Writing Better with Alex Martin and The Academy for Teachers

Last week, I had the privilege of attending Write Better: Tools for Building Stronger Stories, a “Master Class” organized by The Academy for Teachers. The Academy of Teachers is a not-for-profit organization that partners with experts from around NYC to bring unique learning experiences to teachers. My class was taught by the chief writing editor of the Wall Street Journal, Alex Martin.

Several weeks back, John McCrann put me on to the class. He and I are co-facilitating some writing workshops at Math for America this semester and he thought I should apply. I never heard of The Academy before John, so I spent a Saturday evening poking around their website. On a limb, I applied.

The application took me a few hours. It was reflective. No lie, I was dismayed that it required a recommendation from a colleague. I get it, but I have been bothering my AP for these a lot lately. I felt bad asking her, especially since it was a last-minute request, but I did. Of course, she didn’t think twice and eagerly came through, as she always does. One day I’ll find a way to thank her. Words aren’t enough anymore. These last 4 years, her infallible support has helped elevate my thinking and advance my career more than I could have ever done on my own.

I heard that acceptance rates for Master Classes were low. (For mine, I later learned that one-third of those who applied were accepted.) I hoped that teaching math and being an active writer might stand out. I wanted to help be the voice of math in a room that was sure to be stuffed with humanities teachers. I’m not sure if any of that came through in my application, but they did invite me to attend. John got in, too. Of the 18 attendees, we were the only math teachers.

The venue for the class was the News Corp Building in midtown. The Wall Street Journal hosted us. It was swanky. Great good. But thanks to the 6 train, I was late. Running 7 blocks from Grand Central just to arrive ten minutes late, my sweaty behind sat down as breakfast wrapped up. I grabbed a coffee and some leftover fruit.

The morning consisted of a lecture from Alex followed by a discussion about some reading that we were asked to do in the weeks leading up to the class. As we all waited for him to begin, something unexpected happened. Instead of introducing Alex by listing out his achievements and awards, as is customary when you have such an accomplished guest, Sam Swope, the head of The Academy, introduced us to him. It was flipped. For a few minutes, Sam went on and on about who we were, our experience, accomplishments, and the adjectives that our recommenders used to describe us. He spoke in a way that put us in context for Alex, instead of the other way around. He gave us status. It was an uncommon start to a workshop and a really nice touch. I felt special.

Alex’s lecture was one that he gives to the writers and editors at The Journal. It was full of specifics on writing like being FACL (Fair, Accurate, Clear, Lively), maintaining a tight focus, reporting, structures for writing, and minutia involved with composing good sentences. For example, he told us to kill our adverbs. Choose muscular verbs. Instead of saying ran quickly, say dashed. That advice seems obvious after he said it, but I never thought about it before. Also, he talked about keeping subjects near verbs and using right-branching sentences. Ironically, he urged us to focus less on writing, and more on thinking. Good writing stems from good thinking. He gave us tips on what to do when we hit a writer’s block (lower our standards, skip the lede, write fast without your notes) and how to achieve brevity (an idea may be good in isolation, but it must do work in the story). Given his role at the WSJ, all of what he mentioned had a journalistic undertone, but his principles were universal. My notes sprawled. I gobbled up everything.

We then discussed the readings. It was a healthy list of 13 newspaper and magazine articles that Alex handpicked to highlight elements of his lecture. They dated as far back as 1966 and varied greatly in their subject matter. One was on Frank Sintra, another on the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and yet another was a feature on a small Long Island town during post 9/11. A more recent WSJ piece centered on the recent collapse of GE. They were full of emotion, detail, and craftsmanship and I gladly digested them all. Not stuff that I would read naturally, but I’m glad I did. They were great stories.

In the afternoon, we wrote. First, freewriting. We referenced freewriting in the morning as a means of hurdling writer’s block and, considering we all just inhaled a gourmet lunch, it made sense to start with it. As Chip Scanlan said, we tried to “sneak past that watcher of the gates before the watcher can say, Hey wait a minute. You suck. You can’t write.” Fittingly, we wrote about our favorite dessert. Next, we closed the day by rewriting some real-life ledes that were used in real-life articles. This was fun, but challenging. I think I set myself up for failure because, as I was trying my hand at the ledes, I couldn’t help but try to imitate Edna Buchanan. A Herald reporter who we read about before class, Edna is renown in journalism circles for her ledes. It’s needless to say, but I failed to live up her standard. I enjoyed it nonetheless.

As the class ended, I couldn’t help but be grateful for Alex. Throughout the day, I found him to be sincere, thoughtful, and amiable. His brilliance was matched only by his eagerness to improve our writing. He had a business-like aura about him, but he remained open to our questions and answered each of them in detail. We were sitting in a “U” for most of the time and, after someone asked their question, I noticed that he would always lock eyes and move slightly towards them as he answered. No matter the question (I asked a few dumb ones), he valued each one and took great care in responding. I appreciate the inherent respect that he showed us. When one of us shared our writing with the group, he had a keen way of analyzing it immediately after the last word slipped out of our mouth. His command of language was special — I found myself quoting him several times.

Aside from Alex’s expertise and willingness to help us grow as writers, the size of the group (18) really made it special. It was intimate. It felt private. It allowed for a real back-and-forth between us and him. There was space and time to go talk about details and share side stories — which Alex gladly did. This did a lot to make the class meaningful. It was also really cool to be in a room full of teachers from both private and public schools. We don’t rub shoulders enough.

I’m so looking forward to another one of these classes.



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