropriate program (it wouldn't load last month when I'd tried). Also one of the calculators that finally worked had trouble with the display.
-Doubling back to the equipment room for tape measures and linking cables, which I'd neglected to bring with me initially.
-Dealing with a few low battery warnings.


Part of that's on me for not taking (even more) time setting some things up. Still, part of this is the fact that the equipment is getting old. Even my SmartBoard has orientation issues, so getting students to come up and use it is problematic... they press in one place, and the dot appears 2 cm to the left.  (Or to the right, depending on if I recently tried to reorient.  Myself, I've adapted.)  None of this tech is can be replaced either, because we're spending so much money on photocopying, since textbooks do not always have the best questions.

Tech is a problem. I dislike the headaches of dealing with tech.

FEARS


The other activity period involved rolling link-a-cubes to model an exponential function.  (Can't take credit for this, learned it at a conference.)  No tech here, but I got especially worried at one point when the cubes were tossed more than rolled, thinking someone was going to step on one, fall and hurt themselves.  Did it happen?  No.  Still, that doesn't stop me from worrying irrationally about stuff.


I also worry about setting groups where people end up working with those they don't get along with, or are at a level too high or low... I can lose 20 minutes just to figuring this stuff out, so between the time and the stress, end result is I now don't bother, and let them choose.  (Which worked out just as well today, when half my afternoon class was absent, so the effort would have been for nothing. Ooooh, we had 20 cm of snow fall, ooooh, means no classes, right?)

Anyway, my ability to overanalyze scenarios is a problem. (Of course, worrying about the tech breaking might be a justified fear, given what I said earlier.)

FAMILIARITY


Since I don't do this sort of thing much, there's a general sense of confusion on the days when I do.  To the credit of my students, they adapt well, but little things like where the CBR Ranger is pointed and use of the Trigger is something that I guess comes with practice.  (And perhaps constant use, because they've used it in previous grades, but that was probably sometime last year...)

Also, I'm not so familiar with the format. I tend to misjudge how long certain things will take, even when I've run an activity before. And some groups invariably finish before others, and I always feel like things are at a bit of a loose end there (though not all students are tempted to play with the materials while waiting). I guess this is the sort of thing that can be cleared up with time, but I'm not feeling a huge desire to invest the time at this point.

CONCLUSION


Okay. So what it comes down to, in a way, is that I never feel like I can just sit back and let them have at it.  (I help out in drama, I know what that can be like... no, no, there I go worrying again.)  Maybe this is something that will come with time?  Still, I feel ten times more comfortable when they're working in their seats.

Oh well. On the bright side for tech, our 10 year old computers are supposed to be replaced at some point before the end of the school year.  So that's something.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Time Trippers: Chapter 1A


TIME TRIPPERS: AWARENESS

CHAPTER 1: TIMELY DISCOVERY


A time machine. That would solve everything, Carrie Waterson decided. If she had a time machine, then she could make an appearance at Julie’s party tonight, and then later on, travel back in time to now. This meant that her future self would end up back here in her room, on the off chance that her father came to check on her later. For that matter, Carrie mused, there would also be the fringe benefit that she would then get a full night’s sleep before tomorrow’s math test.

Oh well – her dad probably wouldn’t check. In fact, it was wouldn’t even be a problem if she hadn’t accidentally let slip about the party during dinner earlier this week. Seeing as, generally speaking, her dad remained wonderfully oblivious to most of her comings and goings, and indeed, her whole social life.  Now, if she’d still had a mother, maybe her mother would have paid more attention...

“But you don’t, so let’s get on with it,” the blonde teenager muttered aloud to herself.  She raised her bedroom window, and poked her head out, glancing around the backyard.  No one was around.  Not surprising, with it being a Thursday night in late September, but since the yard opened right out into a ravine, one could never be sure what people (or small animals) might be wandering around.

After briefly adjusting the strap of the small purse she had slung over her shoulder, Carrie made her way onto the roof, and over to the oak tree.  It was then with practiced ease that she climbed down via the branches, despite how her hair was nearly long enough to reach her waist, and her somewhat impractical choice of attire.  This being a slightly cropped top, and a skirt that only just reached her knees.  But you didn’t show up to a party thrown by the richest girl in town wearing a long sleeved T-shirt with torn jeans. Particularly not when you had been declared the head cheerleader for the school year.

Carrie couldn’t help but smirk a little at that thought, as she dropped to the ground. She wasn’t even part of the graduating class, however even as a junior, her athletic ability already surpassed most, if not all of the seniors. Add to that the fact that she was in the right social circles, and well, it had really been a foregone conclusion.  So with her reputation, she could be forgiven for showing up while wearing her running shoes, which would be more practical for traversing the ravine than any sort of heels. Not showing up at all though – that would be harder to explain away. Especially since Julie was also her best friend.

The blonde hooked some errant strands of her long hair back behind her ear, and adjusted the blue hairband she wore, before quickly sprinting across the backyard and into the cover of the trees in the ravine. She glanced briefly back towards the house, seeing the light was still on in the den. Maybe her dad would be so into writing his latest set of short stories that she would be back before he even went to bed. That would be helpful.

Finally completely turning her back on the house, she headed down into the band of greenery that cut a swath through the small Canadian town in which she lived. There were some paths, to be sure, but they weren’t always obvious, so one had to take care not to trip on a root, or fall and twist an ankle. Despite this, and the fact that it was growing ever darker, Carrie was able to make good time. She knew the routes well, having lived in this town all her life, having explored around the area when she was younger. Her current trajectory would lead her out to the park on the other side.  From there, party central was just a few blocks away.

Carrie put her track and field abilities to good use as she hurried through the underbrush.  So it wasn't long before she saw the park through the trees ahead.  However, in her haste and confident familiarity, Carrie tripped just before emerging from the wooded area.  She fell to the ground, biting back a cry of surprise.  And while managing to break her fall, she still slid a bit and felt a twinge of pain.

The blonde quickly turned herself over into a seated position, looking down at her knees.  Sure enough, she'd skinned one of them.  Perhaps she shouldn't have worn so short a skirt.  She sighed.  At least her reflexes had still been good, and the rest of her seemed fine... but damn it, if there was one thing she was not, it was clumsy!  How had she fallen?  Something unusual must have tripped her up, maybe an animal or something.  Half annoyed and half curious, Carrie tossed some of her long hair back off her face, sat up fully and peered back along her trail to see what had been in her way.

She blinked.  Though it had become difficult to see in the dark, with the moonlight, Carrie was able to pick out the outline of a medium sized black box.  Most curious.  Carrie approached to look more closely at it - she was sure it hadn't been there earlier in the week.  The box was a rectangular prism, but with a digital readout that had been sunken slightly into the front. It also had a handle on the side, and Carrie's first impression was that this device was some cross between a computerized slot machine and a cash register. But the readout didn’t depict cherries or lemons. It just featured eight numbers – with no indication of a decimal point.

Wait a minute, Carrie realized upon closer inspection, there was also a slot next to the readout where you could drop in coins... that could be another reason she was drawing parallels with slot machines.  But investigating further, Carrie saw nowhere to collect your winnings, or any other openings. So what was this thing, and why was it here?

She tried lifting the black box, which turned out to be lighter than she expected.  She shook it.  She couldn't hear any coins inside.  She then ran her hands over the sides of the machine, which seemed to be surprisingly smooth.  Something about it struck her as being high-tech, but she couldn't put her finger on what.  Had someone thrown this device away?  After all, it was back in the underbrush of the ravine near the park, and she couldn't think of any other reason for it to be here.  Maybe the thing didn't work.  Which raised the question of how it was supposed to work.  Carrie decided a few more minutes of inspection wouldn't hurt at this point.  She looked closer.

There was an unexpected flash of light from somewhere in the park behind her, which allowed Carrie to pick out the outline of a circular panel on the top of the device.  Carrie tossed a quick glance back over her shoulder but saw nothing unusual, so she returned to her examination.  The panel reminded her vaguely of her father’s CD player.  This really was a hybrid device.  She pressed the top circular section, wondering if it would open, but nothing happened.  Maybe the handle?  She pulled it down, but again nothing happened.  Perhaps it worked like an old style jukebox, only activating when you dropped coins into the slot.

Curiosity completely piqued by this point, Carrie fished around in the small shoulder purse she'd brought with her, bringing out a quarter.  Potentially a waste of money, but if this thing did play music or do anything cool, maybe she could present it to everyone at the party as both an interesting artifact and the reason for her lateness.  Carrie plunked her quarter into the machine.  It began humming.  This seemed like progress.  Carrie pressed on the top.  Nothing.  She pulled down on the handle.  There was a flash of light and Carrie had the sensation of being sucked into a void.  She screamed.

***

Consciousness came back to her, slowly.  That is, until Carrie realized where she was, at which point she sat up with a start.  "Dammit!" she cursed, brushing at the dirt all over her clothes.  She'd fallen again!  Wait, no, the earth had dropped away from underneath her!  But then why wasn't she down in a hole somewhere?  Carrie looked around.  She was still sitting at the border of the ravine, yet now she was slightly off the path and in a small pile of dirt.  What the hell had just happened?  Carrie's eyes set on the black box, which was still in front of her.  It had produced a flash of light...

"Damn thing almost electrocuted me!" Carrie deduced.  No wonder it had been thrown away!  Her curiosity would be the death of her someday... if only it didn't seem to come naturally.  Scowling, Carrie picked herself up off the ground, being reminded of her scraped knee in the process.  She tried to brush the rest of the dirt off of herself but quickly realized that her clothes could use changing now too.  How many things could go wrong in a single evening?  For that matter, how long had she been unconscious?  Carrie checked her watch: less than an hour.  She should have time for a quick tidy up before taking another run at the party - since Julie's parents were away again, it would probably continue until 1am anyway.

Leaving the stupid box where it was, Carrie hurried out of the wooded area behind her house, up towards the convenient tree in the backyard.  She absently remarked on the fact that the wind had picked up a bit, so maybe it would be good that she'd be changing her skirt.  Abruptly, Carrie stopped.  This was her backyard.  She turned.  But she'd been about to emerge into the park before she found the device... right?  What was she doing back on the wrong side of the ravine?

Carrie's eyes narrowed.  This was starting to turn into a very weird night.  Perhaps she had wandered towards the house in a semi-dazed state after receiving that electrical shock?  Dragging the weird box with her?  Well, it was the only explanation she could think of.  Anyway, there were more immediate concerns, she'd figure it out later.

Carrie clambered up into the tree, slightly favouring her right leg.  She soon reached her unlocked window, opened it, and climbed in onto her desk.  She swung her legs around to hop off... and in the process kicked the crystal swan she kept there, causing it to fall to the ground and shatter into a hundred pieces.

Carrie froze.  Her heart constricted.  She wasn't upset over the noise she had just caused, because more than that... she couldn't have just hit the crystal swan she kept on her desk.  That particular ornament had been broken over two years ago...

It was then that Carrie heard the movement over in the sheets on her bed.  Someone was in her room.  No one was supposed to be in here!  What the hell was happening?!  Carrie sat on the desk, paralyzed in fear and confusion as whoever was in the bed rolled over, looking in her direction as they blinked themselves awake.  On the desk, Carrie's eyes went wide.  Then Carrie let out a scream.  But it wasn't the Carrie on the desk who was screaming.  On the contrary, that Carrie's reflexes were finally kicking in, causing her to get away by practically falling back out of the window.


Meanwhile, the Carrie in the bed was tossing her covers aside and rubbing her eyes to try and clear the sleep from them.  There was a knock at her bedroom door.  "Hey, are you all right in there? Was that you screaming?" her father called out.

"I..."  Carrie stopped, not sure what to say.  Had she really just seen a figure breaking into her room, or had she been dreaming?  Wait, hadn't she closed her window before going to bed?  Carrie scrambled out of bed and moved towards the window.  There was what looked like fresh traces of dirt on the surface of the desk and the windowsill.  She peered outside.  Nothing immediately apparent, but if the person was quick, they might have run around the side of the house.  Funny, now that Carrie thought about it, whoever that was, their silhouette had been strangely familiar.  Some friend playing a trick on her?  If so, Carrie didn't think it was very funny.

"I'm coming in!" her father suddenly announced.  Carrie grabbed a couple of textbooks and stuck them down to conceal the few dirty smears on her desk as her door opened and the lights clicked on.

"It's all right!" Carrie said quickly.  "I... I just had a bad dream and overreacted."  She couldn't let her father know about the prowler.  He might start keeping a closer eye on her in the future, or even worse cut down the tree in the backyard... which would put a severe cramp in what little social life she had.  She was having enough trouble trying to assert herself and gain a position of some status now that she was in high school.  She didn't need this extra aggravation.

Her father paused.  "Are you sure?"  He took another step in, then paused.  "It looks like you've broken something..."

Carrie blinked, and with the lights on she noted for the first time the demise of her crystal swan.  She choked back a cry of horror.  "The swan... the swan mama gave to me..." Carrie said sadly, biting her lip.  But she was not going to cry, damn it.  She was not going to display such weakness, at least not with her father here.  "It... the wind must have knocked it off the desk..." Carrie continued.  This settled it.  Whoever had just been in here, playing this horrible, stupid prank, they were going to pay!  She would see to that!  But how was she supposed to find out who had done it?

"I'm sorry," her father replied sincerely.  There was a pause. "Maybe I can find you another--"

"Don't bother," Carrie said curtly.  She reached out and slammed the window shut.  "I'll clean up the mess tomorrow.  In the meantime, I'm going back to bed.  See you in the morning."

Her father blinked at the abruptness of her manner, but didn't seem to know what to say about it.  So it was with a final 'goodnight' that he turned the light back off and departed the room.  For her part, Carrie curled up in her bed, partly incensed but more despondent than anything else.  And with her father out of the room, she allowed a tear to trickle down her cheek.  Who had broken the swan?  One of the few remembrances she had of her mother.  Was there anyone she knew who could help her track down the culprit and get revenge?

***

Ten minutes later, the doorbell rang at Julie LaMille's house.  Or mansion, really – the LaMilles were by far the richest family in town.  It was after three rings that Jeeves answered the door.  This surprised Carrie on two levels.  Firstly, because she had thought that Julie had given the family butler the night off, what with the party and all. Secondly, because he was wearing a bathrobe.  It wasn't even midnight yet, and Carrie had always thought that the family help didn't stop working until sometime after that.  "Yes?" Jeeves said archly.  "Why are you disturbing us so late at night?"

"Uhhhh, I'm looking for Julie," Carrie said uncertainly.  She was probably quite a sight too, knee still scraped up, looking dirty and now sweaty after having run all the way over here.  But honestly, she just didn't know where else to go or what else to do.  Carrie had to figure out what was going on!  But there was no party here.  Where WAS everybody?

"Miss LaMille is asleep, as is the rest of the house.  Come back tomorrow."  Jeeves started to close the door.

"No, wait!  Jeeves, just tell her it's Carrie, please, I... I don't know where else to go.  I think somehow I just met myself... I'm so confused..."

"Neither Julie nor I know anyone by the name of Carrie.  So whatever problems you have, either take them elsewhere or come back at a more decent hour."  With that, the door slammed shut.

Carrie reeled.  Now Julie's family and servants didn't know her?  But they'd been acquainted for almost two years now!  What the hell was happening?  On top of this, some other version of herself had been sleeping in her bed... were people being replaced by alien pod lookalikes?  Carrie suddenly felt like she was lost in some bad science fiction movie.  But everything had been fine not two hours ago!  Well, not fine exactly, she'd had to sneak out of her house, and then ended up skinning her knee...

The box.  That damn black box thing.  That had to be it, Carrie realized.  Somehow, it had done something to everyone!  Or... more likely to her!  But what?  Well, she'd soon figure that out.  With nowhere else to turn, Carrie hurried back towards the spot where she'd left the device.  Yet as she approached, she heard a rustling in the bushes... someone else was here now!  Had the original owner tracked down their property?  Would they have answers?  "Who the hell is out there?" Carrie demanded.

In response, in the darkness, a shadowy figure jumped up and turned, starting to run away.  Screw that - Carrie was fed up with the entire situation now.  Whoever this person was, they weren't getting away. Calling once again upon her athletic abilities and ignoring the aches in her body, she sprinted forward and tackled the stranger.

=====
Thanks for reading this far! That was the first 11 pages of my 300 page time travel story (600 double spaced).
If you think there's something to it, comment either here or at The Intro Post.
If you think there's NOTHING to it, please comment also! (That may be more important...)
If you want to read more (and I already know you), email me, I have a pdf.
If you want to read more (and I don't know you), comment or get in touch with me, so I can get to know you. ^_-