3 New Books for June


I’ve been busy since school let out less than a month ago. I’ve edited two books and published them, plus one more. All of them are outside my usual genre. Now it’s time to promote them and try to convince you to buy them.

First up is A Light Beyond. This is one I imagined several years ago, when I still had an agent who didn’t really believe in me. He shot the idea down, but it wouldn’t leave me. I wrote the book last semester, putting down a little over 50,000 words in a pretty short time for me during a school year. This is the story of Robert Prince, who meets an older woman when he’s 13 and falls in love with her. He has a friend who is a bully and a home life that is less than good.

Structurally, I tried something different with this short novel (or long novella). Each chapter is from a different stage of Robert’s life. We begin in a Cincinnati subway tunnel, where he’s been severely beaten. We then move to the summer of 1978, when he’s 13 and meets Alia, the older woman down the street. The third stage stretches over a much longer period of time, beginning when he’s about 18 and concluding with the chapter that reveals why he’s in the subway at age 51. Every third chapter goes back to one of these stages of his life.

For the few who are interested, there is a lot of nostalgia in this book for me. The chapters with young Robert are set on the street where I grew up and characters visit real places like Longfellow Junior High School, Bob’s Cone Corner, Hendrie House Buffet, etc. There really was a woman living in the house described who a “frenemy” of mine insisted was a hooker. Like Robert, I spent a lot of summer afternoons working puzzles, playing board games, and reading. But pretty much all the major plot elements are fiction.

A Light Beyond is available in both paperback and for Kindle and the Kindle app.

This next book is pretty special to me. My first genre love was for the Western, though it was more for movies than books. I’d wanted to write a Western novel for many years, but frankly, was afraid to branch out. The research seemed intimidating, too. And yeah, that same agent who dissed A Light Beyond didn’t want anything to do with Orphan when I proposed it to him.

This one is also told from three perspectives, but it’s three different characters. First is Ramsay, a wanted man just trying to get west, away from his old life and all the disappointments it held. When he catches a man cheating at cards in a small east Kansas town, the man pulls a gun and Ramsay has to kill him. This leads the man’s nephew, Jack, to decide that Ramsay is now responsible for him, so he tags along. Back in Chicago, Les finds out his lover isn’t who she claimed to be, and she’s pregnant. If he wants to maintain his relationship with her, he must leave his job as a packinghouse foreman and use his old Pinkerton skills to track down a meat baron’s missing grandson. Eventually, Ramsay, Jack, Les, the grandson, and a bounty hunter all meet up. There’s some shooting.

About the only other thing I can say about this one is that it’s dedicated to the memory of Johnny Quarles, Johnny lived in my hometown when his first novel, Brack, came out in about 1988 or so. I was about 22. Surprisingly for my introverted self, I picked up the phone and called him shortly after his book came out and found him to be a warm, helpful man with a wonderful family. He gave me a lot of good advice and let me interview him for various newsletters and such. In the early days of the Internet he even paid me to create and maintain his first Web site. My character, Ramsay Quarles, takes his name from Johnny and Johnny’s character Brack Ramsay. I hope my book is a worthy tribute to a great man.

Orphan is available as both a paperback and for Kindle and the Kindle app. The audio version is in production at the moment.

The third book I released this month is a really old manuscript. I’m talking like 25 years old. Songbird was written when my wife was pregnant with our first child. We never asked to learn the gender of our kids before they were born, preferring to be surprised. I know, that’s unthinkable today with all the elaborate gender reveal parties, but … whatever. We knew if we had a boy he’d be named Alexander and if we had a girl she’d be Rebecca. So the songbird of the story is named Becca and the wandering sailor who rescues her from the Trolls is Zander.

As you may have guessed, this is a children’s fairy story. Becca trades her freedom to save her village and she’s locked up in the Troll king’s Fang Tower, where she has to sing every time a Troll rings a bell. Zander hears her one day and vows to rescue her, but the Troll king’s ransom requires that Zander find the legendary land of Farin and bring back Queen Roshell’s wedding ring. Can he do it before the Troll king forces Becca to marry him? Well, it’s a fairy tale, so you can probably guess the answer to that one. It’s a chapter book, so I guess the target audience here is probably grades 3 to 8. The font is bigger than normal, so the page count is higher than the word count would suggest.

You’ll find several homages to J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Lloyd Alexander in this one.

Songbird is available in both paperback and for Kindle and the Kindle app.

Thanks for sticking with me!

 

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End of May


I haven’t blogged just to blog in quite a while. So, as I’m sort of between projects and figuring out what to do with myself at the start of summer, I thought I’d do an update on my life. Because both you readers care, right?

School’s Out for summer. It was an interesting year. Not always a good time, but come the end of the year all is forgiven and transgressions (mostly) forgotten. I’m going to really miss having those seniors in my life on an almost daily basis. They’re good young folks with very bright futures ahead of them.

It would seem I have broken a tradition the Advanced Placement English students of the Class of 2017 had going. I’m apparently the first English teacher of their high school career to not quit the school after having this group. For some of them, the trend goes back to eighth grade. For what it’s worth, I did apply for a couple of jobs at other schools, but nobody called for an interview.

No surprise here, but the Oklahoma Legislature has failed to find a way to raise teachers’ salaries. Many teachers are leaving the state, which is just as well since a lot of schools are having to reduce the number of teachers they can afford (and increase class sizes). This includes my school, where class sizes for English are expected to be 35 students per section … although that math doesn’t really add up when all things are considered and we’re looking at 40+ kids in some classes.

But hey, in other news I finished a new book. It’s called A Light Beyond. I’ll be posting the cover and blurb here in a few days. This is a book I proposed to my previous agent several years ago and he shot it down (like he did everything else I proposed). Now it’s written and is being edited. It’s currently at about 50,000 words, which is an odd length, pretty long for a novella but not long enough to be a novel. I’m not looking for a publisher for it. It’s going straight to my own MoonHowler Press and will hopefully be available at SoonerCon 26, which starts June 23 and really should include your presence.

Students asked me a while back how many books I have published. I couldn’t answer at first. The answer is 16. They asked how many I’ve written. That answer is 30. Eight of those unpublished books will hopefully be released in the next year as I find time to polish and do the layout and design for them.

Another Open Letter to Oklahoma Lawmakers


State Question 779 was not a good bill. It put the burden of the legislature’s job of funding teacher salaries onto the shoulders of everyone in Oklahoma, hurting the poor the most. And so it failed. One can hope people voted it down because it was a regressive tax and not because they feel like Oklahoma teachers are overpaid, but … Who really knows?

Oklahoma ranks 48th out of 50 states and D.C. in the quality of education our kids receive. You get what you pay for, as we also ranked 48 in per pupil spending. Prior to the start of this school year (2016-2017), 1,530 teaching jobs were eliminated due to the Oklahoma Legislature’s failure to diversify state revenue and mismanagement of the funds that did come in. Despite that, school districts had a hard time finding teachers to take the open positions they could fill. There were no teachers left to take those jobs. Between May and August the State Board of Education had issued 730 emergency teaching certifications to people with no prior teaching experience, and that’s after issuing 685 last school year.

Classrooms are overcrowded. Untrained people have been put in charge of kids. Student achievement is getting worse. Oklahoma is getting dumber.

And you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The failure of SQ 779 means that the floodgates are about to open in a way you haven’t imagined. The $5,000 pay raise the penny sales tax would have provided still wouldn’t have brought Oklahoma teacher salaries within range of our neighboring states, but it would have been something, a frayed rope thrown to a swimmer in a stormy sea. The legislature has shown over and over that it doesn’t want to pay teachers. Now the people have supported that view.

Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, even Kansas all pay their teachers salaries that, by comparison, show just how little Oklahoma cares about having quality educators. When those states start posting their openings for 2017-2018, they’re going to be swamped with applicants from Oklahoma. This state is about to see a teacher shortage so severe that it may finally kill public education here.

Let’s play with numbers.

My current annual salary is $38,000, which is the state minimum for someone with my credentials. I have a master’s degree and 11 years experience teaching. According to Sperling’s Best Places, the cost of living in Oklahoma City is 87.2 percent of the national average. A teacher with the same credentials earns $54,480 in Springfield, Missouri, where the cost of living is 84 percent of the national average. In Ft. Smith, Arkansas, those credentials would bring a salary of $52, 045 at a cost of living that is 82.1 percent of the national average. In Wichita, Kansas, the pay is $52,768 with a cost of living at 84.6. My favorite, though, is Amarillo, Texas. They don’t have their detailed pay schedule online, but based on the information they do offer, a mid-range salary for a classroom teacher is $59,640 and the cost of living comes in at 83.3.

Let’s sum that up. I could go a few dozen miles west of the state line and increase my pay by over $21,000 per year and it would cost me almost 4 percent less to live there.

I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave my students to suffer with whatever warm body my current employer can find to replace me next year. I don’t want to leave Oklahoma, the state I’ve called home for all of my 50 years. But as a Republican myself, I do adhere to the credo of, “If your current situation isn’t good enough, take responsibility and change it.” That’s what we said when middle-aged McDonald’s workers wanted $15 per hour, right?

Like many of my colleagues, I’m working more than one job. I teach high school English full time. I also adjunct teach at a local community college, bring in a little bit per month with my fiction writing, and sometimes I get lucky and can officiate a wedding for a few extra bucks. It doesn’t pay extra, but most of my “free time” is spent grading papers from those first two jobs. Also, my wife works. Still, it isn’t enough.

You people in the state congress will bandy about words, pretend you care about us, but in the end you probably won’t do anything to help. In the spring we’ll apply in other states, we’ll pack up our belongings, cut our losses on our homes with the earthquake damage done by your pet injection wells, and we’ll go away and leave kids who need us. It won’t be easy for us, but sometimes we have to put our biological kids ahead of our school kids and do what’s best to provide for our own families.

We’ll also leave the stress of multiple jobs, of having more students than we can reasonably manage, of having to buy our own school supplies, and of looking at our neighbors and wondering why they turned us out by voting no on SQ 779 and and yes on putting the party with an anti-public education track record back in power.

If you really care about education in Oklahoma, you have until the first of May to show it. We’re waiting.

The case for alt certified teachers


A friend and colleague recently showed me this article in last Sunday’s Oklahoman newspaper. The article quotes an educator with some pretty derogatory and fallacious things to say about teachers with emergency and alternative certification. For instance:

“Emergency certified personnel may have had zero experience with children, may have achieved a 1.0 grade-point average or lower with a major in physical education at University of Phoenix, may be alcoholics with pornography addictions, but they have been hired by the state to teach English at the local middle school,” said Lawrence Baines, associate dean for graduate studies and research at the University of Oklahoma’s Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education.

Seriously? Look at this quote from the American Psychological Association:
Various international studies have put porn consumption rates at 50 percent to 99 percent among men, and 30 percent to 86 percent among women, according to Gert Martin Hald, PhD, and colleagues in The APA Handbook of Sexuality and Psychology (Vol. 2).
Here’s a bit from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:
About 1.5 million adults received treatment for an AUD at a specialized facility in 2014 (8.9 percent of adults who needed treatment)5. This included 1.1 million men (9.8 percent of men in need) and 431,000 women (7.4 percent of women who needed treatment)5

The point I would make to Mr. Baines is that it’s very likely he has colleagues at the great University of Oklahoma who are alcoholic porn-watchers. Does he know they fall into this category?

The thing is, if a person has no history of getting in trouble for being an alcoholic or looking at pornography, it won’t come up in the mandatory background check done for anyone who works with students. That includes teachers with traditional certifications.

Mr. Baines goes on to say that alternative and emergency certified teachers have a higher rate of misconduct. He provides no statistics to prove this, and the reporter didn’t bother to fact check him. So, if anecdotal evidence is good enough, how’s this: The high school where I work has been notorious for misconduct by coach-teachers. All of those people had traditional certifications. Hmm.

Why am I defensive about this? There are several reasons. The most obvious is because I am alternatively certified. After 10 years in machine shops, I finally went to college. I started as an English education major, but a series of hyper-liberal closed-minded English professors at the University of Central Oklahoma and the adrenaline rush of journalism diverted me. I earned a BA in journalism in 1999 and spent the next seven years working for newspapers or doing public relations work. I’d been doing PR for a while when I looked at my life and decided I wasn’t making a positive impact in the world, so I got my teaching certificate. I worked as a substitute for one semester, then got hired full time with my current employer.

I’ve now been at my job for over 10 years. In that time I’ve been named Teacher of the Year once and consistently score Highly Effective on my evaluations. My former students routinely thank me for preparing them for college after their freshman years. But if one only goes by what Baines says, non-traditional teachers “are not just under trained, but may be a risk to students.” Nowhere is he quoted to say anything positive about non-traditionally certified teachers, so one can infer that the above quote is his attitude toward the entire group.

I currently have and have had many colleagues who are very good teachers who are also non-traditionally certified. I have had colleagues with traditional education degrees tell me that they didn’t learn anything in college that was actually useful in the classroom.

Personally, I think it’s a good thing to have teachers who did not follow the traditional path of high school to college back to public education. What do they know about the world outside of academia? Not much.

We have a teacher shortage in Oklahoma. This shortage is caused by legislators who reduce education funding, who refuse to pay teachers a salary comparable to surrounding states, and who continually fault teachers for students who don’t learn, ignoring more dominant and negative factors in the lives of those children. When people are willing to leave private sector jobs that typically pay more and step into the classroom they face the scorn of snobs like Mr. Baines. Is it any wonder Oklahoma can’t keep teachers?

Finally, my last problem is with this article itself and the reporter, Ben Felder. I contacted him and complained about the tone of his article. His response was that he didn’t personally say bad things about non-traditionally certified teachers. True, Mr. Felder, true. But it’s your article and you had access to sources that would have shown you a different perspective. You chose to only give voice to Baines’ point of view. From a former journalist and a current teacher who isn’t an alcoholic or porn addict, I say that’s just bad reporting.

Free Sample of Love Curse


love curse frontHere’s a PDF of the first two chapters of my new young adult horror novel Love Curse, coming June 7 from MoonHowler Press. It’s available for pre-order from Amazon (link in the PDF).

Love Curse MHP 1-2

From the back cover …

Keith’s mother is dead, but that doesn’t mean she’s stopped trying to help him turn his life around. His dad, however, doesn’t see any reason he or Keith should stop drinking or using drugs.

Ashlie and her two best friends have never known real love. When the girls take a road trip to go shopping, they stumble upon a book in an estate sale that might be the answer to their romantic problems.

When the school’s renowned drug user approaches Ashlie, she doesn’t think there’s any way she’d ever fall for Keith. As her friends use the grimoire to wreak havoc on the boys of the school who have mistreated them, Ashlie can’t help but wonder if Keith’s interest is real or the result of the spells her friends claim to be creating.

Then their rural Oklahoma high school erupts in chaos and the unlikely couple have to fight against the evil that has been unleashed on their small town.

Teacher Asks for Books


As the fallout continues from the incompetence of the Oklahoma legislature, next school year is starting to come into focus, and trust me, it isn’t pretty. The budget cuts to education are going to be very costly to students and to the teachers who remain in the profession, or are able to keep their jobs.

With 10 years at my school, I’m pretty safe. But we’re looking at much larger class sizes and an emphasis on saving money anywhere we can, which will undoubtedly include paper rationing. This means I will no longer be able to copy the binder of notes I give to my Advanced Placement English students. This is a binder I’ve built over years of teaching that includes many, many pages of vocabulary, test strategies, a reading list, a practice test, etc.

I’m having to look for alternatives to get this test prep information into my students’ hands. And so, I’ve turned to the public to ask for help. I currently have two fundraisers going.

The first one I set up through DonorsChoose.org, a leader in helping teachers get what they need. This one asks for 40 copies of the latest Barron’s AP English Literature and Composition test prep workbook. This is the 12th grade AP English class. With expected class sizes of 35, I went with 40 in case of loss or damage.

The second fundraiser is through GoFundMe.com. The purpose this time is to pay for 40 copies of Barron’s AP English Language and Composition test prep workbooks. This is the 11th grade AP English class. Again, class sizes are estimated at 35, which is actually the across-the-board number for all classes.

I’ll have kids answer the workbook questions on notebook paper, so these books should actually last for several years.

Why different forums for the fundraising? DonorsChoose is a trusted source where the administrators of the site purchase the specified products and send them to the school. In other words, I never actually touch the money. However, the $387 cost of the workbooks becomes a goal of $529 when you add in the administrative fees. When I saw that, I decided to set up the other through GoFundMe and hope that people trust I’ll buy the workbooks. Believe me, it’s much more important to me that my students pass the AP exam than buying anything $387 would get me.

Kids in Need Won’t Find Help


When I was a high school student in the early 1980s I couldn’t have imagined having police officers or Department of Human Services social workers in the building. Now that I teach high school, I can’t imagine doing without them.

But it’s happening.

I’ve already discussed here how we’re down to one officer for our high school, 9th grade center, middle school, and alternative school (about 1,300 students). I’ve since learned he also covers the elementary school just north of our campus, too. This allows kids to roam freely at all hours of the school day; there’s simply nobody available to round them up when they skip class. It also allows for acts of violence like the one that occurred outside my room a few minutes after the bell signalling the start of a class yesterday.

That’s bad, but I’ve talked about that already. I learned recently that Oklahoma’s cuts to the DHS budget is costing us our social worker at the end of this school year. This is our second year to have Katrina in our building and I simply can’t say enough about what she’s done for our students.

I have gone to Katrina countless times about students who need help because a parent, step-parent, boyfriend or girlfriend was physically or emotionally abusive. I’ve taken her kids who were bruised, who were hungry, who needed clothes, who were homeless, who were thinking about suicide. She’s gotten help for them. She literally has been a life saver.

And now, as we’re facing a reduction in force that will lead to bigger class sizes, more work per teacher, and less individual attention per student, we need someone like Katrina more than ever. It’s likely she won’t be there, though. What will happen to those kids? Who will they turn to? Who is going to have the time and energy to care for them?

Not the legislators who refuse to end subsidies for petroleum and wind energy companies. Not the congressmen and women who are considering deregulating schools so cash-strapped administrators can do away with high-priced teachers (who are now the lowest paid in the nation) and hire minimum-wage-earning ex-convicts to save money. The governor won’t be reflecting on their fates as she stares into the new reflecting pool that will be built at the Capitol.

Every seat in the Oklahoma House of Representatives is available this November. About half of the Senate seats are, too. We cannot afford to allow the same kind of people to continue to run our state. Vote for candidates who will diversify our budget and who see the value in a strong system of public education.