Mrs. Winkler Writes a Poem for Power

I am too small. I am too large.

I will never be small enough

Never large enough

Or smart enough

Never competent and capable enough to do all the tasks you don’t want to do

in a room you will never enter.

Yes, you trust me to teach developmental classes,

develop any curriculum,

complete all other duties as assigned

by just about anyone.

Credentialed. Yes, just not at acceptable places.

Oral Roberts University?

You’re kidding.

Can there any good thing come out of there?

Not good enough. Not good enough.

A trouble maker

The first one to dissent.

The first one to ask a question.

So many questions.

Me too?

But who cares what abuse you’ve endured

When you’re nothing special to look at.

C’mon.

Get over it.

That happened so long ago.

Your worth? Ha. Look at you.

But I know it.

I wrote it out moments ago–1,444 words so far

And I haven’t even scratched the surface.

So go on and treat me like a simpleton

who doesn’t know the first thing about teaching

then ask me to teach the unteachable.

Ask me to fill out another

damn

form.

Treat me as if I’m incompetent.

Then, ask me to develop another new course.

Then, wipe out all that I’ve done.

Go ahead and tell me to do something,

criticize me for doing it.

It doesn’t matter.

I know my worth.

And so do they.

And that–

That is the only thing that does.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts at Year’s End

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I haven’t blogged much this year.

Oh, well.

It isn’t that I’ve lost interest or feel that the blog isn’t important.

I haven’t and it is.

I have been forced to…no, I have chosen, to put my efforts elsewhere.

It has been a pivotal year for me in some ways, and I have discovered many things about myself, my teaching, my students. That’s never a bad thing. It has sometimes been a difficult year, especially for some of the people I love, but even those difficulties are not without worth, without purpose. The sorrows of the year have been tempered with joy. They haven’t necessarily made me stronger, but they have helped me to realize that weakness is not a sin, not evil–it is human.

So here are some thoughts about my year as an English professor:

  • Individual conferences continue to be invaluable and should be done earlier and more often. I have long held research paper conferences with my students and have almost always found them effective, but because the research paper comes later in the semester, some students are too behind to gain the full benefit of a one- on-one meeting time with me, so in the future I want to hold conferences more often.
  • I have always liked Oxford’s “personalised learning” model of tutorials where small groups of students (three or four) meet once or twice a week with a faculty member to discuss readings and essays. Although this style of teaching is not possible when a faculty member has over 110 students in composition-heavy classes like I did this semester, I would like to move in the direction of more individualized instruction when I can and make room for it in my schedule.
  • Less is more. This year, I had too many students, too many papers, too many assignments. For example, at the beginning of the fall 2019 semester, I had 120 students–three first semester English composition classes (close to 60 students and 20 online), one second semester freshman English composition class (20 students), close to 20 online British literature I students (composition heavy) and the rest an online eight-week study skills course. That course may seem like the easy one, but I do a great deal of time-consuming direct communication with students because it is such an important introductory course.
  • I know, I know, some of you teachers out there are scoffing at my “light” load, but these heavy teaching loads are not good for us or our students, and I for one am determined to work on making my grading load lighter so I can do justice to my students and have the time to give more meaningful feedback to them, which leads me to my next thought.
  • Discovering what meaningful feedback is. This year, I have relied more heavily on advanced grading techniques provided by our LMS, particularly rubrics and checklists. I have spent more time tailor-making grading tools for each particular assignment, so each includes more feedback with less effort.
  • I still make some markings directly on more heavily graded essays, but I usually stop at the first paragraph or first page and include a statement from my “quick list” that says “I will stop line editing here. See the rest of the paper for any additional comments.” (I LOVE my quick list embedded in the LMS’s advanced grading system that allows me to save common comments and quickly add them to the graded paper.) Then, when posting the grade I include this comment or one similar to it: “See the rubric and comments on the document for feedback. Contact me if you need more information.”
  • My marks on papers are more useful to me than students. This year I have come to face the fact that most students don’t read or try to understand the marks that I make on their essays, but I continue to line edit the first paragraph or page and make spot comments throughout the essay because it helps me grade more accurately and efficiently. I typically grade ten or more essays in one sitting, so it’s easy to lose track of each paper’s strengths and weaknesses. However, if I have made comments, it’s easy to flip back and re-read them before marking the rubric.
  • The downside of plagiarism detectors. This year, I have encountered less direct word-for-word plagiarism but more academic dishonesty. How can that be? My theory is that students use the plagiarism detection software incorrectly or they do not understand or abide by the basic tenets of proper documentation.
  • Quite a few of my students, therefore, are turning in papers that are at best poorly documented and at worst out-and-out plagiarized because often they will only change around a few words or retain the syntax of the original quote. Sometimes, these quotes are simply dropped into the paper without any attempt to integrate them into the paper. In addition, some students will include complete works cited lists at the end of the papers but have no internal citations. Occasionally, they will question why this is considered plagiarism and seem truly baffled that I would give the paper a low grade or a zero. Next thought.
  • Our society thinks too highly of technology. Don’t get me wrong. Modern educational technology is a great tool. I love it and embrace it, but it is only a tool. It can’t do the heavy lifting required to be a good writer, which comes more from reading and comprehending complex texts than from any other single thing. But online writing, like this blog, does not lend itself to the deep, intense labor of reading that is needed to give birth to good writing. Also, technology makes the process of revision and editing easier in a myriad of ways, but I have yet found a truly effective way to motivate my students to use the tools technology supplies. One draft, and I’m done, seems to be the mantra.
  • Five Easy Ways. One way I have tried to help students grasp the concepts of revision and editing is through my “five easy ways” to revise writing. These are simple concepts that I learned in graduate school that can help students learn to find and revise errors. Not always effective when students have been writing one draft only for years. However, students who persist consistently improve. Isn’t that always the case?
  • The continued value of working with others. I am an extrovert. I tend to draw energy from being around and interacting with people. I like collaboration, working together with people toward a common goal. And I continue to enjoy my extroversion. One of the great things that happened this year was the world premiere of my play Battered, probably the best thing I’ve ever written and would have never happened without the director, who is one of my closest friends, the cast, crew, and so many others. It was wonderful–one of the highlights of my  career as both a teacher and a writer.
  • On the other hand, I have also been learning the value of working alone. I have been a people-pleaser most of my life. It goes against my nature to do things just for me without someone suggesting or guiding me, or vice-versa, but as an effective English instructor with 30 years teaching experience, I now see the value of not trying to convince others that my way is the best way but simply doing things my way to the best of my ability, while listening to other voices I trust, like my colleagues at the college, continuing to research andragogy, the teaching of adults, and being humble enough to honestly assess my teaching and make changes when necessary.
  • One big change I made as a result of teaching an eight-week freshman composition course is streamlining the course–fewer papers, fewer assignments, less ineffective feedback, but more information provided through advanced grading methods, which are standard for all students, and personal communication, only when requested by the student (forcing the students to take more charge of their education has been a big plus). I do NOT plan to teach in the summer ever again, please Lord, no, but I did keep the eight-week model and spread it out to 16 weeks this past semester, and all would have been well if I had not made the stupid decision of picking up a third first semester freshman English course. My fault, not to be repeated.

I definitely have plenty of thoughts floating around, but this blogpost is getting a little long and have a novel to work on and some after Christmas sales to hit, so I will sign off for now and blog some more later.

BTW, this is fun and relaxation for an English professor on holiday.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Everybody!!

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Still Here

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My last brief post from the National Council of Teachers of English conference was kind of a waste, but I wanted all my loyal fans (HA!) to know that I’m still alive and kicking. Perhaps I’m trying to convince myself that I am, but I AM HERE!!

YES, I AM!

Here’s some proof!

  • Grading, with comments, over 40 freshman composition research papers in four days, while grading numerous other work, and preparing for classes and uploading the final resources, assignments and exams for my online students, and (because I’m a glutton for punishment and take late work) assessing those inevitable Hail Mary assignments from students who kept saying to themselves, “I will do that essay later after I play just a few more hours of Call of Duty 4 and Mario Kart because, hey, it’s just English. It’s not like I’m going to need to read complex text or write professionally later in life.”
  • Attending the North Carolina Writers’ Network Fall Conference as a board member, held in Asheville this year (over ten events in three days as well as hanging out with my writing buddies that I only see a couple of times a year). I will write more about the fall conference in a future post.
  • Attending the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference in Baltimore with four of my esteemed colleagues (many, many events and conversations over four days), with plenty of soaking in new ideas, validating some tried and true methods, talking shop, strategizing, and just having fun together. Best professional development in a long time; I will write more about it in a future post.
  • Writing 51,027 words in 30 days as I participated (for the third time) in National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO). I took every opportunity I could to write. For example, at both conferences, I deliberately picked workshop sessions that gave me opportunities to write so that I could work on the novel. No matter what the prompt, I found a way to write material to help with the novel, whether brainstorming, character and plot development, back story, or dialogue. I also wrote in the morning when I first woke up and in the evenings before going to bad–no matter how late or how tired.
  • Taking days off.  I gave myself some downtime when I didn’t do anything but watch movies, play computer games, talk to my family, and take naps. I took partial days off and whole days off–not many, but enough. Thanksgiving Day I took totally off, and I was grateful that I felt well enough to cook, which is one of the joys of my life.

Furthermore, I did these things WHILE I HAD A BAD COLD!!! It started almost two weeks ago on the morning we flew back from Baltimore, and it still lingers today on Pearl Harbor Day, but I will not let it defeat me. I’m going strong, and….

I’M STILL HERE!!!!

But I couldn’t have done it without the help of my college, my immediate supervisor at work, my colleagues and fellow writers, my closest friends, and most of all, my husband and daughter.

Just one example: I was feeling pretty low, being overwhelmed with grading and not feeling well at all, when my husband discovered an article by computer expert Leo Notenboom, who has a blog named Ask Leo.

John read part of the article to me, and it was a balm to my troubled soul because it was about how he, a prosperous former computer programmer now running a lucrative business as a blogger, author, and consultant, wished that he had worked harder in his English classes because, he says,

People judge you by the words you use. And how you use them.

It may not be fair, but it is real. You can object, you can insist that it shouldn’t matter, but it does.

If I had to do it all over again, ’d have taken more English classes.

Later, my husband read one of my favorite passages in the article:

Regardless of your profession, writing, especially in this internet-enabled age, is becoming more and more critical. The ability to express yourself, clearly and even entertainingly, is often the difference between being good at a job and being great at it, a blog post being shared or ignored, or an email being understood or discarded.

Sitting there listening to my husband read, I was reminded why it is still important for me to be here, to be present, to put my heart and soul into my work.

Because writing well matters. It makes a difference in people’s lives.

And, if I am present, truly present, by not only standing in the classroom and marking essays but also by growing as a professional writer and educator, then I can make a difference in this world.

A difference for good.

 

 

Mrs. Winkler Goes to Baltimore

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I am still here! But not where I normally am.

I am in Baltimore for the National Council of Teachers of English 2019 convention. I had such a full day yesterday that I was unable to blog, but I am sneaking some blogging in between sessions. Getting ready to listen to a session called Beowulf in the Spheros, it promises to be an interesting blend of Ancient and modern technology.

Here we go!

More later.

The Quality of Mercy

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Maggie Smith as Portia–BBC

I just finished grading my British Literature I online students’ responses to The Merchant of Venice. Their words prompted a very long response of my own, which caused me to re-evaluate the “quality of mercy” in light of recent events.

When I get discouraged, it’s teachable moments like this that keep me going. 

Here’s my response:

After reading the responses to the exercises, I wanted to clarify a few things:

Number One– Shakespeare’s view of Shylock is based on white, Christian views of the16th Century, but there are many indications that Shakespeare did not espouse these views completely. The society was inherently anti-semitic, and yet, Shakespeare writes a powerful statement against racial and religious discrimination in Shylock’s most famous speech in the play:

To bait fish withal; if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies – and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

Shylock said it, but Shakespeare created the character and put those incredible words in his mouth. 

Number Two--Portia tries to save Shylock, but she MUST fully represent the law. I urge students to read some more commentary about The Merchant of Venice or go back and read through the play again, especially the courtroom scene. Portia gives Shylock multiple chances to show mercy, AND he is offered his money back, plus some (Portia is willing to give her new husband , Bassanio, enough gold to pay Shylock twenty times over in order to save Antonio’s life), but Shylock refuses to show mercy because he wants Antonio dead in return for the way he has been treated. Understandable perhaps, but not noble, not admirable, not justified. 

In the most famous passage of the play, Portia begs Shylock to have mercy because the law, that she represents, can only render justice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which, if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant
there.

But Shylock will have none of it and then must face the consequences of his actions just as he was insistent that Antonio pay in full for his. 

Number Three–Shylock does not lose his life, and a portion of his property is returned. It is the duke (perhaps taking Portia’s speech to heart) who spares Shylock’s life. Antonio also shows some mercy by allowing Shylock to keep half of his portion of the money until Shylock dies. The harshest thing, however, to our modern minds, is when Antonio insists that Shylock become a Christian, but in Shakespeare’s day, even this would have been seen as a merciful act, because the conversion means Shylock will not suffer for eternity in hell. Modern readers will no doubt find this analysis unacceptable, but I urge students to see the play in the context of Europe in the 16th Century.

We have a superb modern example of Portia’s idea of mercy, admittedly a Christian view of mercy, in Brandt Jean’s forgiveness of the former Dallas police officer who shot and killed his brother, which has reignited the age-old debate about justice and mercy that we see in The Merchant of Venice

Read about the debate and see the clip here: https://www.npr.org/2019/10/03/766866875/brandt-jeans-act-of-grace-toward-his-brother-s-killer-sparks-a-debate-over-forgi

Blog Share–Jeff Goins’ “The Essential Sadness of Art”

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First day of classes but have to write. It’s the only way I can cope. But I have to give my primary attention to my students. They have to come first today. So I will just take a little break and share this terrific blog post by Jeff Goins, author of five books, including The Art of Work and Real Artists Don’t Starve. Funny that this article would come from one who writes mainly about the business of writing.

That’s what makes it so great.

Here are some highlights from “The Essential Sadness of Art”:

“We want broken and beautiful, real and raw. Sure, we want abundant life, but we know it comes at a cost. And when you don’t illustrate that cost well — with sacrifice and toil — we don’t believe the story.”

“What a beautiful mess this life is. Beautiful and broken and begging to be redeemed. And for those who are listening, this is a truth that resonates.”

~~~

My students like to laugh, and we did today, but the vast majority of them have not signed up for one of my English composition classes expecting or wanting fun and games. They want to learn how to write well, or at least well enough to get the grade or the skills they need to move on to the next class.

Some of them, during the moment, might be glad if I spent the time joking around, playing games, giving “fun,” undemanding assignments, but when they moved on to the next class, they would no doubt resent the heck out of me, and rightly so, when they realized they wasted their time and money on entertainment. Writing is difficult work and effective writing can be disturbing and uncomfortable, dredging up old hurts or even creating new ones.

Writing, even expository writing, can be a very intimate, personal experience. It is often hard to get poor grades on writing assignments. No matter what the professor says about not taking grades personally, it’s hard not to. I know. I have had enough editors, agents, and fellow writers tell me not to take rejections personally, but I can’t help it. Nothing can stop the sting of rejection. It hurts.

But the goal of life is not to avoid hurt. It’s masochism, of course, to seek the hurt, but it is courage to attempt difficult things that may very well result in pain and failure that we then have the privilege to struggle through and become victorious over.

Because then we will grow.

So I will ask my students to read sad and disturbing essays and stories. I will assign them difficult tasks to complete that may cause some of them distress. I will confront them when called for and discipline them when necessary–to help them learn and grow as students and people.

I will seek to break out of my own comfort zone, go into the dark places–for the sake of knowledge and truth, even if it causes momentary pain.

In the end, we will laugh out loud and know what it means to be truly happy.

“2 My brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”  –James 1:2-4 (NRSV)

 

 

 

Best Laid Plans

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I intended to keep up better with my blog.

I intended to finish a novel and a play.

I intended to market my plays and obtain an agent, or at least work more toward that goal.

I intended to have all of my classes completely ready to go for the new semester by this time.

It didn’t happen. Life intervened in fabulous, fulfilling ways as well as horrible, heart-breaking ways.

The privacy of my family will not allow me to go into details, but I am learning that life and work will rarely ever be in balance. Perhaps for a few fleeting moments, but the balance we all seek, and should, is a lofty one and largely unreachable. We will be out of balance more often than not, but we will find ways to cope, to compromise, to hope, to find our way.

These best of times feed and hinder my work.

These worst of times feed and hinder my work.

It isn’t a balance.

It is something else altogether.

It is a body.

A mind.

A spirit.

Altogether corrupt.

Infinitely holy.

Intertwined. Inseparable.

All of this is crazy. What do I mean?

I don’t really know what life is.

But I love it.

I just wish he had, too.

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The submission deadline for the Fall/Winter 2019 edition of Teach. Write. has come in the midst of this frenzy. I contemplated extending the deadline, but I couldn’t even wrap my mind around the things I would need to do to make that happen.

So, I will print the lovely pieces that I have, and I will find the other work I need.

Or I will write them myself.

Publication is still slated for September 1.