Tuesday, December 6, 2016


This semester has been a true challenge for me, as well as a time of what I consider transformation and great personal growth. I was so, so nervous at the beginning... so nervous I could barely keep my composure. And today, those nerves are, for the most part though not entirely, gone. I don't really want them to ever be entirely gone, as I think being nervous should be part of teaching, as there is always room for improvement, and unfortunately, room for failure.
My first day was uncomfortable, to say the least. Though I have by now stood in front of a classroom many times, it was always with a teacher present, someone “older and wiser” than I am (though not always truthfully older). This time, it was by myself, as myself, that I stood there, and frankly, I wasn't sure that would prove to be enough. I saw their wary faces, all eyes on me, and I froze a bit. For most of them, I was the first college teacher they met and attended class with, and for a couple of miserable days, I was certain I had let them down. After class, which I dismissed a little early, I hurried off to my office hours, scared and a little ashamed. Was I doomed to fail as a teacher before every really getting started?
My feelings of uncertainty continued for weeks, even when teaching got easier, even when classes started going more smoothly, even when my students laughed, and talked, and showed comprehension. At heart, I was uncertain that I had chosen the right midlife career change, even though I have been working toward this for years now!
I've worked a number of jobs in my life that had nothing to do with where I am now. I worked as a data entry clerk in my teens, then a number of varying temp jobs in my early to mid twenties, and then as as a field crew supervisor for a conservation corps, and that was when I began to see a glimmer of where I could go. Somehow, I got roped into helping with the education program, working with ESL students at first, despite a glaring lack of ability in the Spanish language, and eventually teaching History through Art to about ten students, all trying to earn their high school diplomas. The education coordinator encouraged me, but then I decided to have children instead. Her encouragement did plant a seed though, and I began daydreaming about returning to college. Years later, I did. I finished my BA in Liberal Studies, and then vacillated between a single subject credential and the Master’s program in English, eventually choosing the latter.
At some point during the semester—I am not sure when—things began shifting, though subtly at first. My palms were no longer sweaty when I walked in the classroom door. My heart wasn't quite racing anymore. I still had to breathe deeply before opening that door...I still do. But the fear is no longer there, thankfully. Instead, I look forward to seeing my students, and hearing from them, whether it is about the reading, or just about how their day went.
From the beginning, having learned this from Maria Hess during a psychology class, I did a daily check-in with my students. The premise of this brief activity is simple—we go around the room (easy since we sit around a hollow square) and share something about the challenges we are facing, or something that happened that was good/bad/in between. I always start with myself, so that the students see that I am willing to share snapshots of my life with them, encouraging them to share their own. From the beginning, this has been a success, and when we almost missed it once (the day of our library visit), I was asked if we could please check in. The check-in allowed me, over the course of this semester, to see my students maturing, getting used to campus life, far from friends and family. It also allowed them to connect with other students, as they share many of the same obstacles, challenges, and opportunities. It gives them a chance to share a little about their personal lives in an environment that could easily be removed from anything personal. The daily check-in is something I will definitely continue over the spring semester.
Another daily to-do item was journaling. I have mixed feelings about this. I think writing regularly is a wonderful thing to do, as the more you write, the easier it gets to write. Most of my disappointment with this is due to my own lack of preparedness on some days when it came to journal prompts. Sometimes, though not often, I would arrive at class without having created or found an appropriate journal prompt ahead of time, and winging it was sometimes difficult. I think for the spring, we’ll have at least one journal prompt each week that will serve as a time of reflection directly relating to the reading. While many of my topics during the fall semester did have a bearing on what we were studying, some did not. I’d like to limit non-related topics in the spring.
One of the more enjoyable things we did during the semester was to play games based on language, on rhetorical devices. We explored irony, apostrophe, and more through activities that often left us laughing. We also worked on grammar and sentence structure through more formalized activities, tackling such topics as comma splices, needed words, run-on sentences, fragments, and so on and so forth. I’d like to continue with both these approaches in the spring, perhaps alternating on a bi-weekly basis, so that my students become more familiar with the tools of the English language, which in turn should improve their writing.
The presentations (i.e. “speech”) part of the class this semester was fairly informal. I had them work as groups toward the beginning of the semester, presenting sections of a reading to the rest of the class. This activity went fairly well, though perhaps I should have had it more structured. The second presentation assignment was done in pairs, and each pair had to lead a class discussion relating to an assigned reading. Overall, this has gone well. The pairs were selected by random drawing—I have found mixing up groups of people over the semester to be a generally good practice—and then assigned one of the readings we would be covering. Most came up with thoughtful questions that sparked lively discussion. In the spring, I hope to do more formal presentations, though I have not yet decided how I want to approach this. The idea of a debate seems intriguing, so I am considering ideas that would relate to the reading we will be doing.
In speaking of reading, I should mention that I relied largely on the assigned text, Emerging: Contemporary Readings for Writers, supplemented sporadically with articles I culled from the web and other sources. This did work to serve the purpose at hand… we covered a variety of topics related to identity, such as race/ethnicity, gender, media/social media/internet, and more. However, I want to step away from this in the spring, giving my students a chance to explore other genres. I may still use some articles from the textbook, but we will be much more focused on a memoir, and then a novel, as they move forward through the English program. I plan to continue with the theme of identity, but look more at how language shapes our identity, and gives us experiences that expand that identity. With that in mind, I chose A Place to Stand as the memoir, as poetry, the use of words, literally reshapes the life of the author, Jimmy Santiago Baca. And for our novel, I have selected The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. My choice of this book is twofold: I love the use of language in it, as if the author is painting with words; and it is a tale about how books, words, can change someone’s life. I feel that reading books, as opposed to reading articles, may lead to some richer discussion, some more focused ideas, something a little closer to my own experiences at SSU through the Hutchins program and the English grad program. I know my students are only freshmen, that this is technically a “remedial” course, but I believe they are capable of great things.
One of my more recent challenges is that of failing students. I have two students who have missed numerous classes, and failed to turn in key assignments. I have reached out to both of them, numerous times. One has responded, and I am hoping can pull her way out of the mire. The other seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. I can’t help but take this personally to some degree—was it something lacking in my teaching? Or is it simply that some of my students just are not ready to be here?
What I have taken away from this semester is that this is, undoubtedly, what I want to do. I have gone from uncertain as to whether I should be doing this or not, to absolutely knowing that this is my vocation. I think of the words of Robert Frost, from “Two Tramps in Mud Time”: "My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation / As my two eyes make one in sight." To be doing what I love, as a job, as a career, is something many hope for, and few get. I feel very lucky that I have had this opportunity.
I have learned too that borrowing from other teachers is a good thing, that utilizing the lessons/activities someone else planned can be not only helpful, but also rewarding, and that I can offer activities others might use as well. One of the most helpful things I have found this semester were the weekly check-ins with my teaching cohort. Hearing about the good teaching moments, the activities and lesson plans, the challenges, all helped me see my own triumphs and difficulties in a different light, and helped me feel more at home.
I have also taken away from this semester that I need to stay diligent when it comes to organization. I have done moderately well with this during the fall, but there is always room for improvement. I need to be firmer with my attendance policy (see the thoughts on failing students above), and perhaps firmer with assignments such as the Moodle forums, etc. I have plans of transitioning from just Turnitin to using Google docs with my class. Google docs would allow for greater feedback flexibility, and would give me the ability to work one-on-one with my students outside of class and office hours. I may require office hour visits in the spring as well, especially near an essay due date.
One final change that I plan on in the spring is to require community involvement...service learning. I firmly believe that what we do in school should be linked to the "real world", that we should form connections within our communities, and help those that need it. To that end, I am working with another TA in visiting elementary classrooms with our classes in February, completing a Dear World project of our own. Additionally, I may well be asking my students to find other opportunities, working maybe 2-4 additional hours as a volunteer. They could work at the Redwood Empire Food Bank, or helping coach a sport. They could read books to kids at the library. Whatever they choose, as long as they are active in their local community, I'll be happy. While this steps away from the "theme" of the class a little, I see it as too valuable an opportunity to miss, and I can see that at least the Dear World service learning could still be connected to the power of words.
Despite my experience this fall, and how much more at ease I feel now, I am still nervous for the spring. There is always the chance that I could screw up lesson plans, or fail to be adequately prepared. I could have another, different student fail. I know already my small class of sixteen will be even smaller, perhaps thirteen, as two are moving on through their chosen programs at SSU, and one is failing. I assume this will change the class dynamic, and so I worry a little about that too. Still, despite the nerves, I am very much looking forward to another semester with many of the same faces.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Almost Done

I can't believe I am already heading into my last full week of the semester. What a semester it has been! The ups and downs are subject matter enough for a [reflective] post of their own.

Last week, we did an activity in class that I borrowed from another Teaching Associate... "Wasting Time on the Internet". I chose this activity as we've focused a lot in the last couple of weeks on social media, sexting/texting, our online presence, and this seemed a way to bring it all together. It also gave them fodder for a final mini-essay (see prompt below). I had them all follow these guidelines for 45 minutes in class on Thursday (they were asked ahead of time to bring a laptop or other internet capable device):

1. No talking. You may communicate through email, text message, or social media only.
2. No TV episodes or movies. The point of the exercise is to see where the internet will take you, so follow links if they look appealing, check your social media, etc.
3. Keep track of your browsing history. Either take notes, or screenshot the actual history. You will need this for your final.

Simple enough. Dead silence ensued. And at the end of the 45 minutes, I brought them all back together, back to the world of the classroom. The general response was that this felt "weird" and "a little uncomfortable". "School shouldn't be this quiet." Yes, I did this activity alongside them, and it did feel peculiar after weeks and weeks of active discussion.

For the final: