What happens when liberal arts are devalued in the community college?

5653093-steve-jobs-liberal-arts-quoteThere seems to be an increasing hostility in the world today towards the study of the liberal arts. This is not a new subject to readers of my blog. As a community college instructor teaching English, I have grave concerns about how this hostility is affecting many of my students at the college where I teach.

If students don’t value the liberal arts, especially the humanities, they often become resentful of having to complete assignments that appear, to their uninformed minds, to have no practical value. This resentment can turn to inattentiveness and a lack of participation, which sometimes turns to more serious inappropriate behavior, and even to open hostility and violence, according to a 2008 study by educational counselors Dr. Robert Dobmeier and Joseph Moran (“Dealing with the Disruptive Behavior of Adult Learners”).

The feeling that students’ time studying in the humanities classroom is somehow wasted is often times reinforced by negative attitudes within the home, among peers and in the wider community. For example, former Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina said in a 2013 radio interview referring to certain humanities courses, including gender studies and an African foreign language

“So I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt,” McCrory said, adding, “What are we teaching these courses for if they’re not going to help get a job?”

If the governor of a state with a rich tradition of superb institutions of higher education feels free to make such uninformed statements, it is logical to assume that some students are hearing similar ones at home and among their peers.

I can attest that this lack of respect has led to disrespect for not only the disciplines I teach, but also for myself. Furthermore, I am not alone. Students are becoming more and more critical of instructors’ assignments, teaching styles and assessments. I don’t mean legitimate questions respectfully asked, which leads to explanations that help students understand the material better, but criticism that is increasingly uncivil, including sleeping, texting or talking in class, posting inappropriate comments in online discussion forums, as well as e-mailing rude and even obscene comments to instructors.

Worse, community college instructors are increasingly confronted with angry and hostile students in the classroom and in our offices. These students are often upset that an instructor has carried out a policy that is stated clearly in his or her syllabus or there is some disagreement about a grade. Sometimes these encounters are upsetting and even frightening to the instructor, his or her colleagues, other students, staff and administrators.

I have been teaching a long time, and I know that incidents like these have been happening since the first classrooms were created, but I have never, in my whole almost 30-year career, had so many adult students with such unhealthy attitudes toward learning for learning’s sake, that inexplicable passion for learning, which leads to all of the things so many people say they desire out of higher education–citizens who can think critically, communicate well, solve problems and adapt to new situations quickly.

Something needs to be done. But what? There are no easy answers, but I am going to begin with educating myself with specific information that supports my belief that the study of the liberal arts should be the bedrock of all our institutions of higher learning.


I found this incredible essay posted on the Academy of Arts and Sciences website, along with a great article entitled, The Vitality of the Humanities in U.S. Community Colleges,” that reiterates my thoughts on the importance of all students studying the arts and humanities in our community colleges:

January 19, 2015

Community College Students and the Humanities: New Opportunities for Learning and Growth

posted by Martha J. Kanter

Martha J. Kanter, Ed.D., is a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Higher Education at New York University and former U.S. Under Secretary of Education from 2009 through 2013.

More than 40 percent of our nation’s adults are unable to read, write, or compute at the competency level expected of America’s high school graduates, so it’s hardly a surprise, even if it is gravely disappointing and frustrating, to inform policy makers, and the public about the worth of the humanities.1 But what better way to elevate the discussion than with facts and policy strategies?

That is why the light that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is shining on community colleges and the humanities is critical in this endeavor. Even today, too many Americans aren’t aware that the community colleges are the gateway to higher education for more than 40 percent of our nation’s undergraduates. A generation ago the United States was first in the world in the number of college graduates with two-year and four-year degrees. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we are now eleventh in the world, tied with Israel.2 The good news is that we are moving in the right direction: we were ranked sixteenth 16th in the world in 2009. It’s a national imperative that we provide Americans the best quality education so we must look to the community colleges and state universities where the middle-class and low-income majority is seeking higher education. (my accent)

Educational improvements and financial support are sorely needed. Sadly, public colleges and universities were hit hard by the recession and lost, on average, about 20 percent of their state support. We need our private universities to join with their colleagues in the community colleges and state universities in a shared vision to reimagine and redesign general education in the years ahead. In doing so, we will ensure that all of our students have access to the fundamental ideas, knowledge, skills, and capacity to learn that will advance greater numbers of students with undergraduate and graduate degrees for America’s prosperity in the 21st century.

Looking at the facts, more than a third of associate’s degrees are awarded in subjects that require a significant humanities course load.3 Exposure to the humanities in the first two years of college as a significant component of general education provides the intellectual framework for students to compare and contrast the viewpoints of those different from themselves and to delve into the learning spheres of analytical reasoning, problem solving, and decision making to tackle the very real problems facing their communities and the greater society.

In a recent survey, the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that 93 percent of CEOs want to hire individuals who demonstrate the “capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems,” capabilities “more important than their undergraduate major. More than nine in ten of those surveyed say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.”4  (accent is mine) 

Unfortunately, the collaboration so urgently needed between the arts, humanities, sciences, and business has fragmented into ever more disparate pieces over the last decade when their interaction and integration should be encouraged to spur innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity to drive our nation forward. In the decades ahead, our nation will need more Americans with college degrees who are well versed in the histories and opportunities to address the major societal challenges of our democracy and the world, not the least of which include the education levels of children, income inequality, the social, economic and civic needs of diverse communities, globalization, innovation, and American competitiveness. Interdisciplinary thought leadership and collaboration will be more important than ever in crossing boundaries to address the local, regional, national, and global problems ahead of us.

When Tom Ehrlich spoke about the pathways to ethical and engaged citizenship at Miami Dade College in 2009, he said, “college learning must be about much more that [sic] knowledge—knowledge that may be obsolete in just a few years. Most important, it must be about learning how to learn and to keep on learning. At its core, that is what a liberal education does, it liberates our minds to learn.”5  (accent is mine) 

We should look to the evidence, embrace the liberal arts as a necessary foundation for postsecondary education in all fields of study, and figure out how to give our students the best possible opportunities to discover themselves, their place in the world, and how they can contribute to improving their own lives and the lives of their communities. In doing so, we will be part of the American dream we wish to realize for ourselves and future generations. (accent is mine)

1 U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2000), http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=199909; and U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, “Percentage of adults in each prose, document, and quantitative literacy level: 1992 and 2003,” in 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (U.S. Department of Education, 2003), http://nces.ed.gov/naal/kf_demographics.asp#2.
2 OECD, Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2014-en.
3 American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “Associate’s Degree Completions in the Humanities as a Percentage of All Associate’s Degree Completions, 1987–2013,” in Humanities Indicators, 2014.
4 Hart Research Associates, It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (Washington, DC: Hart Research Associates, 2013), http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf.
5 Tom Ehrlich, “Ethical and Engaged Citizens: Whose Responsibility?” (talk delivered at Miami Dade College, Miami, FL, May 21, 2009).


English Lesson

(Lines Composed after a Bodaciously Bad Day)

by Katie Winkler

A comparative–

Better than before.

Better than this.

Better than that.

Better than some.

Use it in a sentence, please.

When will it be better?

I have been so much better.

Only you can make it better.

Only you

It’s an adjective, dear.

See, here–

Better times

Better rhymes

Better ways

Better days

Simply good is only an adjective.

And the Best is so superlative.





It is

Somewhere in Between.


I know my job gets me down sometimes, like today, but honestly, what do I have to complain about? I get to teach people how to be better writers, read, study and talk about great writers as well as write for my own pleasure–for a living. Is this a great country or what?

Then, there are days like today. But, the day is almost over, and I survived. I’m sitting with the ones I love the most, our little cat snoozing on the sofa. Plus, I just wrote a little poem. It’s nothing special, but I like it because I feel at peace now and better than I have all week. Better.

Hatcher Garden with Hannah 017

Me at Hatcher Gardens in Spartanburg, SC–April, 2015


Are you a writing teacher? Do you write when you have had a bad day, or is writing the last thing you want to do when you come home from work? I want to know! Please share with me your experiences as a writing teacher–the frustrations and the victories, the writing you do just for fun, to release the tensions of the day–whatever you have to share. If I think it’s right for my new online literary journal, Teach. Write. I will publish it in the Fall 2017 premiere.

Submissions are open now until July 1, so if you don’t have time to write during the school year, you’ll still have time to submit in the summer. Check out my submission guidelines, and I hope to hear from you soon!


Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

Joni Mitchell
I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
Joni Mitchell did not play at Woodstock. She wasn’t even there. Reportedly, she penned this homage to one of the most important musical events of the 20th Century from a hotel room as she watched clips of the festival on TV. Nevertheless, she caught the spirit of that time, experienced it in a true way and wanted to return to it–knew that it would be  necessary to go back to the place where the spark became flame, built up and roared.
I was nine-years-old when Woodstock happened. My father was a major in Army Intelligence, serving in Vietnam; nevertheless, the country’s division over the war was not a part of my life then. My wonderful parents protected us as best they could from the reality of my father’s situation. Woodstock came and went while I was playing Kick-the-Can in my grandmother’s backyard, waiting for my little brother to be born and my daddy to come home.
I didn’t really start listening to Mitchell’s music much until college. I attended a rather conservative Christian university, and because I’ve always been a contrary soul, probably to get attention more than anything, I subscribed to Rolling Stone magazine and carried each issue  around with the cover always carefully arranged to show off the title. Oh, what a rebel.

Joni Mitchell painted a self-portrait for the cover of Wild Things Run Fast

I did, however, truly read Rolling Stone and often times bought albums that were reviewed favorably in the magazine. Joni Mitchell’s 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast was reviewed (Review), and I liked what I read, so I bought the album. It moved me, especially  the final track, based on the beautiful “Love” chapter in the Bible–I Corinthians 13.

But not until I took my first teaching job in Aliquippa, PA, working at a private Christian school that paid me a pittance (less than the male teachers with equal or less experience), did I hear Mitchell’s “Woodstock.”
In PA, one of the things I did to amuse myself was go to the nearby mall and “shop,” rarely buying anything unless I had gotten a little care package from home or pushed paying a bill back a little. In the mall was a record store that also sold cassette tapes (CDs were not a thing yet). I was single then, and there was this good-looking young man who frequently worked there, so I would always take time to visit and linger if he was working, looking through the used and discounted cassette tape bin (I couldn’t afford a record player), searching for something that looked interesting.
One day I found something of value to me–Joni Mitchell’s third album–Ladies of the xladiesCanyon. Even then the “Woodstock” track on that album didn’t appeal that much to me. I preferred the rock version by Crosby, Stills and Nash. Other tracks resonated with my single, 20-something self–“Big, Yellow Taxi” and “Conversation,” especially.
I was lonely then. Still am in many ways, whenever I’m away from my family and close friends. Then as now,  I just never seemed to fit in anywhere else. Southerner from Alabama living in dying northern steel town. Liberal in the conservative world–conservative in the liberal world. Devoutly Christian yet disillusioned with institutionalized religion. But whenever I listened to Mitchell’s songs, I just felt better. Her distinctive voice would waft over me, soothing away the frustrations of the day–the loneliness, the isolation, the otherness.

Life got much better and infinitely less lonely when I started dating the man who would become my wonderful husband. After we moved from PA and settled in North Carolina, I still listened to Joni Mitchell, now on CD, but different songs began to resonate with me–my daughter was born and “The Circle Game” became my favorite, but now when I listened to “Woodstock,” Mitchell’s piano and poetry began to sink in: “We are stardust. We are golden.” Yes, yes we were.


by seriousfun@Morguefile.com

Then we come to yesterday–twenty years later–over twenty years doing what I love to do and in which I always thought I excelled. “Perhaps you’re not as good as you think you are,” I thought as I drove home after a particularly disheartening day, not of teaching, but of listening to how my colleagues, my friends, are being dismissed, belittled and even harassed by people who are supposed to have their best interest at heart, and worst of all, hearing an administrator, who has never taught an online class, denigrating our students in an open roundtable discussion about distance learning.
Feeling empty, I drove. Then, as if mystically planned all along, I tapped the CD player button. “Ladies of the Canyon,” the song, “Woodstock” was playing–the second verse. Joni’s voice soothed me again and started bringing me back.
Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who l am
But you know life is for learning
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Thanks to Joni, I’m on my way back.


photo by hmjmiller@morguefile.com

I have decided to add a creative non-fiction category to Teach. Write: A Literary Journal for Teachers of Writing. Send me creative non-fiction pieces about your experiences as a writing instructor. I will also be accepting poetry and short fiction. See Submissions Guidelines here.  I will be accepting submissions until July 1, 2017 for the first edition of the journal.


Lifelong Learning

One thing I hope to instill in my students is a love of learning, something that continues long after the semester is over, the year ended or the degree conferred. The drive to do this comes, even after almost 30 years of teaching, from my own love of being the student, not the teacher.

Right now, I am enjoying a  course through the state’s professional development system called “Technology Bootcamp II.” I wasn’t privileged to take the first six-week course, but now, in the third week of this second course, I have already learned some exciting new technologies to add spice to my seated and online classes. Here are some new things I’m learning as well as some older things I’m learning anew:

Blackboard–I used to teach using Blackboard until our college moved to Moodle. Although I am so used to Moodle now and happy with that learning platform, it’s gratifying to see that I have gotten back into the swing of things pretty easily. The interfaces are similar enough that I have easily adapted. I am glad, however, to learn the differences, so I can better prepare students who might transfer and encounter Blackboard or those who come to me more familiar with Blackboard than Moodle.

Prezi–I have used Prezi for several years now and prefer it to some other presentation software. In this course, however, I have learned to use some of the bells and whistles that I didn’t know and discovered some templates that I hadn’t seen before. I like Prezi’s dynamic animation that makes presentations almost cinematic. It is user friendly and easy for students to learn. Here is a link to the Prezi I created to introduce myself to the class. Educational accounts are free.

Prezi Introduction

Tagul–This easy-to-use program was new to me, and it is fun!  I can see many uses for it in my classes because I think students will have fun with it too. Tagul allows you to easily produce Word Cloud Art just by uploading web content or adding your own text. Here is one of the first word clouds I created using words from my Study Skills class syllabus.


I was able to view a short tutorial, and then after a little trial and error, created this word tree that highlights some of the main ideas of the course. Word Cloud exercises could be used for vocabulary-building, learning key concepts and terms, for review purposes and a myriad of other uses. And, like Prezi, it’s free!

Here is a link to the animated version of the word cloud I created:  https://tagul.com/oo05cu2qlre9/student-success

Jing–Although I have used other screencast programs, Jing will be extremely useful for making short how to videos, five minutes or shorter. User friendly with helpful tutorial videos (I should hope so), Jing didn’t take long to get  the hang of and before I knew it, I had created a short tutorial video on how to use Tagul! Here’s a link to the video if you would like to see my first effort at using Jing! Free!

Jing Screencast

LiveBinders–This application helps instructors and students create digital three-ring binders. I haven’t finished working on this project yet, but so far I am quite impressed with LiveBinders. I’m able to download and organize websites, photos, videos, files, etc. that pertain to a particular topic, making them accessible for classroom use. Students can create a free account to create portfolios for class or keep all of their class project files together and easy to share, especially when working on group projects. Very useful.

I will also be learning classroom and online applications of Google Earth this week. Looking forward to it, and I will give you all an update on more useful education applications as I learn them.

I love being a lifelong learner!

Speaking of being a lifelong learner: Just a reminder that my literary e-zine, Teach. Write.,is open for submissions of short fiction, poetry and essays now through July 1, 2017. Anyone who has taught English composition is welcome to submit. See the guidelines  at this link for more information: Teach. Write Submission Guidelines. I would love to see your work!


Anti-Higher Education Sentiments Run High These Days


Iconic Photo from the Cover of Ken Burns’ Civil War Series

“Why do you have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course? You get one solid lecturer and put it up online,” Johnson said. “If you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers, who, you know, kind of know the subject? Or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns’ Civil War tape and having those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas” (The Denver Channel).

These are the words of U.S. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin (R), who is running for re-election this year, spoken at a Q&A session in Milwaukee last Thursday. He was discussing, not K-12 education as you would think by the comments, but rather ways that we could decrease the costs of a college education.

I hope I don’t insult anyone’s intelligence by pointing out what is wrong with this statement, but I would like to highlight a few words as examples of the continuing anti-intellectual, anti-higher education sentiment that is running rampant in our utilitarian-minded culture.

  1. “Why do you have to keep paying different lecturers…”  Once again, money is at the heart of most conservative moves to re-define higher education. “Education is a privilege, not a right–a privilege that few can afford. Keeping cost down is the primary goal.” Keep in mind that Johnson was not being questioned about K-12 or even community colleges. His suggestion is for keeping costs down at four-year colleges and institutions.
  2. “You get one solid lecturer and put it up online,” Johnson said–Oh, what I, with almost 30 years experience teaching composition, could do with just a few minutes alone with this guy. One thing for sure, he wouldn’t leave my office with this major pronoun problem he’s rocking. I might have a thing or two to teach him about rhetoric, too
  3. “If you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers, who, you know, kind of know the subject? Or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns’ Civil War tape and having those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done?”  Oh my, where to begin?
    • “Tens of thousands of history teachers, who, you know, kind of know the subject?” Did you know, Senator, that only about 1.68% of Americans have PhDs at all and only a little over 2% of those people have Phds in history? (Reference.com). To put that in perspective, consider that a person’s chances are better in landing a position as a professional football player (about 1.9% of football players go pro) than in being granted a doctorate at all much less than in being awarded the highest possible academic credential in the discipline of history (NCAA). These scholars, Senator, deserve better than your flippant derision. They deserve your respect and admiration for contributing to the liberal arts educational tradition that has for so long has kept our country great until it began to be gutted by those searching for the quickest and cheapest way to get the largest of number of people into jobs that pay well enough to keep them quiet but don’t offer much room for advancement–the utilitarian mindset of short-term training programs offering limited choices, rather than robust liberal arts programs offering  opportunities for students to advance in their careers through the stimulation of critical and creative thought–the very life blood of innovation that has heretofore kept our country competitive with the rest of the developed world.
    • Ken Burns, while a brilliant documentary film maker, is not a teacher nor a scholar. He turned down decreased tuition at the University of Michigan to attend Hampshire College, an alternative school, where students are assessed through writing personal narratives and working on a “self-directed” course of study instead of majoring in a subject, like, I don’t know, something that would prepare a person for making historical documentaries, like history, let’s say.
    • Ken Burns’ primary source, cited numerous times in the course of the series, is Shelby Foote. Now I love me some Shelby–that accent is great, and he’s so Southern, but Foote, by his own admission was a novelist first and historian second (“Shelby Foote: The Art of Fiction, No. 158”) When some scholars criticized Foote for leaving out footnotes and other forms of documentation in his work, he said: “I have left out footnotes, believing that they would detract from the book’s narrative quality by intermittently shattering the illusion that the observer is not so much reading a book as sharing an experience” (qtd. in Reddit Ask Historians).
    • But, really, Ronnie, are you serious? “Popping in” a 14-hour video “tape”? To educate millennials, digital natives who live in an educational world filled with  instructional techniques such as gamification, Learning Management Systems like Moodle and Blackboard, math manipulatives, open source software, project based learning and personal learning networks, you need to stay current with technology and contemporary instructional methods–oh, wait, that’s part of a professor’s job. Even in online classes, educators are beginning to recommend only short videos because today’s student, indeed students have always needed, interaction with each other and with their professor in order to truly learn. We have always learned by doing and today’s innovative colleges and universities are moving further and further away from static, passive lectures and long videos to more interaction through the methods mentioned above, along with a myriad of other ever-changing techniques that require ongoing professional development.
  4. “and having those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done.”
    • Yes, already done–25 YEARS AGO! Lovingly restored but not otherwise altered, with some questionable and controversial material debated hotly by scholars, especially concerning interviews with novelist and historian Shelby Foote, who died over ten years ago. Where have you been, Ronnie? Certainly not in any college level classroom.
    • Now concerning teachers proctoring “based on that excellent video production.”  Senator, this word proctor, I do not think it means what you think it means. In North America proctor means to monitor students during an examination. What exactly does one do if one proctors based on a video? I think that maybe, just maybe, you mean teach based on the video. Oh, teach what? I thought the old video, shown in high school history classes all over the United States for decades, is the only thing college students needed to further their education about the Civil War. No expert in the Civil War whose job it is to update students on the latest scholarship is needed to bring in other views or expand on important issues or correct mistakes that appear in the film. Of course not.

I’m not bashing the use of film and video in the classroom, not at all.  I use these mediums frequently myself, but not without discussion and critique, not separate from analysis, because documentaries can be biased just like any other literary work, and to think students can learn everything there is to know from one historical viewpoint of any one film, especially one that was first aired in 1990, no matter how popular that film may be, is a very poor way to educate anyone. (BTW, Ronnie, we don’t use tapes anymore–most of us don’t even use DVDs. Where ya been?) Ken Burns himself implies in an interview coinciding with the recent restoration and updating of his classic documentary, that history, like any discipline, progresses and morphs as time goes on–our vision of it changes: “ The Civil War made us what we became, that is true. But we are in the process of becoming always” Burns said. “The Civil War …is not only still going on, it still can be lost, which is a hugely important thing” (qtd in Rosenberg).

However, the use of video in the classroom, no matter what the form, is not really Ronnie’s point is it? Perhaps he isn’t even too concerned about paying for education, since it is more of a function of the states rather than the federal government and is a relatively small expense compared to Social Security, Medicare and military spending (National Priorities Project). What he is truly expressing is his contempt for higher education–his belief that intellectuals are somehow suspect because they tend to disagree with his political opinions and are known for seeking and demanding their personal, intellectual and academic freedom.

Oh, one last thing, Senator, it’s a bit ironic that you champion Ken Burns’ work–a liberal who has donated thousands of dollars to the democratic party and has broken his n0n-partisan public persona to denounce republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Huh, funny what a few research skills learned in college can do for a person.


Teach. Write.

Queens Univ_CharlotteA couple of weeks ago, I attended a wonderful four-day writing workshop at Queens University in Charlotte, sponsored by the North Carolina Writers Network (NCWN), of which I am a member. I came away humbled but also encouraged, with new confidence in my work and with my writing spirit renewed. This long weekend convinced me that teachers of writing need to not only practice their own writing, but also put it out there! Go to workshops and critique groups, present at readings and literary open mic events. Teachers who write and open that writing up to criticism can come back into the classroom with a renewed sense of what it’s like to be a student. At least, that’s what happened to me.

Dinner at Fenwicks

Shrimp and Grits at Fenwick’s

The workshop began on Thursday afternoon. I arrived and was the first one to sign up for the open mic night. After I got settled, I had time to explore that area of Charlotte,  with many stately old homes and the impressive Queens University campus. Then, I found a nice little restaurant called Fenwick’s and had some scrumptious shrimp and grits with a nice chardonnay to start things off right. That evening Ed Southern, director of NCWN led us in a fun exercise to help us get to know one another followed by  a fascinating presentation on The Wall Poems of Charlotte, a grass roots public art project, which highlights the work of North Carolina poets. I think our college should consider a similar public art project at our college or in our town. Perhaps I will propose it.

One of the best things about the trip was that I was able to remember what it is like to be a student again–always good for a teacher to experience, especially if she’s been at it as long as I have.

At my age, I never thought to again be sharing the bathroom and showers in the dorm, seeking  out a friend in the dining hall at lunch or walking with some fellow students down to one of the local hangouts, but that’s what I did! The closeness and camaraderie I developed with the eight other fiction writers in the workshop as well as the other writers in the poetry and non-fiction workshops, helped take away the initial uncomfortable feelings I had at moving out of my middle-aged comfort zone and made it easier to accept the constructive criticism offered by the instructor and my fellow students.

Our marvelous instructor Sarah Creech, who teaches at Queens University, also helped us feel more comfortable by  doing some simple exercises that encouraged us to get to know one another better, but it wasn’t long before we were seriously critiquing the work that we had shared with each other in the weeks before the workshop began.

For some ungodly reason, I signed up to be the first person (again) to be critiqued, but Sarah facilitated the group with such finesse and my fellow writers were so kind and supportive, that it wasn’t hard to accept the criticism. In fact, I found it affirming and encouraging because most of the areas that needed improvement were areas that I myself targeted for revision. It sure didn’t hurt to hear the positive comments either.

In front of Chapel

It was pretty hot, but in the morning and evening, I enjoyed walking around the beautiful campus or writing in one of the common areas.

We repeated the process of critiquing, beginning with what is working and what could use revision, for the other eight attendees. What I found especially interesting was the better I got to know the other people in my group, the more I wanted to offer truly helpful words of advice and not just give some throw away comments. I also found myself going back and re-reading their work, so I could give more in depth comments. In addition, my confidence grew in my own work. Here were other serious writers, good writers, but my work was on a par with theirs.

After the first day of critiquing each others’ work, Sarah concentrated on lecture and exercises to help bolster the class’s weaker areas that had been revealed from the critiques the day before. We emphasized character development and motivation, sensory details and setting, among other issues. The lectures were always targeted and blessedly short, followed by periods of writing. That evening we enjoyed our literary open mic event, which was a wonderful time to hear the work of writers in my own group as well as poets and non-fiction writers from the other group. a pizza party in the commons area of Sykes Learning Center ended the official events of the evening, but a few of us continued our discussion of the weekend at a local pub, just like in the old college days.

Sykes Learning Center

Sykes Learning Center

The last day we did more writing but also had time to share our work with the group, no critiquing this time–just enjoying each other as writers. As much as I missed my family and was glad to be going home, I truly was sad to say goodbye to my new writer friends but glad that I had a chance to meet them. I hope to continue sharing my work with them. It is amazing how quickly people can bond when they share a passion for storytelling.

It may be obvious what I learned and had affirmed about teaching composition during the workshop, but here is a list of a few things that come to mind:

  • spend time letting students get to know each other as people
  • build in time to socialize
  • celebrate your students’ writing
  • provide opportunities to share writing
  • keep any lecture relevant to the particular group of students you are teaching
  • keep lecture to a minimum
  • target areas that need work and tailor-make exercises to help improve weak areas
  • make exercises creative and fun
  • allow students to critique each other’s writing in small groups
  • begin with positive feedback but move on to areas that need improvement

Stay tuned for my next blog post when I present the details of my new project–an online literary magazine designed to showcase the work of those who teach writing.


Making Sense



I’m very excited to be working on a stage adaptation of Frankenstein that is as faithful to Mary Shelley’s novel as I can get it. It is a tremendous amount of work, but is a joy. I don’t think I’ve ever said anything like that before except when I was writing “A Carolina Story.”

Anyway, working hard on the play has kept me from posting on my blog, so when I read a great editorial about the failures of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s educational reform efforts, I had to post. Many state governments have drastically changed polices and programs, poured resources, especially administrative and faculty resources, into initiatives promoted, and only partially paid for, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Now that many of these initiatives are failing, the foundation is beginning to pull out, often leaving the educational systems to fix the mess. Many educators, like me and some of my colleagues, have tried to warn administrators about the potential problems with these plans, but to no avail. Why listen to the people who are in the classroom day after day and work most closely with students? What do they know about education?  Let’s allow people who know little about education but have lots and lots of money and political power dictate to dedicated educators with years and years of experience how best to spend money on reforms. Yeah, that makes sense.

Of course it doesn’t, but this article, printed from the Jacksonville Daily News does:

Quick Fixes for Education Are Scarce