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.

***

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:

 

 

 

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First Edition of Teach. Write. Now Available

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The first edition of Teach. Write. is now available! I still think I am a little bit crazy to try to publish a literary journal, but the idea of celebrating the creative writing of composition teachers is close to my heart because I know how much struggling to be a professional writer has helped me understand my students’ struggles with writing.

Yes, it is risky. Yes, I feel so vulnerable. I know I made mistakes. I am afraid people will be unhappy for whatever reason, but I feel so strongly about the empowering effect of being a writer that I have been driven to complete this project. The quality of the writing submitted, wanting to do the work justice, has also pushed me forward despite the risks.

So here it is!

Click here to read the journal online for free: Fall 2017_Revision2

Click here to order a printed copy of the journal for $5.00: Teach. Write.

Please, let me know what you think (but please be gentle), and if you are interested in submitting to Teach. Write., I will be open for submissions again beginning October 1, for the Spring 2018 edition. Click here for submission guidelines.

Man, That Is So Great! Thanks, Mom!

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Mom along the Blue Ridge Parkway on a visit to North Carolina in 2015

A while back, I wrote about my father’s influence on me as a person and an educator. I’ve also written about my grandmother, great aunt, uncle and sister.

Now it’s Mom’s turn.

I quoted Mom in class today, again. I frequently do that because Mom has had so many things to say…wait…that didn’t come out right. I mean in a good way, so many good things to say. Today, I was talking to my students about the importance of learning research skills and remembered one of my favorite Mom sayings: “The secret to a getting a good education,” she said, “is learning how to find things.”

Man, that is so great!

And Mom knew what she was talking about–for the bulk of her career she was a high school librarian–teaching students how to find things. But Mom had been an English teacher, too. She was actually my English teacher one year. I know what you’re thinking. What a nightmare! And occasionally it was indeed, but totally NOT Mom’s fault. She was a wonderful English teacher because she is so well-read and is such a good story teller.

One story I frequently tell my students is how Mom was teaching us about writing introductions and the importance of grabbing people’s attention. Now, you must realize that I was in eight grade at the time and attending a Christian school, a conservative Christian school, in Augusta, Georgia, where my father was principal and my mother an English teacher.

So Mom gives an example of an attention-getting opening. She told us about the best first sentence she ever heard, often attributed to Agatha Christie (origin is not clear), that truly reaches out and grabs you–“Damn!” said the duchess.

When Mom said “Damn!” everybody stopped their daydreaming or passing notes or whatever and looked at Mom. Did the principal’s wife just say, “Damn!”? Once Mom made eye contact with all of us, she just smiled and said, “See? Got your attention, didn’t I?” Man, it was so great. I have never forgotten that lesson. Write something different, unexpected when you write an introduction, and you will have your reader eating out of your hand.

I quoted Mom a few weeks ago when I was explaining the concept of soft skills to my students and how hard it is to teach them in any formal way, but we need to learn them if we hope to be truly successful in our careers and in lives. I explained how my mom was constantly looking for ways to teach us these important soft “life” skills, like when she explained the importance of having good manners. “You know,” she said one day, “having manners is nothing but being kind to people. That’s really all it is” Man, that is so great.

Mom likes to quote, especially scripture and poetry, so I have my favorite Mom quote that I quote to my students. It is from the poem “A Farewell” by Charles Kingsley, which my mother learned from my grandmother, another teacher-mother, and so on it goes:

Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever;
Do noble things, not dream them, all day long:
And so make life, death, and that vast for-ever
One grand, sweet song.
Man, that is so great. I love you, Mom.
Mom and me

Mom and Me in front of the Jule Collins Smith Art Museum in Auburn, Alabama Summer 2015

First edition of Teach. Write. to launch September 1

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It is the perfect time for Teach. Write. to launch. As I begin my 23rd year of teaching at a small community college in North Carolina and work on producing the first edition of my first foray into producing a literary journal, I am reminded of how much I love my chosen professions. Since I was a little child I have wanted to be a teacher and soon after that dream was born, thanks to a marvelous English teacher named Mrs. Riskind, I have wanted to be a writer.

Now I am both.

To add editing to those two honored vocations exceeds all my expectations. It is modern technology that makes this journal possible and gives voice to those who deserve to be heard–English composition teachers. These are unique voices–surprising and refreshing. I can’t wait for you to read the short stories, essays and poetry of some special writing teachers.

It won’t be long now, so stay tuned!

An Exciting Summer

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Submissions are closed for the premiere edition of Teach. Write. Thanks to all who submitted. I will be getting in touch with contributors as the month progresses. Tomorrow I will begin putting together the journal of poetry, prose and essays that will launch on September 1, 2017.

It has been a busy summer, and although I did not complete my two major writing goals, I have made progress on both and am looking forward to continuing that work while I begin teaching. The teaching will always come first, of course, but I am determined that I will use my time wisely and work on my writing projects each day. I want my students to be disciplined writers, so I need to make every attempt to be disciplined in my craft as well.

d8ce6a5e9ae0d888f860fbcc01dc04d2By the end of November, I will have completed the rough draft of my novel, Flood, a mystery/thriller set in Alabama during the early days of Obama’s first presidential run. The idea for the novel started as a short story for my unpublished novel Mordecai Tales, but on the advice of some of my writer friends, I decided to turn the idea into a novel. Portions of the book were workshopped at two different conferences this summer, and the feedback I received from fellow writers as well as two excellent instructors, Jane Smiley and Sheryl Monks, has encouraged me to complete the work.

223_4324I also will have completed several drafts of my new play, an adaptation of Robert Browning’s Ring and the Book. I have spent many hours this summer re-reading and studying the Ring and the Book, which has re-kindled my interest in this novel-length poem that is considered Browning’s crowning achievement but is little read today.

To prepare for writing the play, I also read Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, which includes fascinating biographical sketches of both writers as well as excerpts from their vast correspondence that is extremely helpful as I write the play. A third helpful source I completed reading early in the summer is Derek Parker’s non-fiction book Roman Murder Mystery: The True Story of Pompilia, an informative re-telling of the factual details surrounding the 17th Century Italian murder case on which Browning’s magnum opus is based. 

I am excited to complete both of these very different works and am truly enjoying the process of writing, something I hope to pass on to my students this semester.

My other big writing event was the publication of a short story “I Have Not Yet Returned” in the anthology Unbroken Circle: Stories of Cultural Diversity in the South published by Bottom Dog Press as part of their Appalachian series. You can purchase a copy of the book with its 26 stories and essays about the modern South through the publisher’s website or at amazon.com.

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Reminder–Teach. Write. and Great Article by David Leonhardt.

Submissions for the first edition of the literary journal Teach. Write. is August 1. See submission guidelines for information. If you are or ever have been a teacher of writing, I want to see your fiction, non-fiction or poetry. The premiere edition will be published on September 1.

Those of you who follow my blog probably have more than an inkling about how I feel about the current emphasis on vocational education at the expense of a broad general liberal arts one. That’s why I found myself nodding with enthusiasm as I read NY Times’ opinion page editor David Leonhardt’s column about the problems with vocational education. There are links to scholarly articles that confirm Leonhardt’s position that are well worth reading as well. Here’s the link:

From Prompt to Publication

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My first stab at producing and editing a literary journal–Teach. Write. -is taking shape.

I have accepted quite a few wonderful submissions, but I am hoping to get some more before the August 1 deadline. If you are, or ever have been, a teacher of writing in any capacity, then I would love to see your work–prose or poetry–doesn’t have to be about writing, just writing by a teacher or former teacher. See the submission guidelines for more information.

I was inspired to start Teach. Write. because I have witnessed how writing for publication has enriched my teaching. I am more attune to the power of the revision process, more gentle with my criticism and more accurate, too. Because I am a working writer, I work better with writers who are just learning the process–it keeps me closer to them.

One feature included in Teach. Write. will be called “Write Your Own.” In this feature I would like to highlight writing prompts that  teachers have used successfully in class. To do that, I would like the teacher to not only include and explain the prompt, but also to write something based on their own prompt and submit that piece along with the prompt and explanation.

Here is an example of an explanation, prompt and flash piece that I created for my online British Literature I class:

I’m always trying to find ways to engage online students more effectively. It isn’t always so easy to do. A couple of years ago, however, I came up with a prompt for a discussion forum on Beowulf that has proved to be most successful. I wrote my own response to the prompt when I first posted as an example for my students and liked it so much that I tweaked it a little and sent it out into the cold, cruel world. After a couple of rejections, an online fantasy publication–Mirror Dance–accepted it for publication. I was quite pleased. See the results here: Waiting for Beowulf

The Prompt

The early Anglo-Saxon people were great storytellers. The story of Beowulf, as you saw in the BBC film this week, began as oral tradition, told and re-told around campfires and in great halls for decades, even centuries, before it was finally written down in the form we know it.

Americans are great story-tellers, too, especially here in Appalachia where many of us, including me, have Anglo-Saxon and Celtic blood coursing through our veins. For this assignment I’m going to let you tell part of the Beowulf story your way. Let’s get started:

Directions:

  • Choose one of the scenes you read in Assignment 2.1:
    • First Attack
    • Fight with Grendel
    • Fight with Grendel’s Mother
    • Fight with the Dragon
    • Beowulf’s Funeral
  • Review the scene so you are sure of the plot.
  • Rewrite the scene or a part of the scene from a specific character’s point of view–For example–write the scene of the first attack from one of the surviving men’s point of view or tell it from one of the women’s point of view. Your scene should be one or two well-developed paragraphs in length (seven to ten sentences per paragraph). It may be longer if you are inspired.
  • Post your scene, illustrated by an internet picture you’ve found. See my post to get an example of what to do.
  • Post a thoughtful response to either my sample post (if you are the first one to post) or one of your fellow students’ posts. Take a look at my sample response to get an idea of what I mean by thoughtful response. Also, look at the grading rubric in the Joule Gradebook to see how I will be grading this assignment.
  • Have fun with this assignment!

    The Post and Sample Response

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    By J. R. Skelton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


    Waiting for Beowulf

    by

    Katie Winkler

    Come my beauties, writhing sea dragons and serpents, monsters with milky eyes, slouching on slopes by the cliff. Come greet our visitors–the loathsome King Hrothgar and his fiendish followers. And Beowulf, the son-killer, watch him don his war-gear, showing no fear. I will give him cause to tremble, cause to repent how he rent the arm of the monster-child, left him to die like a dog, denying a god the honor of a swift death.

    See the man take up Hrunting, the fool, thinking he will be victorious, boasting to his lord of its great strength as he comes to meet me in my own abode. He will swim to me through the depths, with great and mighty strokes, swim to my home some call a hellish turn-hole. Here he will sling the mighty sword. Its decorated blade will come down singing and ringing. Singing and ringing. But it will not touch the swamp-thing from hell. It will refuse to bite, and then this hag, this witch, shall take her revenge.

  • Response:
    • This creative response shows a good understanding of the scene in Beowulf that depicts the fight with Grendel’s mother. The author includes references to the description of Grendel’s mother in the original work as well as the underwater cave in which she lives. Also interesting is the use of kennings–compound words like war-gear, son-killer and turn-hole. Kennings are common in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Finally, it is interesting to see the story from the creature’s perspective. She is portrayed more as a vengeful mother who has lost her beloved son than a fiendish monster. The illustration is appropriate as well, showing that the illustrator obviously read and/or studied the original work before creating the artwork. Note: I used a different illustration in my post but could not include it here due to copyright issues.

Student Response to the assignment has been positive.

Most students respond well to Beowulf anyway. It is just such an exciting “action hero” story, but this prompt has helped many students take their studies a step further and start to explore the style and artistry of the poem as well as plot and character.

So if you have a prompt you really love, Write Your Own, and submit it and share your good idea with other teachers and writers.

Shameless Plug

 

unbrokencircleOne more thing before I say good bye. I have a story in this marvelous little anthology: Unbroken Circle: Stories of Cultural Diversity in the South edited by Julia Watts and Larry Smith, published by Bottom Dog Press. You can buy a copy at the Bottom Dog Press website or on Amazon. Print and Kindle editions are available.

Here is what Karen Salyer McElmurray, author of Surrendered Child, said about the book: “In turbulent times, what we need is possibility, and in this rich gathering of diverse voices, Watts and Smith give us just that….These are stories and essays about the blues, about poverty, about families lost and made. Unbroken Circle is about broken and unbroken lives, and ultimately, hope.”