Sunday, November 30, 2014

Like Me, Please?

The final blog post of the November Blogging Challenge that I'll be doing asks us to think about what we would like to let go of.  I chose this one instead of an opportunity I didn't take--that I was glad I didn't take, 'cause pointing out my weaknesses and why I'd like to eliminate them is just so much easier :-)

I could easily turn this post into the opposite of a Thanksgiving list: what am I not grateful for about my personality and behavior? I could make quite a list: I am ungrateful for my super long second toe, I am unappreciative of my bacne, and I really wish I could toss my incessant need to be perceived as correct at all times into the ocean.

But the thing that has plagued me since I was a child was the need to be liked. 

I remember when I was in second grade. A girl named Dorian was the class bully and had set her sights on me. The best offense is a good defense, they say, and in my heart I believed that the way to get through elementary school was to be on neutral or friendly terms with all the kids at school. I wanted no trouble. The fact that someone outright didn't like me was very distressing. 

So, I set out to rectify the issue. 

She loved Pee Wee's Playhouse. (Who didn't? It was the 80s.) I was at the mall with my mom, and she had told me beforehand that I'd get to pick out a toy for some special reason that now eludes me. I saw a Pee Wee doll on a rack at K-B toys and knew what I had to do. I decidedly explained the plan to my mom and wondering why she had a perplexed look on her face. I don't think she said anything.

Dorian lit up when I gave her the doll. "Oh my God, it's PeeWee!" she shouted, the turquoise blue packaging radiating across her face. And that was that. She left me alone. I don't remember anything else about her except an awful story about her mom abusing the family cat. One day I saw her in the back of a Bikram yoga class as a late 20-something. She sweated miserably in what was clearly her first hot yoga experience. I would have felt somewhat appeased except that even to this day I don't see her as an enemy, just someone to keep at arm's length. 

Obviously, this quality of wanting to be liked doesn't jive 100% with teaching. It's helped me be who I am--someone who can have an engaging conversation with virtually anyone and who can win over a crowd, or at least a classroom. 

It's good to be thought of as a likable person, I suppose, but the distress that accompanies any perceived ill-will can be overwhelming. For the first few years of teaching I carried each and every student grudge--perceived or real, legitimate or not--against me around my chest like the albatross. I had dreams about Clara who complained that I graded way too harshly, Kevin who thought I didn't set up the assignments well. I checked RateMyProfessor often and soared with each positive review and plummeted with any negative ones. 

It's gotten better over the years, thank goodness, and I now no longer sweat it when I know a student won't be getting the grade she has her sights set on. Still, I struggle to let it go when a student has decided to believe something about me that I feel is untrue (she cares only about stupid stuff, she's racist, out to get me, too stupid to recognize my genius, etc).    

It would be such a relief to let the needing to be liked stuff go. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ain't Nothin' for Sure

"If there's one thing certain, it's there ain't nothing for sure" is a line from a favorite Shawn Colvin song. While I haven't truly "learned" this lesson, it's one I work on.

Musing on a life lesson I'm grateful for having learned is today's challenge. Teaching is such a great place to be reminded of it, and the end of the semester it's in my face daily. I marvel at the emotional roller coasters we weather. (Wait, was that a mixed metaphor?)

When I'm at my best in teaching and life, I have plans but am not wedded to them. This magic zone is difficult for a control freak like me to slip into. I find myself trying to "get through" the day by looking forward to little joys. I try to control the outcome. It doesn't always work; in fact, things rarely turn out as planned, right?
On Wednesdays I have a break (ish) between 12-1:30. I figured I'd eat lunch, maybe blog or search for toys on Amazon for my Project Santa child--do something for a Personal Time Out--before finishing prepping for class.

But this wasn't in the cards. I took a bite of my grilled turkey and cheese sandwich and looked up into the tearful face of a failing student. After we talked about her options for the class, she got ready to leave. Before walking out, she hesitantly turned around and told me that she'd had a miscarriage a few weeks ago which had contributed to her getting behind in school, and that seeing my ever-expanding pregnant belly had been hard for her. Daaaaamn.

After that heart-wrenching conversation wrapped up (and before a second sandwich bite), in came a former student who wanted advice on a personal statement. He has been doing stellar in school lately, and as we chatted, I learned about his incredible life story and the obstacles he's overcome to get to a point where he has an honest shot at getting into a UC school. 

(None of the details about this incredible life story were in the original draft, btw, but boy will his statement be impressive when he reveals more about what motivates him. It's good to be reminded that at least some of what we teach in composition is relevant!)

Aaaaand, there were more visitors after these two folks.

By the time students went on their merry or not-so-merry ways, I had experienced a range of emotions that varied from deep sadness to enthusiasm and joy to head-banging frustration. My grilled turkey sandwich, only marginally appealing when first purchased, was now cold.

These emotional roller-coasters happen to folks who work with people closely every day. It's impossible not to absorb everyone's energy to some degree. It's especially not easy when you're a control freak and an emotional barometer, to boot. 

One thing that helps is remembering that line about uncertainty. It's going to be a roller coaster. If I can't even get a sandwich down in 90 minutes, I really have no control over the students' lives, either. I have no idea what will walk through the door. Might as well get on board and just enjoy the ride!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Eeyore Days

I know November is supposed to be the "attitude of gratitude" month for bloggers, but I'm having a hard time getting into it today. It's kind of an Eeyore day. Today's topic is to reflect on one thing that's different today than it was a year ago, and why I'm happy about that.

But it's hard to start writing about that when I feel like this donkey.


Maybe Eliot was wrong. Maybe November is the cruelest month for writing teachers. There's definitely a somber mood out there in Language and Literature Land. I feel so behind. Some students have dropped, and many others have hit panic mode, trying out their various desperate strategies: emotional appeals, denial, threats, and more. I spent the weekend grading two stacks of papers and prepping for the projects we're starting this week, leaving the house only once to go out to dinner with the man.

If I felt on top of things that would be one thing. But I don't. I still feel so behind, like everything has spiraled out of control.

So, here's my attempt to address the prompt of the day. If I'm out of control and behind, that means I have to turn things over to the students and trust them a little more. Maybe I should just lean into this discomfort, as Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron instructs us to do: be honest and open with the students about how burnt out we all probably feel at this point, how even though we're behind and tired we need to keep going, and to trust them to take control of their projects with less guidelines from me than I'm used to providing. Maybe I can be OK with the results, however chaotic the journey is and how much confusion and uncertainty we all have to sit in.

Now that would be different from last year.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


Today's challenge: Time for pics of people or things you're grateful for!

I had to do this one. I began by taking pics of my students hard at work.

Where does the gratitude come in? They're working so diligently and collaboratively. Today, in a class that deals with literature, we were supposed to go over a pretty difficult story by Ghassan Kanafani. I was determined to be hands-off today, so I gave them the task of making a brief presentation on an aspect from the story that I assigned them. Their intended audience? A student from a nearby high school.
They took it very seriously. And, it worked! The students pooled their intellectual resources and by the time class was over, they had a sense not just what the story was "about" but ways they could investigate it further and identify some of the socio-political issues Kanafani comments on.

Sometimes it goes well. And when that happens, I am very grateful.

Now, what am I grateful for outside the classroom? 

The first image would be of our school staff, Rose, Joel, Norma, and Rachel. They are awesome. We have a fabulous dean who is very passionate about student learning. He supports the faculty as if he were a soldier in battle with us. And the support staff makes the world go 'round. I'm not posting their pics, but here is the corridor leading to the school office!

The rainbow poster is obviously in a very prominent place. I'm happy that we are a GLBT-friendly campus, and that we are working on being even more accessible than we are.

Finally, I'm grateful for any respite. Our days are so busy, and I remember to take a break every once in a while. My office resides in a square-shaped building. There are offices that line the outside of the building and face the center, where there are three chairs, a couch, a counter, and a microwave. It's so inviting, and you almost always find someone sitting in those chairs. I often eat lunch there and can chat and catch up with my coworkers. It's pretty awesome--not all of our faculty have an area like that, so I gotta remember to use it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Teach 'em a Lesson

Over the weekend I spent a few hours grading timed writes for a developmental composition class. I realized after the first few that these timed writes were really, really abysmal. "WTF?!" I shouted to the cat (who is on a diet and constantly begs for food) after an essay by one of my most thoughtful writers didn't get past her first paragraph and a half in the 90-minute exercise. 

Again and again I saw the same problem. Despite lots of time spent in class developing ideas and learning techniques for communicating ideas clearly in writing, students were not writing with a sense of purpose. Their papers, at best, were a collection of loosely-related and poorly-integrated examples that were not used in service of anything.

What was especially interesting is that many students had a traditional thesis. My lesson learned? The form doesn't mean anything if there is no purpose behind it.

This brings me to today's November blogging challenge question: What is the most important ‘lesson’ you want to teach your students?

A lot comes to mind: as a writing instructor I want students to express themselves clearly in this medium. I see now, though, that if they don't have content to convey, all the form, style, and sentence-level skills won't add up to a burp in the face of a tornado. Knowing our purpose gives us power.

The students had known their potential topic before they sat down to write. As a class we walked through example-finding. But I forgot to draw out the students' innate need to establish a purpose for writing this assignment. I think next time, I'll go at it backwards: propose some topics and let the students establish a need to investigate them further in writing. 

It'll turn out perfectly next time, right? 


Friday, November 7, 2014

Unique Contribution--November blogging challenge

“Every individual has a unique contribution,” Vipassana meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says.
This applies so beautiful to teaching, I think. I can get so caught up in the outcome I want the students to reach that I can ignore the students' varying experiences and the wealth of information they bring to the table.

Remedy: "instruct" a concept by starting with what the students already know. In trying to get the students to to a text with a character interested in Marxist ideals, I provide short definitions of bourgeois/bourgeoisie, petit bourgeois, and proletariat. I then ask students to read the definitions, talk with a partner about the definitions, and provide fun examples of where we see bourgeois thought or representations in our society today.

Students came up with some fun stuff!

  • Menus that don't have the price next to the food item
  • Lamborghini Veneno
  • Food made with liquid nitrogen
  • If you're rich you deserve the money you made ("Divine right of kings")
These are just fun examples (class warfare, anyone?) but then when we moved to looking at texts to see if the author challenges or upholds a classic capitalist outlook, the students seemed ready for the transition. 

I gotta meditate on this quote...

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What I Got out of Blogging about Teaching for 30 Days

I'm taking a time out from the November blogging challenge to think about the 30 posts I completed in September for that Reflective Teaching Blogging Challenge. It's been just over a month since then and with that distance I am in a good place to think about what I gleaned from that experience.

The word "boosting" comes to mind when I think about blogging. If I had to boil it down to just two boosts that I got from blogging, they would be inspiration and a clearer sense of purpose.

Let's start with purpose.

By nature, I love routine. It's neat-o. A nice routine can keep an anxiety-prone person like me calm. It is also good for keeping a steady pace and staying reasonably on top of things. I don't often find myself getting so wrapped up in projects or fun that I completely ignore my work and find myself up until 2:00 a.m. grading. As a result, I am, I think, a generally reliable instructor.

(This isn't to say that passionate, spontaneous people are not reliable. I know many that are. But for me, routine keeps away the scary stuff, which means I can keep up with the business of life.)

But routine has pretty obvious downsides. I don't often get bursts of inspiration to try new things in the classroom. Ideas don't rain down on me like sweet snowflakes as they seem to other people. Throughout the course of the blogging challenge, I had a chance to reflect on how I use collaboration. In thinking about it, I realized that it had become so routine to use group activities that I wasn't taking the time to refresh the content or methods used to guide those particular activities.

Recently, I pulled out one activity on integrating sources. When I dusted it off, I realized that the group activity part was really just for show. I had structured it so that the students were so guided toward a "right" answer that their agency and creativity had been taken out. But that completely refutes the purpose of  a collaborative activity, doesn't it? A major function of these activities, as I see them, is to allow the students to feel their way through the process, to make their own discoveries and their own mistakes.

Especially with something like writing, a student's intuition and instinct need to be respected. What else are they going to be guided by when they're at home writing their papers? I ain't gonna kid myself. They probably aren't going to be using my AXES paragraph development handout. The stuff we "teach" in writing, is, by and large, pretty instinctual.

And where does the motivation to revisit old, hardened routines come from? Inspiration. That is where the blogging challenge has been wonderful. I finally remembered my my Twitter account password (you can find me @arandomyolk) and regularly logged in to check out some of the folks Beth Leidolf (@bleidolf67) had promoted.

I admit that I didn't know what a PLN (professional/personal learning network) was before I started this challenge. I had no idea that K-12 instructors were already integrating technology into the class in ways that I can only begin to think about. My use of Blackboard and VoiceThread (my hybrid is in the flipped model vein) is amateur compared to those integrating open-source and free sites like GoogleHangout, Storify, etc. I'm embarrassed that it wasn't until this semester that I became aware of Carol Dweck's growth mindset/fixed mindset concept. How 2012 of me.

One of my colleagues from my department, the Bayan Professor, blogged regularly and would also come by my office frequently. Talk about PLN: he is so plugged in with cross-disciplinary education groups and sites that through him, I get a sense of "what's hot" in education today.

Bottom line: I can't emphasize enough how invigorating it is to share ideas with colleagues on a regular basis. It is so easy to get wrapped up in prepping for class, grading, and doing administrative duties. But a hike in the most beautiful rainforest in Thailand gets boring if we don't occasionally take our gaze off our feet.

Blogging: get boosted!