Michael J. Preston (reprise)

 

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2018/11/04/rdp-sunday-mentor/

***

This blog post was originally published some 3 years ago. A person only has so many mentors. I’ve had three actual living people as mentors along with various and sundry dead people. There’s a difference between mentor and hero, but the line is kind of fuzzy, especially with dead mentors.

My First Time

When I graduated from the University of Colorado in 1974 with a BA in English, I had the idea that the world had been waiting just for that moment, and all I had to do was walk into the local newspaper office — the Daily Camera — and say, “I’m here, the reporter of your dreams.”

I’d worked on college papers, been the editorial editor of one (a column in that paper got me thrown out of that school but a good journalist doesn’t retract a valid opinion, right?), had articles published in the university paper, had even had a letter published in a national magazine. I was obviously awesome.

“Can you type?” they asked me at the Daily Camera.

What did that have to do with being a reporter?

“Before we talk to you, you have to take a typing test.” The bar was low, 35 wpm, but I failed.

“Sorry, sweet cheeks,” they said and sent me packing. I think the door might have hit my butt on the way out.

But I needed a job. I was married to a student, and half our income vanished when I graduated. I got a job on the line at the Head Ski factory in Boulder. It paid $5.85/hour and we were (obviously) rolling in it.

Time passed. My husband graduated. We moved to Denver. He got a good job. I decided to go to grad school. I was lost, and I had a good project for a thesis so why not? But until school started, I was learning the meaning of “ennui.”

I responded to an ad in The Denver Post for volunteer tutors at a new program — The Adult Education Tutorial Program — that had been started by a nun and was held in an old red, sandstone church a few blocks away from my house, in the Highland Park area of Denver that was — back then — considered a semi-slum.

I’d never taught anybody anything. I had a lingering dislike for teachers and teaching was for losers, not incipient famous writers such as myself. Still, it was something to do until school started.

I walked to the church, went down the stairs, opened the door and took a deep breath. My palms were sweaty and my heart was pounding. What was I doing?

“Martha? I’m Sister Mary Augustine. Thank you so much for joining us. The program is new, but we think for some adults who want to go back to school but are afraid, tutoring just might work. Here’s some paperwork for you to fill out. Your student will be here at 10:30. Our sessions are an hour long.”

I met my student, a Hispanic man in his thirties named Ramón Hurtado. He lived all the way out in Fort Lupton, back then an agricultural community. I spoke a little Spanish and he spoke a high level of survival English. I asked him why he’d come to tutoring. He explained that his little girl was now in second grade, and she knew that when he read her bedtime stories, he wasn’t reading the words on the page. He was ashamed. “I didn’t go to school much,” he said. “I didn’t like it. I liked working with my family in the fields.” They had been migrant workers. “I could make money, too, and that was good.” He smiled. “But now I wish I went to school.”

We had to start at the alphabet.

We met twice a week and Ramón learned fast. He had that magical quality — internal motivation — and he had a sense of humor about himself. After three months, he was reading at a third-grade level, a little ahead of his daughter. I thought a good way to end our “class” would be for us to go to the library six blocks away and get him a library card. He was so excited to have a library card! He checked out two books to read to his little girl. He hadn’t told her he couldn’t read or that he was going to school. It was his secret.

When we met for our last class meeting, he was ecstatic. He’d read her both stories.

Nothing in my life had ever made me so deeply and completely happy. My experience with Ramón showed me that I was a teacher, not a newspaper reporter. When I started grad school, I was most excited about my job as a Teaching Assistant, and I continued volunteering at the Adult Education Tutorial program. It was the beginning of my career in teaching, a career that made me happy for more than thirty-five years.

Oh and now I type 100 wpm. 🙂

Once Upon a Time in a Classroom, Far, Far Away

“Panoply”  makes my teeth itch. It’s an English teacher word (not its fault; I’m not blaming it), one of those that kids learn in high school as they develop their vocabulary so they can write longer more descriptive essays. Unfortunately, as a college writing teacher, it was my job to unteach them and it wasn’t always easy. Lots of students felt betrayed. “But my high school English teacher said…” I tried to explain it as the way a giant amorphous gaseous unfocused section of the universe could collapse into a singularity of immense gravity and power, smaller and more intense.

“Panoply” goes along with “plethora.” Back in the day, when I saw either of these words little worms crawled under the skin on my arm. I knew what was ahead of me.

So who were these kids? Mostly they were kids who thought using big words (that they never heard in real life) would impress their teacher. In their mind, “English teachers like these words. If I use these words, she will like me and I will get a better grade.” That smarmy, unctuous little creature didn’t get it.

“Why didn’t I get an A? I always got A’s on my English papers in high school.”

“Well, Lamont, you didn’t follow directions. This isn’t supposed to be an argumentative essay. It’s supposed to be an observation of a place in nature. I gave you a handout. All you had to do was fill it in as you looked around.”

“You never said that.”

“OK, that’s not a conversation I’m having, Lamont. If you look at this panoply of papers here, done by your classmates, you’ll see that everyone did the assignment except you. You tell me what that means, ‘K?”

“‘Panoply‘?”

“Lamont, you want a chance to do this assignment right? You don’t deserve it, but I’ll give it to you.” I didn’t say, “Because I’m the all-powerful deity in charge of this room for one hour three times a week and from my high promontory, I can make all things new again.” It was a PR stunt. A kid like this didn’t deserve a second chance, but if I gave it to him, it would speak well of me. It might (often did) turn into a teaching opportunity for a skill more important than writing. He might learn that his homework is for HIM not for ME.

“Really?”

“Yeah, really. I know you know what the assignment is. It’s on the syllabus, it’s on the handout I gave you.”

“Uh, I never got the handout.”

“How’d that happen?”

“Uh, I wasn’t here.”

“Awright. Here you go. Bring your paper Monday. You’ll lose a few points, but if you don’t do this project, a lot of the stuff in class won’t make sense, OK?”

“Thanks, professor.”

I had an immense panoply of these kids. An entire plethora.

 

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2018/09/23/rdp-for-sunday-panoply/

Archeological Insight: Who WAS that Teacher?

In the drama over the demise of the WordPress Daily Prompt, I went to my old Blogger sites to see about maybe you know, switching back? I haven’t looked at those sites for years. Among them are two I developed for my classes. One of them from WAY back before I evolved and changed, way back in 2011.

At the time, I was teaching five sections of basic business communication at San Diego State and several different composition classes at a couple of community colleges. The composition classes were online, hybrid and in the classroom. Being an adjunct teacher is a lot like being the cowboy who’s told to “dance” just before the other cowboy starts shooting at his feet. You have to be ready to do any and everything at the last minute. I taught online classes for as long as there have been online classes because — unlike many English teachers — I’ve always been interested in and comfortable with computers.

Many students signed up for those classes because they didn’t want to go to school or they thought it was an easy way out. It didn’t occur to them that an online class was basically “all writing, all the time.” After a few years, I understood this well and the very first page of a very detailed (cover-your-ass-so-we-don’t-get-sued-by-little-Johnny’s-helicopter-parents) syllabus was actually MEANT to discourage people from signing up. The goal was to help those who DID take the class succeed and to direct students who would not succeed into classes where they would have a better chance. More than traditional classes, online classes depend on reading and writing fluency. There’s no one to talk things over with.

This is a very important class for building a foundation for good writing and thinking skills that you will need throughout the rest of your education and in your life. Writing is a skill everyone uses in EVERY field of work. You will need to be a good writer regardless of your major or planned career.

In any online class, you bear a large part of the responsibility for your OWN learning. This is NOT the best choice if you’re a student who hates English, who hasn’t done well in English classes in the past, and is a second-language learner without native speaker proficiency.  

 Q: Why do most students take online or hybrid classes?
A: Convenience! Most students who choose distance learning choose it because they feel that they can work on their own when it’s convenient for them. Great, huh?
Fact: Online/hybrid classes require MORE self-motivation than traditional, face-to-face classes. They require excellent time management skills and the ability to work without a teacher pushing or praising you. Students need to be very self-motivated and organized to do well in an online class. 
It will be up to you to review lectures, take quizzes, post homework, participate in the discussion forum. You will find lectures online, information about writing online, grammar and reading comprehension exercises online and you are responsible for doing them just as you would be in a 16/17 week traditional class meeting in a classroom with the teacher standing over you waiting for you to hand in your homework. 
Important Things to Think About Before Taking this Class:
  • If you are NOT self-motivated and willing to work very hard for the length of this class learning to write, somewhat on your own, drop this class ASAP.
  • If you “work well under pressure” (meaning you are a person who procrastinates) drop this class NOW.
  • If you think that an online writing class is a good way to “get it over with” an online class is not your best choice. Online classes involve a major time commitment and unless you are organized, motivated and focused, it is very easy to fall behind.
  • Your homework will be posted online where your classmates can read it. If you are uncomfortable letting others read your writing or taking and receiving constructive criticism from your professor and your classmates that others will read, drop this class NOW.

If you are uncomfortable using computers, but you still want to take an online class, take an introductory course to computers FIRST. Your experience will be MUCH better in an online class if you don’t have to learn to use computers too.

If you are not sure about your ability to handle an online class, here are two surveys you can take to assess your aptitude in this area. Answer HONESTLY. It’s for your own benefit to know yourself well and to get the most from a class.

For those mature and motivated enough, the online writing class was usually a good choice and they learned a lot.  Once the mechanical agonies were over, things got good. Reading this made me happy this morning.

How to Comment on the Work of Your Classmates

When you comment on your classmates’ work, open their thread, read what they have written, then press the Reply button. That is the space in which you can comment.

Please write something more than, “I thought it was great.” The hard thing for writers is to know how their writing comes across to other people. To get credit for commenting (worth 1/2 grade point to you) really TELL your classmate what you read. Tell them when something makes sense (and tell them what it is) and tell them when something doesn’t. Comments like, “Great job!” aren’t very helpful when your teacher comes along later and writes more suggestions for correcting your homework than you wrote for your homework. Remember: writing concrete and useful comments to your classmates about their work will help your grade just as reading their comments and applying useful suggestions to your own writing will help your grade.

Things to look for:

  • Small grammar problems (sentence fragments, spelling)
  • Something beautiful
  • Something confusing
  • Places where your classmate’s work doesn’t make sense
  • Places where your classmate’s work makes GREAT sense

Give examples in your comment so your classmate can get concrete help and encouragement from you. Ideally you will write at least 100 words.

I remembered how well this had worked out; how enthusiastically and helpfully my students usually commented on their classmate’s work. I thought of the online classes I taught that turned into communities of writers.

I cared SO MUCH about this in 2011, more than did my students, certainly more than did my bosses who just wanted a competent warm body to plug into a slot on the schedule.

That’s the thing about education. It’s predicated on the dedication of teachers. As school shooting is followed by school shooting I wonder that teachers even go to school, but there they go, trucking off with the white board markers they bought themselves, their lesson plans, their iPads, their laptops, their dreams for their students. There they are, staying up until the wee hours, worried about the kid who seems to be suffering from some secret trouble that’s affecting his/her work. There they are, staying late to help a kid understand a story, polynomial equations, the thesis statement. There they are, sitting in the bleachers, sun in their eye, perspiration running down their back in the rented regalia showing the colors of their university, during an interminable graduation ceremony because a student asked them to give him/her his/her diploma. Who does that? What other career “demands” that?

Yesterday I took my walk and on my way home, saw my neighbor outside and stopped to talk. As we were talking, my OTHER neighbor from across the street came running over with rhubarb cake for me. ❤ We were instantly in an animated and funny conversation about being pulled over for making a rolling stop and then arguing with the cop. At one point I said to my neighbor (a retired teacher) “We have that teacher look, E. We kind of scare people.”

We had to laugh. But I’ve seen her when the kids and young teachers walk by on their way to the park. Her face lights up, “School kids! Young teachers!” and she has to say hi to all of them that she knows. And that enthusiasm is really the jist of it. I wanted my students to succeed; I honestly and sincerely cared very much about that even if it meant starting the semester with a tough-love message telling them to drop my class.

http://cactushaiku.com/2018/06/02/ragtag-daily-prompt-rdp-2-insight/

If you’re interested in participating:

Saturday: Mary, Cactus Haiku
Sunday: Patty, Lovenlosses
Monday:  Sgeoil
Tuesday: Lorna, Gin and Lemonade
Wednesday: Curious Cat
Thursday: Tracy, Reflections of an Untidy Mind
Friday: Steph, Curious Steph

“Authentic?”

Back in the day when I was a teacher, I was often called “authentic” or “real.” People said, “You’re yourself, even in the classroom!”

I found this very odd. Who else would I be? ESPECIALLY in the classroom. It was one of the many mysteries of my career that fell under the heading, “What do other teachers do?”

I have no idea. When anyone said it to me, I wondered if other teachers put on a “teacher suit” and walked into their classes every day. For that matter, anyone at any job is not 100% themselves. We all play roles at work. Here’s me teaching:

Walk into the classroom — probably early. Sit down and assemble tools for the hour or however long the class is. Get the file of this class’ work out of your bag, gather handouts if appropriate, load the slide show if there is one, answer questions from the ones who’ve learned if they get there early they get time with the teacher. Joke around with students. Class fills. Look at the clock. At the appointed hour (or a couple minutes after, depending) assuming a (usually sincerely) friendly smile, look around the room. In my eyes is a SECOND message, “We’re starting now,” and the show began.

It was a performance. Always. I haven’t done any of it ONCE since I retired.

But, there were surprises, too. Maybe my “authenticity” emerged in THOSE moments like the time a student I liked, who liked me, said, “Fuck you!” He was angry and he meant it.

How did I “authentically” handle that? “You might want to leave now,” is what I said to him, quietly knowing that the other students’ eyes were on me. What I authentically meant was, “Get out of here before I call security.”

Of course, the kid had to come BACK to class. I knew the moment would come but not when or how. Sure enough, several days later the kid was waiting for me in the hall outside the classroom.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was…”

“I know. That kind of thing just hurts you. You have to learn to keep your shit together. Come back to class.”

Was that authentic? Yes and no. I happened because of the contract I had signed with the university that carried with it the implication of a contract between me and my students. And that contract carried the notion that “You’re going to be interacting with 19 year olds. There’s no way to accurately assess their mental states at any given moment. Wear a psychic flak jacket when you go in there, and carry vases for the roses you’ll receive.”

What was authentic? I believed in what I was teaching. That was 100% real. I liked my students. I enjoyed the classroom. All of that, authentic. Maybe that was “different,” but I’ll never know.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/authentic/

Going Along

It’s taken a long time, but I’ve finally realized people don’t always see things the way I do.   😀 When I was growing up, that was already true at home. “Your feelings don’t matter,” my mom said more than once, right out there, a clear message. At school I got a different message, which was that my ideas mattered. I entered the world with the understanding, “Feelings? Useless. Ideas? Good.”

That isn’t true. Feelings are not useless and the world has been — generally — no more interested in my ideas than my mom was in my feelings. It’s kind of a surprise when, somewhere in adulthood, later in adulthood, usually, I think, but I could be wrong, we realize that we’re not all that important in the grand scheme. We’re actually pretty invisible.

To advance our ideas we have to express them, support them, often fight for them and, if we fight, it is often against something a lot more powerful than we will ever be. It’s often against the invisible force known as the zeitgeist. If we’re not (as my brother would say) “on the public pulse” our chances are not great. If Hillary Clinton (whom I did not like but believed would be a better president than His Orangeness) had listened to me, she might have won. What did I tell her? Oh, stuff like, “It’s not about being the first woman president, sweet cheeks. It might be to YOU; it isn’t to US. In the immortal words of Jello Biafra, ‘We have a bigger problem now’.” But she didn’t hear me and probably never heard of the Dead Kennedys or of Jello Biafra and, for all I know, thinks punk rock is a bunch of skin heads…

It isn’t just Hillary. Through my whole life, I have been relentlessly off the mark. Here’s an example. During the 20+ years I was teaching writing at community colleges, many theories about the teaching and learning of writing were gaining traction. In the last decade, one was a particularly formulaic five paragraph essay taught in basic writing classes. It was not the five paragraph essay as I’d learned it in high school, but something far more rote. Begin the essay with a quotation to get the reader’s attention; cover some basic information in 3 sentences following the attention grabber (which you purloin from BrainyQuotes); write your thesis statement.

Students who learned this, universally believed that, to find a thesis statement, all you had to do was look at the last sentence in the first pagagraph. Wrong.

Since I taught writing at a slightly higher level than this five paragraph essay (next class and at the university), I got to read a lot of these. They were horrible, especially when the writer was writing about something he or she had read and could actually glean a relevant quote from their reading. OK, well, it was a start, but I didn’t think it was the best start because there’s more to writing than that formula. I also knew that — at the university level — this patent structure was scorned.

Time marched on and a job opened up at a community college. I got an interview. Part of the interview was my boss pretending to be a student coming to me for help revising the paper. I did my best. Told her to find a relevant quotation from her reading rather than Googling “quotes about XYZ”. I suggested some other things that were absolutely counter to the formula.

The next part of the interview was a teaching demo. I had a PowerPoint (because most of my colleagues were still struggling with it and it was a requirement of the job to have that kind of techxpertise). The topic of the lecture was supposed to be “the four sentence types.” I did my lecture and that was the end of the interview.

I had no idea that I had stepped firmly on the feet — not just the toes —  of many of the people on the committee.

Turned out it was my BOSS who had come up with the formula for THAT particular formulaic five paragraph essay, something that had been discussed in numerous conferences over a period of a few years. She was the one who came up with the idea that students could Google salient quotations to hook the reader. She’d contributed to a textbook and so on and so forth. The four sentence types? Well, in that world it was far more important that students memorize the four sentence types and how to construct them than it is that they learn to use language to say something.

Form over substance. That’s how I saw it. I didn’t get the job. Obviously. BUT they continued to give me as many classes as they could every semester because what I did in the classroom worked.

Was I right? Were THEY right? I’d say both, but IF you’re not going with the tide, you are against the tide or carried along in spite of yourself. I was carried along and grateful to be because I needed to earn a living, but when the water level dropped, I was left on the bank.

Thank God.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/invisible/

Honking My Own Horn

For the first few months after I left teaching, my brain was busy trying to make sense out of a 30+ year career that had ended. I wrote about it (big surprise), a small text dump of philosophy and experiences. A blog reader here on WP suggested I post on Medium. I found myself part of a “magazine” — The Synapse — dedicated to teaching.

One of my pieces, “Student Centered vs. Teacher Center Learning” has been read by thousands of people, mostly young teachers. They’re highlighting passages, clapping for the content, following me. It makes me so so happy to have said something useful — after all — and helpful, for the ones just walking into the classroom now as teachers.

Another thing that’s happened related to teaching since I left, the Youtube videos I posted for my students (and never took down) are helping students today. Once in a while I get a comment thanking me. “That was the clearest explanation of the thesis statement ever. Thank you Mrs. Kennedy.”

I don’t think of myself as a teacher any more. I’ve also realized it was a way to make a living and I enjoyed it, mostly. It was NOT the grand “vocation” I often believed it to be back in the day. It seems to have been a long, long time ago that I was teaching, though it was only 3 years. But when I learn that something I’ve written has helped a young teacher or a kid in an English class, I feel warm inside.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/honk/

To Teachers on the First Full Day of School

Watching the news and stuff… I see all these young people in Anti-fa outfits, old people marching with signs that hearken back to the last time they carried signs, I see a post on FB by a kid who doesn’t know what happened in the 60s re: race and thinks that the counter-protestors are no better than the White Supremacists. I try to explain history to him, and, to his credit, he Googles Birmingham and comes up with a church bombing.

It’s something. He realizes that he’s in the lurch; he has now looked into Fibber MacGee’s closet and doesn’t want to do the work. It’s a whole lot easier to say, “Violence is bad and the White Supremacists were planning a peaceful demonstration. Do you really think it’s all-right for the anti-fas to use violence? Anti-fa is fascist!”

He’s found a soapbox from which he believes someone of my generation will be cowed. But, no. I was never a “Peacenik” or whatever. I envy the Anti-fa outfit. It’s black. It’s scary. It says “Anarchy!” How to fight evil? Give it no quarter. I have learned that the hard way.

“Fascist, my child, is a particular thing,” I tell him. “Anti-fa may or may not be thugs, I do not know, but they are not fascist.” I see the whole thing sinking even lower into semantics. I end the conversation and ask my friend who this kid is.

“He’s an OK kid. Just got married. The nephew of my son’s ex. Rescued a husky last year.”

Rescued a husky? He’s OK in my book whatever his politics. Well, almost. I don’t think a Nazi husky rescuer would be OK. I’m going to have to take this on a case-by-case basis. I see that now. This kid hasn’t gone that far. And he’s curious. Curiosity means a lot. And he rescued a husky.

SO…

 

All you teachers out there, past, present and future, heading to school today, you have your work cut out for you. I’m glad it’s not me any more. I honor your effort, I respect your challenge, I love the work you do. Please help this kid out in whatever shape or form he arrives in your classroom. Our world depends on you. Seriously. I’m weeping as I write this.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry you don’t have a better salary. I’m sorry the gubmint doesn’t recognize the vital work you do. I’m sorry for acting out in 9th grade (3rd grade, 10th grade, 11th grade). And thank you for everything. ❤

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/lurch/

Viper Dip

Back in the day when I was teaching English as a Second Language at an international school in San Diego, there were many Arab students in my classes. I enjoyed teaching them because they were open, very friendly, willing to try to speak in the new language and undaunted about making mistakes. I taught writing at the intermediate level, so I got to enjoy many of these.

Because English is written in the opposite direction of Arabic, there is a particular kind of Arab dyslexia that led to some funny mistakes, usually confusing words — kitchen and chicken for example, Spinach and Spanish. Some letters — particularly the silent ones — look the same to Arab students. E and C are commonly confused. Because S can sound like C they are also confused.

My favorite one was confusing snake for snack. For example (this is a real example), “We were angry (hungry) after the movie so we went to store for snakes.”

All I had to do to help the student with this one was draw a cartoon on the back of the paper of the student buying snakes at Vons (the local supermarket). What would make a Korean girl blush in shame and anger — and never return to class — only made the Arabs laugh — and proofread.

And that, Mr. Trump, is your lesson in international relations for this Friday.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/snack/

Dr. Mueller

“Fair is for soccer,” said the Intro to Religious Studies professor. He said this every semester, maybe to every freshman class he taught. There are things that must be said to university freshmen, and that’s one of them. “Don’t expect ‘fairness’ out of life.”

“Yeah, but…” sputtered a long-haired blonde girl in the front row.

“There’s no ‘yeah, but.’ It’s how it is. Fairness is something humans have made up. It’s why we have laws.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” said a kid in the third row from the left, toward the back.

“It doesn’t? Why not?” asked the Prof.

“Justice comes from God.”

“Does it? Tell that to the mother of the baby born dead. Tell that to the family whose husband/father is killed by a drunk driver. There are plenty of people who believe God ‘did’ that to punish those people. Is that what you mean but ‘justice comes from God’?”

“Well, the 10 Commandments.”

“Law. Those are laws.”

“But they came from God.”

“They came from someone who didn’t want to give his name.” The professor smiled. This is how it went every semester. “Anyway, law is our attempt to create fairness in an unfair world where some people are just plain luckier than others.”

“I don’t believe in luck.”

“You don’t think you’re lucky to have a chance to study at a university while that mentally retarded guy two doors down from you is lucky to tie his own shoes? You don’t think that’s luck?”

“I didn’t think of that.”

“Maybe human ethics means we’re able to equalize the unfair portions of luck just a little bit. Let’s say you discover, through your time here at the university, that you want to do research on the human brain or you want to be a social worker or teach special ed. Any one of those things could change the life of that mentally retarded guy two doors down for the better. Your luck could improve someone else’s. That is higher justice. See what I’m saying?”

“There’s no law that says I have to help that guy, Professor.”

“No, there’s no law. Laws are for the lowest common denominator of human behavior. The laws forbid you from hurting him and tell you that you’ll be punished if you do. There is no law that says you must help him. There can’t be.”

“Why not?”

“That’s a question I want you to answer in your journals for Monday. I look forward to finding them in my office by 9 am.”

***

P.S. Dr. Mueller is/was a real professor. His lectures were so well delivered, so animated and engaging, that I used to sit in on them. Lecturing was not my strong point as a teacher, but it was a necessary evil especially in the beginning of a semester. I saw this dialogue play out three or four times and it always amazed me.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/portion/