Monday, January 31, 2011

Something (300 words)

For the third of last week's journals I asked my writers to describe a thing. The problem, or maybe advantage, of prompts like these is that I actually don't enjoy them. Instead I spent an awful lot of time debating and considering what "thing" I should describe, and how I should describe it. Should I write about the house I'm living, or one of my dogs, or what? By the way, it might be considered an advantage because it means that I recognize the limitations of the prompt and why I should actively avoid using it in the future.

A sidenote here--please keep in mind that 300 word posts should be reasonably coherent, but are not required to be deeply meaningful.

Prompt writing, like assignment-writing, is a blend of art and function. Too much art, and the prompt doesn't make sense (eg: Write a detailed personal-experience narrative that describes how you feel while eating burned popcorn and following the principles of Feng Shui); too much function (Describe an object) and it becomes--like this one--too vague. Knowing where the two meet, though, isn't as simple as it sounds. Mostly it requires a fair amount of trial and error and a willingness to get it completely wrong from time to time. Good (or even reasonably competent ones like myself) teachers are always trying new things. The ones that work, we keep. The ones that, if we're smart, we discard and never speak of them again.

So next time, I think I'm going to try to split the difference and maybe assign something like "Describe a moment in time that took your breath away." A little room for art, a little space for function, and hopefully a chance at some creativity that "describe a thing" sorely lacks. I suppose even "Describe an inanimate object that, when you see or use it, makes you happy" would be more effective.

And there, I just wrote 328 words about a writing prompt.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Magic carpet ride (300 words)

I am now officially behind on my entries, and my class will never let me hear the end of it. No doubt it will become a point of negotiation. :)

The second required topic that I'm working with today is describing a place. Since I'm freshly back from my first snowboarding lesson and whimpering on the couch, it seems like a good place to go for this entry.

I'm from the south, in case you weren't aware of this. I'm from a place where "fall" means that one day the leaves on the trees are green, and the very next they're brown and on the ground. There's no transition just...fall. I always thought, growing up, that "fall" meant that one day, and not an entire 3-moth season. True story.

I make a big deal out of this but, actually, I haven't lived in the south for, oh, um, over 20 years now. I don't have an accent, unless I've spent time communing with those who do, and the heat really does get to me if I happen to be below he Mason Dixon line in the summer. I also laugh at old friends who whine and wear heavy coats when the mercury dips below 50. Wimps.

Anyway, I'm rambling off-topic here.

Last winter, son of Commuter Mom had a snowboarding lesson and proved to be a bit of a natural at it. This is one of the advantages of living in northcountry: winter sports. We'd been talking about going back to try it again, and today we finally went.

Since moving to NY, I've tried a few things I've never done before. Something about this move has given me the courage to wiggle out of my comfort zone and I'm grateful. I may be in pain, but at least I'm not stagnant.

So today we went to a local resort and took snowboarding lessons. As I was driving up to the lodge, the mountains rose behind it, starkly menacing with their peaks hidden in the low clouds. This is NY in winter--there are always low clouds. But I had promised, and we were there, and so we went. The boy had a wonderful time, though the teaching style here is different than it was at the place he went in Michigan so there was a bit of confusion at the beginning. Fortunately, he's got enough natural ability that he could board down without breaking a sweat.

I was set up with a one-on-one lesson. My instructor was a lovely woman who has three kids and enough patience to not smack me upside the head though I'm sure she was tempted. After an hour of hard work I learned to stop and turn and (most importantly) stand up without help. Yeah, I'm that good.

After the lesson was over, the boy and I got some lunch then headed back to the bunny hill. He took the magic carpet like a pro, explaining how it was done like he was born to it.

I, on the other hand, slid off the end and took out the bright orange "poles down" sign when we got to the top. True story.

Next time, I'm going to try skis.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

An intellectual beggar

As an educator, I spend a lot of time reading random and often arbitrary condemnations of the contemporary student. The complaints range from a generalized "students don't care" to this piece claiming that students have no curiosity:

I will confess that I've said the same thing more than once. It is every educator's fear that we are creating a generation of automatons--information is poured in, regurgitated on standardized tests, and we dust off our hands proclaiming students "educated". If this prospect doesn't frighten you, you're not paying attention.

Last year, my 2nd grader turned in a project that was, to our eyes, a bit of a mess. His teacher, however, was delighted with it. Her appraisal was that it was exactly the work a kid his age should be turning in and she lamented that his was one of only two that were.

And so this leads me to wonder which of us is responsible for a non-curious generation. Is it our testing society? Parents so afraid of their children failing that they take over and do the work? The media? Or, and this is the most challenging to swallow, are our students today as curious as we were back in our day but their curiosity manifests differently?

We tsk and cluck over the amount of time our students spend online rather than listening to our lectures, certain that intellectual Armageddon has finally arrived. We accuse them of being more interested in getting As than in learning. We may be right, or we may be missing the opportunity to become social anthropologists in our own world.

I've asked my current class to discuss what "intellectual begging" means for them. In return, I'm asking what it means for us, as educators. Sure, I have more content knowledge than my class. That's an easy one. What I don't have, however, is confidence in my ability to reshape the world in a keystroke. Despite my academic background, I don't have an aesthetic based on constant communication and collaboration. But what if I did? What if we all did--would it turn out tht we're the ones who've become incurious? It's something worth considering.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

English 101, Spring 2011 Ground Rules and First Entry

For this semester, I've reconstructed my Freshman Composition class (I'm contractually obligated to 1 per semester) around the concepts of Begging, Borrowing and Stealing. If you're here as part of that class, welcome and keep reading because there is some information here that you'll find useful. If not, you may find the work here more pedantic than usual. Please bear with me because it should get interesting as our semester progresses.

Some general background: every semester, I rebuild my Freshman Composition class because I'm never completely happy with it. For this class I hit upon the idea of beg, borrow and steal while I was thinking about how, in my other job, one of the things I'm charged with is gatekeeping, and how monitoring and preventing plagiarism is part of that process. And so as I was considering the ways that we attempt to do this, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to build an entire class around acts of plagiarism.

I had originally considered starting a new blog space for writing along with this class. The answer lies in the simple act of modeling. Some of my entries have the potential to be interesting, others are quite dreadful but in either case they are writing for the purposes of discovery, which is one of the goals of this class. Thus, I decided to build on what I already have rather than start over.

A little information for my students:

As I will continually remind you in class, my posts are largely unedited except for spelling and grammar. I expect that yours will be similarly proofread, but I'm not concerned about perfect prose.

I do not expect you to comment on my work. I do, however, expect you to thoughtfully comment on at least 3 of your classmates' posts.

I strongly recommend making a note of which classmates' posts you find the most interesting. This will serve you well later in the semester. Trust me.

Finally, this course is rated PG. If you fail to recognize that boundary, you will lose many points. Not sure what PG means? That information is available from the MPAA.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

10 Things to Do This Week

I have been a slient witness, the past few weeks, to monumental acts of courage. Among them are a young man, a college student, who publicly admitted that he is bulemic, a young woman with a life-altering illness take an offered hand even though it is against her nature, a friend pick up the crumbling pieces of a life she knew and start rebuilding, brick by brick.

They, of course, are not the only ones who have stared into the eyes of extraordinary challenge and tackled it head on. It happens daily, minutely, with each breath. They are our loved ones, casual acquaintances, and total strangers.

I've always felt a bit cursed that I attract damaged strangers and their stories. What, I've often wondered, am I supposed to do with these? But, as I've watched these lives unfold, listening to these stories told by people I know and love, it occurs to me that maybe this isn't a curse at all.

Exclusive of my role as a silent witness, I have no role in these stories--they are not mine to tell. However, I don't think it's possible to know extraordinary people without turning at least some bit of that lens inward; I am reminded of Socrates who argued that the unexamined life is not worth living. And I would like to believe that examining ourselves through those lenses can make us better at our own lives.

We've read the experiments showing that when many people are gathered, no one steps up to help when something happens. At the airport, recently, my son accidentally knocked a full cup of coffee out of my hands as we were waiting to board our flight. As I stood there, overburdened, soaking and watched with some sympathy by a group of unmoving people, a man slid through the crowd and handed me a large stack of napkins. "I saw you down the hall" he said, "I let them know that they need to get a mop." And I thought, as he disappeared back into the crowd, I want to be him.

I am a classic introvert. I tend to be silent when speaking is preferable, I tend to keep my thoughts and ideas to myself unless I'm certain of their welcome. Recently, I did a posting about 25 things I would do if given a day without consequences. For a variety of reasons, most of them are improbable (I did mention my introversion, right?). What my current self-reflection tells me, though, is that I spend too much time naming the improbable in the service of avoiding the uncomfortable. So, in no particular order, 10 things I will do this week not because they are extraordinary but because they aren't:

1) Say "I love you"
2) Admit fear
3) Assume the positive
4) Express gratitude
5) Share
6) A favor
7) Touch with care
8) Forgive
9) Hope
10) Speak

It's all very touchy-feely, something I actively try to avoid. This may be the most frightening week of my life.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


When given a little bit of quiet and left to my own devices (such as while flying), I think about things like what would I wish for if a genie should swoop down and offer me one wish (no wishing for more wishes), and one wish only. At first, I assumed I'd be a bit altruistic. After all, what's the point in having wishes if we can't put them to good use?

Then I decided that this is my fantasy life we're talking about so I would instead wish for something that is probably beyond the realm of possible. That was a little more challenging, but I finally made a decision: 24 hours. More precisely, 24 hours without consequence; 24 hours in which I could do anything I wanted without the effects, for ill or for good, lasting beyond my 24 hours.

Then, of course, came the thinking about what I'd do during that 24 hours.

Here, in no particular order, is a list of 25 possibilities. Some are questionable, a few others are illegal, and many are just in very poor taste.

Note: my family is not included in any of these--they can pick their own 25 things should they choose the same wish.

Join the circus and learn to walk the tightrope
Tell only lies
Borrow a monkey for the day
Sing instead of talk
Eat nothing but bread, cheese and butter
Act my age
Drink scotch and smoke cigarettes
Spend a few hours in Italy
Kiss someone dangerous
Buy tabloid magazines and tuck them into random strangers' shopping bags
Shoplift excellent shoes
Drive a cab in NYC
Take a train to an unknown destination and lose the return ticket
Dance instead of walk
Embrace the impossible
Speak only truth
Wear tacky clothes intended for a much younger woman
Speak in bad foreign accents while wearing mom jeans and white sneakers
Flirt with everybody (especially old people)
Steal books from the library
Buy dinner for 8 strangers
Swim in the Arctic Ocean
Dig for dinosaur bones

This is fantasy not reality so sure, most of these are beyond my personal realm of probable. But maybe not all of them--and isn't that the point of an exercise like this? A few minutes of fancy just might lead to a new path (like joining the circus) or a refined goal (dinner with 8 strangers? Intriguing). Entertaining the impossible gives us the opportunity to illuminate what is possible. It may also be nothing more than a half hour's quiet entertainment; what we make of our wishes is, simply, up to us.