The Art of Writing

conventioncenter-day_creditscottdresselmartin_580

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:

Grant_Wood_-_American_Gothic_-_Google_Art_Project

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.

**

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.

cover

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!

 

Advertisements

Battle Cry

Knight-800px (2)

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.

MedievalDesign-800px (2)

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.

 

joanofarc-800px (2)

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.

 

Rocking the Boat

Frontispiece from Prophets of Dissent–A Collection of Essays Published in 1918 (Wikimedia)

In a 2003 LA Times article, entitled “The Power of Dissent,” Harvard law professor Cass R. Sunstein, makes a reasonable argument about how a dangerous culture of conformity within NASA helped aid and abet the Columbia shuttle disaster that took the lives of the shuttle’s seven-member crew. At the conclusion of the article, Sunstein summarizes the stunning conclusions of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that well over a decade later should give today’s administrative-heavy educational institutions with a top-down leadership mentality pause:

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board emphasized the need for NASA to develop a distinctive kind of culture, one that discourages deference to leaders, sees dissent as an obligation, promotes independent analysis and insists on a wide range of voices. The broadest lesson is simple. Well-functioning organizations discourage conformity and encourage dissent — partly to protect the rights of dissenters but mostly to promote interests of their own.

Discourage deference to leaders? See dissent as an obligation? Insist on a wide range of voices? Isn’t that against THE CODE? Yes, sisters and brothers, it is, and God bless it.

The suppression of dissent, no matter from what political, social or religious perspective, is dangerous for higher education, leading to meaningless bureaucracy, rote learning, demoralized faculty, and unmotivated students, who care, or are encouraged to care, more about their minimum wage  after-school jobs than they do about their educations. It also breeds the unreal expectation of what a piece of paper, without symbolizing true learning, can give them in life.

Conformity is anathema to college education. Standardizing for the sake of the nebulous “giving the students the same exposure to the same material” is not the point. If college is supposed to be preparing students for real world experiences, how does requiring all faculty to teach the same curriculum prepare students? Will all of their bosses be the same, having the same expectations, assessing their performance in the same way, promoting for the same reasons? And if our students become the bosses, heaven help us if they seek to suppress opposing viewpoints or disallow any honest debate.

At a community college, even if its mission is only to train the local workforce (of course it is much more ), then that community college fails if it does not offer students a rich and diverse curriculum, introducing them to multiple educational methodologies, personalities, disciplines, attitudes and expectations, teaching them one of the most important and desirable of all skills in the workplace–adaptability, the ability to conform, yes, but to a reasonable degree, while dissenting when necessary, when it could be hurtful, if not fatal, to just shut up and do the job.

Therefore, I will continue to dissent, against those things that violate my academic freedom–the freedom to be the kind of teacher I was called to be. No, I will not dissent for dissent’s sake, but yield to reasonable requests and accept constructive criticism. But I will fight against any pettiness that threatens to derail almost thirty years of quality teaching–even if I am a bit strange, excitable, stubborn, even insubordinate and obnoxious. I may be those things in some people’s eyes, even in my own sometimes, but mainly I choose to see myself as unique, passionate, steadfast, questioning, and if some people find my demeanor obnoxious, I can live with that, and sleep at night.

anne-hutchinson

Anne Hutchinson–Puritan Dissenter

As Sheryl Crow sings,

I was born in the South
Sometimes I have a big mouth
When I see something that I don’t like
I gotta say it.

 

 

Dissent is not the dirty word some seem to think it is. Don’t rock the boat, they say. Why not? Because it might turn over? So what if it does? We might learn to swim.

 

Blog Post Not Quite Ready, but I Can’t Wait

My newest blog post, about the importance of dissent in the community college, is not quite ready to publish, but in the meantime, I found this quite interesting article on the dangers of classroom observation. It seems obvious to me that college instructors and university professors cannot be evaluated in the same way that K-12 instructors are evaluated. At the very least, faculty members should have some say in how they are evaluated, shouldn’t they?

Anyway, here is a link to the article from “Inside Higher Ed.”

“Observations of Professors: Tread Lightly” by Jonathan M. Golding and Phillipp J. Kraemer

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:

What happens when liberal arts are devalued in the community college?

5653093-steve-jobs-liberal-arts-quoteThere seems to be an increasing hostility in the world today towards the study of the liberal arts. This is not a new subject to readers of my blog. As a community college instructor teaching English, I have grave concerns about how this hostility is affecting many of my students at the college where I teach.

If students don’t value the liberal arts, especially the humanities, they often become resentful of having to complete assignments that appear, to their uninformed minds, to have no practical value. This resentment can turn to inattentiveness and a lack of participation, which sometimes turns to more serious inappropriate behavior, and even to open hostility and violence, according to a 2008 study by educational counselors Dr. Robert Dobmeier and Joseph Moran (“Dealing with the Disruptive Behavior of Adult Learners”).

The feeling that students’ time studying in the humanities classroom is somehow wasted is often times reinforced by negative attitudes within the home, among peers and in the wider community. For example, former Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina said in a 2013 radio interview referring to certain humanities courses, including gender studies and an African foreign language

“So I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt,” McCrory said, adding, “What are we teaching these courses for if they’re not going to help get a job?”

If the governor of a state with a rich tradition of superb institutions of higher education feels free to make such uninformed statements, it is logical to assume that some students are hearing similar ones at home and among their peers.

I can attest that this lack of respect has led to disrespect for not only the disciplines I teach, but also for myself. Furthermore, I am not alone. Students are becoming more and more critical of instructors’ assignments, teaching styles and assessments. I don’t mean legitimate questions respectfully asked, which leads to explanations that help students understand the material better, but criticism that is increasingly uncivil, including sleeping, texting or talking in class, posting inappropriate comments in online discussion forums, as well as e-mailing rude and even obscene comments to instructors.

Worse, community college instructors are increasingly confronted with angry and hostile students in the classroom and in our offices. These students are often upset that an instructor has carried out a policy that is stated clearly in his or her syllabus or there is some disagreement about a grade. Sometimes these encounters are upsetting and even frightening to the instructor, his or her colleagues, other students, staff and administrators.

I have been teaching a long time, and I know that incidents like these have been happening since the first classrooms were created, but I have never, in my whole almost 30-year career, had so many adult students with such unhealthy attitudes toward learning for learning’s sake, that inexplicable passion for learning, which leads to all of the things so many people say they desire out of higher education–citizens who can think critically, communicate well, solve problems and adapt to new situations quickly.

Something needs to be done. But what? There are no easy answers, but I am going to begin with educating myself with specific information that supports my belief that the study of the liberal arts should be the bedrock of all our institutions of higher learning.

**********

I found this incredible essay posted on the Academy of Arts and Sciences website, along with a great article entitled, The Vitality of the Humanities in U.S. Community Colleges,” that reiterates my thoughts on the importance of all students studying the arts and humanities in our community colleges:

January 19, 2015

Community College Students and the Humanities: New Opportunities for Learning and Growth

posted by Martha J. Kanter

Martha J. Kanter, Ed.D., is a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Higher Education at New York University and former U.S. Under Secretary of Education from 2009 through 2013.

More than 40 percent of our nation’s adults are unable to read, write, or compute at the competency level expected of America’s high school graduates, so it’s hardly a surprise, even if it is gravely disappointing and frustrating, to inform policy makers, and the public about the worth of the humanities.1 But what better way to elevate the discussion than with facts and policy strategies?

That is why the light that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is shining on community colleges and the humanities is critical in this endeavor. Even today, too many Americans aren’t aware that the community colleges are the gateway to higher education for more than 40 percent of our nation’s undergraduates. A generation ago the United States was first in the world in the number of college graduates with two-year and four-year degrees. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we are now eleventh in the world, tied with Israel.2 The good news is that we are moving in the right direction: we were ranked sixteenth 16th in the world in 2009. It’s a national imperative that we provide Americans the best quality education so we must look to the community colleges and state universities where the middle-class and low-income majority is seeking higher education. (my accent)

Educational improvements and financial support are sorely needed. Sadly, public colleges and universities were hit hard by the recession and lost, on average, about 20 percent of their state support. We need our private universities to join with their colleagues in the community colleges and state universities in a shared vision to reimagine and redesign general education in the years ahead. In doing so, we will ensure that all of our students have access to the fundamental ideas, knowledge, skills, and capacity to learn that will advance greater numbers of students with undergraduate and graduate degrees for America’s prosperity in the 21st century.

Looking at the facts, more than a third of associate’s degrees are awarded in subjects that require a significant humanities course load.3 Exposure to the humanities in the first two years of college as a significant component of general education provides the intellectual framework for students to compare and contrast the viewpoints of those different from themselves and to delve into the learning spheres of analytical reasoning, problem solving, and decision making to tackle the very real problems facing their communities and the greater society.

In a recent survey, the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that 93 percent of CEOs want to hire individuals who demonstrate the “capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems,” capabilities “more important than their undergraduate major. More than nine in ten of those surveyed say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.”4  (accent is mine) 

Unfortunately, the collaboration so urgently needed between the arts, humanities, sciences, and business has fragmented into ever more disparate pieces over the last decade when their interaction and integration should be encouraged to spur innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity to drive our nation forward. In the decades ahead, our nation will need more Americans with college degrees who are well versed in the histories and opportunities to address the major societal challenges of our democracy and the world, not the least of which include the education levels of children, income inequality, the social, economic and civic needs of diverse communities, globalization, innovation, and American competitiveness. Interdisciplinary thought leadership and collaboration will be more important than ever in crossing boundaries to address the local, regional, national, and global problems ahead of us.

When Tom Ehrlich spoke about the pathways to ethical and engaged citizenship at Miami Dade College in 2009, he said, “college learning must be about much more that [sic] knowledge—knowledge that may be obsolete in just a few years. Most important, it must be about learning how to learn and to keep on learning. At its core, that is what a liberal education does, it liberates our minds to learn.”5  (accent is mine) 

We should look to the evidence, embrace the liberal arts as a necessary foundation for postsecondary education in all fields of study, and figure out how to give our students the best possible opportunities to discover themselves, their place in the world, and how they can contribute to improving their own lives and the lives of their communities. In doing so, we will be part of the American dream we wish to realize for ourselves and future generations. (accent is mine)

ENDNOTES
1 U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2000), http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=199909; and U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, “Percentage of adults in each prose, document, and quantitative literacy level: 1992 and 2003,” in 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (U.S. Department of Education, 2003), http://nces.ed.gov/naal/kf_demographics.asp#2.
2 OECD, Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2014-en.
3 American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “Associate’s Degree Completions in the Humanities as a Percentage of All Associate’s Degree Completions, 1987–2013,” in Humanities Indicators, 2014.
4 Hart Research Associates, It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (Washington, DC: Hart Research Associates, 2013), http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf.
5 Tom Ehrlich, “Ethical and Engaged Citizens: Whose Responsibility?” (talk delivered at Miami Dade College, Miami, FL, May 21, 2009).

English Lesson

(Lines Composed after a Bodaciously Bad Day)

by Katie Winkler

A comparative–

Better than before.

Better than this.

Better than that.

Better than some.

Use it in a sentence, please.

When will it be better?

I have been so much better.

Only you can make it better.

Only you

It’s an adjective, dear.

See, here–

Better times

Better rhymes

Better ways

Better days

Simply good is only an adjective.

And the Best is so superlative.

But

Better

Is

Comparative–

It is

Somewhere in Between.

******

I know my job gets me down sometimes, like today, but honestly, what do I have to complain about? I get to teach people how to be better writers, read, study and talk about great writers as well as write for my own pleasure–for a living. Is this a great country or what?

Then, there are days like today. But, the day is almost over, and I survived. I’m sitting with the ones I love the most, our little cat snoozing on the sofa. Plus, I just wrote a little poem. It’s nothing special, but I like it because I feel at peace now and better than I have all week. Better.

Hatcher Garden with Hannah 017

Me at Hatcher Gardens in Spartanburg, SC–April, 2015

******

Are you a writing teacher? Do you write when you have had a bad day, or is writing the last thing you want to do when you come home from work? I want to know! Please share with me your experiences as a writing teacher–the frustrations and the victories, the writing you do just for fun, to release the tensions of the day–whatever you have to share. If I think it’s right for my new online literary journal, Teach. Write. I will publish it in the Fall 2017 premiere.

Submissions are open now until July 1, so if you don’t have time to write during the school year, you’ll still have time to submit in the summer. Check out my submission guidelines, and I hope to hear from you soon!