Friday, March 6, 2015

Keeping the "Ed" in Tech-ed

There's no doubt, I am a "late-adopter." I didn't have a cell phone until I was 30 and I still sometimes long for the moment I can throw the whole thing in and buy the Jitterbug, a cell phone that resembles an old rotary phone more than a smart phone. While not exactly a neophyte, I view new technology like an erratic relative. On certain days, Aunt Winona is more fun than anyone you know and you don't know how you lived without her, and on others she stresses you out and you wish she would go back to Oklahoma.

That being said, I love Blackboard and don't know how teachers managed without it. More than anything, it helps keep me organized and in contact with students. Because I'm accountable to my students on so many levels, via Blackboard, I don't let myself get behind in planning or grading. I aim for transparency and Blackboard provides a platform for that. It also is reciprocal in that aspect. Students know that Blackboard is a place that will provide them with the information they need, so they acquire a level of responsibility by being enrolled.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Staying positive

This week's challenge requires that we reflect on strategies for staying positive during the semester. Maintaining a favorable attitude requires a strong sense of self and purpose. A teacher often guides her students by modeling a philosophy, which in turn provides a sense of stability. Just as sailors need to feel confidence in their leaders, students need to have faith in their teacher's abilities and commitment.

As a teacher, I sometimes encounter an identity crisis. This most often happens when a student questions some aspect of my approach (I'm working hard to develop a thicker skin). "Professor Merton's" defining features smudge and warp, leaving me wondering just what kind of teacher are you? My mind frantically jumps from movie archetypes.  Should I be firmer and more authoritarian, like Mr. Hand in Fast Times at Ridgemont High? When faced with students who just won't seem to listen, I sometimes fantasize of adopting the persona of single minded focus and assuredness.

At other times, I fancy (or fantasize) I'm much like John Keating in Dead Poet's Society. Sure I have never walked on student desks (and if we're totally honest, poetry is my least favorite literary form), but surely I can adopt an more inspirational and selfless persona.

However, at the end of the day, I forever and always carry the heart of an elementary school teacher. When looking towards a role model that inspires me to focus on what matters most in my teaching, Mr. Ray from Finding Nemo is the absolute king.

What I find most inspirational and grounding about Mr. Ray are a few key attributes that I believe all teachers should share. First, he's welcoming to all, without being condescending. Second, he knows the value of teaching the material in an entertaining and fun way. Finally, he realizes the importance of providing his students with first hand experience in the subject matter.

So this semester, when I begin to feel grouchy, I plan to put on my copy of Finding Nemo and watch the master at work. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Who Doesn't Love a Fresh Start?

"The beginning is the most important part of the work" - Plato

Last semester, as the Doldrums set in, I fantasized about this moment. The beginning of spring semester became the beacon which I limped towards; a place in time where all my blunders and missed steps would be metaphorically swept away. Like cracking a promising new novel or waking up on New Year's Day, I imagined all the things I would not do this semester, which is another way of focusing upon what the topic of this challenge. I look forward to making many changes.

Some of them include, in no particular order of importance:

  1. Truly beginning at the beginning. I will not take it for granted that my students know any particular thing about writing. We will start and proceed at the students' pace. 
  2. Setting a policy on when I will email students back. Last semester I spent the great majority of my life checking, returning, and fretting about email. I vow to you all here and now, one hour a day maximum.
  3.  Educating my students about the academic baggage they will forever have to drag around if they fall off the face of the earth. Last semester, I was shocked at the number of students who did a significant amount of work and then disappeared into a vortex of lost students, socks, and keys. Specific dates that allow students to leave the class with a minimum amount of penalty will play a big role in my syllabus. 
  4. Explaining how students can access all the available resources on campus. Though I went over this in a general way, I can now see how important it is that I lead them to the metaphorical water. 
  5. Being firmer in the beginning of the semester and more agreeable as the class proceeds, versus the other way around which was what happened last semester.
 "Beginning is easy. Continuing hard" Japanese proverb

Finally, the most important (and probably difficult) adjustment I will make is in my mindset. As satisfying and fresh as beginnings seem, they are only a small part of the journey. Putting one foot in front of another, laughing with yourself off when you fall,  and giving yourself pep talks through the difficult parts are invaluable skills. A fresh start can come on any given day. No path is so well worn that it cannot be modified.

"Every day is a fresh beginning. Every day is the world made new." Sarah Chauncey Woolsley

Sunday, December 14, 2014

SWCBloggers: Challange #3

If you raised your children to believe in Sana Clause, you'll understand the parallels. As with Santa, a giant conspiracy protects them from the truth. We come up with elaborate explanations to explain the unexplainable and change the subject when they get too close to the truth. We might titter to each other about their innocence or, if you prefer, gullibility, but we all agree to keep these encounters between each other. We can’t stand the idea that they will stop believing. 

Of course, I'm taking about how much English instructors dislike reading their students' papers. We construct an elaborate ruse to convince our students that we hungrily wait for their offerings and delight in reading and commenting on their work. In actuality, student papers often seem to me to be the damning proof of my failures. As I read through the stack, I am reminded, often again and again, of what I inadequately taught.  None-the-less, or perhaps because I dislike it so much, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how to respond to student work. I spend minutes tinkering over a question that I hope will lead them to a clearer line of thinking. I agonize over whether a problem is dire and needs to be underscored or would be better left alone.

For all these reasons, this week’s horror story comes from a student commenting on my commenting.  Rough drafts had been copiously scrutinized and returned. Privately, I had congratulated myself numerous times on a new rubric I had devised and delivered with the drafts.  Then, as if my own child was confronting me about Santa’s existence, one of my best students met with me. He explained that my comments on his paper only confused him, but after visiting the writing center, he finally felt he had clear instructions on how to proceed with certain parts of his papers. He said that my comments “were you know kinda vague” but he understood I had many papers to grade and probably did not always take enough time. 

As when my oldest confronted me about Santa, I felt humbled, human, and very exposed. We both now knew that my pen lacked the magical qualities necessary to transform his writing from one thing to another.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Regrets? I have had a few...

I have been considering the moments in my life when things did not go my way; at times, opportunities just did not pan out. I mourned their loss and moved on. Was there an opportunity I missed that actually helped me in life? I have been searching this muddled mind of mine for a case where the fish that swam away might have actually swallowed me if I caught it in my net. Are there missed opportunities that actually were blessings? In considering this, it seems that they all were. I am extremely happy with the place I find myself today.

Though I wish I could claim it comes from some inner resilience or special grace, I know that this is just not the case. I lost at love, friendship, job opportunities, and in some cases more. However, tonight I find myself typing away, sitting on my comfortable couch, dinner bubbling on the stove. My family pops in and out of the living room with small questions and silly stories. It seems the opportunities that never were did no real harm.

But, I need only look at the headlines to realize if circumstance had placed me under different conditions, I would never have been able to weather so many little storms in relative comfort. For so many around the world, and here in our small corner, lost opportunities might mean deportation, incarceration, or worse. Those, that walk the razors edge, know that one missed step can cause a lot more than regret. The reason I lament so little is that I have been offered more than my fair share of chances. I wish all people were able say the same. True equality will mean that everyone has room to miss an opportunity, without fear of never having another one. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Ah Shucks!

Reader Advisory Warning:

The following blog contains a heartwarming anecdote. Potential side effects include nausea, headache, and in extreme cases, temporarily high blood sugar levels. If you experience symptoms, discontinue reading and contact your physician immediately.

It started as most conference sessions do. Individually, students entered the classroom like visitors to a house of worship. Some faces expressed the hope of true believers seeking revelation. Others had the smirks of agnostics, conveying an attitude akin to “There's no down side to showing up.”

When my final conference of the night strolled in, my only conscious thoughts concerned the sweatpants and glass of wine patiently waiting for me at home. As he sat down, my student told me that he had really enjoyed rhetorically analyzing the two chosen texts. My eyes shot up suspiciously. Instead of obvious signs of sarcasm, I found an open and friendly grin. Then he opened his notes to show me the two-dozen similarities and differences he had found between the assigned texts. I was stunned and overjoyed (it's true that it doesn't take much these days). “I have learned to consider things in new ways and not take ideas for granted. I guess that’s critical thinking, right?”I couldn't help myself. A grin spread over my face and I had to restrain myself from saying, "Tell me more."

My heart soared. I realized I had truly made a difference in, at least, his life. I felt like Sally Fields when she won an Oscar for Places in the Heart. “You like me! You really like me!” 

Thursday, November 27, 2014


It was supposed to go beautifully. Every detail had been considered. The reading was thought provoking, a perfectly aligned video clip was paused and ready, and well-crafted questions were asked. The only problem was that the students failed to realize how amazing the lesson was. 

Regardless of discipline, every experienced teacher knows the sad blank feeling that accompanies the beautifully conceptualized lesson going down the toilet. After hours of planning, we are sometimes met with blank stares, furtive glances at cell phones, and (hopefully) stifled yawns. It’s much like the sinking feeling you might feel if you spent days preparing for a party and none of the guests came.

I’d like to report that I have had an epiphany and figured out a sure fire strategy that insured this would never happen again, but that would be complete nonsense. Part of what makes teaching so exciting is the ability to try new approaches. With the new comes risk.

What I have learned is that adaptability and focus on student need is the primary  method of righting the ship.  It’s only when we cling to our version of how things should have gone that we condemn the lesson to failure. I now know the warning signs of a lesson barreling off course, so I fight my first instinct, which is to stick to the plan and pray for the end of the period. Rather, I now collect myself, quietly and quickly mourn the lesson that was not to be, and redirect my attention back to the reality of the situation. It sounds so simple and obvious, but it has taken me a shamefully long time to recognize that I can only chart the course when am sensitive to the climate of the room.