Friday, January 27, 2012

All the world's a stage...

therefore, we need soundtracks!

Today in my ENG 120 classes, we revisited our pictures (either "Mr. Finger Plays Dead" or "Toksik Love"). We talked about proper outlining and the three ways to organize a narrative (Chronological, Emphatic or Spatial Orders). I then told the classes that they would be creating an outline, complete with thesis statement, for their narrative. The students did not have to be true to their groups' original story, but could use it if they liked. While they wrote, I played the songs the students had chosen as "soundtracks" for the images. We had quite a variety, and I was pleased that students had clearly put some thought into their personal narrative for the image and found a song that expressed that narrative.

My Tuesday/Thursday section chose this image:

"Anorexia" Santiago Alvarez

In class today, I also wrote thesis statements for each image, and promised my students that I, too, would write an outline for each narrative. Not only do I feel that this shows my students that I really am qualified to teach them (ie: I can write a thesis statement and outline, too), but also that the task I'm asking of them is doable and, dare I say it?, even enjoyable.

On another note, the power of social networking platforms never ceases to amaze me: I tweeted @ricstultz to let him know that my classes are writing on his artwork, and he tweeted back that he is "honored" to be used in a college classroom. I also tweeted @santixander that we used his photo "Anorexic" today--it's amazing that I'm able to reach out to these artists across the world to let them know that not only are people viewing and appreciating their work, but also that it's being used to teach!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Narrative & Description

Chapter 8 of The Confident Writer is titled "Narration," but deals with description within the chapter. I completely agree with this set-up, as I personally think it's absurd to ask a student to write a "Narrative" without also talking about description.

We spent the first few minutes of class discussing what a "narrative" is, what "dialogue" is and how it can strengthen a narrative, and sensory details (details invoking the five senses--although I include the emotions in this as well). I asked students to write down two or three events in their lives that they thought might make good stories. Then, to illustrate "significance" (why a story matters, both to the writer and to her audience), I asked each student to consider why the story is important.

In my 10:00am section, one student's example was getting lost in a local strip mall. I prodded him for more detail, asking how old he was when this happened (six years old), where he went (an arcade), how he felt (terrified) and if he learned anything from the experience (yes: do not wander away from his mom!). As a class, we then agreed that this story had "significance," as we could all relate to having lost our parents at some point as children.

We continued to use his story while we discussed point-of-view. Now, when I teach point-of-view, I do not just discuss first and third person points-of-view; I also point out that even in the first person, we are able to choose a "voice." For example, the student who got lost could tell his story in the first person as himself now, an eighteen-year-old young man, or as a frightened six-year-old boy.

I then opened a Conceptual Photography site and asked the class as a whole to pick an image. My 10:00am class was uncharacteristically quiet, so I chose for it, but my 1:00pm class was very vocal about its choice.


"Toksik Love" by George Granidaru.


"Mr. Finger Plays Dead" by Olivia House.

The students got into groups and then had to develop a narrative to go along with the photo, including as many sensory details as possible. All the groups shared their narratives before the end of class. Not every group actually used sensory details, and some of the narratives were, shall we say, sparse, but I think the point sunk in fairly well. In order to make them include the auditory sense, I tasked all the students with finding a song they thought would be a good soundtrack for the image(s). They will post a link to a file or video in their blogs and we'll listen to some in class on Friday.

Some of the best feedback I've had from students thus far this semester:

"This class goes by so fast!" (Good! That means you aren't bored!)
"Professor, I really enjoy your class." (This warms my heart...)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Books, schmooks

As inevitably happens every semester, a few weeks in, I run into the issue of students who still do not have their textbooks. Ideally, I only have to deal with the handful of students who are waiting on financial aid disbursements, waiting on their next paycheck, or are simply trying to squeak by without buying the text; in reality, the campus Bookstore is nearly as big a problem as the first three.

I have students in both my ENG 120 and ENG 262 classes that do not have textbooks because the Bookstore did not order enough books and is now awaiting secondary shipments. Paired with the constant chatter about E-texts (especially since Apple just threw its bid back in the game), this textbook issue is definitely helping to sway me toward e-texts.

Now, to be clear, I realize that any number of college students simply won't treat an e-book the same as a hard book; think: out of sight, out of mind. I still love, and always will, allergen-creating paper books, but I also read probably half my books on my Ipad now. The beauty of an e-text, as opposed to ordering a book online, is that we only have to wait for an e-text to download (at most this takes maybe 30 minutes, with slow internet and a big file), as opposed to waiting on the packaging process, post office, etc.

But will e-books and e-texts actually replace our paper texts? I think they will definitely start to supplement hard-copy texts, but replace them entirely?

What do you think?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Formula for Awesomeness

I have made it a point to assign Journal topics to my students that are both interesting and useful. I hate writing on boring topics, so I assume my students do as well.

In keeping with this, last semester I began using the artwork of Ric Stultz as one of ENG 120's journals. Students choose a painting, spend some time thinking about it, its meaning, and its impression on them as viewers, and then write about it. Easy peezy and they love his artwork. ::Pats herself on back::

I assign this journal now (3rd week of the semester) while we are rehashing what it means to write a strong thesis statement. I teach thesis statements with the Formula for Awesomeness (Overall Topic + 3 Main Points), and this is when I remind students that their language (or diction) should indicate the essays' purposes: inform, persuade/argue, or analyze.

The exercise that I use in class involves this photograph:

I tell students they have 5 minutes to look at the image (which I project from the overhead projector) and prewrite. They can prewrite however they would like. Some freewrite, others cluster or brainstorm, and many simply write bullet points. I encourage them to talk to their classmates during this time and I feed them thoughts like, "Is this a real place?" "What could this place be?" "Could it be a Photoshopped image?" "Consider a narrative that would take place here."

ENG 120 students will read a chapter on writing a Narrative for Wednesday, so this gives me a good starting point to introduce both Narrative essay-writing and Description.

I then give the students a few more minutes to create thesis statements based on their scribblings. When asked to share, most melt into their seats and suddenly find themselves unable to meet my eyes, but a few brave souls offer up their attempts at thesis statements and either receive the praise of, "Yes! Exactly!" or "Ok, so that would make a great attention-getter at the beginning of your introduction, but it's not a thesis statement." Eventually, my students learn that when they volunteer their work, they get the benefit of individualized help during class time, so they volunteer more.

Only after we have moved through a few thesis statements do I tell them that this image is a photograph of part of the interior of a Public Library in Stockholm, Sweden, home to over 4 million books and designed and built in the 1920's. ::She swoons--all those books!::

Friday, January 20, 2012

Dazed and Confused

In the midst of all the Republican presidential candidate candidates (yup, they are candidates to be the presidential candidate), SOPA, PIPA, Anonymous hackers group taking down the DOJ and a few other sites in response to the crackdown on MegaUpload, the Virgin Islands suffered a major economic blow on Wednesday. HOVENSA, a major oil refinery located on St. Croix, employs about 2,000 employees and offers a number of scholarships to students both for private high schools and college, announced that after a loss of over $1.3 billion over the last three years, it will be closing. It will retain 100 employees to run the former refinery as a glorified oil tank.

Why am I telling you this? Because this means not only loss of students to the University, but also of our basic fuel source here on island. Frightening.

In other news, all three sections of ENG 120 made it through their second week of me. They will spend the weekend revising their Diagnostic essays and turn them in to me either Monday or Tuesday, depending on when each section meets.

The Homophone activity was a definite success. Students came up with more homophones in small groups than they would have simply shouting them en masse as they came to each student's mind. We also had a chance to talk about the effect of the regional dialects on homophones in each section. I very, very nerdily announced that this is one of the aspects on which I'd like to focus my doctoral research (they were oh-so unimpressed...sighs).

Two weeks down, thirteen to go! Over the weekend I'll write more about what I'm planning via Blackboard Learn (bblearn) for the ENG 120 classes this semester.

Vote for Stephen Colbert!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Where did the time go?

Today felt like a constant rush and I'm not sure why; however, classes went well. After the reading quiz in the 10:00am ENG 120 class, I handed out my "Proofreading Notation" sheet and we quickly breezed through the notation and its corresponding errors. I answered any questions students had about specific points (ex: a student asked if I could give an example of a problem with parallelism).

I then handed back the students' corrected, 'graded,' Diagnostic essays. I reminded them that this was a first draft that they wrote in class, in 50 minutes, and after a break of at least a month from school, so their grades were not going to be stellar. (Truthfully, I think only one student eeked out a first draft over 70%.)

After the initial shock, head-shaking and nervous laughter, I opened the floor up to questions. As I expected, only a couple students were brave enough to ask specific questions about errors in their essays, so I changed the the "Scavenger Hunt" tactic: I chose an error off the Proofreading sheet and everyone had to find an instance of it in his essay. I had the class look for fused sentences, comma splices, run-ons, verb tense shifts, and other errors, then asked for volunteers to share an instance from their papers. After initial shyness, students started to volunteer their errors so they could ask more specific questions. Success!

In my 1:00pm class, we finished the last two types of Prewriting and covered START. I then had the students get into groups of 5--I wanted less groups for this exercise. I wrote "Homophones" on the board and asked someone to define the word for me. The agreed-on definition was "words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings." I gave the groups 10 minutes and asked them to come with as many homophones as they could.

Each group came up with bundles of examples:

where, wear, ware, weir and were (as in werewolf)
two, too, to
dear, deer
flower, flour
four, for, fore

And then we came to the examples I was hoping I'd hear: the homophones that only work in an Anglo-Caribbean dialect.

team, teem and theme -- many English-speaking Caribbean natives do not pronounce th sounds, so "three" sounds like "tree" and "thought" like "taught."

See the issue here? Suddenly pair, pear and peer are homophones, even if they are not for a more Midwestern U.S. accent. We talked and laughed about it--I believe that if students can recognize and laugh at their own idiosyncrasies, errors and differences, they will better recognize and be able to correct them. We will spend more time, in all the ENG 120 sections, on homophones and on 'regionally-specific' homophones.

More tomorrow!

On an unrelated note, I am personally against both PIPA and SOPA. You may have already noticed that Wikipedia blacked its site out today, and even Google blacked out its logo in solidarity. If you are also against PIPA and SOPA, be sure to reach out to your local and state political representatives and make yourself heard!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Thanks to the three-day weekend, my only ENG 120 class meeting thus far this week was at 9:30am today. Or, should have been, I ought to say. I spent thirty minutes sitting in my car, staring at the building where my ENG 120 class meets while police ineffectively directed traffic around an accident .5 miles from the University. Frustrating, to say the least.

I had plenty of time to compose the questions my ENG 120 cherubs would have to answer on their beginning-of-class quiz; however, I did not have time to double-check the syllabus, or I would have realized that three of my uber-clever questions were from a chapter they hadn't read yet. As they say, "Well-laid plans of mice..."

While my dedicated students doggedly attempted to answer questions on a reading that hadn't done (and didn't bother to question me on it until I asked them to turn to a page number in the chapter in question...How many students do you think read any of the reading at all?), I gathered my wits about me, turned on the projector and computer, and threw together my gameplan for the morning.

(Did I mention that I also did not get through grading all 65 Diagnostic Essays this weekend, like I had planned?) We began by going over START, a technique The Confident Writer suggests for organizing and writing an essay:

S = self (what is my role?)
T = topic
A = audience (who are they?)
R = reason (purpose)
T = tone

We did call and response after I introduced the five words; example:

Me: "Why is 'self important when planning and writing an essay?"
Student: "Because I'm the one writing the essay?"
Me: "Brilliant."

To help along the glaringly obvious, I chose a simple, fake, essay topic to use as an example: "Why do people go to college?"

After making it through START (simple though it is, some students absolutely love it and rarely use any other technique to get from their essay topic to the final product. More power to them.), we reminded ourselves that we had two types of Prewriting yet to address.

Still using the "Why do people go to college" prompt, I asked the class to get out a piece of paper and just start writing anything and everything that came to mind about why each student is going to college. I timed them for 5 minutes, told them to disregard neatness, spelling, grammar, etc. When I noticed people slagging off after 3 or 4 minutes, I told the class as a whole that if a student found himself distracted, thinking about breakfast, he should write about breakfast until he made his way back to the college topic (Ex: I am so hungry right now I want breakfast I can't wait until class is over I hope I have enough money for breakfast I can't wait to finish school and be making real money [hey look--you're back at college!]).

When they finished the 5 minutes, I explained that they had just practiced 'Freewriting,' and for it to be most effective, they should go back through and cross out any irrelevant parts, underline anything clearly important, and circle anything possibly helpful from the wordspew.

We discussed using "Questions" as a Prewriting technique, but as it is not my favorite and I do not find that students think it helpful, I summarized it like this: "Use the question words-Who? What? How? When? Where? And when you get to the almighty WHY, ask, 'Why does anyone care?'" The idea being that at no stage in writing should the writer or reader be able to say, "Who gives a d---?"

We then used our brilliant ideas for why we go to college to introduce what I call "Professor G's Formula for Awesomeness" (and yes, I do accept this as a correct answer on tests and quizzes).

Formula for Thesis Statement (guaranteed never to fail):
Big Idea + 3 Main Points

Ex: I go to college (BI) because a high school education just isn't enough anymore (MP 1), my family needs a strong example (MP 2), and I want to be in a better place in life at my parents' age than they are now (MP 3).

See? Awesome. No student passes my class without being able to write the world's most effective thesis statement. Ever. (If you are out there, Karl Yergey, I want you to know that I learned this from you in AP U.S. History in 10th grade!).

Tomorrow and Thursday will bring a day of chaos (otherwise known as editing Diagnostic Essays); each student will receive her essay back, along with my proofreading notation, and we will do a class workshop on editing (including a fun "proofreading" scavenger hunt in each person's essay!--oh fine, so it will be fun for me, heh!).

Cheers for now!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Pennies and Thoughts

This NPR piece was part of my motivation for this project.

This recent blog by Bethany Nowviskie (originally posted on her blog) details the issue of our archaic teaching methods even at the doctoral level.

Now let's see if we can start making some changes!

First Experiment = Success!

All three sections of my ENG 120 classes are using the same two textbooks:

Kanar, Carol C. The Confident Writer. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009. Print.

Lunsford, Andrea A. The St. Martin's Handbook. 6th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009. Print.

(Students are using both the 6th and 7th editions of SMH.)

The assigned reading for today was The Confident Writer, Chapter 1: Becoming a Confident Writer. This chapter deals, in part, with the stages of writing.

To begin class, I gave my students a 2 minute warning until their quiz (they have a quiz at the beginning of every class, unless they are writing an in-class essay--or I forgot!) so they could put their "stuff" away and/or quickly scan the material again. After the students took the quiz and we reviewed the answers, we reviewed the steps in the writing process:

I. Prewriting
II. Outlining
III. Drafting
IV. Proofreading/Revising

I then split the class into groups of 4 students. The students were asked to discuss the 'First Thoughts' questions on pg. 2 of the text. These questions are intended to build background for the subsequent reading; in this case, students then read "Free Expression Gets Smoked" by Stephen Chapman. The two key questions the students discussed were:

1. How much influence do you think celebrities have on people's choices and behavior?
2. What effect do you think watching people smoke in movies has on young people? (Kanar 2)

I gave the groups 5 minutes to discuss these two questions and to review Chapman's essay. When the time was up, each group took turns explaining how they felt about question 1, gave specific examples, and commented and built on their peers thoughts and comments. (The example of Jennifer Hudson's amazing weight loss on Jenny Craig (R) came up and we discussed how important what we don't see is almost more powerful than what we do. Ie: she probably has a personal trainer, cook, etc.) We then did the same for the second question. A student then volunteered to give a 30 second summary of the essay. I asked the class as a whole what the "main idea" or "topic" of the essay was and they responded correctly.

We then moved to pg. 10 of the text. An exercise on this page asks students to write about "A movie or TV program that has had a positive (or negative) effect on viewers" (Kanar 10). I gave the groups 3 minutes to brainstorm the topic and come up with one film or TV title, using brainstorming questions suggested in the exercise.

The groups' results were: Law and Order: SVU, American Pie, Shrek, The Godfather, and Family Guy, just to give you some insight into this particular class' dynamic.

I then wrote "Brainstorming" under 'Prewriting' on the board and acknowledged that this is one form of Prewriting.

I tasked those same groups to take 5 minutes to "Cluster" (or, as I so very often wind up calling it, "Bubble" with their film or TV title in the center bubble. I asked them to consider their Brainstorming questions, as well as the film's/show's genre, etc. You can watch an example here.

As we were nearing the end of our class time, I had all groups hold up their clusters so the rest of the groups could see. I then wrote "Clustering" on the board under "Brainstorming" and pointed out that Clustering is another method of Prewriting. I mentioned that on Wednesday (Monday is MLK Jr. day, so no class), we will review at least one other type of Prewriting called "Freewriting."

I reminded students of their two Journals (Blog entries) due next week, and we adjourned. I never spoke for more than 3 or 4 minutes at a time--if that! Success!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Proofreading for the Obvious

My last section of ENG 120 wrote their Diagnostic Essays this morning. While they wrote, I started grading the first section's essays...suffice to say, there is a reason why they are in my Composition course!

In the midst of scraping my poor eyeballs over the essays, it occurred to me that instead of merely handing out my "Professor G's Proofreading Notation" sheet and blabbering through the whole thing in class this semester, I should make the kids work for it. Okay, so that sounded quite a bit harsher than I meant it to sound, but, it's fairly clear to most people that the more effort a student puts into a particular project, concept or lesson, the better she learns it.

So. I am going to split up my fresh-faced little butchers of the English language into groups of 3-5. Each group will have a set of ten questions about the most common knives wielded against proper English grammar:

1. What is a 'fused sentence?'
2. What is a 'run-on sentence?'
3. What is a 'comma splice?'
4. What are the eight (8) parts of speech? (side note: I do not allow students to use questions or exclamations in academic writing unless it is part of a quote).
5. What is 'verb tense?'
6. What is 'subject-verb agreement?'
7. What are 'transitions?' Why do we need them?
8. What is a 'sentence fragment?'
9. How many sentences are in a paragraph? (I constantly battle that horrid habit middle and high school teachers ingrain in my students' heads that a paragraph is five sentences--this is flat-out not the case at the college level).
10. What is a 'thesis statement?'

I realize that all these questions are dry as overcooked chicken, but there is a method to my madness here: because these are my students' most common mistakes, it behooves me to find out now, at the beginning of the semester, if they even know what they are. If they do, great, we immediately dive into how to recognize, avoid and fix them in the future. If, as I suspect, they haven't a blessed clue what they are, we will start with creating an attainable explanation for each and do some more basic grammar work.

Obviously the last two questions are a bit of a different animal, but as students in each of the three ENG 120 sections asked me, "Is it okay that I included the thesis statement in the Introduction instead of writing it by itself?" over the last two days, I'm pretty sure this will be fruitful.

(And not to leave you out, dear readers, I will be sure to post the most witty, clever and asinine responses to all of the above. There is a problem in our English language teaching methods and it will help all of us to understand what the heck is going on inside those eighteen-year-olds' heads!)

After we've done the group questionnaire, we will check each group against the others and come up with common definitions for the terms for which that is appropriate. Then, I will give the students their essays back, along with my Proofreading Notation sheet. Commence the scavenger hunt! Each student will have to find an example in his or her own paper of the notation as we go through the sheet. (For example: // for parallelism, so the students will be looking for a place where they had a parallelism issue in sentence structure).

More to come tomorrow...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Just for Fun

If you love books, or cool videography, or just appreciate hard work, check this out!

Week 1

Monday, January 9th: 85% of my registered students attended the first day of class. We went through the usual motions of going over the syllabus and I went through my usual speech about having ZERO tolerance for plagiarism and the necessity of attending class (and owning the textbooks).

Wednesday, January 11th: All ENG 120 students are writing their "Diagnostic Essay" in class today. Two sections of the course meet on MWF, so the classes only meet for 50 minute sessions. This means I will receive a batch of largely unfinished essays; I'm okay with this as I'll be grading them and handing them back for revision anyway.

Friday, January 13th: At the moment, the plan is to field any questions about our Blackboard page (I am piloting the new version of Blackboard Learn for all my classes this semester), their blogs (instead of handing in typed, printed journals each week, my students are keeping a blog this semester), or any other housekeeping issues. Once that is taken care of, I'm going to split the class into groups for a series of short "Getting to Know You" activities built around language and vocabulary. I have a few I'm considering right now, but I haven't decided yet which ones I'll really use (Stand by!).

On a slightly different note, I receive an email every day with a quote by an author from Today's quote:

After all, reading is arguably a far more creative and imaginative process than writing; when the reader creates emotion in their head, or the colors of the sky during the setting sun, or the smell of a warm summer's breeze on their face, they should reserve as much praise for themselves as they do for the writer - perhaps more.

- Jasper Fforde (author of The Eyre Affair)

I found this rankled me a bit--but only just a bit. I do believe that reading is a creative process, and as I read, I follow a sort of mental cinema, complete with color, voices, accents, fashion, etc. I truly feel sorry for those who do not experience this vivacity when reading. However, as an English Composition professor, I must insist that this same creative, sensory process is necessary for writing (I doubt anyone would debate that). The problem with many students (and adults) today, I would posit, is that they never learned how to read with this level of engagement and commitment, hence, they also cannot write in vivid, real language. This can't be allowed to continue!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dissertation Schmissertation

I know I've already pointed out that the "lecture-less" idea isn't exactly patented mine, but this article on MLA's consideration of changing the format of the Humanities post-graduate dissertation feels relevant. "Dissing the Dissertation" not only deals with the problem of how long it takes for doctoral candidates to earn their dissertation-requiring PhDs, but also the format in which they are required.

We live in a digital, instantaneous time period, so why are dissertations, the products of what is presumably new, relevant and applicable research, still so old-fashioned? I think this fits in wonderfully with the idea that not only are we teaching our students (at every level) wrongly, but also that we are misleading them in the meaning of what it is to truly learn!

I have sat through some wonderful lectures in my day, both as a student and as a faculty member, but even I must admit that I found myself thinking about what I was going to make for dinner when I got home at least once in the course of the talk. The educational and academic systems must change how we (I include myself in this) approach learning and teaching. If we don't know how people learn, how on earth can we effectively teach?

The Beginning

For years I have joked that I am "ADD." I am acutely aware that this is, in fact, a very serious epidemic affecting multiple generations now, and I do not take it lightly. The truth is, I am not ADD, and while I occasionally get distracted (should I make more coffee?), for the most part, I focus rather well on just about anything (except for faculty meetings).

Depending on who you ask, the average attention span of a typical adult is anywhere from 5-8 minutes. All the sources of these statistics do agree on one aspect: that timeline is shortening--rapidly.

English classes range anywhere from 45-75 minutes, so how am I supposed to engage 20 non-Liberal Arts majors for longer than 5 minutes? Putting aside my own ego and belief that I am, quite certainly, the most entertaining English professor any student could ever wish for, I realized I had a problem: What happens for the rest of the class time if I only get 5 effective minutes?

Recently, both The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed (as well as other publications, I'm sure) have pointed at and discussed the flaws in lecture classes. The result of these discussions is hard for us higher education teachers to hear, but it rings true: students just don't learn effectively from lectures. Ouch. So what good am I, then?

Then, the aha moment: I will no longer lecture. Read: I did not say I will no longer talk. I really do enjoy the sound of my own voice, and I think I have fabulously useful ideas to share, so I will not shut up. But, I will talk less, and seek more interactive and small-group ways of working with my students.

The Spring 2012 semester began yesterday. I have three sections of ENG 120, totaling about 65 students. Let the experiment begin!