Teaching Lessons: Compromise

There are times in teaching where it is important to hold a hard line. When you are enrolled in one my courses you are learning about fiction and poetry and nonfiction. You are also learning about grammar and sentence structure and style. In addition to all the academic material, you are also learning organization, responsibility and accountability. You will come to class prepared. You will participate. You will complete the in-class and out of class assignments. You chose to be here, so it is up to you to make it work. I will do everything in my power to help you succeed, but at the end of the day, you have to do the work. And it is hard work.

That being said, sometimes compromise is necessary. This morning I opened my email to find a message from a student who has not attended class since October 1st. Before October 1st, her attendance had also not been the best. When she was in class, she participated and completed her work, but upon reviewing my attendance records I found that out of the 17 class sessions we’ve had so far, she’s attended 8. In her email she provided an in depth explanation of her absences, but assured me that she would not allow these setbacks to keep her from achieving what she set out to do. 
Well, here’s the bad news, that’s already happened. 
I am sympathetic to all of her problems (too numerous and personal to detail in this post), but at the end of the day it is your responsibility to do the work and you’re not doing it. That being said, I’m constantly looking for ways to work around a students issues. If there is a way to make it work for them, I’d much rather at least try to solve the problem. In response to this student, I shared her situation with my chair and asked for her advice. We both agreed that she had missed far too much work to pass the class she was currently enrolled in, but we decided she could enroll (late) in the 8 week section of creative writing that I just started teaching (this week) online. I emailed the student and explained the situation to her, so we’ll see what she decides to do.
I feel good about this plan because it provides the student with another option that will hopefully allow her the end result that she wants. It also allows the student to make a choice that is right for her, so the responsibility is still in her hands. I’ll admit that sometimes I am forced to make decisions for my students when they are unable or unwilling to do it, but I’d rather they make the choices themselves because that’s how the real world works. 
I am hopeful that no matter what this student decides in respect to my course, that she is successful in her future endeavors and that she is able to overcome the obstacles that currently plague her. 

Teaching Lessons: Always Be Willing to Try Something New

When I got my first job as an adjunct at the community college where I am now full time faculty member, I was not at all prepared. I learned to be flexible and “roll with it” fairly quickly, but the learning curve was steep to say the least. One important lesson I learned very early on was not to be afraid of new ideas, technology, or formats when it came to teaching. In the year and half I spent as an adjunct (2007/2008) these are some of the “new things” I tried:

  • Blackboard
  • 8 week courses
  • 12 week courses
  • Guest speakers
  • Student Presentations
  • Group Presentations
  • Computer Labs
  • Power Point Presentations
  • Using media in class (video & audio)
  • Using supplemental material outside of the required textbook
  • Using film
  • Becoming a faculty advisor for a student creative writing group
  • Subbing for other English courses/instructors 
  • Incorporating creative writing techniques into my comp courses
  • Copy editing the student lit mag, New Voices 
  • Mentoring new adjuncts 
During this time I was strictly teaching English Composition courses, so in terms of course content I also tried some of the following ideas:
  • Using short stories for the in class essay assignment. Among my favorites were The Lottery, The Yellow Wallpaper and A Good Man is Hard to Find
  • Using Annie Dillard’s opening paragraph from A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to introduce the narrative essay assignment.
  • Using movie/music reviews from The New Yorker to introduce the evaluation essay assignment.
  • Requiring students to pick a local non profit as the subject for their evaluation essay.
  • Requiring students to interview a faculty member to practice interview skills for evaluation essay. 
  • Requiring students to prepare a 5 minute informative presentation over their research paper topic. This included a brief power point presentation, so they could learn what and what not to do. 
  • Using current periodicals such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Nature, The Christian Science Monitor, etc to find topics for their research paper. 
  • Creating an evaluation guide for online sources (still fairly new territory at the time)
  • Creating APA Guides and worksheets
  • Developing an annotated bibliography assignment
    A Good Man is Hard to Find by Giselle Potter 
Once I was hired on full time, my course load began to look less like a composition hell and more like that of a normal instructor. In other words, I eventually got to diversify a bit in to creative writing courses (my true love), research writing courses and lit classes. In addition to trying new things related directly to teaching, I also go to dabble in the following:
  • Committee work
  • Online classes
  • Academic panels and/or presentations 
  • Participating in some professional development activities (cooking class & faculty book club)
  • Advising for Phi Theta Kappa
  • Working with the Honors College
  • Re-writing English 111 (comp)
  • Attending conferences 
  • Organizing events for National Poetry Month
  • Co-advising for our student lit mag, New Voices 
  • Continuing to advise for our creative writing group, The Blank Page 
Admittedly, I have enjoyed some these new things more than others. For example, I love working with my colleagues on academic projects like the panel I put together for Black History Month or the work I do with New Voices. On the other hand, I’m not as keen on committee work or re-writing course curriculum.

This entire post is sparked by yet another new endeavor I am embarking on this spring. I will be teaching a section of Honors World Lit I on a new platform. This new project is allowing me to design a course using brand new technology, which means I have to learn said technology. Today, I had a meeting with course designer who is my partner in crime on this project, and I left the meeting feeling a tad overwhelmed but mostly I felt excited to start something new.

The face of education is constantly changing, and as a result, the role of the professor in the classroom is also changing. However, I would argue that instead of becoming less important, as some people seem to fear is the case, I think we are becoming more important. That being said, we need to be willing to stretch and learn along with our students. 

Creative Writing Exercises: Teaching from Image

In addition to my regular course load at my community college, I am a faculty advisor for our student run creative writing group, The Blank Page. I started the group when I was still an adjunct and students approached me looking for another venue in which they could share and improve upon their own work.

At today’s meeting I brought a series of images that I discovered via a link on the Paris Review’s Facebook page. The link contained images of haunted houses from Corrine Botz’s photography exhibition. Botz writes on her blog:

Haunted Houses provides a unique way of understanding our relationship to the spaces we inhabit, and reflects romantic and dystopian notions of the domestic realm. The notion of hauntedness activates and highlights the home, revealing the hidden narratives and possibilities of everyday life.

Botz went about taking photographs and collecting oral recitations of the ghost stories that go along with some of the photographs. You can listen to the stories here. The photographs are gorgeous and the stories are very interesting. I was even more intrigued by this project when I learned that one of the locations and stories took place in Girard, PA which is about ten minutes from Fairview, PA where my parents still live. This is the photograph from Girard:

“Farmhouse, Girard, Pennsylvania” from the series Haunted Houses, 2010

Anyway. When I looked through the pictures, I thought they would make great prompts for my Blank Page students, so this afternoon we spent about half an hour free writing over selected images from Botz’s project. After we had finished writing, we debriefed a bit and the student response seemed positive. The general consensus seemed to be that the images provided specific details that the students could latch onto and use as a starting place for a poem or piece of prose. I’ve done this exercise for units on character, setting and story and I think Botz’s photographs are perfect inspirations for writers.

Also received word last night that three of my poems will be appearing in Rust + Moth.

Teaching Challenges at a Community College: Student Time Management

I have written before about the contrast between the student I was during my undergraduate career at Allegheny College and the students I teach at my community college. In some ways, our experiences are similar but mostly, they are vastly different. When I was an undergraduate, I worried about my coursework, my roommate, my sorority, my extracurricular activities and what party I was going to on Friday night. This is not to say that I didn’t deal with heavier issues, but my one and only job when I was in college was to be a student. That was it. My students are not just students; they are parents and employees. Their jobs are many and their responsibilities are great. Their situation is no better or worse than mine was but it is different.

These differences are often the topic of conversation in the office between colleagues and most of the time these conversations wind up falling onto the subject of time management. Faculty, advisors, administrators and staff spend a lot of time thinking about how to help our students in this area, but it is a never ending battle. It is particularly difficult because of the unique nature of the problems our students incur. There is never a simple solution and just when you think you’ve solved one issue for one student, another one rears its head. 
The issue of time management is complex for our students. I find that part of this problem stems from the fact that my students are not quite sure how to be students. They don’t know what it means to come to class, engage in the class, take what they’ve learned from class, go home and apply that classroom knowledge to homework and then come back to class and discuss those assignments. They don’t know how to do this because they lack skills in active listening, reading comprehension, note taking, class discussion, collaborative work, etc. This is not to say they are not smart or willing or enthusiastic. They are all of these things, but they don’t have the basic skill set and that can prove to be quite an obstacle to overcome. Why don’t they have these skills? Some of it is a question of their previous educational experience. If they are coming from high school programs that were overcrowded or underfunded or understaffed (most likely all three) they may have slipped through the cracks. Another common case is that this student is a returning adult and the last time they were in the classroom was thirty years ago. Needless to say, the classroom as changed a lot in thirty years. In addition to the skills above, these returning students also struggle with the technology. They have to do assignments online, type papers on word processing software, and interact with platforms like Blackboard. It’s a lot to take in. 
The other issue with these skills is while they contribute to the overall problem of time management, they also exacerbate the problem. It’s a vicious cycle. For example, if a student has a problem with note taking, they can hire a tutor, or go to a student success workshop, or seek help from a peer or their professor. However, in the time that it takes for them to realize they need help with note taking and then in the time that it takes for them to put the necessary steps in place to fix that problem, they’ve already fallen behind. This is also assuming that the problem in question is easily fixed. However, it may take students several weeks or even an entire semester to get the hang of note taking. In the meantime, what does their performance in your class look like? 
This lack of basic student skill is definitely a problem, but in my opinion it is not the difficult part of the problem to solve. Why? Well, because we as members of an educational institution have resources at our disposal to help with these types of issues. While our resources are often stretched and far from perfect, they are present and available. I can send my students to the writing center, I can arrange that they get a note taker, I can set up study groups with their peers, etc. In my mind, the tricky part of this time management problem is that piece that I have no control over: their personal lives. 
It is easy to dismiss a student’s personal life as “not your problem” or “not my job” and move on from there. After all, what can you do if this students car breaks down? If they are evicted? Kicked out of their house? If their child, mother or grandfather is hospitalized? If they are hospitalized, arrested, deported or otherwise incapacitated? If they lose their jobs? If they are going through a divorce or battling a terminal illness? 
It is true that I am not a medical professional. I am not a psychologist and I know I am not equipped to deal with half the issues that my students deal with on a regular basis. I am painfully aware of the fact that some of my students deal with more in a single week than I probably dealt with my entire four years in college. How does this relate to time management? Well, as we were discussing in my office the other day, it is difficult to focus on a history test or a set of math problems when you’re not sure how you’re going to pay rent next month. When you are staring down the prospect of living in your car (and this did happen to a student of mine), dangling modifiers seem slightly less important. It would be one thing if this one or two students or even five over the course of the term, but it’s not. The problem is that our students are (sometimes to their detriment) determined to succeed. They do not believe in “stepping back” or “re-evaluating” or “coming back when things are better.” They want to push through. They want to prevail. Succeed at all costs. 
The position of professor becomes especially tenuous when you have students who do prevail, because then how do you handle the rest? Several years ago I had a student who suffered from Lupus. She was in constant discomfort and she struggled to attend class regularly. However, she was bright and determined and despite her constant pain and exhaustion, she came to class prepared, participated in outside study sessions, worked with her peers and ended up with an A in the course. I was constantly concerned about her physical well-being but she proved that she could manage her time and her illness, and who was I to say otherwise? However, not all students are that student and sometimes you have to have an honest conversation with yourself about what you can realistically handle. What I find difficult is being the one to facilitate that conversation. And as some of my colleagues have wisely acknowledged, “sometimes a student has to learn the hard way.” 
So what do I do to “help” this problem? I pay attention and try to remain pro-active. If a student begins to slip, even a little bit I try to nip it in the bud right from the start. Admittedly this approach yields mixed results. At the end of the day, a student has to be willing to take the help they are being offered. Sometimes this takes more than one pass at an an assignment or even an entire course, but if they figure out that “weakness” is really just learning, they leave me with something valuable: growth. 

Teaching Character: Positive & Negative Change

For several semesters, I have had the great fortune of teaching an introductory level creative writing course at my community college. The popularity of the course has increased by leaps and bounds since I began as an adjunct here in the fall of 2006. As a full time faculty member, I am privileged to teach two or three sections of the course a semester and it is by far my favorite course.

The class consists of covering all the basics of creative writing: imagery, voice, character, setting & story. Once the students feel like they have grasp of the fundamentals we move onto the four genres: poetry, creative nonfiction, fiction & drama. The textbook we use for the course, Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway, is always a hit with students and is one of the few textbooks that they don’t gripe about buying. It is a challenging course to teach, especially for this poet who is seriously challenged in writing prose, but I love learning from students and discovering something new each time class time rolls around. 
Recently, we have begun to delve into the realm of character. As I often do when we reach this topic, I ask my class to provide me some examples of what they would consider “round characters.” Prior to this brainstorming session, we discuss what makes a round character. Typically, this discussion results in students deciding that “round” or “developed” characters incur significant change throughout the course of a story or television show or movie, and that is what makes them interesting and complex. Then we get to the brainstorming of examples. Here is a sample of what my students called out last class:
  • Harry Potter
  • Darth Vader
  • Charlie (Perks of Being a Wallflower)
  • Christian Grey (50 Shades of Grey)
  • Walter White (Breaking Bad)
  • Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games)
Clearly, this is a diverse grouping of characters and what struck me the most was 1). the pervasiveness of popular culture 2) how many of these characters embody “negative” change as opposed to positive change. 
The second observation was particularly interesting to me, so I asked my students about it: “Does all change have to be positive?” And of course, they said no and then went on to explain to me that the complexity of these negative changes are what make these particular characters memorable. There was the predictable groaning and eye rolling at the mention of both Harry Potter and Christian Grey, which made me wince a bit on Harry’s behalf. There was also a rather tense but thoughtful discussion about whether or not Darth Vader really underwent much change on his journey through the universe. Finally, it probably worth noting that Katniss Everdeen is the only woman appearing in this particular sample, but I can assure you that once some of these men came into the conversation, their female counterparts were not too far behind (Hermione Granger, Princess Leah, Skylar White* and Anastasia Steele).
As the conversation came to an end, one of my students made the observation that negative change in character development is more realistic because “that’s how real life is.” Basically, and I’m paraphrasing her comment, she said it isn’t necessarily realistic that a real life person will win the lottery or buy a new BMW or fly off to Fiji to get married. However, it is realistic that someone could lose their house or get in a car accident or deal with the death of a loved one. The idea of realism is interesting given this list of characters because many of them are operating in highly fantastical world (space, a school for wizards and a post apocalyptic America) 
While on its face these observations may seem rather obvious, I think that these comments also tells me something important about who my students are, where they come from and they type of world they are living in. Most importantly though, I think it gives me some insight into what kind of writers they will be. 
*Click on the link above to read Anna Gunn’s piece about fan reactions to her character on Breaking Bad

Wednesday: The Good, The Bad & The Blah…

The Good

Oh my lovely…
  • Bright orange loafers and green purse arrived in the mail.
  • Creative writing student blog posts.
  • Hot coffee in a big mug.
  • Student submissions to community college lit mag.
  • Fresh fruit cup from the food court.
  • Possibility of teaching a second section of Honors English next term.
  • A good friend and office mate.
  • Wegman’s mushroom masala sauce.
  • Moose Tracks ice cream.
  • A fun weekend on the horizon.

The Bad

  • A 9:00 AM meeting that made me nervous and annoyed.
  • Confusing/inconsistent college policy.
  • A thick gray sky that hung around all day.
  • A freezing cold office. 
  • Absurd emails clogging my inbox.
  • Vague statements on grading rubric.
  • Aching muscles.
  • Deep weariness. 
  • Gray hairs.
  • Alarm clocks.

The Blah

  • January
  • January
  • January
  • Excuses from students.
  • January
  • Bureaucracy
  • January
  • Incompetence 
  • January 
  • January 
I typed in Seasonal Affective Disorder and this is what popped up on Google Images. Courtesy of Sarah Douglas.

    Why Creative Writing Students Are Cool: A List

    1. One of my online creative writing students informed the class that she had visited a shaman at the end of the last term and that he had advised her to write more for her spiritual health.

    2. At the end of my Tuesday morning class, a young man came up to my desk, shook my hand, and told me he was looking forward to the class.

    3. When asked about favorite writers, one student replied, “I like Bukowski because he was a drunk and never edited his poems.”

    4. My students use words like “macabre” and “plethora” and they use them correctly!

    5. When taking attendance, one of my students informed me she wanted to be called “twin” because she has an identical twin sister.

    6. Only in a creative writing class will you get questions about sex, drugs, cussing and mental illness when it comes to content. Only in creative writing will I say, “Go for it.”

    Some of my creative writing students at the IMA’s 100 Acre Park.

    7. Not one of my creative writing students has asked me “do I need the book?” (see previous post)

    8. I have several students who admitted that they “liked to write poetry” the first day. Hallelujah!

    9. Several of my students claimed that they were enrolled in creative writing because “they were good at it.” Whether this is true or not, isn’t particularly relevant. What is relevant is that they are coming to the class with a type of confidence that you don’t find in intro level classes.

    10. Some of them were smiling before class began and they were still smiling after class was over.

    Do I Really Have to Buy the Book?

    Today marked my return to school after a two week break. Today also marked the first day I have felt halfway normal since New Years Eve. I managed to get up, shower, go to work, take the dog to the vet and (gasp) go workout. Watch out guys, I’m back.

    But I digress.

    I returned to my office to find my plant badly in need of water and also a boat load of emails. I don’t check email over break. I put up my out of office message on the day grades are due and I’m out. The emails were fairly mundane. There were several notifying me of various technical updates that had occurred over break, some messages about the Spring 2013 academic calendar that has apparently changed three times in 24 hours, and a lot of spam. Among these unassuming messages, were three emails from students. All of these emails came from students in the same class, English Composition online, and they all asked essentially the same question: Do I have to buy the book for this course?

    Now, I understand textbooks are exorbitantly expensive. I don’t like it and I agree with students when they complain about how half of their financial aid goes towards said textbooks. That being said, this is an introductory writing course and its online. There are no face to face lectures, question/answer sessions or conferences. Online students certainly are welcome to come in and chat with me, but let’s face it, they don’t. Because there is no face to face contact, the textbook is even more important (in my opinion) in an online class than it would be in a traditional course.

    The short answer? Yes, you need to buy the book.

    My favorite one of these emails was from a young man who has apparently already completed English Composition one time but he received a B in the course, and he “really needs an A to get into his physical therapy program,” so he already went through the course without the textbook, but feels the need to “double check with me” about doing so again. I was tempted to reply with, “Well, Student X, perhaps if you buy the book this time it will give you that extra edge to get you that much needed A.” However, I showed restraint and simply gave him the only answer I can really give to an adult college student: “It is your choice.”