I’m not a doctor, or am I?

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Many people look at higher education as a business. Staff and administrators with no close ties to the classroom can, and maybe even should, look at it that way.  The leadership at the college where I work believes strongly in the business model for education, and that’s a-okay with me.

In the end, I think when they say, “run this place like a business,” all they really mean  is”organize this place like a successful business with happy customers and employees.” Those tasked with strategic planning, raising funds, balancing budgets, managing payroll, processing complaints, and other important institutional purposes are right, to a great extent, if they see the college as a business and  the students as customers.

However, as a faculty member, especially one who is tasked with helping students become more competent readers and writers, I would be, excuse the Southernism, in deep do-do if I treated my students like customers. Here are some reasons why I don’t:

  • The customer isn’t always right. Besides being a dismally outdated expression, it has almost always been poor business practice to believe that the customer is always right. Furthermore, it would be a ludicrous attitude for an English teacher to have because one of the biggest aspects of my job is pointing out how my students are in error and helping them correct and avoid those mistakes in the future.
  • My classes are often a required part of every student’s curriculum, a requirement that an increasing number of my students resent having to take. However, more and more businesses and institutions are telling educators, as I wrote about in a recent blog post, that the reading and writing skills of many potential employees are inadequate. Employers are turning more and more to colleges and universities, especially two-year colleges, to help bridge these gaps. Therefore, although my immediate customer, the student, does not always see the need for advanced technical writing skills and comprehension of complex texts, the college’s stakeholders most certainly do, or should.
  • Customers hire people to do things for them; I require my students to do things for me. A business model approach would put the emphasis on me doing things for my students instead of my students working for me. Of course, I am tasked with disseminating the information clearly, but I can’t help a student who does not complete assignments in a timely manner. The few students who are hyper critical of me tend to be ones who have put the onus of their education on me, which deprives them of developing in the subject.
  • Generally, one should not discipline a customer, but I must discipline my students. I spend a portion of almost every class managing disruptive students. I must also confront students when they are falling behind, correct them when their attitudes are inappropriate, and challenge them when they speak untruths or violate classroom policies.  If I am to be effective in the classroom, my students must see me as the authority, not only in subject matter, but also in matters of classroom management.
  • The classroom can not be dictated by customer satisfaction. Not that I don’t want my students to be satisfied and happy. I want them to enjoy my class, and  most seem to enjoy my courses very much. However, students must still earn grades. Sometimes, if students do not earn the grades they desire or if I do not conduct the class in a way that pleases them, they will criticize or blame me for their average or poor performance in the class. The same sometimes happens if I insist on adherence to class rules or the college’s policies and procedures. These students may be unhappy customers now, but down the road, they may thank their lucky stars that I challenged them, maintained strict standards, and disciplined them when necessary. If I treated these dissatisfied students as customers, I fear I would be far too conciliatory, and they would be harmed as a result.
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For these reasons and more, I like to look at myself as a doctor rather than a business person. Doctors and college instructors are both in the “business,” not of making money, but of enriching other people’s lives in a myriad of ways. We can only succeed if the patient or student is dedicated to exerting the effort needed to improve. My general practitioner and I talk a great deal about the similarities in our professions and share some of the same frustrations about how the customer approach, while useful in some ways, if taken too far, can be hurtful to both medicine and higher education. Here are some ways I see myself as a doctor:

  • Just like my doctor, I am an expert in specific disciplines, holding advanced degrees.  I have had five years undergraduate school with degrees in English and German, two years for a Bachelor of Science in English Education with graduate level classes in Chaucer, 17th Century English Literature, Modern British Literature, and American Poetry. My final degree took two years; I earned a Masters of Education and sat for comprehensive exams in 19th Century British Literature,  Rhetoric and Composition, Linguistics, and Curriculum Development, graduating summa cum laude. I was also awarded the Kim L. Brown Award for Excellence in Tutoring my first year and the Theodore L. Huguelet Award for Outstanding Graduate Assistant my second.
  • Just like my doctor, I must constantly seek professional development to stay current in my disciplines. I have attended numerous state and national conferences, including those conducted by the National Association of Teachers of English, The League of Innovation in Community Colleges, the Southeastern Theatre Conference, the North Carolina Community College System, and the North Carolina Writers’ Network, often times presenting, and always attending multiple sessions on issues ranging from developmental English to teaching advanced literature and creative writing courses to increasing student success and retention. I continue to read and study in my disciplines, as well as write. As I have written many times in my blog, I believe writing for publication is one of the best ways to become a better writing instructor. I practice what I preach, having published dozens of short stories in print and online publications, written two novels (working on my third) and having had four plays produced (soon to be five). Last year I launched the literary magazine Teach. Write.  35CCB4F0-960F-43DD-9348-E2C6A8D04B40(Submissions open until August 15–click to see submission guidelines) My third edition will come out on September 1.
  • Just like my doctor, I do my best work when I confer with students one on one. When students bring their papers to my office and we work on them together, they leave better writers. I can almost guarantee it. I have always preferred to teach writing one-on-one. When I can concentrate on one student and give her or him my full attention, I am at my best. I’m no slouch in the full classroom, but I’m best when there is just one student and little ‘ole me in the room.
  • Just like my doctor, I am an excellent diagnostician. I ask my students to write a diagnostic paper on the first day of class in my composition courses. After thirty years of teaching writing, it only takes a paragraph for me to have a good grasp of what a student’s primary writing issues are whether they be content, organization, sentence structure, word usage, grammar, mechanics, or a mixture of all of these, which is usually the case.
  • Just like my doctor, I must deliver bad news. It was very difficult for my doctor when I broke down after hearing a diagnosis of Type II Diabetes. Although my case isn’t particularly severe, my father, a double amputee, had died from complications of diabetes just two weeks before my diagnosis. Despite how difficult it was, my doctor had a moral obligation to inform me, calmly and compassionately, what was at stake and what my treatment options were. I have the same duty, not as severe maybe, but it can be difficult for some students to hear that I can not extend a due date, change a grade, or allow a re-write. I have had students dissolve into tears in my office over the stresses of managing school, work and family obligations. Trying to be as compassionate as I can while still maintaining my standards, I seek for a solution that will satisfy both of us–usually I do.
  • Just like my doctor, No matter how well-trained, experienced, compassionate, and effective I am, if the students do not accept my authority and follow my prescriptions for improvement, I am powerless to help them. I wish I could convince all my students that my methods, although they may be different than other instructors, really do work. Improvement, even over only sixteen weeks of instruction, can be astounding, under one condition–Students must dedicate themselves to applying what they’ve learned to the work as it is assigned. 
  • It is unfortunate that just like my doctor, although I am highly experienced and effective at what I do, many people, including those in the general society, sometimes do not recognize my expertise or don’t trust me to manage my own professional affairs. My doctor and I lament this sad fact more than any other. In her profession the insurance companies, hospital administrators, and patients, even though they are not the ones with the ability to deliver the required service, are increasingly the ones who make decisions that, in the past, were her purview–things like how much time to spend with a patient, which treatment options to offer, even something as basic as a diagnosis.
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So far, I’m happy to say, at my college anyway, although there have been moves toward standardized curriculum in some non-discipline specific classes, the English faculty still dictates what is in the English curriculum, and I, as an instructor, am given ample latitude, to conduct my classes as I see fit, as long as I uphold the college’s mission and the state’s expected goals and objectives.

I am sorry to say, however, the same can not be said for many of my colleagues. The overall move to standardize college-level instruction (mainly, it sometimes appears, to appease the data-collection gods) continues to alarm this 30-year teaching veteran. The short-sighted idea of making all classes look, sound, smell, feel and taste alike may be the kind of fast-food academic meal that pleases the palate of a freshman or sophomore, or fills the plates of the textbook industry, but what happens when students arrive at the four-year college or enter the work world and are suddenly asked to slowly eat a full, home-cooked, balanced meal, including green leafy vegetables and begin exercising their critical thinking, reading and writing skills to boot? I care about my students. I want them to eat right and exercise now!

Just like a doctor, I am tasked with helping sometimes unwilling patients/students look far into the future and see their lives ten, twenty, thirty years from now. I must convince them to take care of their academic health, building their strength with a diet of informative lessons and  strenuous writing exercises that will help them grow and develop, prepared for the rigors of the life ahead of them.

Okay, I’ve carried the metaphor about as far as I can, I know, so I will stop now. 

Wait.

One more thing. 

Reducing or eliminating faculty autonomy, also called academic freedom, in any area of curriculum, including planning, delivery, or assessment, will surely limit the diverse content, instructional styles, and varying assessment methods that effectively prepare college students for further education, training, and employment. 

Wait.

I can’t help myself.

The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC), which accredits colleges and universities in the southern states, seems to agree with me. Standard 6.4 (page 53) says:

The institution publishes and implements appropriate policies and procedures for preserving and protecting academic freedom.
(Academic freedom)

Rationale and Notes
The essential role of institutions of higher education is the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. Academic freedom respects the dignity and rights of others while fostering intellectual freedom of faculty to teach, research, and publish. Responsible academic freedom enriches the contributions of higher education to society.

If college-level education is to deserve the adjective “higher,” then it must offer students more than the homogenized curriculum of their elementary, middle school, and high school years. After all, as the great British poet William Cowper wrote in the poem “The Task,” (1785) “Variety is the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavor.”

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Mrs. Winkler Settles Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Carefully Consider Dual Enrollment

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

 

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

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

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

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

Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

**

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!

 

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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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