Monthly Archives: January 2014

I blame Wallace Stevens.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate Wallace Stevens.  On an intellectual level, I do.  And I actually like “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  But wow.  Tired of winter, tired of cold, looking forward to this forecast next week:

NOAA forecast

NOAA forecast

So, when a friend posted a copy of his lovely poem, “The Snow Man,” I couldn’t respond to the loveliness.

Instead, I grumped.

_____

The Dirt Woman

“One must have a mind of winter” Wallace Stevens

I don’t have one. I won’t ever.
Go eat a bag of winter
old man poet, in your suit and tie,

galoshes buckled tight
against the slush and ice
the poor tree limb split from.

What is this January sun
You speak of? I see none.
The only sound is the wind

which hits me right in the bare place
between my turtleneck and long johns.
I can no longer feel my face.

The only thing that gives me hope
is beneath the snow
something alive will grow something red.

Pedagogy Stew: December 2013

For a couple of weeks in college, I pretended there were writhing mounds of deadly, poisonous snakes in the middle of the dorm hallway, and you had to walk right next to the wall, on a very narrow not-real ledge, to escape them.

It amused me.  That’s my superpower. Amusing myself.

What made it a game was that I convinced a few other people to walk along the wall and shriekingly warn others who were walking in the middle.

I knew the game was awesome when I saw a couple of gamer types from down the hall, the Dr. Who guys, we called them, walking tight along the wall. I hadn’t told them about the snakes, but someone had.

I still spend a fair bit of time amusing myself, but I’ve added to that a layer of thinking hard about games. Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken is blowing my mind in really terrific ways, and I’m understanding gaming in ways I could never have imagined in the late 80s, when my cousins Jamie & Josh asked me to watch them play video games and I almost always said no. I just didn’t get it. I get it now.

This semester in my composition classes, the default topic is whether the success rate in ENG 102 would improve if it were re-imagined as a game. (Students do have the opportunity each semester to choose their own topics, but if they botch that by missing the deadline or not following directions, I get to pick.)

There’s a basic problem, however, in this concept of course-as-game. McGonigal lists four things that make something a game: goal, rules, feedback system, and especially the idea that it’s voluntary.

ENG 102 is a required course. Still, you might view college itself as voluntary, but most of my students don’t see it that way. They’re being told by people they know and by the world that in this economy, they have to go to college.  (Whether or not that’s true is a whole different column.)

In my favorite totally voluntary addiction, Candy Crush, if you complete a level, but barely, you get one star. Depending on how much I enjoyed the level, I might let it slide at one, or play again and again to get to two or three.

What if a C in ENG 102 were one star?  And once you got there, you could move on—be done with the course and focus on other courses? What if you could get there by midterm?  And then “level up,” if you worked hard enough, to a B? Or to an A? It seems possible to me that would emphasize the voluntary nature of excelling.

We’ll see what my students and I can come up with on that front.

Next up, inventing a game for elementary-age students to play at recess that will keep them out of trouble, lower the incidence of bullying, and improve their reading and writing and math skills. Wouldn’t that be epic?

(This column originally appeared in Voice of the River Valley. The January issue is available in MANY, MANY locations in southwest Wisconsin; when the the February issue comes out, I’ll post my January “Pedadgogy Stew.”)

Pedagogy Stew: November 2013

Gracious but I was a pill sometimes.

He's better about watching the ball year by year. But sometimes the dirt is so interesting....

He’s better about watching the ball year by year. But sometimes the dirt is so interesting….

I watch my son’s squirrely-ness in the outfield in the context of how I played right field as a child. One time I got so bored, I just walked home.

Living kitty-cornered to the school came in handy. I’ve recently verified with grade school friends that yes, at least once, when I raised my hand to ask to go to the bathroom, I went home to use that bathroom. And watch a little TV.

“No one could find you,” my lifelong friend Cindy said.  “Finally someone called your house.”

“And I answered the phone?” Apparently I did, and then casually went back to school.

I don’t recall getting in trouble for that, and here’s probably why.  When I was in the sixth grade, I had spinal surgery, fusion for severe scoliosis. I wore a neck-to-hips cast for three months, then a slightly smaller cast for another three months, then what was called a Milwaukee brace for six months.

Overall, I was a very well-behaved child, and remember my glory moments of audacious youth fondly because they were few and far between. And because when I got caught, I didn’t get in trouble much.

Allowances were made.

Paul Tough’s terrific book, How Children Succeed, discusses a study and method of measuring childhood stress and trauma called ACE, for Adverse Childhood Experiences. The more adversity, the more likely a child is to struggle in school. One major factor that helps such a child thrive in spite of adversity (whether it’s violence or poverty, or, I would guess, major surgery), is good, solid, attachment parenting.  Which I got.

Thus my son’s traumatic trips to the emergency room because of severe food allergy reactions—we can buffer those experiences so he’s not doomed.

And when I’m volunteering at his school, and one of his classmates is just being a total pill, I have to acknowledge that I don’t know their home situation. I don’t know what they had to maneuver as they made it to bed the night before, or whether someone was there to feed them in the morning, or, even if they have all the material goods they could ever wish for, someone is consistently mean to them.

Viewing people with compassion—that really is what it’s all about.

I don’t do it perfectly, but it’s something I tend to do well as a professor.

I tell my students that our time together as members of the class is such a small fraction of our lives. If it’s all we know about each other, it’s really not much.

I picture them as icebergs, not because I’m a ship and they’re dangerous obstacles, but because I’m seeing just the tip of who they are and what they’re capable of.

I do try, year after year, to maintain appropriately high standards, but ultimately I’m  more interested in clarity of instruction and high levels of support.

In other words, I make allowances.

(This column originally appeared in Voice of the River Valley.)

Here he's 100% in the game.

Here he’s 100% in the game.

Pedagogy Stew: October 2013

Picture an eighth-grade boy in the late 1970s. Sort of a cross between Richie Cunningham and Shaun Cassidy. Watch him as he jams a little nubbin of a pencil so far into an electric pencil sharpener that it runs continuously, leaving the not-too-bright teacher to puzzle over the mystery of it all.

Don’t worry about that boy. He’ll grow up to be an aeronautics engineer.

The teacher? He’ll get fired. He had so little control in the classroom, we looked like one of those inspiring hero-teacher movies BEFORE the hero shows up.

That’s the closest I ever came to being homeschooled, when this teacher was in the process of being fired. My Dad was on the school board, and when the teacher accused me of crying to my parents about how mean he was (I complained, but I don’t remember crying), they pulled me out of school. But it wasn’t really homeschooling. I just sat in a lawn chair in the corner of my Grandma Roane’s lawn (which was kitty-cornered to the school) and waved at everyone when they were at recess. Soon enough a hunky-hero teacher showed up and I went back to school.

I was lucky enough to spend an evening with many of my eighth grade friends in early August this past summer, and it was terrific seeing all these folks again. What we went through in grade school bonds us in deep ways.

We caught up on all kinds of things. We agreed the hunky-hero teacher still looks pretty great, thirty-plus years on.

We chose to get together this summer.

But the time we spent together back then wasn’t out of choice. Not ours, and not our parents’.

We went to school where we went to school because there wasn’t an alternative.

Since most of us were from staunch Baptist or Methodist or Pentecostal families, the Catholic school in the next town would never have seemed like an alternative, though it occurs to me now that it was.

I don’t think any of us had ever heard of homeschooling.

Homeschooling is but one of many, many alternatives now. School choice in Wisconsin means my husband and I can send our son to any local elementary school, including our choice, the Studio School, which is a public school/charter school/school within a school. Next year, there may be a STEM school (focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in Arena we could send him to. School vouchers in Wisconsin mean we could send him to a private school and get some state money for it (wait—really? That can’t be right. Maybe I dreamed that).

Our two main criteria for deciding how to school our son are these: is he happy? Is he learning?

I’m glad to have alternatives. I’m glad we get to have criteria beyond “if the teacher is horrible, we’ll try to get him fired.”

But it’s not just nostalgia when I miss the simplicity of how I went to school.

(This column originally appeared in Voice of the River Valley.)

Pedagogy Stew: September 2013

My brain has a timekeeping section that operates like a not-very-creative grade school teacher’s bulletin board. There’s a snowflake for January and a heart for February and a kite for March. For September, of course, there’s a little red schoolhouse. Or perhaps a pencil, since almost no school looks like a little red schoolhouse any more.

I remember the one-room schoolhouse from my hometown primarily as a huge blaze—they burned it to give the volunteer fire department practice. No one had been a student there for more than thirty years. I started school in a red brick square that’s still being used as a school, but not for long. Taxpayers in my hometown passed a referendum to build a much bigger new school.

Back to school.

It’s an evocative phrase, isn’t it? See the bleary-eyed children—some of them not transitioning well at all from the summer sleeping schedule, some of them suffering so much from ragweed allergies they’re already longing for snow.  Listen to the bells and announcements and the roar of recess. Feel the amazing fast stops and starts and really particular squeaks of new gym shoes. Smell the glue. (Don’t tell me if you can taste the paste.)

O school supplies, how I love thee!

Even when we were homeschooling my son, we went out and bought school supplies at the end of summer. We accumulated such a stash, in fact, that I now scour the writing implement drawer for brand new pencils instead of buying them.

If you haven’t seen a school supply list for a while, they’ve changed some. For one, most schools (around here, anyway) put most supplies in big containers for everyone to use. When I buy a box of crayons, it’s not my son’s box to keep in his desk. The crayons get taken out of the box completely.

Each family is asked to contribute an absurdly high number of glue sticks. The burden of “who pays for this stuff” gets shifted more and more to families. I don’t look forward to the fees I’m hearing about from middle school and high school parents (of kids in public schools, mind you). Still, teachers end up buying a lot of supplies from their own pockets.

At the college level, at least on my campus, students are reminded to budget for their “printing account,” so they can print from campus printers during the semester. A lot of what we used to Xerox “for free” for students is now available online, and they have to print it themselves. It was never free, of course. It was paid for by departments out of “supplies and expenses” budgets that have shrunk in recent years.

Regardless of who pays for what, though, it’s the end of summer, the beginning of autumn, a time of harvest and bounty. The printing accounts are full, the pencils still have their original erasers, and there are reams upon reams of paper just waiting to see what our students have to say.

(This column appeared originally in Voice of the River Valley.)

Pedagogy Stew: August 2013

I’m headed to my 30th high school reunion this month, which causes me to reflect on many things, including my overwhelming urge to find a copy of The Preppy Handbook (pretty sure there were no Southern Illinois locations mentioned in it, also pretty sure I didn’t catch that it was satire when I got it for Christmas, circa 1981, along with some knock-off Topsiders and a belt with little ducks on it).

I was ranked 5th out of a graduating class of about 400. I remember that because I’d been tied for first until my junior year, when I flaked out and could muster only a B in Advanced Algebra/Trig, the same in Chemistry. This coincided with the onset of that whole “imagine this graph/molecule in 3-D inside your head,” which I pretty much totally sucked at.

But overall, those pretty-good-but-not-excellent marks were just further manifestation of my lifelong urge to avoid certain sorts of difficulty.  I’m drawn to some challenges, primarily those of my own devising. Stepping off the valedictorian track involved a rejection of mastering the challenges of classes someone else chose for me. I refused to take calculus my senior year, and as I remember it, my Dad called the man who would’ve taught it (who had taught algebra to my Dad at a local community college) and they grieved together.

I can’t help wondering what kind of challenge students anticipate when they sign up for a MOOC.

MOOC is short for Massively Open Online Course, and they’re all the rage in higher education. They are available online, usually for free, from some terrific universities and professors.

The good part is having free access to lectures, assignments, and tests from some superstar professors.

The bad part is, typically, having zero access to that professor, or to feedback that isn’t automated.

The good part is how easy it is to sign up and participate.

The bad part is the incredibly high dropout rate.

The good part is that a highly motivated student can learn a lot, for free.

The bad part is that a student who is motivated to avoid the challenge of sitting in a traditional college classroom, or taking what now seems like a “traditional” online college course…this student may not be up for the challenge of learning in a less structured, less obligation-driven environment.

In general, as a college student, I’d have crashed and burned in a MOOC, especially if I were taking it to speed through requirements I didn’t see the point of.

But what if taking a MOOC were my own idea? And not required?

It might be like my sophomore English class, at that point. I insisted on doing my book reports on the silliest books—a biography of Colonel Sanders and one I still remember the title of, Sherlock Bones—Pet Detective.  But I was reading Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ on my own. A challenge of my own devising.

(This column appeared originally in Voice of the River Valley.)

Pedagogy Stew: July 2013

As I write this, my husband and son are in the living room, reading Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.  We’ve spent a lot of 2013 so far reading those books, just plowing through them.  (I almost said “burning through them,” but that sounds bad.) With summer here, the pace has increased, well, apace.

In one way, I’m jealous of my son. Remember how long we had to wait between each book? But in another way, I’m sad for him. How amazing it must have been to be a child when the first one came out, and then grow up with Harry, with a book coming along every year or so, just when you thought you couldn’t possibly wait any longer.

On the third hand, wow do I love to binge through TV and book series.

Late May and June were Maisie Dobbs weeks for me this year. I read all ten of Jacqueline Winspear’s mysteries featuring the “psychologist and investigator,” quickly, not exactly in order, but saving the 10th for last.

Leaving Everything Most Loved is in some ways a summary of the previous novels, mentioning their plots and characters, and serving as something of a “final accounting” for the whole series (though it doesn’t seem to be final—I’ve scoured the interwebs, and there’s no word of this being “THE LAST Maisie Dobbs novel.” Whew).

What is a “final accounting?”   Winspear defines it as what Maisie does as she makes “the essential visits to places and people encountered,” and calls it “a task that brought work on a particular investigation to a more settled close.” It’s more nuanced than our clichéd use of “closure.” When Maisie has wrapped up each case, she prepares a report for whomever hired her and then returns to locations crucial to solving whatever mystery there was.

It’s easy enough to end a semester as a professor by turning in grades, cleaning up my office, making a to do list for the summer, and no more.

But I’ve long tried to spend some time reflecting—what went well? Not so well? Why? And what can I do differently? I keep track of how promptly (or molasses-slowly) I return student work in an Excel spreadsheet, and I give students grading feedback on Excel, so I can run reports that way, too. Looking at the data for multiple years if sometimes almost a revelation.

This time, in addition to all the reflecting I typically do, I think I will visit each classroom I taught in, and my son’s classroom, where I volunteered, and see, like Maisie Dobbs, what each room has to say to me.

It also can’t hurt to think of all my semesters as mysteries, most of them solved (a few cold cases, I have to admit, still lingering).

What about you? What season has just ended for you? What case have you just solved? How will you do your final accounting?

(This column originally appeared in Voice of the River Valley.)