Published at Last!

Christmas morning ain’t got nothing on the day I’ve had today. Within the last 24 hours, my first and my second fiction sales have gone live.

First came “Cabrón,” in Stupefying Stories‘s second annual horror anthology, Two. (Amazon link) (Barnes and Noble link)

Check out this amazing cover!

Cover Image for TWOIt will forever amuse me that this science fiction/fantasy/young adult/middle grade writer’s debut sale will go down as a horror story.

Anyway, the story I have in this anthology is a YA horror story, if that’s your thing. You can download a bunch of stories from some great writers–and also my story–for just four bucks!

Here’s what editor Bruce Bethke had to say about my story in the introduction:

“Do I rave about José Iriarte’s stunning debut, ‘Cabrón,’ and tell you to keep you eye on him because he’s going to be a writer to watch?”

And okay, he’s the editor, so he’s supposed to tell you the book is full of awesome stories, and okay, technically he never actually answers that question SHUT UP! IT’S STILL PRETTY AWESOME!

Ahem . . .

So I’m not gonna lie and say that my eyes didn’t fill with tears when I downloaded the anthology and cracked it open. Most writers either give up or succeed by now . . . it’s been close to thirty years since I got my first rejection, and I finally feel like I’ve figured out how to write salable fiction. For better or for worse, I’ve crossed a line: I’m a published author. There is so much more I want to accomplish as a writer, but this is something nobody can take away from me. Yesterday I was an unpublished aspiring writer, and today I’m an author. My friends outside of writing really can’t get how big that is to me, but most of my writer friends will know.


Less than twelve hours after my debut publication, my SECOND fiction publication went live. You can read my first SFWA-pro fiction sale, “Yuca and Dominoes,” at Strange Horizons Magazine here. And holy crap, I even have a podcast of my story! If horror isn’t your thing (don’t worry–it’s not mine either!) this piece is a bit more understated. It’s magic realism, and about the most carefully crafted thing I’ve ever written. And ohmygod, did I mention there was a PODCAST?! I can’t do justice to the experience of hearing my words read back to me in a professional recording. Anaea Lay’s rendition of drunk Carmencita Peña is worth the download all by itself!

So, yeah . . . I’ve been thinking about what to compare the day I’ve had to, and the closest analogy I can think of is Christmas morning to an eight-year-old. Honestly, I don’t know that I ever had a Christmas as awesome as today was!

Posted in artist's life, blargety-blog, writing | 1 Comment

Education Policy Courtesy of the OSS

On my internet rambles the other day, I saw someone quote extensively from what was purported to be an OSS manual on sabotage. The manual in question is quoted in and linked to from Wikipedia, and hosted on Project Gutenberg, so it looks legit enough. And the content certainly seems appropriate, but what shook me was I read it and had a totally different context come to mind:

(11)General Interference with Organisations [sic] and
(a)  Organizations and Conferences
(1)Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
(2)  Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate “patriotic” comments.
(3)  When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large as possible—never less than five.
(4)  Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
(5)  Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
(6)  Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
(7)  Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.
(8)  Be worried about the propriety of any decision—raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the juris­diction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.

. . .

(b) Managers and Supervisors

. . .

(11.) Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.

(12)  Multiply paperwork in plausible ways. Start duplicate files.
(13)  Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, paychecks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.

I don’t know if it’s possible to read that, as a teacher, and not get a little chill down your back. For my money, this is a pretty perfect description of the “education reform” movement of the last half-decade or so.

Early in my career I used to hear that education was cyclical; the fads of today would emerge, warmed over, in another decade or so. But after a couple of decades, maybe I have the perspective to say it’s not all cyclical—that this seems to be a special and unique time in the history of public education. We live in bizarro backward land, where teachers are vilified and most respondents to a recent survey say they’re overpaid, where teachers are graded by the performance of students they don’t teach, and where the way to fix an “underperforming” school is to reduce its funding until it gets better. I think this era is different because corporate-types have figured out that there’s gold in them thar hills—there’s money to be made in “fixing” education, but only if you break it enough to generate the demand, first.

Posted in teaching | 1 Comment

“Aren’t you supposed to hate everything you write?”

August was very good to me. On August 14th, I made my first professional fiction sale, and on the 29th, I followed it up with another short story sale. To say I’m riding kind of high right now would be a pretty massive understatement.

Last night I finished up a new short story. Only time—and other people’s reactions—will tell if I pulled off what I was going for, which led to the following exchange on Facebook:

Me: Nobody but me may ever like this short story, but for better or worse, it’s done.

A friend: But you wrote it… Aren’t you supposed to hate everything you write?

This is a pretty good lampooning of my usual attitude toward my art—what another friend calls my tendency toward “autofloccinaucinihilipilification.” My friends know I’m terrible when it comes to putting down my own work and have given me a fair amount of grief over it, but this comment made me realize I had unconsciously said something  positive about my work–I’d acknowledged that I liked it, even if nobody else did. I thought about it and replied, “No, I’m supposed to think everything I write is crap. Very similar, but not the same.”

But that got me to over-thinking and over-analyzing, because, hey, it’s what I do.

I think the thing that has be making me creep closer and closer to success for the last year or so is that everything I write is now consciously rooted in the things I’m passionate about. I hope I’m not making that flash of insight seem banal, because for me it was a watershed. I used to start from a place of, “Wouldn’t it be cool/interesting if . . . ” I think that’s a very typical place to have stories originate from, but maybe my cool-meter isn’t calibrated the same as everyone else’s, because those stories didn’t generally gain any traction when I shopped them around. (There’s other kinds of traction besides sales. There’s personal rejections, getting bumped up to the next editorial round, close calls.) When I finally started getting close calls, it was with stories that rolled around in my obsessions, my insecurities, my favorite themes—by accident at first and by design later.

And for a year now, I pretty much haven’t written any story that I look back on and don’t like.

I still beat up on myself as a writer, but now it’s not for telling crappy stories, but for not having the skill to do justice to the stories I care about. It’s for missing the target.

Missed Target

Artwork by Ilco.

The downside is it can hurt more, to care about a story and feel like it matters to me, and know I botched it.

The upside is that skill grows. So if all that’s holding me back is that I’m not as skilled as I want to be, well I’ll get there eventually.

All I have to do is write more.

Posted in artist's life, writing | 3 Comments

Hacking my own creative process

I feel like my road to being a successful artist is filled with dozens if not hundreds of RPG-like level-ups that I need to unlock. Learn how to finish what I start. Check. Learn how to write novels. Check. Learn how to write prose that is tight and polished. Check. Learn how to write a good query letter. Check. Learn how to keep short stories under five thousand words. Check. Learn how to tell stories that anybody besides me cares about? Okay . . . still working on that, though I think I’m making progress.

One area where I seem to be a long way away is unlocking what makes the words flow easily. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, but  other than putting myself in the way of inspiration by writing as often as I can, I haven’t found a specific set of cues that predictably results in productivity from me.

The closest thing I’ve found so far is pressure.

Chewed up pencil and computer keyboard.

Photo by Tracy Carpena.

Last spring I got one of my first clues. I took a couple of writing classes with Cat Rambo (which I can’t recommend enough, by the way). And though I learned a lot of great techniques and concepts, for me the price of admission may have been recouped in the beginnings of a glimmer of insight into my creative process: Cat would give us a writing prompt and five or ten minutes, and damnit, I would write. And I would get stuff written that I thought was more than halfway decent.

Back in January, I competed in my first short story contest within the neo-pro writing community of Codex. Everybody there has some sort of writing achievement to their credit, so I figured I’d be doing okay if I just didn’t get blown out of the water. Despite January being a pretty murderous time for me, I managed to get stories written four of the five weeks, and placed in the top twenty out of fifty-four or so writers–with one of my stories finishing in the top five for its week. I was pretty jazzed just to feel like I belonged on the playing field with these folks at all, but I also got some more glimmers into my own process (or lack thereof). Each week I struggled to come up with a story for the prompts we were given . . . until around ten or eleven the night before the deadline. (For me on the east coast of the US, the deadlines fell at 3 am.) I was stuck until I had four or five hours, when suddenly the words would start pouring out. It was seriously that predictable.

I think I could’ve done better in the contest if I’d gotten the stories written earlier and had time to polish, but in the end the most important thing is getting stories drafted at all. Polish could come later.

Scary clown.

Nightmare fuel courtesy of Daniel Perry.

So there seems to be an element of sheer unvarnished terror when it comes to unlocking the words for me. Maybe in ten minutes we’re all going to be reading our snippets out loud and by cod I better have something to read, or maybe there’s a deadline so I’ll get it written or else.

This last seems to work well with my writers’ group deadlines as well.  But the other thing I’m noticing is that sometimes it’s enough just to be up stupidly late. I do a fair amount of writing in overnight binges that begin in the evening and end after the sun has come up. I guess my muse only talks in her sleep.

None of this is ideal. Sure, it’s better than failing to write. But I’m never quite happy with the quality I get when I run up against a deadline, even though, sure, once it’s written at least it can be revised. But the other thing is it’s artificial. If I can write when under pressure, then I can write when I’m not under pressure. Either way the words are there, inside me somewhere. I refuse to accept artificial restrictions. I refuse to buy in to excuses not to accomplish what I want.

So I guess that’s where I am now . . . trying to unlock Writing Without Pressure.

Have you struggled to figure out the triggers behind your own creativity? Have you figured out the hacks to make your brain work on your terms?

Posted in artist's life | 4 Comments

Is everybody insecure?

Dipping toes in the water

Photo by Jesse Therrien

When I was in middle school and high school, it never occurred to me that other people might be as insecure as I was. I don’t think I assumed everyone else had it all together–I was just too absorbed in my own issues to give the idea much thought.

When I was in college, my girlfriend claimed that everybody was insecure, and the idea had the ring of truth to it. I had noticed that everybody I got to know well enough seemed to have survived some trauma. It was easy to imagine that we were all going around hurting inside, each of us thinking everybody else had it all together and that we were the only fucked up ones.

I found the idea kind of liberating. It put me on a level playing field. I could think, yeah, you look like you’re doing okay, but you’re really just as screwed up as I am.

I think it was something I needed to believe back then.

As the years pass, though, I find myself coming back around. I’m starting to think that insecurity is a product of over-examining things. It’s so easy to find evidence that you’re less, if you’re on the lookout for it.

But I’m starting to think that what I saw in college was selection bias. Like gravitates to like, and I surrounded myself with people who were like me. In my artistic life I guess I still do. But half my life is not artistic. So many people I know seem to live unexamined lives, and I’m not inclined to think they’re just faking it.

I don’t mean to make a fetish of being insecure. It’s crippling. The last half dozen short stories I’ve written have yet to be submitted anywhere. I am way too quick to decide that I don’t belong, that this or that person doesn’t really want me around, that my contributions are not valuable.

I think there’s got to be a happy middle ground somewhere. After all this time I’m still looking for it.

What do you think? Are you insecure? Are you faking it until you make it? Do you think everyone’s the same?

Posted in teen issues | 7 Comments

The Obligatory Goals Post


Image by Timothy K. Hamilton (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

One of my friends asked on Facebook the other day, What, for you, was the best thing in 2012, and what are you most looking forward to in 2013? As I composed my thoughts for a reply to him, I was struck by what a very fortunate year I’d had—and how I basically felt the same way after 2011.

The economy is a shambles. Everybody seems to be becoming more and more polarized, to the point where it’s hard to maintain friendships with people with differing political views. Local teachers haven’t gotten a real raise in too many years to count (and the profession continues to be under attack by the legislature), and for us personally the end of the payroll tax reduction and a rise in our property taxes means our mortgage payments are going up as our take-home pay goes down. And online, most of my friends seem to be bidding 2012 a hasty adieu, with prescriptions not to let the door hit its ass on the way out. So I was honestly a little surprised to realize that, apart from the financial and political realities, this had been a pretty good year. I detailed that in a blog post three or four posts ago, so I won’t rehash it. But now the questions comes up, what do I hope will come of 2013? And since my focus here is my writing journey, specifically what do I hope to achieve as a writer in 2013?

My friend JT makes a compelling argument that being goal-oriented tends to make us fail to enjoy the moment and fail to celebrate our accomplishments. He’s got a point: every year—hell, every month—that I remain unpublished feels like a bit of a failure to me. How can I call any year a success when the number one goal on my list remains unmet? I think JT’s point is a good one and I don’t have a counterpoint. Nevertheless, and while keeping his warning in mind, here are some things I would like to make happen in 2013:

Finish the novel I’m working on, preferably by March if not sooner. I’ve got a new YA story I’m terribly excited about, after spending way too long piddling about and starting stories that didn’t feel compelling to me. I’m not a fast writer, unfortunately—largely because I’ve got a lot of commitments—but I think a March goal for a first draft is do-able, given that I’m pretty well underway with it now.

Participate in a Codex contest in which I actually finish writing whatever I’m supposed to write before the deadline. Codex is an online writers’ group for “neo-pro” writers, which basically means writers who have achieved some small measure of external validation but haven’t necessarily taken off yet, career-wise, or haven’t been at it for terribly long. I became eligible to join last year, and participated in my first contest in September. Alas, while my participation did net me a new short story to shop around, I finished shamefully past the deadline. There are some insanely talented and successful people in the group, and throwing my writing up against theirs, with the right frame of mind, sounds like an exciting opportunity to grow and learn.

Write a half dozen flash pieces. This one should be pretty achievable. I wrote several flash pieces this year, and the stories that have been my closest call, sales-wise, have been flash pieces. This is so different from where I was a year ago, but I’ve gotten rather comfortable with the structure and confines of short-short fiction.

And in the category of stretch goals:

Revive this website. In 2012 I ran up against something I was intellectually aware of, but that I hadn’t experienced directly. No matter who you are, no matter how well-intentioned, there are people who don’t like you. And when you share yourself online, you are opening yourself up to people combing through your writing, looking for things they can use to hurt you. (That’s probably a good lesson for an artist, anyway.) Last spring, I had cause to re-examine what I had posted here, and quite frankly, I was kind of proud of the body of work I had built. But knowing there was somebody ill-willed looking over my shoulder made me feel self-conscious, and I found myself reluctant to talk any more. Well, enough of that. I’ll call it a win if I make 2013 the year that spiteful little people don’t get to silence my voice.

Write a half dozen short stories in the 2k – 3k words range. This is probably more a goal for the second half of the year. Being a writer of novels as well as short stories is a bit of a balancing act. Between flash fiction and my novel, and revisions on all of that, the first half of the year is probably spoken for. I will certainly write some longer short stories, but six of them? Who knows, but it’s worth a shot. (I know that would be a laughably small goal for some other people, but it’s not for me.)

So anyway, that’s where my head is right now. Are you eschewing goals altogether this year? Resolutions? If not, what are some of yours? Maybe we can cheer each other on!

Posted in artist's life, blargety-blog, first world problems | Leave a comment

My favorite short stories this year

In 2012, determined to crack the short story markets, I set out to read every genre short story published in a “professional” short fiction venue (as recognized by SFWA). I didn’t quite succeed in that goal, but for eight months, I made a pretty good go of it. Listed below are some short stories that stand out to me as I look back.

They weren’t all published in 2012. They also aren’t all  genre fiction. I don’t think any of them is over 5,000 words, so if you read this because you’re my friend but you don’t think you like to read genre fiction, maybe give one of these a shot. None of these stories should take you over twenty minutes to read. The shortest of these is under 500 words, which will literally take you all of two minutes to look at. (Anything labeled “flash” will take you under five minutes to read.)

I’m gonna cheat wherever possible and crib from the comments I wrote at the time I read the stories, rather than trying to recreate their effect on me.

So here goes, in no particular order:

  • “Gifts of the Magi,” by Anatoly Belilovsky
    This flash piece is a cute fusion of O. Henry with Kafka. Particularly appropriate this time of year. Also, I think I got something in my eye.
  • “Forgotten Women,” by Diana Sherman
    This is possibly the most devastating bit of flash fiction I’ve ever read. At 655 words, it will challenge demolish any preconceptions you have about how powerful a short short story can be.
  • “Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes,” by Tom Crosshill
    This story first stood out to me because my mother, like the focal character in this story, came to the United States from Cuba in the Operación Pedro Pan airlift. Before long, though, I was hooked by this haunting commentary on the futility of trying to hold on to someone forever, and the importance of treasuring our loved ones while they are with us.
  • “Dear Editor, Enclosed Please Find My Story About Your Unfortunate Demise,” by Luc Reid
    Okay, I admit it. This fun flash piece pushes all my struggling-writer-revenge-fantasy buttons. I would like to have been in the room when the slush reader came across this story and figured out what she or he was reading.
  • “The Ghost of a Girl Who Never Lived,” by Keffy R. M. Kehrli
    This is everything I love in a short story–it’s thought provoking, but unlike many “profound” stories, Kehrli treats every character on every side fairly and as a person rather than a straw person. This story got me thinking, but didn’t provide any easy answers to the questions it raised. This is one of those premises I wish I’d thought of.
  • “Where You End and the World Begins,” by Sam Ferree
    I don’t usually go in for mind-breaking stories, but this one was rewarding because it worked on an emotional level. Don’t try to understand it, just go with it.
  • “How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliche?” by Lorrie Moore
    I can’t for the life of me recall how I stumbled across this story. It’s from 1985, and it’s not a genre story, but while the particulars are in every way different from my life, it contains some underlying truths about this mad quest to put your writing, your soul, in front of other people and have them be anything other than snide or patronizing.
  • “Never Date a Writer,” by Alex Stephens
    In the same vein as the last one, this flash story is a non-genre piece about what weirdos we writers are. I was touched by the reversal in the story, and wish there had been a bit more after it comes.
  • “Change,” by Nikki Loftin
    I’m a sucker for gender-bending stories, and this flash piece is a particularly sweet one.
  • “Scattered Along the River of Heaven,” by Aliette de Bodard
    Aliette de Bodard does one of the best jobs I’ve seen of creating a culture and a history and making it real in just a few thousand words. When you read this, you keep wanting an easy ending, but that would be a cop-out. Glancing back at it again all these months later, I think this story particularly speaks to me because of my own “a people divided” experience of growing up in El Exilio.
  • “Paper Menagerie,” by Ken Liu
    Because, why the hell not? I actually read this story when it first came out, and not in 2012, but as I was immersing myself in short fiction this year, I kept stumbling across Liu’s byline on so many of the best stories I read. Dude’s having an amazing year. Ray Bradbury challenged us short story writers to try to write a short story a week; Ken Liu’s upped the ante and seems to SELL a short story a week. This is probably my favorite of his that I’ve read so far.

So there you go. If you’re not a regular reader of short genre fiction, I hope you find some gems here. In any case, for me it was nice flipping through some of the stories that most moved me this year.


Posted in link soup, lists | Leave a comment

How Did You Find Out?

Santa Claus and his reindeer

Image by Rafael Marchesini.

This time of year I hear a lot of people arguing the merits of letting your kids believe or not believe in Santa Claus. I’m not interested in getting worked up over other people’s choices—I mean, seriously, I have seen people be total dicks over this, and be all like, “Why do you want to LIE to your CHILD?!?!?!” and I don’t think that’s appropriate at all. But I do wonder about people’s experiences growing up, whether they believed or not. (And I’m aware I’m coming from an exclusively Christian-oriented framework in even asking the question. I don’t assume everybody grew up celebrating Christmas, but that’s what I grew up celebrating.)

I never intended to go out of my way to make my kids believe in Santa, but they picked it up without any help from me, from school, other adults, and popular culture, and I didn’t bother fighting it. I played along, and I figured if they ever asked me point blank, I’d tell them the truth, and until then treat it like we were all pretending together. Right choice? Wrong choice? No choice? Whatever. It’s what I did. (They actually never did ask point blank, and eventually my wife spilled the beans.)

I believed as a kid. Eventually my mother went out of her way to let the truth “slip out.” To be fair, I was going out of my way to be obtuse about it, because I didn’t want to stop believing in the magical dude who traveled at more than a thousand miles an hour, giving gifts to children. For me, the myth made me happy. I don’t feel damaged one way or the other.

What about you? If you grew up celebrating Christmas, was Santa Claus a part of your holiday? How did you learn the truth? Did you feel betrayed? Angry? Amused? Did you get over it?

And because Neil De Grasse Tyson is awesome, here’s a link to him giving an explanation of the science behind Santa Claus that’s different from the one you’ve probably seen floating around online.

Posted in first world problems | 6 Comments

Another year come and gone

Happy holidays!

(And if being told “Happy holidays” bugs you, then . . . HAPPY HOLIDAYS!)

Like most people, I can’t help but take the end of the year as an opportunity to look back on what went well and what went poorly, and to look forward to what I want to see happen in the future. So here is half of that . . . my thoughts on 2012.

Personally, 2012 was a great year for me. I made some fantastic new friends, and really felt like I’m coming more into a sense of who I am and who I want to be, if that doesn’t sound too woo-woo. Or like something that should happen before you’re forty. More and more I feel like I’m living the life I want to live. Particularly special to me this year is that I’ve had more opportunities to sing than ever before. We found a great karaoke host at one of the local restaurants in town, and when they stupidly decided they didn’t think karaoke lined up with their targeted demographic, we followed him to his new gig in Clermont. I know a lot of people would sneer at karaoke, but for someone who loves to sing but doesn’t quite have the talent to do it professionally, like me, it gives me a lot of joy. Who could sneer at that?

Joe Singing

Photo by Mary Goode Smith

Professionally, it was another very good year. Last year I had my highest AP pass rate ever and the second highest in the county. I still am privileged to teach a ton of fantastic kids. I still am spread awfully thin and teaching a ton of preps, as we work to invent a new program from the ground up. I have reason to believe that next year will be easier in that regard, as I don’t expect to be teaching any more courses I’ve never taught before. I won’t be inventing the wheel over and over again each year. I’ll probably keep getting up and four and staying at work until four in the afternoon, but I’m hoping I’ll see more bang for my buck now that the groundwork is laid.

Artistically 2012 was a mixed bag. I didn’t quite meet most of my writing and reading goals from the beginning of the year, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing–you’re supposed to make growth goals hard to reach, right? Otherwise, are you really stretching yourself?

One place where I did meet my goals was when it came to short fiction. I took two of Cat Rambo’s short fiction classes, and I feel like they helped me immensely in the area I was looking to improve in and in another, unexpected way: As I hoped, I finally figured out how to tell the stories I had in my head in a more reasonable number of words. Five thousand word stories used to be a challenge to me, and flash fiction was just plain unthinkable. Now I’ve pretty well unlocked that particular skill, and I’ve got the stories to prove it. Unexpectedly, though, her classes also helped jump-start my creativity. I get short story ideas much more easily now, pretty much any time I want them. If you’re an aspiring writer, particularly if short fiction or genre fiction are your bag, I can’t recommend her classes highly enough. They take place on Google+, so there’s no travel involved, and the price is beyond reasonable–I don’t know of a more affordable way to get instruction from a pro.

Beyond the short fiction, though, I fumbled through a few attempts at a follow-up to Vanishing Act. Late in the year, I finally had the revelation that I was trying too hard to tell a story that would be more marketable, or more firmly entrenched in my beloved genres. I was letting non-story concerns dictate my story, and so they weren’t *my* stories. When I wrote Vanishing Act, I wrote what was in my heart, and let everything else be damned. Once I had this realization, I was able to cast about for and find a story that was a Joe Story, and I’m well into a new draft that I’m very excited about–and that my alpha readers seem to be excited about as well. It won’t be done by year’s end, though, so I can’t quite call it a success for 2012.

Basically, though, I feel like in 2012 I found my voice. I guess that *is* a success, even if not quite as tangible as I had hoped.

Posted in artist's life, blargety-blog, teaching, writing | Leave a comment

Just for Functions

This school year our first cohort of IB students began working its way through the junior year of their two-year course of study. One of the things I’ve found interesting about the experience is teaching with international materials and textbooks published outside of the United States, and seeing how different countries might approach some of the same knowledge. There’s been some slightly new vocabulary to adjust to, and some idiosyncratic decisions when it comes to what is and what isn’t part of the curriculum.

[Tangent—feel free to disregard unless you’re a nerd like me—For example, as far as I can tell, the IB never makes reference to the secant, cosecant, and cotangent trigonometric ratios. My first thought on seeing that was, Good. Those just provide more opportunities for kids to get confused, they’re not present on the TI-84, and they add virtually nothing to the study of trigonometry. But then my calculus-teacher brain kicked in and said, What’s the derivative of tan x then? So I flipped through an IB textbook to see if they continued to avoid the reciprocal functions even then. They do: (d/dx) tan x = 1/cos2x.  ]

One of the neat things about this has been that when you ask old questions in new ways, sometimes you stumble across some interesting results. A few weeks back, a test for IB Mathematics SL students which I created using real, released questions from actual IB exams, relied on the students being able to answer the following:

Plot of a function with individual points highlighted

f (2) = _____       f (6) = _____       f (-2) = _____       f (0) = _____       etc.

This wasn’t actually the material being tested—and it’s not directly part of the IB curriculum but rather a prerequisite—but basically, the students would need to know how to answer those questions to answer the questions they were actually being asked.

For perspective, the students in this course have all completed Honors Algebra 2, and some of them have completed Honors Precalculus as well.

Now knowing my readership, at this point half of you are thinking to yourself, That’s a stupidly easy question. Why are you even talking about it? The other half are thinking Ouch! I became a writer because I hate math! Now you made my brain hurt! Either way, relax.

(If you’re very confident with math, you may want to skip the next paragraph.)

If you’ve not looked at math in decades and you don’t remember what the symbolism means, then just take it on faith that this line of questioning should be trivial. If you’re not sure but you’re curious to know what the kids were supposed to do, remember that every point on a coordinate plane has two coordinates, an x-coordinate and a y-coordinate. Listing the coordinates in order gives the “address” of any particular point, kind of like when you played Battleship as a kid. As for the question itself, kids are told from Algebra 1 on (if not sooner) that f (x) is another way of saying y. Even though it contains the letter x, it means y. The reason it contains the letter x is to make it possible to talk about specific values of y that go with specific values of x. So if I ask, “What does  f (10) equal?” I’m asking students to find the point where x = 10, and tell me what that point’s y-coordinate equals. So I’ll put the answer to the question here in white, and you can highlight it with your mouse to see if you understood what I meant. f (10) = -9. This represents the lower right dot on the graph, the point (10, -9).

Students in an honors math class ought to know this, but—and this is the important part—this isn’t how we usually ask the question. Usually instead of giving students a graph, we do the more “advanced,” algebraic thing, and we define the function using variables. So we might say that f (x) = (x3 – 10x2 + 8x + 64)/(-16). Then we might ask, “What is f (4)?” The kids, having been trained in the proper algorithm to follow, will “plug in” 4 wherever they see x, and find that:

f (4) = (43 – 10 • 42 +  8 • 4 + 64) ÷ (-16)

= (64 – 160 + 32 + 64) ÷ (-16)

= 0 ÷ (-16)

= 0

And we’ll feel good about this as teachers, because they’ll have answered the “harder” question. Wouldn’t you agree that what I just demonstrated was much more work than simply looking up the point on the graph with an x-coordinate of 4, and seeing that its y-coordinate was 0? We’re making the kids work harder, ergo we’re being more rigorous.

Except . . .

Except that when a question like the above came up on a test for my rather advanced students, most of them could not accomplish the relatively trivial task of looking up function values from the graph itself. Then, on a hunch, I asked my Honors Algebra 2 students, and they could not, by and large, either.

What this says to me is that we have succeeded in teaching a rote process, but failed to teach the concept behind the process. Anybody who knows me knows that this sort of thing is a big deal to me. I am constantly stressing in my classes how important it is to focus on why things work a certain way, sometimes to the frustration of those of my students who would just rather I gave them an algorithm to memorize already. Because there’s the rub: memorizing and plug-and-chug may be more tedium, but they’re actually easier than really getting around why things work.

I suspect, deep down, that we educators are often guilty of conspiring with our students to give them the easy way out. Because happy students are students who don’t complain. So we’re all too happy to settle for the appearance of hard work, rather than the reality of wrestling with a concept from all angles.

Another issue is probably our tendency to adopt curricula that is a mile wide and an inch deep–once again, because it gives us the comforting appearance of rigor. When you have three dozen topics to “cover”—and isn’t “cover” a poor synonym for “teach”?—then who has time to approach the same topic from multiple angles? Who has time for high level questioning?

If you’re a math teacher and you happen to stumble across this page while doing a google search for functions or for graphing or something, do me a favor: give the above problem to your kids, say, as a random bellwork problem. Did it seem trivial to you? Were you certain your kids would breeze past it? Did your students surprise you by struggling with it? Please let me know—I’d love to hear some other teachers’ experiences with this.

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