Five Easy Ways

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The first semester as a graduate assistant working on my Masters in English Education at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, I was required to take a course in teaching methods. Because I already had five years of teaching experience, two years in a private school in Pennsylvania and three years in Rome, Georgia, teaching English and German, I was arrogant enough to think I didn’t need to take the course and was somewhat annoyed that I had to do so.

However, during the course of the semester, I found out how much my professor, Dr. Gayle Miller, had to teach me. One of the best activities Dr. Miller had us complete was teaching to the class. Each one of us had to pick something we were interested in and instruct the class. My friend, who later became a colleague at the school where I teach now, taught a lesson on writing apprehension, offering suggestions I still use today. Another interesting topic was finding a word in an English/Chinese dictionary–surprisingly difficult.

Even the few times Dr. Miller was not there, she always had an interesting person to come in and lecture. It was a long time ago, and I can’t remember her name, but one speaker who came to Dr. Miller’s class made a lasting impact on my teaching by introducing the class to five easy ways that can help students improve their writing.

Although I have modified the list somewhat over the years, I still introduce my freshman composition students to The Five Easy Ways, which I have found especially useful when teaching community college students who may not have been strong writers in high school. The beauty of the The Five Easy Ways is students can improve their writing without knowing much grammar.

Don’t get me wrong! I love grammar, but I have a great deal to accomplish in a short time in freshman English, so I have found that The Five Easy Ways jumpstarts revision among students who may have never truly revised a paper. They just don’t know how!

So here are The Five Easy Ways in their latest iteration:

  1. Avoid the use of first and second person pronouns.
  2. Avoid beginning sentences with There and It.
  3. Eliminate overused expressions and vague modifiers, such as like a lot, lots, very, really, good, bad, awesome, etc.
  4. Avoid over-coordination.
  5. Read backwards and aloud.

Okay, maybe I should not have said they were easy. These five ways may make finding sentences that need revision easier, but fixing them is not always easy.

Okay, okay, there is a little grammar here, too. I usually must explain what first and second person pronouns are and also over-coordination, but most students know the grammar; they just don’t know that they know it. After a few minutes of review, the majority of students begin to remember.

Today, let’s look more closely at the first Easy Way. Students are so used to writing about themselves they find it difficult to think from any other perspective, something we want college English students to do; therefore, I don’t allow first person at all in finished drafts. Also, students learn that stating one’s opinion does not require the phrases I think, I believe, or I feel to precede them. Furthermore, eliminating second person forces students to think more about broadening their audience and often leads them to develop a more mature voice. They can also learn to avoid pronoun errors caused by using the second person incorrectly.

Example: After reading my paper, you can see that it is for the best if you start recycling. 

Oh, me. So many things to talk about–where to begin?  Start with eliminating the first and second person pronouns.

Revised: After reading the paper, most people can see that it is for the best if everyone starts recycling.

Still some things to work on, but for a freshman who doesn’t even know where to begin revising, the sentence is already improved by making just a few simple changes.

Okay, okay, okay. Perhaps you, gentle reader, are thinking how I am forsaking The Five Easy Ways even while explaining them, but I am much more conscious of overusing the first person or inappropriately using the second person. Now, I am consciously looking for this overuse when revising. Looking at the draft of this blog, for example, I noticed the overuse of first person pronouns and have worked to eliminate some pronouns while reconsidering others.

I have incorporated The Five Easy Ways into freshman English classes, which now begin with an assignment that is a personal narrative written in third person.  After completing this assignment, students seem to grasp how avoiding first and second person can strengthen their overall sentence structure.

Here is the assignment and an example:

One of the easiest ways to make writing sound more academic is to eliminate first and second person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours, your, your). Although finding the instances of first and second person is a snap, rewriting sentences to get rid of these pronouns can be time-consuming at first. The good thing is once writers begin using third person only, they soon become used to it and will write in third-person more often, making revision easier and easier.

Therefore, in this exercise students will write a one paragraph (five to ten sentences long) narrative. The trick is to write the paragraph totally in third person .  Here are some suggestions for the paragraph, but students are not limited to these topics:

a car accident

                      an event during a family vacation

learning to drive or learning to do something else

winning or losing a game

failing or succeeding at school or work

the first day of elementary school, high school or college

any other topic as long as it is a personal narrative

IMPORTANT NOTE: The paragraph should begin with a topic sentence and be no shorter than five sentences and no longer than ten well-developed sentences. Telling a story in such a short time is difficult so narrow the paragraph down to the climax of the narrative. 

Take a look at the following example to get an idea of what I’m looking for:

Example:

Katie and a Horse Named Butterball

Katie only rode him once, but she will never forget riding Butterball through the Grand Tetons. She was nine and a half, on a trip back from California to Alabama with her parents and siblings when the family stopped at a dude ranch in Wyoming for two nights. The owners found out that Katie and her sister loved horses, so they decided to take the family on a trail ride. Everyone was given a horse that seemed to suit each one, except Katie, small and scared, who was put up on Butterball–the biggest, fattest golden palomino gelding anyone ever saw! Katie’s little legs stuck straight out across the horse’s wide back, and at first, she was terrified. However, when she realized that the horse was a gentle giant, she relaxed enough to look down on her older sister and brother, even her parents. That’s when she began to feel much better. As she walked the trails through the glorious mountains in late summer, she saw sights she had never seen before or since–the Grand Tetons early in the morning, a moose cow and her calf drinking by a lake, wild horses led by a buckskin stallion–all while riding high on a horse named Butterball.

This first assignment does not cure students of overusing or inappropriately using first or second person, but it certainly gives them something to consider when they begin the revision process as college students, and for some, knowing where to begin is the start of a whole new way to look at writing.

Next blog post, I will tackle Easy Way #2.

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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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Trapped in a Cell

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A little while ago, I had a worse than usual incident with in-class cell phone usage. It was towards the end of class near the end of a semester when I was so distracted by a student’s texting that I asked him to put the phone away. He put it face down on the table in front of him. Less than a minute later, he was on the phone again. I asked him to put it away again. He put it face down on the table. I asked him to put it out of sight. He put it in his lap. I asked him to totally put it away, and he completely lost it, saying things I knew he would soon regret. (To his credit, he emailed me that evening to apologize.) I asked the student to leave for the day. He left, but reluctantly, and only after saying a few more regrettable things.

I have my own regrets: that I didn’t have a more clear-cut policy in the beginning of the semester, that I have been too loosey-goosey with inappropriate use of technology in my class. So, I have been drafting my new cell phone policy. It’s pretty hard core, at least compared to my previous policy. I know. I know. Some of you will think what a total marshmallow I must be, but like I told one of my teacher friends long ago, “You know what happens when a marshmallow sits on the shelf too long? It gets hard as a rock!”

So here’s the new policy:

Cell Phone Usage: Cell phone usage has become a major problem in my classes, distracting to the students who are texting or surfing, to those around them, and to me, making it harder for me to teach effectively. If I must consistently stop the class to discipline students on cell phones, I waste instructional time and risk embarrassing or angering the cell phone user as well as the rest of the students.

Therefore, I am instituting a stricter policy this year. Once class begins, phones are to be silenced and kept totally out of sight. Any student having a visible cell phone, holding, or using one during class may likely be asked to leave for the day, even if it is the first offense. If I am consistently having to ask any student to leave the class for violation of the cell phone policy, then I may submit a Behavioral Assessment Form to Student Services as described in the student handbook, which could result in further discipline, perhaps even suspension from the class.

What do you think?

Anyone want to share a policy that he or she has found effective?

I would love to hear from you. I have tried so many different things and nothing seems to work.

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It’s not too late to submit to the Fall/Winter 2018 edition of my online literary journal for writing teachers–Teach. Write. Submissions are open until August 1. Look here for submission guidelines.

 

 

To Everything a Season

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“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.

The Gap in the Skills Gap Debate

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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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