writing for fun Feed

Professional Development: How Bard's Institute for Writing and Thinking is Helping Me on Day One

It is impossible for me to quantify the many various ways that Bard College IWT has helped me become a more effective teacher. In the past, I participated in three week-long summer workshops on their campus that guided my pedagogy and introduced me to a bevy of other teachers from around the world that shared their own best practices and innovations. Today we did several activities that will inform my future teaching, including a loop writing activity that I must admit that I have neglected to incorporate into my own classroom. 

The theme for this workshop is "margins" and "centers," a confusing concept for someone that might not teach. But for me this poses a true reality as I think about what exists in the margins of my classroom and what exists in the center. I decided to share, verbatim, a couple of excerpts from my loop writing from today because I want you to possibly use this technique to improve your own classroom or workspace.

My teacher asked us to write about what is in the center of our classroom. 

The students are at the center of my classroom because, of course, I am a student-centered teacher. I want every student in my class to feel valued and appreciated so that they can have enough self-esteem and confidence to forge ahead and become happy, productive members of society. The goal, in my case, is to make my students be able to yield power in nonviolent ways by using the pen instead of the sword. I think humanity is tired of the sword.

One of our team members attending from Israel had an interesting response to this question. He wrote that the text is the center of our classroom, the reason we meet at all. I think we both gave pretty good answers. A class needs cohesion, so this emphasis on fragmentation, lit circles if you will, interferes with advanced interpretation and significantly reduces the possibilities of creating a valuable community in a challenging environment. A shared text brings the class together.

My teacher asked us to write about what is on the margins of our classrooms.

I am on the margin of my classroom because this is my students' high school experience. Even though I advocate for them whenever possible, I want them to solve their own problems and be active learners. That can't happen if I don't step into the margins. I don't want my students constantly looking to me for the answers. I want them to take my guidance and then create their own compositions based on what they believe to be true about the text, or I want them to be able to use style and voice to explain what they like or dislike about the text. I want argumentation and persuasion, and that takes confidence.

We did several more loops today, and then we used a metacognitive strategy to analyze what we had written. 

The loops gave me a way to visualize the interplay between myself, the students, and the materials presented. This activity also enabled me to visualize strategies used by my workshop colleagues as we shared our writings. The loops served to fine tune my planning--helped me access those murky spaces in my pedagogy.

We analyzed a visual. I am sad to admit that this has always been an area that I ignore or only briefly examine. My teacher used a photo that had meaning to me personally. Of course, my teacher doesn't know me, so he couldn't have known that this visual would lead me into some interesting ideas...in short, this activity is going to help my students on their exams. This activity is going to help my students with inference, symbolism, and interpretation. 

The pandemic created a climate of confusion and distraction for almost everyone. Thanks to Bard, I am finally breaking out of my cycle of confusion and distraction that haunts me continuously and rediscovering my ability to get in the zone and write. 

SteinbeckQuote


When White Privilege Meets the Dog Walk: Can the Neighborhood Karen be Dangerous?

The old saying that you can “lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” stands true in my life. From students to relatives, to coworkers and friends, chronically dealing with people that prefer to overlook the obvious can be an exhausting and fruitless task, one I don’t enjoy. It seems like I’m constantly having to explain myself or point things out. Misapplied preconceptions attached to outlandish gossip and silly conniving produces a ton of inconveniences and little messes that I’m always running around trying to fix.

For instance, last night I was out walking the dogs in my community when someone stepped outside of their house to confront me. My earbuds blasted Pantera, and I didn’t feel like talking; therefore, I ignored the screaming, flagellating woman on her door stoop. She kept waving her hands at me, like she wanted me to come over to her—“Come here! I want to ask you something! I need to talk to you!” Believe me, that’s not something I’m stupid enough to do. The fact that this craziness was audible over my music made it weird in the extreme. Why, you might ask, wouldn’t I go over and try to find out what provoked this bedraggled looking woman into such a tizzy. 

Well, I already know the deal with my neighbor. She suffers from “I’m-a-mediocre-over-privileged-white-woman-suffering-from-pettiness-syndrome.” I’m white too, and I’m still trying to understand this illness. But from what I understand, pettiness syndrome is a form of nit-picking that infects the Karen-type woman (or man) who typically never experiences any substantial material hardship (unless it's self inflicted). In over-privileged white men the syndrome usually exhibits itself as straight up hypocrisy and narrow mindedness, combined with hate and an unwillingness to ever forgive anyone. You see, I live in a tiny gated neighborhood, and in order to get enough steps in to make our exercise worth it, we have to walk around again and again and again. We literally walk around in circles in order to get our exercise and stay inside the gate. The only other option on a hot summer night is to go out into the hike and bike trail, and, ironically, for safety reasons, it is closed after dark. 

The woman in question has a Ring camera installed and when me and the dogs make our circle, we activate her camera. She complains. She hates seeing me on her camera almost as much as she hates seeing me at the HOA board meetings. She, in all her modes of social and physical fatigue, can’t figure out why I’m walking around and around, nearly every night, in my own neighborhood. All that petty hand-wringing and complaining actually enhances my workout and causes me to enjoy the ritual even more. I think it’s fun. But even though it’s fun, my Karen neighbors are not without threat, nor are they harmless. One of them actually walked out nattering at me, and when I continued to walk away after telling her to leave us alone, she called the police and tried to make a false report. This woman sports a huge Trump 2020 flag in her garage, telling me everything I need to know about her level of intelligence and willingness to indulge in immorality and disregard obvious facts.

My dogs, like almost any other dog in the universe, can sense when the energy is off. This imbalance, this negativity so near to their own home, heightens their awareness and feelings of paranoia. No more than twenty pounds each, they still pack a ferocious bark when approached, especially if they think a threat towards me is in the making. Lunging on the leash and growling, snarling and acting silly, the whole display is comical in its absurdity. But even their ridiculous behavior is no match for the community Karens in the coveted arenas of comedy and absurdity. 

In the end, never give up on your relatives or friends, neighbors or coworkers, that are suffering from pettiness syndrome due to privilege or hateful politics. They may cut you off and act like they hate you for some silly thing that you could easily fix one day, and they may do awful things to you that make you want to cry and lash out, but just practice patience and tolerance. One of these days, after he or she has had sufficient time to reflect, your own Karen will have an eye opening epiphany. Until then, keep walking.

Westiesonleash


Alone Like Usual: My Post-Quarantine Social Struggle

 

Maybe I shouldn’t try to equate my experience with that of the willfully isolated philosopher and writer, Henry David Thoreau, but lately I’ve been subjected to a person of similar qualities. As most Americans know, Thoreau spent most of his life roaming around the countryside writing and thinking. During his lifetime, his writing and thinking rituals interfered with his ability to support himself, so he depended on Ralph Waldo Emerson for not only friendship, but also for room and board. Emerson, a true intellectual in every regard, never held any moral influence over Thoreau. Emerson undoubtedly truly loved his friend, and that’s why we can all read Walden and learn something about Transcendentalism. Of course, my imaginary friend—I’m told all friends are ultimately imaginary—will always be an unnamed volunteer social outcast that could potentially become a meaningful member of society but prefers to sit atop a throne on a weedy hill and reflect angrily on all of humanity, except, for some remarkable and illogical reason, one insular and regressive geographical location consistently receives his high praise and adulation. 

As I engaged with my friend, I took an opportunity to reflect upon my own bend toward Thoreauness, and I realized that my propensity for exclusivity paralleled in some strange and mysterious ways. I, too, matching breath for breath, handily critiqued society in all its foibles and abuses, and I denounced particular power structures that all Americans must share: the networks of healthcare; the lack of public services during a crisis; and the predictability of bland and unintelligent politicians. To say that we have much in common is a severe understatement of the highest order. Together, we enjoyed lively conversations about our shared experiences, our phrases and clauses mingling together in old and familiar ways like experienced lovers tangled in the sheets during a fearless night of physical and habitual lust. But that is where the commonalities and the habits abruptly came to a pronounced and ultimately bitter end.

The quarantine is over, and apparently, so am I. The truth blitzed its way into my consciousness on a warm sunny afternoon several weeks ago when my friend cut me off due to an in depth conversation with some “people” residing in this pristine, and perfect, geographical location. Curious about how such an isolationist can become transformed by a disembodied voice over 1400 miles away, a basically useless—dead-pan—voice that does nothing except squint into the stars and argue ridiculous ideas contorting them into ridiculous positions, I decided the whole significant adventure would entail a sad, dismal, and rain-infused, conclusion. The renewed relationship, in all its strength and glory, with flags waving and amber grain growing, in the end became prolonged and unhealthy, whimpering its way into a premature death. Now we can all mourn the loss of its beauty and amazing potential, the manuscript incomplete, the novel left unpublished. 

This heartbreaking disaster, cruel and unjust, reminds me of something from Walden. In a discussion about “coats and breeches” Thoreau writes, “I have heard of a dog that barked at every stranger who approached his master’s premises with clothes on, but was easily quieted by a naked thief” (Economy 21). My friend, as you probably surmised, is a definite dog, leery of everything clothed in honesty but easily subjugated by the “naked thief.” All of this is extremely alarming because I know what fueled my outreach, and as much as I would like to have looked away from the disaster en route, I couldn’t. In the end, a quality life with truth and justice is dependent on our willingness to nurture each other with compassion and understanding. Naked thieves are not transcendental, nor do they share Emerson’s values and tolerance. Eventually, just as the nakedness suggests, the motives become obvious to everyone except the dog.

Loneliness


On this Last Day of Love Month, A Cat Story

I can't do my own writing anymore, especially after the angst and misery of Valentine's Day, and the month of love: the month of crazy, wild weather; the month of a near total Texas electricity blackout; the month of a broken service pipe; the month of extreme Covid swings; and another month of grief over the death of not one, but two, little, precious pets. 

On this weird night, on the eve of Women's History Month, I am thinking about writing an article that features an important female in the world of rhetoric, like Ida B. Wells, an African American writer, or maybe Christine de Pisan from the Medieval era. Women in the rhetorical tradition typically receive some pretty outdated criticisms, so I'd like to offset that with some strong opinions of my own.

How do women balance all of these silly expectations about communication? What's wrong with writing aggressively? Should I write like a girl so that men won't be offended? Should I defer to the male voice? Is civil discourse really that important, or is that just another term for oversensitivity? I was told recently that I talked too loud, but my response was that I thought I couldn't be heard. 

Is that what men think we are doing when we write an aggressive text? Do they think we are trying to yell? Is that what the good conservative woman thinks? 

Anyway, the cat story submitted by my writer friend contains a message about gratitude. I am grateful that my voice continues to matter to my readers and friends, even though I am an outdoor cat. I am grateful for all of you. I'm thankful that you don't find me too loud for trying to get your attention. I am hoping you will continue to support me through these weird times. 🌹

IthinkSiameseCat

To train the cat or be trained by the cat that is the question.... Whether it is better to take a shoe to the Siamese or squirt him with the water bottle, after his sixth attempt to get one up at 5:00 in the morning, when he has been howling at one's bedside since three, or just to give up and open a can of cat food and stagger off and wait for the alarm to go off in just a few minutes, or throw his hairy little bohuncas into the garage, where it is freezing cold but there are mice....? These run on sentences frame the eternal questions of cat owners, who've been struggling with their cat masters, since the Egyptians made the mistake of first letting the cat gods into their hearts and granaries, in order to kill the rodents eating the grain.....

If I am sleep deprived, do I not get cranky? If I am tortured, do I not break? Even now, that Siamese is stalking me, complaining that the canned cat food doesn't meet up with his expectations for good service.... If I am harassed, will I not fight back; or will I just give up, give in, and buy the cat some tastier brand.....?

The outside cat thinks the canned cat food is damned tasty! He just ate it up in one gulp.

I give up.....

Just who is running this household?


Pandemic Diversions: The Crazy Cat Lady Wins Again

Dear Readers, 

In this installment of my favorite cat lady tails, night animals collaborate to keep a human awake in the deep of the night. Something similar to the following story happened to me the night before last when I mistakenly left the doggie door open all night, and Bill ventured out and was unable to hoist his fat self back into the house. I stumbled out of bed and down the stairs to open the door for him because he was barking his head off, and then I tossed in bed all night thinking about my various lives: the struggling new personal life that means more to me than anything; the struggling work life that is causing me to experience different layers of burnout; the struggling financial life that whirls around the credit universe in a long series of minus signs; and, of course, the never-ending parental worries about my struggling musical artist that lives in a sort of artist camp with a bunch of other artist types. 

And of course, all of us are worried about Covid disease; I know we need to divert from this horror and weirdness as much as possible. The stories that independent writers produce are valuable in this regard because they provide moments of peace by temporarily moving us into a different realm free of disease and chaos while we safely wait out a viable solution for our return to normal life. Anyone currently suffering from Covid disease has our sympathy. I would like to introduce another such story from my favorite indie writer.

This story won a flash fiction prize, and, no, it is not mine.

Stranger in the Night

Leaving my parliament of night owls on their own recognizance—for some reason, a group of owls is not called a “congress”, but that is another story-- I hit the bed early, hoping to catch up on some much-needed rest. I toss. I turn. All goes blank. I must have fallen asleep because out of the blissful quiet, in the middle of the peaceful night, a teeny-tiny voice at the foot of my bed politely asks:

“Mew-myeow?”

“Go away,” I command. Refusing to obey the Siamese Tom, who clearly has a job for me to do, I settle back down to more peaceful slumbering. All is silent--even my inner monologue has fallen still, until:

“Mew-MEOW??”

“Go away. I am asleep!” I say, raising the amplitude of my voice to equal the insistence of his cattery demands.

This cat must be the reincarnation of the hideous, Dr. Mengele, who is obviously alive and well and conducting sleep deprivation experiments on me. I muse before I lapse into waiting for Cat- Mengele to rouse me again. His extreme patience pays off. Just after my breathing becomes regular and deep and I am nodding off, I hear:

“MEW-MEOW???”

This time the caterwauling falls right into my ear. Are those notes” D” followed by “F” in the key of C? Even if it is the middle of the night, I would know if I had perfect pitch! I may be a music lover but I have had enough.

“Get! Get! Get the hell out of here!” I roar, jumping out of the bed and chasing Siamese-Mengele out the bedroom door. Bam, the door slams. No need to fear waking the hoot owls, they never ever sleep.

I return to my bed and sweet repose until a laughing child’s voice inquires, “Are you okay?” “He was yodeling in my ear.”
“Dad says you were impressive!”
“You mean you could hear me?”

“We all heard you.”

Suddenly, I realize that my throat hurts. I yelled at the cat one full octave below my normal speaking voice. Damned cat! Now, I have throat nodules! My conscious collapses into a tiny purple painful asterick in the center of my skull, where it pounds relentlessly until I can no

longer lie still.

I glance at the alarm clock. The time is 2:30 A.M. I rise to find the hoot owls congregating over a bowl of salty snacks, dried mangoes, and assorted nuts. I guess, the cat was howling mad because he didn’t get his share!

“Where is Siamese-Mengele?” I inquire of the youngest owl. “Hiding under the table with PTSD,” the eldest owl growls.

I join the snacking parliament then return to bed. Suddenly, from next door comes the anguished howls of the abandoned Pit Bull, Ruger, who must have starred in Norman’s production of “Hounds of The Baskervilles”. Oh God, I whine. It has started again!

AdobeStock_241994199


Tails of Kindness and Love: Pandemic Writings from the Heart

My guest author sent me this bit of flash fiction below, and it made me start thinking more metaphorically. I wondered if in my desperation for love and guidance during this difficult time (as you know we must support our teachers, writers, artists, and musicians because they are dying off in a multitude of different ways thanks to the pandemic), if I wasn't inadvertently standing on someone's tale or tail. Maybe I am standing on them both, but I'm doing it out of a sense of love and amazement. I'm grateful to discover that God and the Angels are on my side, that they would send me a warning message that would move me into a courageous mindset that is now making these positive changes a reality rather than a dream. After thousands upon thousands of nights under a grieving starlit sky, I am finally recovering. 

Never mind me though, my wonderful guest author is always a joy to read. I write cringe worthy stuff, but she blends fantasy with reality in a unique and positive way; her writings are rather cryptic, inviting the reader to decode the message. I really believe young adult fiction is her genre, and that her stories could teach growing readers to see behind the curtain. 

Flash Fiction from Oklahoma

Earlier this morning, Hobo, the rescued cat, was outside growling. I grabbed my spray bottle and ran to his aid. Except, I couldn't get out of the door because my husband and Prince YOU-YOU were already there trying to see Hobo's opponent. Lee opened the door and Hobo ran inside. I was still trying to get outside but my way was blocked. So I started talking to Hobo, asking what did he see? And was he okay? Hobo is a talky cat. However, he answered all of my questions with an ever increasing desperation in his voice. I thought he was telling me all about what had scared him. I was standing on his tail. Poor gentle-cat!

FatPat


The Truth of it All: Skate Carefully!

The pandemic and one crazy dream full of screaming and desperation threw the hollow fruitlessness of my life back in my dumb face. For example, I assumed that someone that I missed and loved was far away living happily in some wooded, cool area with a lot ferns and drizzle, and possibly some kids around. As it turns out, I was wrong. I'm almost always wrong about people, and the while the truth is ironic beyond belief, it is just the kind of twist that I deserve. Right this moment I'm paying a stiff price for my complacency and inability to face reality. I'm forced to think about the person I was as well as think about the person I've become. Honestly, I don't like either one of them very much.

I also made the crucial mistake of asking my son to rebuild my old roller skates while I waited for the new ones to arrive on back order. Never ask someone that rides a skate board to rebuild your roller skates because the concept of drag and traction isn't in the skate boarder's base of worldly knowledge. They ride hell-bent for leather with the wheels on total freedom. Skates, as you know, require a lot more control. I was determined though; you have to give me credit for that. I tried hanging on my lawn chair to get going, but the skates felt like they were parked on a patch of ice, and within less than ten feet I had done some kind of combination of splits and bum bust on the concrete at an incredibly slow and tortuous pace.

Honestly, I couldn't even get back up on my feet without taking the skates off because I literally had wheels spinning the hell out of control. Lucky for me, I don't think my neighbor taped the whole incident, at least I hope not. If he did, I hope he leaves out the part where I am trying desperately to perch on the tips of my toe stops so I can limp, scoot, or crawl back to my lawn chair.

Anyway, my life is a combination of "I am sorry" and if there is a way "I have to fix all of this"! I'm also living with a ton of back, neck, and butt pain right now, along with a vicious case of writer's block.

Roller skate


Thinking about Covid: Trucking versus Teaching

Creeps and pervs all over the place, and like I should expect something different considering the times. The chimes on my patio quiver with each circulation of my neighbor's air conditioner, and I wonder if I'm safe to sit out and watch the stars, or if I'm just breathing in Covid infused, smoke-filled air. At night I create digital content for my students, and on weekends I write lesson plans that I'm required to post in little folders for each and every day and upload to my learning management system. I barely have time to grade anything, but I assigned an essay for my dual credit kids and I have 65 students. That means I have 65 long essays to grade this week on top of the digital content, the folders, the honor society stuff, and the all around tough environment now that I'm forced to go back in the building. Next week I will drive the 14 miles to that building, go through a temperature check and facial recognition system, and then hibernate in my room for eight hours with my new mini fridge and microwave and still teach my students from a computer.

Outside the sun will shine, and at home my pets will be alone. My books scattered on every wall and corner of my apartment will sit on their shelves and miss me, as I will miss them. The cameras around my place will mindfully and suspiciously catalog the goings and comings from my street, and the cameras in the school hallway will track my occasional bathroom runs down the long and empty hallway. The hallways are basically empty because most parents are keeping their kids home because of the virus, but teachers still have to report even though the Texas Education Agency is still working from home until next year. That's what happens when you have a broken government; people are put in perilous and reckless situations, while the privileged few get whatever they need to keep them safe.

Even with all the terrible, reckless, weirdness, I have to admit that I enjoyed seeing all my coworkers in person again. They all think I'm kind of a snob, or maybe too nerdy. Most of them keep their distance, which is okay with me, especially now when I think how awful it would be if I brought some germs from my neighbor's air conditioner, or from the giant hookah pipe that fires up every night two patios down. Right now, in this moment, I am healthy in every respect. My mental health is okay, and my physical health is about as good as it gets for me...I am in the normal range for me. But, right now, I want to be honest with everyone; I am afraid. I really don't want to die with Covid. Even after working on the road for almost three decades alone, and if not alone, then not in the best company, I never felt this threatened by any disease, or any human. 

I loved to drive and travel. I fell sick with a flu-like illness only once. My boss at the time drove out to get me in his pickup since I wasn't that far from the yard, and he chugged down one Marlboro after another with the windows up tight on that Texas panhandle morning. And honestly, I thought I would die. A true asshole, he was a classic. Even though he hates me now because I'm one of those "damn liberals" he seemed to care that I was sick back then. Nothing felt better than the rumble of my truck under my bare feet, but to punish me for getting sick on the road and needing time off, he gave my truck to some other person. As soon as I felt better, I was back out on the road in a bigger and badder truck working for a better boss, watching the sky make its rounds from early morning nutmeg colored glory to its shadowy, dark and blissful, creamy blackness.

Since I've been teaching, I've gotten sick with respiratory type illnesses on a regular basis. I think because schools are disease vectors, and I didn't have much immunity built up since I had spent the biggest part of my life running up and down the road alone. You would think truckers would be all diseased and sick because of the insidious nature of truck stops and road side diners, but no. The same holds true for stupidity or ignorance; most truckers are smart in an uncommon and crafty kind of way, and some are just plain well educated. After my child came and ended my perpetual aloneness, together we traveled endless miles in a parade of beautiful trucks. But, in the end, no matter what, we always end up handing our keys over to someone else. This time, I'm not ready.

999ACDF4-DE61-42F9-BC32-62BD51A9C714


Moonlight Ramble 2019: The Astros Win!

Honestly, I never expected this year's Ramble to make me so happy. Saint Arnold's Brewery didn't disappoint us by hosting everyone in their beautiful patio, and the Astros made the night more fun by winning the game against the Yankees sending our proud city to the World Series another time. The Astros played their best when our community needed it in 2017 after Harvey, and they pulled it together this year. The only downside to the Saturday night win was clogged sidewalks and city streets with game winning partiers, but I don't know how I can complain about that. 

This year I pulled Bob around in the cart and left Bill at home due to his leg surgery. Thank God I didn't try to drag both dogs this time because I swear the event managers lied about the distance. If it was only ten miles, then that was the longest ten miles I've ever pedaled. My legs felt like rubber, and the streets stretched out forever, plus I swear we had a head wind all night. It also seems like the planners finagled a track that meant we were pedaling uphill because I just felt like I was looking up a long straight incline all night.

Anyway, a long uphill slope, a dog in the trailer, a sliced banana and an outhouse, and an endless ride through Houston's most cultural neighborhoods made me a tired cyclist with a sore bum, but I'm glad I went. 

See you next year!

BicycleHalloween


Writing in High School: Why the Standards for Teachers and Students are too Low

Copied from a friend:


Right at this moment I am experiencing the frustration of trying to undo the damage and neglect that happens when teachers fail to take any composition theory courses or engage in any practicums or actual student teaching. I'm basically cleaning up after people that think that teaching English is simple and you don't need a degree for that--a crazy assumption in some education circles that speaking the language is enough and learning everything by the seat of your pants is just as effective as years of education and experience.

Currently, I'm struggling with a group of students that are a case study in the administrative philosophy that English teachers are dumb, expendable widgets. This results in a group of inhibited writers that had no idea that you could compose an expository paper without including sources, or that their instructor would have any respect for their original words, or that some of the silly grammar rules they had been taught are nonexistent, or that writing is for everyone and not just the elites.

This group of polished and polite students had previously fallen victim to a form of teaching that only scrapes on the surface of what one needs to know. They were taught that every paper must be a research paper with boring sources and whacky formatting, that any kind of arrangement and weak thesis statement will suffice.

I had one student tell me that they hadn't written any kind of an expository text since ninth-grade STAAR; I felt intensely sorry for that kid because most of the writing in the world is expository. What do people think most magazine articles, blogposts, newspaper articles, reports, and nonfiction bestsellers are? What about your history textbook and letters to friends? Not every text is a research paper or an argumentative essay even when it contains an artistic arrangement of rhetorical moves. It doesn't require us to follow a process, like a recipe, so it certainly isn't the famous "how to" essay of middle school days, even though it is rich in its own way. It explains something. It's not a story, typically not a narrative, and filled with hypothetical or actual examples. So if these students have no awareness of genre, then what in the world have they been doing in English class?

A simple four page paper that asks the student to identify a problem in society and discuss and explain how they would contribute to a solution should be easy. Using one article for inspiration should be enough. I have kids that have a poorly formatted works cited with eight or nine sources listed in varying fonts and font sizes. I have kids that have plugged in so many quotes--incorrectly--that I can't discern where one thought ends and another begins. I have students who have shrouded their own intellect in a cocoon of worthless ideas belonging to an endless array of dumpster like Google searches of unknown authorship and origin.

Time after time, I have told my students that I want to see their writing, their ideas, their solutions. What I see instead is a dropped quote placed at the end of a paragraph, just sitting there while I stare at it in fascinated horror and wonder where in the world it came from and why it isn't cited. I wonder why it is sitting there in the first place glaring back at me equally horrified when I clearly instructed my class to give me their own expository writing, their own ideas, and their own insightful, original solutions. I would much rather untangle a badly written paragraph and provide a writing conference on original work than look at dumb facts generated from a website. Crazy paragraphs are the kind of horror I can handle.

Around my classroom, I see a multitude of confused faces that ponder and argue back: 

 "I was always taught that everything that I wrote had to be backed up with sources. You mean I can write what I want? How do I just make something up? What do you mean by hypothetical? Is that a medical term?"

My students have no knowledge about genres of writing, or even what kind of writing belongs with what audience. They don't know the first thing about creating a research question, how to avoid cherry picking sources, and most of them can't even embed quoted material. I see every form of accidental plagiarism known to the human species. Think about that. How could they have ever written a successful research or argument paper even under some form of guidance? When the expectation is that the students have surpassed English IV and are ready for dual credit, then one would think that the basics have been covered. My most talented students hesitate to take a risk with anything except formatting. I have seen all kinds of weird headers, footers, works cited pages, fonts, bolds, italics in bizarre spaces, and margins several inches wide. How can this be? 

Well it would seem that at the end of the day, people in power are sitting on their hands avoiding an obvious truth: our kids are being cheated out of a meaningful English class experience. Low level work and zero accountability is an everyday good practice in a low rigor, free-for-all, no pedagogy existence. We are doing a disservice by not raising our standards for our teachers, and by not providing adequate training to our teachers. In some cases, we are just filling a seat with a warm English speaker. In some cases, this warm English speaker would best be cast as an instructional aide or even as a math teacher. We need actual English majors teaching our subject. English majors that are willing to go the extra yard and write for the love of writing. We need English majors that will share that love with their students and enroll in high quality, advanced course work. At the least, we need teachers that are willing to recognize their own gaps. And once we recognize our own gaps, it becomes easier to learn from others because we realize we must. Pretending that we have all of the answers and don't need advanced course work or quality professional development is as mythological as a unicorn wearing a Steelers jersey zooming by freeway traffic perched on a skate board. 

Not only that, the kind of composition theory that teaches teachers to become writing teachers can't be found in the snake-oil, commercial world of quick fix education articles and forums, and it is best accomplished in a college classroom beginning as an undergrad. Composition pedagogy is dense and confusing, takes practice and dedication to master, and promotes student literacy in ways that nothing else can. Books by Peter Elbow, Sondra Perl, Pat Belanoff, and Kenneth Burke, help teachers untangle the mysteries of writing well, responding to student papers, and creating workshops, journaling activities, and professional learning communities that engage everyone with appropriate grade-level materials. And that is only scratching the surface of scholarship available to the dedicated and well prepared English teacher willing to dig in and learn. If we fail to provide meaningful, professional instruction, our students will journey into the world underprepared for work and college. This failure is a problem for all of us, as it impinges on our ability to maintain a just and democratic, civil society, a purview of the English department.

Writer


Dear Readers: Professional Development in the English Community! I Know you are Mesmerized 😃📚

My long journey into education, tough and fraught with peril, has been padded by a long list of fabulous supporters and teachers. Just this summer, I finished a week long training with 29 other people facilitated by a professional that truly knew his content and cheered us all on with a tasteful sense of humor that was both dry and engaging. Believe me, being treated like a professional after a long drought is definitely refreshing because the sense of collegiality and respect had become somewhat foreign to me. Prior to the weeklong experience, I also enjoyed two other summer trainings that incorporated fun activities into a socially relaxing environment. Both of the facilitators were prepared, the materials were of quality, and the content was relevant to the questions that had been roaming around in my head. Recognizing a teacher's right to professional autonomy and choice is what every experienced coach and facilitator prioritizes. Jim Knight writes about the importance of respecting a teacher's choice of professional development opportunities in his book, Instructional Coaching, a valuable 'must read' for anyone in education, especially if you suspect that you could be better supported. Reading the book can at least either validate your suspicions, or help you take advantage of opportunities available to you even if they are limited. In other words, you can fine tune your relationship with your coach if any trust exists. 

Whenever I have problems with parents or students, I try to think back to what I learned from student teaching. I worked side by side with an experienced professional, a truly amazing, organized, and well prepared teacher. She had a ton of tips and tricks that she shared with me that made it possible for me to imagine myself at her level at some far in the future day. No matter how hard I try, or how long I slog away at this, I will never be able to match her expertise because she is just that great. She shared her classes and her students with me for 14 weeks in a spirit of positivity and inclusiveness; she never complained about me because she was graceful and patient, consistently modeling professionalism. Whenever I raised doubts about my own competence, she would point out my strengths.

After I became certified, I started to venture out into other places for professional development. The Writing and Thinking Institutes at Bard can't be matched for intense instruction. Each group consists of at least 15 participants that work in both secondary and post-secondary schools. I managed to attend 3 summers in a row. The first summer I attended I took a weeklong seminar in creative nonfiction, and I can't recommend it enough. The professor that taught this section had lived on the Hudson for most of her life. The texts that she selected centered around the local river culture, and the discussions were thought-provoking. I learned about the area and the people, the history, and how the river sustained them. To say that a Bard Institute is inspirational is to understate the value. At the end of the week, my fellow participants and I had created a lesson plan for our own creative nonfiction unit. This sparked an interest in teaching and writing creative nonfiction, and I learned how valuable it is in the classroom for making students aware of our common humanity.

By the next summer, I was feeling as if I needed more instruction assigning and responding to student papers; I signed up for a seminar at Bard titled, Teaching the Academic Paper. Because I love composition theory so much, the class was a perfect fit for me. The week just seemed to fly by, and every evening was filled with English nerd-type fun. I even met Sondra Perl, a famous writer and leading composition theorist that I had always looked up to and had always felt intensely curious about because she had developed the 12 guidelines of writing that I like to use in the classroom. Finally, the following summer, I took a Bard institute titled, Writing with Technology. All of us participants bonded closely because this class required us to share our journeys into literacy. Not only that, I was able to take a super strong and super smart English professor with me. What could be more important to an English teacher than practicing the continuous cycle of reading, writing, learning, discussing, and sharing with some of the best people in the field? I hate to sound silly, but we were tighter, tougher, and stronger than the New England Patriots when our week together concluded. 

I've been fortunate enough to attend other advanced placement trainings and tons of other one-day seminars, writing retreats, and of course, the daily grind and struggle of grad work and teaching various preps; the intensity of these high quality experiences have helped me improve my teaching. Without dutifully attending these various trainings and zoning in on my grad work, I would be not somewhat mediocre, but truly mediocre. But at the end of the day it all comes down to the people that inspire you the most. Usually the toughest teacher with seemingly unattainable requirements ends up, often after years of agony, becoming the most important person in your professional life. But at this point, I don't have time to tackle becoming that well-versed in my subject even if I was that kind of genius. But I do know that after taking trainings and trainings after trainings, that I am able to learn from the work of other people, especially if it isn't garden variety. I know that at least a few of those people that bothered to teach me do still care about me, just as us fellow participants still enjoy keeping in touch. Being able to differentiate between a quality training experience and one that is mediocre and inspired by nothing but basic low rigor and test prep is an important skill in the education world. Teachers that invest in high quality professional development, that take the time to learn their subject, sometimes have to accept the superficial even though it isn't helpful. It is at those times that I reflect on the differences between quality and low rigor and try to develop fresh ideas for student learning. Now at the beginning of a new academic year, when I once again feel like running away rather than running to, it seems appropriate to reflect on what has brought me to this point.

Blythewood Manor Italian Garden Bard College