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.

 

 

 

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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.

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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!

 

 

An email “my colleague” cannot send (plus, it’s too long anyway)

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Hello,
Just wanted you to know that I posted midterm grades for all my students to see. Of course, because I have open grade books, all of my students have access to their grades at any time in the semester, not just at mid-term.  Oh, FYI, by checking the gradebook, any student can see any major graded assignment (and most minor assignments) with a completed rubric or checklist explaining how the grade was calculated (often I include an annotated PDF file for additional accessible feedback as well).

If students complain that I do not give enough feedback, which I hear they are doing quite loudly and inaccurately,  please direct them to the individual assignments where they can see all of the work I have assessed as well as any supporting documents. If they have questions or concerns, please encourage them to contact me rather than scrawl rather inappropriate things about me on the bathroom walls. This behavior is costing the college money and cutting into the maintenance department’s bottom line, I have been told.

Students can also, of course, ask me for explanations or help if they come to see me during my office hour or make an appointment. I have always made myself available to students who need help and will continue to do so, but I don’t always have time directly before or after class as I have many classes and other duties, as you know.  Oh, occasionally, I am so sorry to say, I must also use the ladies room, though a student once wanted to follow me in there to ask a question. I told him he would have to wait in my office just a minute or two. I trust that was acceptable.

I have been offering the support mentioned above to all of my students for years now and continue to work hard on developing more online resources and updating ones from previous years. If students relate to you any confusing details in any assignments, also which I hear they are doing quite loudly, please feel free to have students record specific information about the assignment in question, including the assignment number, and have them email me that information so that I can make corrections. I can’t correct problems of which I am not aware, you see. I know some students have been saying I must be clairvoyant and have eyes in the back of my head, but I would like to squelch those rumors right here and now. I am not clairvoyant.

In addition, I have always offered an abundance of resources to my students, including thorough explanations and directions for all of my assignments. If students want to know how they can improve their grades, or have been absent from class to go on that cruise with their family, then please direct them to these resources. Of course, you may have to explain to them that there will be no extra credit awarded for opening a resource file. So sorry.

Please know that I care very much about all of my students receiving the highest quality college-level instruction I can give based on my 30 years of  experience teaching composition and British literature. When I err, it will never be out of a lack of concern for any of my students but more likely born of fatigue, or short-term memory loss.  I am pushing 60, you know.

Any confusing details or dates may even be a simple mistake as I must maintain six or seven online course shells, prepare materials for six or seven seated and online classes, and grade multiple assignments for 90 – 100 students each semester. Don’t forget those pesky contractual “other duties as assigned”–two committees (chair of one), attending national conferences, writing press releases, creating promotional material, planning major events, participating in student clubs and events. Oh, I know, I’m just whining now. Some of those things I choose to do so they don’t count.

Sure, I could make it easier on myself, do less and offer fewer opportunities for my students to practice writing, but I am still convinced after all these years that there is only one way students can effectively learn to compose, revise and edit at the level they need to—by doing it. I know it is shocking for some students to hear that they must write essays in a freshman English composition class (plus revise and edit them too), but my hands are tied, I fear…

by my conscience.

Thank you for your time.

Remaining Anonymous

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The above piece is representative of work (creative non-fiction) that I would welcome for the spring edition of Teach. Write. Submissions are open until March 18.

Submission Guidelines

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 .

 

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

 

First Edition of Teach. Write. Now Available

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The first edition of Teach. Write. is now available! I still think I am a little bit crazy to try to publish a literary journal, but the idea of celebrating the creative writing of composition teachers is close to my heart because I know how much struggling to be a professional writer has helped me understand my students’ struggles with writing.

Yes, it is risky. Yes, I feel so vulnerable. I know I made mistakes. I am afraid people will be unhappy for whatever reason, but I feel so strongly about the empowering effect of being a writer that I have been driven to complete this project. The quality of the writing submitted, wanting to do the work justice, has also pushed me forward despite the risks.

So here it is!

Click here to read the journal online for free: Fall 2017_Revision2

Click here to order a printed copy of the journal for $5.00: Teach. Write.

Please, let me know what you think (but please be gentle), and if you are interested in submitting to Teach. Write., I will be open for submissions again beginning October 1, for the Spring 2018 edition. Click here for submission guidelines.

An Exciting Summer

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Submissions are closed for the premiere edition of Teach. Write. Thanks to all who submitted. I will be getting in touch with contributors as the month progresses. Tomorrow I will begin putting together the journal of poetry, prose and essays that will launch on September 1, 2017.

It has been a busy summer, and although I did not complete my two major writing goals, I have made progress on both and am looking forward to continuing that work while I begin teaching. The teaching will always come first, of course, but I am determined that I will use my time wisely and work on my writing projects each day. I want my students to be disciplined writers, so I need to make every attempt to be disciplined in my craft as well.

d8ce6a5e9ae0d888f860fbcc01dc04d2By the end of November, I will have completed the rough draft of my novel, Flood, a mystery/thriller set in Alabama during the early days of Obama’s first presidential run. The idea for the novel started as a short story for my unpublished novel Mordecai Tales, but on the advice of some of my writer friends, I decided to turn the idea into a novel. Portions of the book were workshopped at two different conferences this summer, and the feedback I received from fellow writers as well as two excellent instructors, Jane Smiley and Sheryl Monks, has encouraged me to complete the work.

223_4324I also will have completed several drafts of my new play, an adaptation of Robert Browning’s Ring and the Book. I have spent many hours this summer re-reading and studying the Ring and the Book, which has re-kindled my interest in this novel-length poem that is considered Browning’s crowning achievement but is little read today.

To prepare for writing the play, I also read Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, which includes fascinating biographical sketches of both writers as well as excerpts from their vast correspondence that is extremely helpful as I write the play. A third helpful source I completed reading early in the summer is Derek Parker’s non-fiction book Roman Murder Mystery: The True Story of Pompilia, an informative re-telling of the factual details surrounding the 17th Century Italian murder case on which Browning’s magnum opus is based. 

I am excited to complete both of these very different works and am truly enjoying the process of writing, something I hope to pass on to my students this semester.

My other big writing event was the publication of a short story “I Have Not Yet Returned” in the anthology Unbroken Circle: Stories of Cultural Diversity in the South published by Bottom Dog Press as part of their Appalachian series. You can purchase a copy of the book with its 26 stories and essays about the modern South through the publisher’s website or at amazon.com.

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