The Art of Writing

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Before I was a full-time instructor, over twenty years ago, I presented at my first national conference–the National Conference of Teachers of English. It was in Denver that year, and I paid for the conference myself because I craved professional development, even though I was a lowly adjunct, only teaching three or four large college classes each semester.

In a round table session, I  presented  an exercise that I had created for my developmental English courses called “The Art of Writing.” The students took a reproduction of a famous piece of art (I had many pictures for them to choose from) and told them to brainstorm about what they saw, using a handout I gave them.

One side of the paper was marked “Concrete,” where they wrote what they saw in the picture or what they could imagine that they could experience with their other senses. On the other side of the paper, I wrote “Abstract,” where students wrote words and phrases that represented how the painting made them feel or what memories, or thoughts in general, the painting helped bring to the surface.

After they brainstormed, the would develop some sort of prose writing based on the art and their brainstorming, combining the concrete with the abstract. I used as an example a short piece I wrote that was based on the iconic painting American Gothic by Grant Wood. Here is the painting and the creative piece I wrote based on it:

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American Gothic

I remember marrying him.  We stood together in the country church, farmer’s son and farmer’s daughter, too poor for ought else–too much a part of the land anyway.  My family sitting on those hand-hewn, hard-backed pews, witnessing.

That night I didn’t utter a word or a cry.  Closing my eyes, I imagined I was lying in the distant fields of my home, daises tickling my face and hands and feet.

I worked hard, learning not to expect any praise for the clean floors or hearty food. My greatest joy, to get all of the chores finished in time to head for the fields, to hold the soil of our land in my hand, to feel its moisture and smell its mustiness.

He did praise me once.  After three daughters, who were mine to raise, to teach, to find husbands for, I bore him a son.  I sweat and strained and screamed no less, but somehow it was different, and he thanked me.  Then, my son was gone, no longer mine.  So soon he learned not to cry.  So soon he became a man.

Now, in that same country church, as my youngest daughter gives herself to a farmer too poor to leave and too much a part of the land anyway, I sit in a hand-hewn, hard-backed pew, witnessing.

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I quite like this little character study, which went on to be published by the way, but more importantly, the piece inspired my developmental students for over a decade. Some of my students’ writing was published in our yearly literary magazine–one even winning a cash prize as  the top fiction piece in that year’s journal.

Another student picked a famous photograph of an American flag on a front porch and wrote an amazing creative non-fiction piece about the meaning of liberty. That student was attending our school under the GI Bill, having served during Operation Desert Storm. I’m telling you, he had a heck of a lot to say about liberty that the younger people in the class needed to hear.

Were they inspired to write or did the assignment just help them feel free to use their creativity? Did the painting give them something to write about, a story already there that they just fleshed out? It was more than likely a combination of things, but whatever it was, many of my students, developmental students, did their best writing when writing about art.

In recent years, the state where I teach has discouraged creative writing or the study of literature  in writing classes, especially in developmental classes. The trend is towards more “practical” writing, utilitarian, without flair or heart or life. Surprise! I am bucking that trend. I don’t use my art assignment any more, but my students engage with and write about music, film, theater, literature and art, and their writing is better for it. They are better for it.

In 1938 Winston Churchill, said, “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

Maybe the State, as well as college administrators and curriculum developers, should listen to him.

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If you are, or were, an English composition teacher, do you have a writing prompt that you have used in class and would like to share like I did at the conference? If so, I would love if you would submit it to my literary magazine Teach. Write. 

In the magazine, I have a feature called “Write Your Own” where you do like I did and write your own creative piece using a prompt that you have once given your students. Accompany your piece with a brief explanation of the prompt or the purpose for the assignment.

I am also accepting general submissions of poetry, flash, short stories, and essays through March 1 for the spring edition. Click for complete submission guidelines. I look forward to reading your work!

Happy New Year!!!

And Merry New Semester!

 

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Battle Cry

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Knight on Horseback by Firkin (freeclipart.com)

 

My last post was December 1. That seems like a long time ago. The normal end of the year rush, trying to do my best by my students, and then the additional hassle of dealing with the politics and bureaucracy of the job that is my least favorite aspect of teaching.

But then comes Christmas! A chance to get away and not think about work at all except for tinkering with the web-based material of my classes a little and musing about my profession. After a rest and time with the people who love me and whom I love, I know that I am up for the battle that is ahead.

I will fight for the integrity of my institution of higher learning. Yes, it is just a small community college, but it has always been a place where I have been proud to work–where students have been expected to meet certain levels of competency before receiving a passing grade. Period.

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Medieval Design by Firkin (freeclipart.org)

Therefore, I resolve to put on my armor and fight the good fight. Too many are giving in to the pressures of administrators and parents who are data-driven down a road to nowhere. Not me. Not now. Not ever. I hope all teachers will follow me.  It won’t be easy. Our arsenal is dwindling–decreased respect for academia, no tenure, dwindling academic freedom as well as the autonomy college-level faculty have so long enjoyed.

However, we still have at least one mighty weapon–a free press, who knows for how long, so let’s make the most of it. National Public Radio, that bastion of fake news, along with American University Radio (WAMU), has been reporting, if you can believe those bleeding hearts, on a high school in Washington D.C. that boasted of having all of its graduates accepted to college. Sounds great? Not really.

The report states that not only did the majority of the graduates miss more than six weeks of school, but also only 57 students met graduation requirements. Yet somehow all 164 students graduated and 164 students were accepted into college. Faculty members testified that administrators frequently asked them to give students who missed an assignment a 50 instead of a zero. One faculty member was called while on maternity leave and asked to change a grade for a student she previously failed.

A few months later, NPR has published a follow-up article with voices of faculty around the country facing similar circumstances–being pressured to change grades and pass students who can’t, or won’t, meet minimum requirements, witnessing the falsifying of attendance and other records but not saying anything out of fear of losing their jobs.

Here’s the article:  “Teachers Around the Country React to Investigation at Ballou High School”

Interesting, but disturbing, especially because it’s no fake news. The things I have seen and heard this long month of December prove it’s all too real.

But I’m rested.

I’m ready.

Bring it on.

 

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Joan of Arc by j4p4n (freeclipart.org)

Job 39:19-25 

King James Version (KJV)

19 Hast thou given the horse strength? hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?

20 Canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper? the glory of his nostrils is terrible.

21 He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength: he goeth on to meet the armed men.

22 He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted; neither turneth he back from the sword.

23 The quiver rattleth against him, the glittering spear and the shield.

24 He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage: neither believeth he that it is the sound of the trumpet.

25 He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.

 

Thanksgiving at the Pagoda

L4b77bf7ebf16aa15a52a4ad03b49010fike many college students that I teach today, when I was in college, not only was I a full-time student, but I also had two jobs. I worked as a secretary in the German department (I majored in English and German), but I also worked as a hostess and cashier at my friend’s parents’ Chinese restaurant–The Pagoda, where I received an education of a totally different sort, but equally as important, to me anyway.

The Pagoda was a truly American Chinese restaurant, built and owned for years by a Chinese-American family, then, after it was already an established and popular eatery, bought by my friend’s father, a Puerto Rican-American,.  The chefs were from Hong Kong primarily; the fry cooks, bussers, and dishwashers were mostly Puerto Rican. Some of them spoke English, but many of them did not. Then there was the wait staff, which included a myriad of varying ethnicities, including Japanese, Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Oklahomans,  and me–a little bitty, painfully shy girl from Alabama.

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It was quite a place! Who would have thought, at a Chinese restaurant in the heart of Tulsa, Oklahoma, that I would have tasted such a rich variety of cultures and traditions but always with a distinctly American flavor? This true melting pot extended to the menu, where patrons could feast on traditional dishes like Moo Goo Gai Pan or Chicken Chop Suey, more Americanized fare like Garlic Chicken (garlic-flavored fried chicken) or Steak Kew (thick chunks of sirloin stir-fried with Chinese vegetables in a savory sauce), or all-out All-American eats, including hamburgers, French fries, and Chicken-Fried Steak with White Gravy. (One customer regularly came all the way from Fort Smith for that dish.)

When I first started working at Pagoda, I was so shy, so naive. My parents had moved us to Tulsa when I was still in high school–I graduated from Jenks High School in Jenks, Oklahoma–but I stayed in college at Oral Roberts University, living at home for my first three years in college. Then, about the time I started working at Pagoda, my parents moved back to Alabama, and I moved into the dormitory.

Before that time, I had relied mainly on my family members, my best friend, and her boyfriend for companionship, but now my family was gone, my best friend had moved to a college out of town, and her boyfriend worked a great deal, and I did too, especially at Pagoda.  But my bosses and fellow workers reached out to me, engaged me, joked with me, even protected me, as if they knew I was lost and lonely in a world where I didn’t always fit in.

pagoda-placemat-60-thumbOh, so many memories of that time–

  • The time the Japanese servers refused to work unless they could put a TV up in the waitresses’ alcove so they wouldn’t miss a single episode of Shogun
  • The old Chinese chef, who spoke little English but gave us all pet names off the menu–one friend was Fried Won Ton, another was BBQ Rib, and I was, to my consternation, Sweet and Sour Pork.
  • The huge strong chef, who looked like an Asian Mr. Clean, with his bald head and bulging biceps. One day he was tossing fried rice in a gigantic wok over a searing flame and called me over as I walked by. I motioned I was in a hurry, but he insisted, so I went over. He communicated to me that he wanted me to toss the rice. I looked at him, my eyes narrowing, suspecting a setup, but his was a face of stone. So I took hold of the massive spatulas, more like tiny shovels shoved into the mounds of rice, steeled myself and tried to lift them. They didn’t budge–I heard a tiny sputter from the big man. Tried again, nothing–he sputtered a bit louder–then at the third attempt, he could contain it no longer and burst out with a big-bellied laugh at my expense. Then, after he wiped his eyes, he started tossing the rice with an ease and abandon, laughing all the time. I laughed too–unashamedly.
  • There was the tiny Japanese waitress who had been married like four or five times, who came up to me almost every single time I came into work, looked me in the eye and said, “Smile if you got a little last night.”  Of course, I never got any and of course, I always laughed. Oh, how I loved her.
  • Giving a sweet Cambodian couple some English lessons. In thanks, they cooked me a huge turkey at Christmas time, such a generous gesture that I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I lived in a dorm and had no place to put it. I can’t even tell you what I did with the thing, but I remember their kindness to me. I will never forget that.
  • Then there was the self-proclaimed Okie from Muskogee, who smoked like a chimney and spent her free time traveling to Vegas for gambling weekends with one of the other Japanese waitresses. She had lived a hard life, and nobody messed with that woman, but she had raised children too and knew when they needed to be loved. She cursed and complained about many things, but she never had a harsh word for me. Bless her, she knew I needed a little tenderness, so far away from my own mama.

I especially remember sitting down for special meals during holidays and other special occasions, especially Thanksgiving. Everyone celebrated it–all races, nationalities, and creeds. At Pagoda, Thanksgiving meals became times for friendly competition between the two major groups of cooking employees, so when the restaurant would close before Thanksgiving Day, we would have a spread, all the traditional fixin’s with a spicy twist, including two turkeys–one was cooked in a Chinese style, brined with the skin crisped on the outside and the other one in a spicy Puerto Rican style with adobo spices and oregano. (I’m guessing based on what I know now–I only knew the food was delicious back then.)

Both groups would try to get all of the diners, myself included, to declare their favorite, but I never did. I just smiled, laughed, said I had to get another helping before I could be any judge, and headed back to the table for seconds or thirds. I always tried to find my way back in a corner. I was young. I was shy. I didn’t speak their languages, but I ate their perfectly spiced food, watched them, listened, laughed when they did, and longed to understand them more.

Thus was born one of the key tenants of my educational philosophy.  So I tell my students–get out of the classroom. Put yourself in new and uncomfortable situations and listen for that song you’ve never heard before. Go into every situation with a mind open to learning about things and food and cultures and people you never dreamed you would. If you want to truly, deeply learn—then go out and live.

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Writing Weekend, Writing Month for Mrs. Winkler

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Mrs. Winkler is in Wrightsville Beach for the North Carolina Writers’ Network Fall Conference, accompanied by her lovely daughter Hannah. AND she is taking part in NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month). Therefore, she has little time to blog as you can imagine.

Just wanted to remind all you writing teachers out there to get in the game and start stretching your own writing muscles. I guarantee, there’s nothing better for writing teachers than practicing what you preach.

Caring

writer-605764_640-2I am beginning to put more emphasis in my teaching on caring.

First of all, I want to care more, about how I teach, what I teach, yes, but what I really want to care more about is each and every student–not just the ones who need me most, either. I want to care about them all–the gifted student, the one who seems to have it all together as well as the one who has dissolved into tears in my office. All my students need earnest praise, constructive criticism, encouragement–attention. They deserve it.

I want to care enough to take the time to let the struggling student know what he or she is doing right as well as what needs improvement. It is so tempting to only mark what needs to be improved. I want to care enough to take the time let them know how much I like that creative spark or this interesting fact they found through careful research.

I want to care enough to put away my petty concerns, there are so many, to concentrate on one of the two things I know in my heart I was born to do–teach writing.

Secondly, I want my students to learn to care. When they start caring about their work, amazing things can happen. The process begins when picking a topic. I spend much more time with this part of the process than I ever have before, and I am seeing results.

It isn’t easy for my students to care about writing for a myriad of reasons:

  • They don’t like writing. Many meaningless “busy work” assignments over the years have soured a large number of my students to writing.
  • They don’t think writing is important. Even though my students write all the time in their daily lives, they often don’t see the relevance of learning to communicate well in the written word. Somehow they seem to think they write well enough to be understood and that’s good enough, so why spend time on it, especially if they are going into a STEM career
  • They don’t make time for revision and editing. I am convinced that if students would leave themselves enough time to revise and edit, they would have time to develop, if not a passion for writing, at least a more thoughtful attitude towards it because they would see how caring improves the writing, which begets pride in one’s work, which begets a desire to leave more time for revision and editing. It’s hard to care about something if rushing to keep a deadline.

One tactic I use to instill a little more thoughtful attitude towards writing is to require my freshman composition students to pick a research topic with a local focus. We spend time exploring topics that concern their everyday lives on and off campus. We brainstorm about the issues they care about, which often leads to a willingness to search even harder for solutions to the not so hypothetical questions they are asking.

Doesn’t always work, of course, but for some of my students, learning to care has not only helped them write better papers, but it also has helped them become advocates for change in their communities, making their lives better, too.

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The spring/summer 2018 edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal is open for submissions until March 1. See submission guidelines for more information

 

Teach. Write. Open for Submissions

product_thumbnailToday, Teach. Write. : A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal, opens again for submissions for the Spring/Summer edition and will remain open until March 1, 2018. The Spring/Summer 2018 edition will launch on April 1. If you are, or ever have been, a teacher of writing, I would love to see your work and consider it for publication.

See complete guidelines here: Teach. Write. Submission Guidelines

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I posted that the North Carolina Writers’ Network mentioned the first edition of my literary journal for writing teachers on their Hats Off page, but they also wrote a short blurb about the journal in their publication called White Cross School back on Sept. 12, but I just saw the article for the first time a couple of days ago and have to share:

http://www.ncwriters.org/whitecross/2017/09/12/teach-write/

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Writing Conferences offer great opportunities to learn and hone new skills as well as spend quality time with fellow writers. Consider attending the North Carolina Writers Network Fall Conference in Wrightsville Beach, November 3-5.

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I am swamped right now but hope to get to post again soon and do a little diagramming of sentences as suggested by my friend and fellow writer Joe Perrone, Jr. 

 

A Classic Education Is Utilitarian

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At our college’s tutoring center, a colleague and I struggled this past week to help a nursing student understand how to diagram sentences using traditional, Latin-based sentence diagramming methods. The student, a non-traditional-aged student coming back to work on a third degree, was frustrated on multiple levels because not only was she having difficulty with the concepts, especially having been away from anything close to grammar for several decades, she was also having difficulty understanding why she was being asked to diagram sentences in the first place as she sees no practical purpose for it. She’s not alone.

Even in my own composition classes, I have abandoned formal traditional diagramming of sentences in favor of a more informal approach, reminiscent of a structural linguistic method of diagramming, breaking a sentence up based on the functions of the words, phrases, and clauses with a minimum of grammatical terminology.

It is not, however, that I find traditional sentence diagramming a waste of time, and I support its use in the classroom for two main reasons:

  • Diagramming helps students understand the functions of words separate from the appearance of the word, such as verbals, which look like verbs but do not function as verbs.
  • Diagramming helps develop critical thinking skills, which is one of the primary functions of higher education

Kitty Burns Florey, author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, eloquently explains the value of diagramming in her New York Times’ article from 2012, “Taming Sentences,” She writes that diagramming helps us think more clearly about what we are writing, and even if it doesn’t do a thing for our writing, it is at the very least, a puzzle that is good exercise for the brain, honing our critical thinking skills.

As a fascinating example, Florey diagrams a compound/complex sentence from Henry James’s The Golden Bowl:

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Of course, I find all of this exciting and interesting, not so our struggling nursing student, who sees diagramming as wasted effort because she sees no application for it. I tried to explain that it was like doing drills for an athlete–the athlete may not do the drill during a race or game or match but, by exercising, will be developing the muscles he or she needs to be competitive. My colleague tried to equate the student’s love of reading to the exercise of diagramming–the student does not NEED to read. What she reads has no immediate application to nursing, but reading exercises the brain, which will help her be a better writer, and a better nurse.

Our student didn’t buy it. But because she is a good student and wants to do well, she listened to our explanations and, I believe, we did help her understand better. She even said that she wanted to come back to the tutoring center to get more help on another day.

We’ll be there.

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Here are some more articles I hope to share with our student that discuss how important it is for nurses to critically think and write well: