To Everything a Season

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:” Ecclesiastes 3:1

Part of summer for me is evaluating the school year and analyzing some of its positive and negative aspects. What worked? What didn’t? One thing that struck me this year was how much pressure some of my younger high-achieving students put on themselves.

I had several students, especially early college and dual-enrolled ones, who seemed to be in a constant state of agitation, worrying about minor grades, wanting to turn in work before instruction was complete and becoming defensive, sometimes even arguing, over relatively unimportant comments on essays.

Once I lost patience with one of these students who would just not let go of her concern over a minor assignment she missed due to an absence, even after I explained that in-class assignments can not be made up, according to class policy as stated in the syllabus. Rather than argue with her, I gave in and let her make up the assignment.

Now, upon reflection, I think I should have stuck to my guns, but at the same time, I want to find a better way to communicate with students who struggle with perfectionism, help them learn how to better manage the pressures they face at home, at school, and increasingly, at work.

NPR correspondent Allison Aubrey’s article, “The Perils of Pushing Kids Too Hard and How Parents Can Learn to Back Off” offers some sensible advice not only to parents of high school-aged students but to educators as well, such as, offer resilience training, celebrate all kinds of success, don’t supervise everything and under-schedule.

I am thinking of ways to start a conversation with my students early in the semester through journaling and conferencing that can help them understand my expectations and build their resiliency as well as help them find a healthy life balance on their own terms. Another idea is to change the way I present grades to better reflect each assignment’s relative weight so students can more easily see how each one affects their grades.

My hope is for my students to embrace the idea that everything has its season, like summer is for me this year—a time for reflection and refueling.

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If you are or ever have been a writing teacher in any capacity or at any level, please consider submitting to my literary journal, Teach. Write. Submissions are open until August 1. See submission guidelines.

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The Gap in the Skills Gap Debate

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Photo by Kevin Ku on Pexels.com

A 2017 article in MIT Technology Review validates what I have long felt regarding the current move away from emphasis on basic skills and overemphasis on STEM subjects: the so-called “skills gap,” if not a complete myth, at the very least suffers from grave misconceptions. According to Andrew Weaver of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the skills most often associated with difficulty in hiring are not programming, not knowledge of advanced technologies, not even mathematics, but high-level reading in manufacturing and higher level writing for help desk technicians (“The Myth of the Skills Gap”).

Weaver bases his conclusions on data acquired through extensive national surveys of primarily three groups–skilled workers in manufacturing, IT help desk technicians and laboratory technologists. The results of the surveys are surprising: if there is a skills gap, it is not as much a technological problem as it is a soft skills problem, but again, not the type of problems people most often associate with the skills gap myth:

Proponents of the skill-gap theory sometimes assert that the problem, if not a lack of STEM skills, is actually the result of a poor attitude or inadequate soft skills among younger workers. But while demand for a few soft skills—like the ability to initiate new tasks without guidance from management—is occasionally predictive of hiring problems, most soft-skill demands, including requirements for cooperation and teamwork, are not.

The article goes on to say that a closer relationship among employers, workers, and schools, leading to more tailor-made educational opportunities, is key. Community colleges are at the forefront of this push, and administrators are beginning to see the need for close communication with area employers. However, some community college systems continue pursuing the decimation of developmental reading and writing courses and decreasing opportunities for students to improve their reading and writing skills, in a vain attempt to push underdeveloped students through their educational programs faster.

It is good that administrators recognize the importance of closer communication with stakeholders. However, that alone will not solve the problem of an underdeveloped workforce if the  perception of too many administrators, employers,  students,  the general public, and even some educators remains–that learning to write clearly and concisely,  reading complex texts to complete research assignments, or analyzing a literary text is a waste of time.

I am determined to combat students’ misconceptions by providing as many real-world writing experiences as possible while teaching high-level reading skills, whether I am teaching freshman composition or British literature. In future posts I will expand on some of the “summer” ideas that I am working on and fleshing out for trial use in the fall.

 

 

 

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!

 

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

 

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:

 

 

 

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

  • stories_of_beowulf_water_witch_trying_to_stab_beowulf

    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.”