Trapped in a Cell

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

Poetry’s Power

Poetry’s power partly lies in its ability to distill a great deal of meaning into a small space. An English teacher friend of mine used to explain to her students that poetry is the tomato paste of the literary world. Novels are crushed tomatoes, short stories are tomato sauce, but poetry is the thick paste that only comes out of that tiny can with a spoon (or opening both ends of the can and pushing the paste out in one big flavorful lump).

 

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The compact nature of poetry also makes it useful for teaching English composition, especially in college-level classes that often must stuff yards of material into inches of calendar space. For example, when the state where I teach decided to re-design developmental English, shoving 16 weeks of material from two separate 16-week reading and composition classes into one class of 8 weeks, I was having difficulty fitting in essential grammatical information.

 

Our old developmental English textbook used Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” as a way to teach vivid verbs, but my students had a hard time understanding what a verb was in the first place, so the poem became my way to simply identify verbs and introduce the concept of syntax, denotation and connotation as well as  analyzing concrete texts and the original purpose of verb usage.

In addition, we would discuss the importance of symbolism, metaphor, simile, and other figurative language, all concepts the re-design material stressed as important information to cover.

It worked beautifully.

I would introduce the poem and put it into historical context–an African-American writer titling a poem “Harlem”that he wrote in 1951 New York. We would talk about the importance of the title and how it helps the reader understand the poem better.

I would have students identify the action verbs and verbals in the sentence–happens, deferred, does, dry up, fester, run, etc.

Then we would look at the similes  “like a raisin in the sun,” “stink like rotten meat,” and “crust over like a syrupy sweet.” We would talk about the imagery and the importance of syntax and rhyme. Why is it important, I would ask, that the two lines rhyme and come one after the other in the poem?

Inevitably, I would have at least one student who would, in the beginning, question the relevance of studying a poem in a developmental English class, but by the end of the discussion, I would have almost always won the student over to the importance of using connotation, syntax and figurative language in their writing.

No doubt about it–plain and simple. It was the Power of Poetry that won them over in the end.

***

The Power of Poetry is certainly displayed in the fine poetic contributions to the

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Spring 2018 edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal.

Check it out!

 

 

What is our mission?

The primary mission of the community colleges in the state where I teach is the following:

The mission of the … Community College System is to open the door to high-quality, accessible educational opportunities that minimize barriers to post-secondary education, maximize student success, develop a globally and multi-culturally competent workforce, and improve the lives and well-being of individuals by providing:

  • Education, training and retraining for the workforce including basic skills and literacy education, occupational and pre-baccalaureate programs.
  • Support for economic development through services to and in partnership with business and industry and in collaboration with the University of System and private colleges and universities.
  • Services to communities and individuals which improve the quality of life.

 

 

For whom, then, were community colleges created?

They were created for those high school graduates who can not get an education any other way or were unprepared for the rigors of college, for those young high school graduates who want a four-year degree without crushing debt, for those who are the first in their families to attend college, for young adults who spent their first years out of high school seeking direction and are now ready to commit to their studies, to those who were unsuccessful at their first attempts at higher education and need a fresh start.

Community colleges are for parents, especially those with few resources, who want to make life better for their children, for workers languishing in low-wage jobs who want opportunities for advancement, for the veterans who have served their country and now need the country to serve them, for the unemployed who need to be re-educated to enter a new field.

These are the people who should be the primary focus of the community college.

But these days, I have to ask, are we straying from our mission?

 

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 .

 

Nonpecuniary

Economists and lawyers like using words like “nonpecuniary.” Perhaps to keep from falling into cliche; however, if the cliche fits…and when it comes to education, it certainly does–Education should not be all about money. Amazing thing is, even economists (those trusted above all others in our society these days) frequently do studies on the benefits of various aspects of our lives that do not involve money but make our lives better.

One such study, “Priceless: The Nonpecuniary Benefits of Schooling” appears in the Winter 2011 edition of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Philip Oreopoulos and Kjell G. Salvanes, economists at Toronto University and Norwegian School of Economics respectively, explore the nonpecuniary benefits of schooling in a well-researched article (32 pages with 142 citations) that offers compelling empirically-based evidence that the more schooling  individuals receive not only benefits them economically (p. 159), but also in a myriad of other ways, including

  • higher employment prestige ratings (p. 163)
  • higher job satisfaction (p. 163)
  • higher O*Net (Occupational Information Network) achievement scores (p. 163)
  • lower unemployment (p. 163)
  • better physical and mental health (p. 167)
  • lower divorce rates (p. 167)
  • lower smoking rates (p. 170)
  • very low arrest rates (16+ years of schooling) (p. 170)

All of the tables including relevant data show statistics before and after conditioning for income with the same result of increased rates in these various areas as education increases.

Oreopoulos and Salvanes do report some predictable negative effects of higher levels of education, including time constraints and increased stress (p. 171). However, these aspects of higher education are greatly mitigated by the numerous positive effects, including those mentioned above, as well as less tangible benefits, including improved parenting (p. 167), higher levels of trust (p. 167), increased patience (p. 170), and even higher levels of happiness (161).

The authors conclude that more qualitative research needs to be done concerning pecuniary and nonpecuniary benefits to higher education, but their research indicates, as these two lauded economists say far better than I could, that the non-tangible benefits of a higher education beyond a two-year degree exceed even the economic benefit:

In our opinion, the estimated returns are too large to support
the theory that most students are optimally trading off costs and benefits when deciding how much education to acquire.  Some people are missing out on significant welfare-increasing opportunities (p. 181).

Many students may be myopic. Parents with teenagers can attest that
youth are particularly predisposed to downplaying or ignoring future consequences…. When teenagers and young adults make their choices about school attainment, it may be especially easy to see the immediate costs and harder to grasp fully the long-term benefits. Exploring these issues more thoroughly would shed further light on the overall education attainment decision-making process and help identify ways to make individuals recognize the large returns from schooling. Large amounts of money appear to be lying on the sidewalk. Of course, money isn’t everything. In the case of returns from schooling, it seems to be just the beginning (p. 181).

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On a more celebratory note, I have mentioned in my blog before that I had a piece published in the anthology Unbroken Circle: Stories of Cultural Diversity in the South. Since publication last May, several colleges have begun to use the anthology as a text in courses on Southern literature and culture.

Several months ago, writers included in the anthology were asked if they would like to participate in a panel discussion at the 40th Annual Appalachian Studies Association Convention. I am happy to report that the proposed panel session was accepted by the association, so four of the 26 writers, including yours truly, as well as editors of Bottom Dog Press in Huron, OH will travel to Cincinnati to attend the conference. I will be reading from my story,  as well as discussing the meaning and inspiration for it. Of course, I will be part of the Q&A after all writers have completed their readings.

The conference is during our spring break in April, so my intention is to take along some copies the new edition of Teach. Write. to share with editors and publishers, so there isn’t a better time to submit to the spring edition. Submissions are open until March 1.

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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!