To Everything a Season

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“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:” Ecclesiastes 3:1

Part of summer for me is evaluating the school year and analyzing some of its positive and negative aspects. What worked? What didn’t? One thing that struck me this year was how much pressure some of my younger high-achieving students put on themselves.

I had several students, especially early college and dual-enrolled ones, who seemed to be in a constant state of agitation, worrying about minor grades, wanting to turn in work before instruction was complete and becoming defensive, sometimes even arguing, over relatively unimportant comments on essays.

Once I lost patience with one of these students who would just not let go of her concern over a minor assignment she missed due to an absence, even after I explained that in-class assignments can not be made up, according to class policy as stated in the syllabus. Rather than argue with her, I gave in and let her make up the assignment.

Now, upon reflection, I think I should have stuck to my guns, but at the same time, I want to find a better way to communicate with students who struggle with perfectionism, help them learn how to better manage the pressures they face at home, at school, and increasingly, at work.

NPR correspondent Allison Aubrey’s article, “The Perils of Pushing Kids Too Hard and How Parents Can Learn to Back Off” offers some sensible advice not only to parents of high school-aged students but to educators as well, such as, offer resilience training, celebrate all kinds of success, don’t supervise everything and under-schedule.

I am thinking of ways to start a conversation with my students early in the semester through journaling and conferencing that can help them understand my expectations and build their resiliency as well as help them find a healthy life balance on their own terms. Another idea is to change the way I present grades to better reflect each assignment’s relative weight so students can more easily see how each one affects their grades.

My hope is for my students to embrace the idea that everything has its season, like summer is for me this year—a time for reflection and refueling.

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If you are or ever have been a writing teacher in any capacity or at any level, please consider submitting to my literary journal, Teach. Write. Submissions are open until August 1. See submission guidelines.

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Mrs. Winkler Settles Down

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View from balcony of Schloss Neuschwanstein near Füssen in Bavaria, Germany — Photo by Katie Winkler–June 2018

Whew!! I have been busy, y’all! End of a stressful, albeit successful school year, a successful, albeit somewhat daunting, writers’ conference at Brevard College, a daunting, albeit wonderful ten-day trip to Germany to see my brother and his family, two days of recovery, and I am ready to settle into the rest of my summer.

One issue  nine-month faculty members consistently face is how to handle the glorious three-month sabbatical that they receive each year. Here in the South, we laugh and tell the old joke–What are the three best things about teaching?  June, July and August. According to my daughter, however, I don’t know how to enjoy those halcyon days of summer. I can’t stop thinking about teaching, even when I need to be thinking about my writing, and most importantly, refueling my body, mind and spirit with reading, studying (for fun), and above all, spending time with my family and friends. Somewhere in there I need to do housework, too. Oh, I forgot–cataract surgery on both eyes in June and July.

That old plate just keeps getting full–just like dinner on the grounds at a Southern Baptist church homecoming. So, I have a plan. Let’s see if I can stick to it this year and practice what I preach to my students about time management. Maybe writing it down on this blog will help me hold myself accountable.

Here are the primary objectives (in order of importance):

  1. Spend quality time with family and friends
  2. Prepare for cataract surgery and rest afterwards
  3. Finish rough draft of the new play–Death or Love?
  4. Finish the rough draft of the novel–Flood
  5. Write blog post at least twice a month and work on Teach. Write. 

 

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Speaking of Teach. Write. Submissions are now open (until August 1) for the fall 2018 edition. If you have ever taught English composition at any level, then please consider submitting fiction, non-fiction, poetry or drama. You can find complete submission guidelines here. I would love to see your work!

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The Gap in the Skills Gap Debate

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A 2017 article in MIT Technology Review validates what I have long felt regarding the current move away from emphasis on basic skills and overemphasis on STEM subjects: the so-called “skills gap,” if not a complete myth, at the very least suffers from grave misconceptions. According to Andrew Weaver of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the skills most often associated with difficulty in hiring are not programming, not knowledge of advanced technologies, not even mathematics, but high-level reading in manufacturing and higher level writing for help desk technicians (“The Myth of the Skills Gap”).

Weaver bases his conclusions on data acquired through extensive national surveys of primarily three groups–skilled workers in manufacturing, IT help desk technicians and laboratory technologists. The results of the surveys are surprising: if there is a skills gap, it is not as much a technological problem as it is a soft skills problem, but again, not the type of problems people most often associate with the skills gap myth:

Proponents of the skill-gap theory sometimes assert that the problem, if not a lack of STEM skills, is actually the result of a poor attitude or inadequate soft skills among younger workers. But while demand for a few soft skills—like the ability to initiate new tasks without guidance from management—is occasionally predictive of hiring problems, most soft-skill demands, including requirements for cooperation and teamwork, are not.

The article goes on to say that a closer relationship among employers, workers, and schools, leading to more tailor-made educational opportunities, is key. Community colleges are at the forefront of this push, and administrators are beginning to see the need for close communication with area employers. However, some community college systems continue pursuing the decimation of developmental reading and writing courses and decreasing opportunities for students to improve their reading and writing skills, in a vain attempt to push underdeveloped students through their educational programs faster.

It is good that administrators recognize the importance of closer communication with stakeholders. However, that alone will not solve the problem of an underdeveloped workforce if the  perception of too many administrators, employers,  students,  the general public, and even some educators remains–that learning to write clearly and concisely,  reading complex texts to complete research assignments, or analyzing a literary text is a waste of time.

I am determined to combat students’ misconceptions by providing as many real-world writing experiences as possible while teaching high-level reading skills, whether I am teaching freshman composition or British literature. In future posts I will expand on some of the “summer” ideas that I am working on and fleshing out for trial use in the fall.

 

 

 

Poetry’s Power

Poetry’s power partly lies in its ability to distill a great deal of meaning into a small space. An English teacher friend of mine used to explain to her students that poetry is the tomato paste of the literary world. Novels are crushed tomatoes, short stories are tomato sauce, but poetry is the thick paste that only comes out of that tiny can with a spoon (or opening both ends of the can and pushing the paste out in one big flavorful lump).

 

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The compact nature of poetry also makes it useful for teaching English composition, especially in college-level classes that often must stuff yards of material into inches of calendar space. For example, when the state where I teach decided to re-design developmental English, shoving 16 weeks of material from two separate 16-week reading and composition classes into one class of 8 weeks, I was having difficulty fitting in essential grammatical information.

 

Our old developmental English textbook used Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” as a way to teach vivid verbs, but my students had a hard time understanding what a verb was in the first place, so the poem became my way to simply identify verbs and introduce the concept of syntax, denotation and connotation as well as  analyzing concrete texts and the original purpose of verb usage.

In addition, we would discuss the importance of symbolism, metaphor, simile, and other figurative language, all concepts the re-design material stressed as important information to cover.

It worked beautifully.

I would introduce the poem and put it into historical context–an African-American writer titling a poem “Harlem”that he wrote in 1951 New York. We would talk about the importance of the title and how it helps the reader understand the poem better.

I would have students identify the action verbs and verbals in the sentence–happens, deferred, does, dry up, fester, run, etc.

Then we would look at the similes  “like a raisin in the sun,” “stink like rotten meat,” and “crust over like a syrupy sweet.” We would talk about the imagery and the importance of syntax and rhyme. Why is it important, I would ask, that the two lines rhyme and come one after the other in the poem?

Inevitably, I would have at least one student who would, in the beginning, question the relevance of studying a poem in a developmental English class, but by the end of the discussion, I would have almost always won the student over to the importance of using connotation, syntax and figurative language in their writing.

No doubt about it–plain and simple. It was the Power of Poetry that won them over in the end.

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The Power of Poetry is certainly displayed in the fine poetic contributions to the

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Spring 2018 edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal.

Check it out!

 

 

What is our mission?

The primary mission of the community colleges in the state where I teach is the following:

The mission of the … Community College System is to open the door to high-quality, accessible educational opportunities that minimize barriers to post-secondary education, maximize student success, develop a globally and multi-culturally competent workforce, and improve the lives and well-being of individuals by providing:

  • Education, training and retraining for the workforce including basic skills and literacy education, occupational and pre-baccalaureate programs.
  • Support for economic development through services to and in partnership with business and industry and in collaboration with the University of System and private colleges and universities.
  • Services to communities and individuals which improve the quality of life.

 

 

For whom, then, were community colleges created?

They were created for those high school graduates who can not get an education any other way or were unprepared for the rigors of college, for those young high school graduates who want a four-year degree without crushing debt, for those who are the first in their families to attend college, for young adults who spent their first years out of high school seeking direction and are now ready to commit to their studies, to those who were unsuccessful at their first attempts at higher education and need a fresh start.

Community colleges are for parents, especially those with few resources, who want to make life better for their children, for workers languishing in low-wage jobs who want opportunities for advancement, for the veterans who have served their country and now need the country to serve them, for the unemployed who need to be re-educated to enter a new field.

These are the people who should be the primary focus of the community college.

But these days, I have to ask, are we straying from our mission?

 

Carefully Consider Dual Enrollment

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According to an article on Education Insider, entitled “Should High School Students Take College Classes,” over 70% of high schools in America offer some sort of dual enrollment program and with good reason. The article enumerates several seductive benefits including

 

  • increased rates of enrollment at four-year institutions
  • higher GPAs in college
  • decreased cost of a college education
  • impressing college admissions officers by suggesting persistence and initiative

But, and it’s a big but, only if the student is adequately prepared, and I will add mature enough, for the hardships of completing demanding college courses at the same time he or she is enrolled in college preparatory high school classes, which can also be demanding.  According to the article,

Even the most socially well-adjusted and academically talented high school students can struggle with the unique pressures of college… It’s important for students to understand the demands of just one college course.

Is it fair to a 16 or 17-year-old who is navigating the physical and emotional stresses of late adolescence to compound the difficulty of this time with the stringent demands of college-level courses?

Maybe.

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I freely admit that some of my dual-enrolled students have been my best ones, largely because they were indistinguishable from their classmates in appearance and levels of maturity, often times more mature than their college-aged classmates.

Yes, I have had some very good high school students who make very good grades and whose behavior is very good. And I have also seen some of them stress unnecessarily over minor grades that carry little weight. I have seen them put inordinate pressure on themselves to make A’s and dissolve into tears in my office over the demands of sophomore-level survey of literature courses that they simply were not emotionally prepared to handle.

Even the most mature and successful high school student may not be ready to navigate the pressures of college. Think how many post-secondary college students struggle emotionally in their first year, many dropping out.

Therefore, if you are a parent who is rightly concerned about the cost of education and are considering dual-enrollment classes, please ask the following questions:

  • Is my child adequately prepared, emotionally and academically, to take on the demands of college-level classes?
  • What will my child’s rights and responsibilities be when in a college classroom?
  • What are my rights and responsibilities when my child is taking a college class?
  • How involved can I be without interfering with my child’s college experience?
  • How will I and my child react if he or she receives a less than expected grade on an assignment or in a class with demanding material?
  • Do I expect my child to work as well as take high school and college classes?
  • Is this dual-enrollment program right for my child?
  • Should my child take more than one college-level course?
  • How much help with my child’s classes, from the high school, college or myself,  will be too much and negate the benefits of the college experience?
  • Does my child want to take college-level classes or would she or he rather have a less rigorous junior and senior year and enjoy social and extra-curricular activities?
  • And something many people don’t know to ask: Am I aware of the potential NEGATIVE effect on college admissions if my child takes too many classes?  Some college-level credit can be a good thing when applying to colleges as it can show initiative and resilience; however, too much may be detrimental, as noted in the article mentioned above:
    • Parents, counselors and teachers might encourage their students to take on a college course under the assumption that admissions officers look favorably upon applicants with postsecondary credits on their transcript. In fact, many college admissions officials are concerned some high school students are spending too much time in dual enrollment programs, in effect ‘dropping out’ of life at their high schools. This may act against students’ admission chances at colleges that highly value community involvement.

If dual-enrollment is not right for your child, you can still save money on your child’s education. Consider the following:

  • Monitor your children’s academic progress but let them manage obstacles on their own –ask questions about school, look at homework, read and learn along beside them.
  • Show an interest in all school activities.
  • Seek a tutor for difficult subjects–my father found a math tutor for me through a local college at no cost to us. I made an A in geometry that year. The only A in a math class that I made in high school.
  • Begin searching for scholarships early. If you know the academic or athletic requirements that will give your child the best chance at gaining the scholarship, you can use those standards to help motivate his or her performance in the classroom and help the student choose appropriate classes and extracurricular activities
  • Encourage your child to pursue community service opportunities. Many civic organizations offer scholarships to students who are active in the community. More importantly, service to others develops character and helps children become more externally motivated, so important in these “me first” days in which we live.
  • Apply for summer programs at a nearby college–more and more colleges are offering “college experience” programs for sophomores and juniors to ease into the college experience without the demands of college-level assessment.
  • The list goes on and on.

Having completed a Masters in English Education, been certified to teach English and German (6-12) in four states (Ohio, Colorado, Georgia, and North Carolina), taught in both private and public high school as well as having spent 23 years at the college I now serve as both an adjunct and full-time instructor, I have come to the conclusion that dual enrolled students can be highly successful in a well-conceived and administered program that offers a true college experience, but only if they are properly prepared both academically and emotionally for the experience .

 

Nonpecuniary

Economists and lawyers like using words like “nonpecuniary.” Perhaps to keep from falling into cliche; however, if the cliche fits…and when it comes to education, it certainly does–Education should not be all about money. Amazing thing is, even economists (those trusted above all others in our society these days) frequently do studies on the benefits of various aspects of our lives that do not involve money but make our lives better.

One such study, “Priceless: The Nonpecuniary Benefits of Schooling” appears in the Winter 2011 edition of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Philip Oreopoulos and Kjell G. Salvanes, economists at Toronto University and Norwegian School of Economics respectively, explore the nonpecuniary benefits of schooling in a well-researched article (32 pages with 142 citations) that offers compelling empirically-based evidence that the more schooling  individuals receive not only benefits them economically (p. 159), but also in a myriad of other ways, including

  • higher employment prestige ratings (p. 163)
  • higher job satisfaction (p. 163)
  • higher O*Net (Occupational Information Network) achievement scores (p. 163)
  • lower unemployment (p. 163)
  • better physical and mental health (p. 167)
  • lower divorce rates (p. 167)
  • lower smoking rates (p. 170)
  • very low arrest rates (16+ years of schooling) (p. 170)

All of the tables including relevant data show statistics before and after conditioning for income with the same result of increased rates in these various areas as education increases.

Oreopoulos and Salvanes do report some predictable negative effects of higher levels of education, including time constraints and increased stress (p. 171). However, these aspects of higher education are greatly mitigated by the numerous positive effects, including those mentioned above, as well as less tangible benefits, including improved parenting (p. 167), higher levels of trust (p. 167), increased patience (p. 170), and even higher levels of happiness (161).

The authors conclude that more qualitative research needs to be done concerning pecuniary and nonpecuniary benefits to higher education, but their research indicates, as these two lauded economists say far better than I could, that the non-tangible benefits of a higher education beyond a two-year degree exceed even the economic benefit:

In our opinion, the estimated returns are too large to support
the theory that most students are optimally trading off costs and benefits when deciding how much education to acquire.  Some people are missing out on significant welfare-increasing opportunities (p. 181).

Many students may be myopic. Parents with teenagers can attest that
youth are particularly predisposed to downplaying or ignoring future consequences…. When teenagers and young adults make their choices about school attainment, it may be especially easy to see the immediate costs and harder to grasp fully the long-term benefits. Exploring these issues more thoroughly would shed further light on the overall education attainment decision-making process and help identify ways to make individuals recognize the large returns from schooling. Large amounts of money appear to be lying on the sidewalk. Of course, money isn’t everything. In the case of returns from schooling, it seems to be just the beginning (p. 181).

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On a more celebratory note, I have mentioned in my blog before that I had a piece published in the anthology Unbroken Circle: Stories of Cultural Diversity in the South. Since publication last May, several colleges have begun to use the anthology as a text in courses on Southern literature and culture.

Several months ago, writers included in the anthology were asked if they would like to participate in a panel discussion at the 40th Annual Appalachian Studies Association Convention. I am happy to report that the proposed panel session was accepted by the association, so four of the 26 writers, including yours truly, as well as editors of Bottom Dog Press in Huron, OH will travel to Cincinnati to attend the conference. I will be reading from my story,  as well as discussing the meaning and inspiration for it. Of course, I will be part of the Q&A after all writers have completed their readings.

The conference is during our spring break in April, so my intention is to take along some copies the new edition of Teach. Write. to share with editors and publishers, so there isn’t a better time to submit to the spring edition. Submissions are open until March 1.

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