Tag Archives: teaching writing

Oh no. I really did that, didn’t I?

I have being doing some things in my blog that might bother the web savvy. I’ll get to the details soon, but number one is that I don’t really care if anybody reads this. It’s for me. It’s my place to think and write when I need to get writing handled and get it out of my head and in a place that I can’t take back. It’s too easy as a writer to do a lot of writing and never share it for a variety of reasons. My issue is that I have to get the thinking out of my head, and I never did a really super fantastic good job of that before this blog. I tend to let ideas grow, but sometimes I will let them fester when I don’t do anything with them. (Such an ugly word but one that exactly explains what ideas do when they are left to rot in a mind. Okay, in my mind.)

Because the audience is me, I also haven’t done anything to promote the site, share with others, tell anyone it exists, get it on Reddit or Digg, or follow other blogs and get into the blogosphere (a relatively new word to my vocabulary) by developing relationships with other bloggers. You’ll notice my blogroll totals one other web site–it’s not even a blog. For now, I’m okay with that. But if I want to change my blogging experience, I know how. Here’s why…

I’m a participant in the ongoing creation and life of a really great open educational resource, Writing Spaces. And the folks at Writing Spaces are just about to bring to the world a terrific style guide on writing for the web. It was started by Charlie Lowe and Michael Day as a collaborative project for the Computers & Writing conference… well, it was part of an unconference associated with that conference. A writing sprint is really what it was, like a code sprint where open source software programmers/coders get together to make a bunch of code everyone needs. (Like I even knew what that meant before this unconference, but it sounds like it could be fun.)

So this sprint happened: a lot of writing professors and teachers and designers and web gurus and writers got together to write this guide over a few weeks. I dipped into it occasionally to see how the writing was going because I didn’t have much to say on the topic. I write like a writer for print, not a writer for the web. I write long blog posts (1200-2000+ words); I have all my links open into new windows (I really like that as a web user); I don’t mess around with code (or I didn’t until I read the guide–more on this later); I don’t tweak my own site much (though I took time off from being here in April and just now changed the template and included my art in the header–inspired by the guide). In truth, I do a lot of un-savvy things for a writer on the web. (Perhaps this makes me charming rather than annoying. Wouldn’t that be great? I can dream.)

The editors, Matt Barton, Jim Kalmbach, and Charlie Lowe, have done a really great job of managing to bring together a lot of writing by a lot of people: 16 people wrote this work. In not a lot of time. They had general categories they developed, then they all pitched in and wrote what they knew, what worked for them, what they taught their students, what they consulted with clients about, what was right and good. They live in Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, California, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and more. Some were at the conference in Ann Arbor, MI, but some couldn’t make it. Regardless, the writing mostly happened before the actual conference; the editing (a lot of work–and getting it all pretty for the web site must have taken hours) and copy editing (not so hard because the editors did so much) came after the conference. Very cool thing. I’ve been part of the commons, but not in something like this before.

At the first C&W conference I attended last year at Purdue, I decided I wanted to become more hip to the world of the web, so I committed to being open even before I was truly open and decided I’d let myself learn about all things online in any ways I could. I even graduated from a faculty development program at my school in teaching online last year (how on earth did I work that into my schedule?). But I just didn’t work much on understanding how words and space worked on the web. As I read through the finished text to copy edit, I did three things: 1) prayed to the web gods that I didn’t make any mistakes that would make my colleagues look bad; 2) desperately hoped that I would not do something awful to the code (because I don’t have many code skills… yet); and 3) marveled at everything I was learning. I took about twice as long to copy edit as I normally would have because I kept reading and getting distracted by links to sites I would browse around in and end up reading for awhile!

When this thing gets published later this week, I’ll put the link in here (on the word “here,” actually). But until then, let me say this: WOW! I know the difference between HTML and CSS. I created a web page and fooled around with CSS, too. I re-learned about content strategy and did these things: read a blog post by Steve Krause; played with an online color tool; thought deeply about how I wanted to use the guide in my summer WAC (writing across the curriculum) class; realized the web was more than the Encyclopedia of Arda and the few places I visit regularly. And I also learned these things: that I shouldn’t have my links open into new windows; that my posts should be shorter; that animated GIFs are no longer cool (thank goodness I never dreamed of doing that); that I should really get into Twitter (obviously, I could practice concision–something I really don’t do much of or very well); that one of the contributors likes Star Trek (“Damnit Jim” in a section title); that I should embed video in my site rather than link to it; that I should be kind to my readers with appropriate design; that I can do a lot more on the web and in this blog than I imagined.

Will I change my troubling ways because of this work? Not everything, not all at once, but I’m stunned to find that this post will be very close to 1,200 words, on the shortish side for me. I still made all my links open to new windows. (Perhaps that makes me a lovely but determined writer in transition rather than an obnoxious, stubborn Luddite. Okay, I’ll never do it in any other place than this blog. Fine.)

And to think, up until a few days ago, I was happy to write somewhere that was more accountable than my own desktop or a paper journal. I never have a pen when I need one anyway.

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Tense about helping verbs

I’m tense about helping verbs. It’s come to my attention that there are quite a few of these things and not everyone seems to agree about how many there are. Really? Fifteen or twenty-three or thirteen, and are these all the same modal auxiliaries? WHAT? Sweet Baby Jesus, help me. This is not a precise business, this thing they call the English language. What will I do? I’m stunned by my lack of understanding. Okay, not really. I knew I didn’t know anything about helping verbs, and it made me tense. Got a handbook, though, and some URLS to a few killer pages by grammar gurus.

We all use these words: rough, dough, slough, cough, yet the /ough/ sounds makes no sense whatsoever: rough /uh/; dough /o/ (that would be a long “o” sound); slough /oo/; and cough /ah/.  How does one explain that? Give me a pictographic language any day to figure out. English is crazy. “I before E except after C, or when sounded like A as in neighbor or weigh.”  What? You’re kidding, right?

Helping verbs–sounds so cozy, doesn’t it? Like these are better words than any others because they are helpers. They are the charity of the English language, making up somehow the gaps in need by “helping” us out when we need them most.

Here are some that seem to be prominent: am, as, are, was, were, been, be, can, has, shall, will, do, does, did, have, should, may, might, being, would, must, could, had. Helping verb specialists group these together in bunches sometimes. Egads. Each distinct grouping seems to have something special to help with, too. It’s not just about being helpful, it’s also about being specifically helpful, like the difference between a middle reliever and a closer in baseball. Maybe. I say if you can throw the knuckleball, you belong in the game anywhere.

I can’t teach verbs. I’m not even sure I ever say the word verb very often in classes. I teach thinking and acquisition of communication strategies through writing. I teach that one needs to read so much good writing and learn to recognize bad writing that one can produce what is good when needed. We talk about details and  work deep in text, but I don’t call anything a participle or a conjunction. Damn. Am I a traditionalist? Using models of good writing to teach writing? No, I’m not. I love Hemingway and Faulkner. And Dickens and Woolf. But I wouldn’t teach these authors to help people learn to write… not only. I teach them in literature classes and sometimes allude to the fact that prolific and famous authors can teach us a lot about writing: their writing processes, their work ethics, their struggles, their fears, and their ego-trips. Learn to write by doing what they do–nah–it’s too hard for freshman comp.

And now we know I can’t teach helping verbs… does knowing what a helping verb is mean one has “helping verb knowledge” or does that knowledge help me know about knowing language rather than writing in a language? How do I separate language from writing? Can I? Should I? I must.

I remember, not at all fondly, learning French (after having tanked in Latin, Greek, Russian, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese) and thinking: I’m not learning anything about writing in French. I’m only learning about how the French language is put together and about the various kinds of words and how all parts of speech fit together. I had to have it for graduate school, and it was lovely to listen to my teacher (from Belgium–he frequently got angry at us and ranted in French–it was as pretty as chocolate). But learning the parts of French was about acquiring content of language, not language for speaking or thinking. I was early on frustrated because I was only thinking in building blocks: the legos of language.

I wanted to read and think and write and couldn’t do it very well in French (I think I couldn’t do much beyond read at the 5th grade level). I’m not sure I cared about speaking… that would have meant I’d have to think on my feet and really do some fancy work linguistically. NOT what I wanted. I wanted to read and then learn to think.

I learned 500 verbs, and conjugated a ton of them. I remember manger: to eat. I couldn’t conjugate a French verb now to save my life. Shoot, I couldn’t conjugate an English verb. I had to look up what a helping verb was because I couldn’t remember. I do not write along in English and think, aha, here is the perfect spot for a helping verb. Now, I see it’s time to switch tense. I’m going into pluperfect subjunctive now… check me out! Didn’t I just use a helping verb? YIPPEEE. I’m righteous.

Do you even know what a pluperfect subjunctive is? I thought so. I had to look this up, too. Subjunctive has to do with a verb mood. VERBS HAVE MOODS? This certainly explains a lot about why I am so gushy and overwrought as a writer. My verbs are moody.

What do I do with this as a writing teacher? I can’t explain what I do as a writer, let alone how the language works. I KNEW it. I should have gone to A&P school. (Airframe & Powerplant… yes, that’s right, I was just moody, wasn’t I? It’s tangible work and that has its appeal. I mean, you make the helicopter run or you don’t.)

Now I’ve acknowledged that I really can’t remember a thing about how my own language is put together and only remember one French verb which I cannot conjugate and might have best been an A&P mechanic. And I feel like sometimes I am not a teacher of writing. What do I do?

As a writer, I think I keep doing what I’ve been doing: read a lot of really interesting writing across genres, compelling stuff that rivets me, find blogs that I think are witty, read science fiction whenever I can, read Victorian novels and poetry, read magazines like Smithsonian and National Geographic (and listen to heavy metal–that helps me write). And dream on. Or at least let my brain mess around with words in a variety of ways and formats online and off, in print and invisible, so that I can talk about how writing gets crafted. So MY writing might help me be a better writing teacher or teacher of anything with writing (which is everything I do).

Writing is built. Sometimes, it’s sloppy and people write like they talk and we all know that’s bad, very bad, way bad, burn in the afterlife bad. So those folks who do that need to do more reading–reading like a writer. Hello. How do we think people ever learned to write before now, before the giant freshman comp machine got started in the 19th century? By blowing ink on cave walls? Divine intervention and inspiration? By reading and talking about that reading and investigating that reading. Doh! Reading like writers. There’s an essay I’ve read a few times in Writing Spaces (Volume 2), “How to Read Like a Writer” by Mike Bunn. Try it on for size. It helps me think about how I can be a writing teacher without being able to say what a helping verb is. If there are such things as “helping” essays, then this is one, and Writing Spaces has a load of them.

While I’m tense about helping verbs and nearly everything else that makes up the English language, and I’m apparently woefully ignorant about helping verbs at least, there are a few things I know are right:

1) learning how a language operates is content;

2) learning how to write in a language is hard work and comes long after 1) and sometimes after you’ve forgotten 1);

3) learning to be a writer in a language is about learning how to think in that language; and

4) learning to write with ease in a language, having fun, playing with tone, and phrasing, fooling around with words, is about reading in that language and then finding a groove for what sounds good at a given time for a given audience in a given genre… and being able to do that as a writer, editor, reader of your own writing.

That’s art, not craft, and art is what happens after content is mastered, after craft is mastered, and art is way damn hard. Worth it, yes, but hard. Writing students should learn that. So.

What makes me think freshman, 18-19 year old students right out of high school, or nontraditional students out of college for 5-10+ years, have the content of language all figured out so that I can teach them about higher order critical thinking and advanced writing strategies? I would be wrong if I thought students were all set in content of language knowledge. I need to teach that, including, (oh help me) helping verbs, as I teach the thinking stuff… think first, own your knowledge, write, edit, publish. Repeat.

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Thinking about readability trumps football

Even a close game like The Iron Bowl couldn’t divert me (for long) from thinking about readability today (and this is a banner year for me: an alum of TCU and Boise State, and teaching in the Auburn Univ. system).  I should be more involved with college football, at least, but there it is: I seem to be only on the fringe these days. For this very moment, text is vastly more entertaining. (I have to admit, though, there are moments when a stunning fade will capture me entirely, and if a receiver catches it in his fingertips then drives into turbo, way way WAY past the defense, for a game-saving TD–that is diverting.)

Readability. Sometimes you just can’t shake something from the back burner. Today it’s front and center. Why? No idea. Fate? The timing is right? Did I read something recently that was so hard, I abandoned it (Thomas Pynchon, no doubt)? Not sure.  I do know readability is relevant to me right now because information design matters to me at this point in my life. I’m trying to work out several kinds of knowledge I possess and how to share that information to maximum effect. My current tools are inadequate. I want pretty charts; moving charts, literally and metaphorically. I want data that is beautiful, that is art, that is readable. Of course, that all leads me back to the text that I want to be part of the information design, and this all leads me to what I spend a lot of time thinking about: college writing instruction.


Do folks in college writing studies do much with readability measurement? It certainly changed textual production in the 20th century, but do we pay enough attention to it in college classes, especially in college writing classes? I don’t know, but it’s on my list of things to dig into when I feel like digging into a database, because readability matters in college, for sure to beginning college writers, and by extension, their teachers.

I certainly haven’t paid much attention to readability since I got back to teaching college writing in 2007. I have assumed three things as a college writing teacher: 1) if I have interest in a text, then I can teach it; 2) if I can convince students of the rightness of reading a text, they will do it; 3) college textbook producers know what they are doing. But I’m wrong. Here’s why: 1) just because I care, doesn’t mean anyone else will–a few will (my devoted Star Trek writing students); 2) even at my most persuasive, a text can baffle, even proficient readers; and 3) maybe college textbook producers don’t care about readability. This certainly explains my experience in micro and macro economics. I considered myself more than a proficient reader, but I couldn’t “get” it by reading the $120 book. This is something I hear from students a lot: “I read it, but I don’t get it.” And really, if you picked up a college text and tried to plow through, you might only get a portion of it or not get it at all. Some of the college texts I’ve read (I use the term “read” loosely here) are often written for a specific discourse community with specialized vocabulary and conventions that are alien to a reader’s experiences. How does a disinterested reader get over that? How does a semi-interested reader get over that?

The answer is complicated. Some students are not able to get over the disconnect between what they can read independently and what they might need serious instruction to understand–especially when a teacher assumes the text IS the instruction. Related to retention? Oh. My. Word.

Many college teachers I know complain that students “don’t read” anymore. Did they ever? Did any students ever power through the boredom of incomprehensible text? I certainly didn’t as a freshman. I read what I wanted to–some of it sophisticated, some of it fun, some of it mildly difficult, but I only read what I wanted to read, easy or hard, and never to learn how to do anything in my college classes. I was such a brat. (In my defense, I think the economics textbook was truly awful–not one bit of humor nor an engaging voice–yuck.) Furthermore, moveover, and get this: I never read a syllabus until I wrote one. I really need to think about that statement in a quiet moment.

John Trimbur writes about the ethics of boredom in his text, The Call to Write. I have used this text to teach many times, and I like this part about reading and boredom. It’s something like this: saying you’re bored with a text doesn’t necessarily mean it’s boring; you might not be ready to read the text. You might need to work harder and better in order to comprehend–multiple readings, with vocabulary instruction, group discussion, outlines, and additional reading. Ah. I wish I’d known about how to name what I said a billion times as a freshman. I’m not sure it would have changed my path much. Going to college right next to the beach was hard get past and made it nearly impossible for me to study most of the time–oh, and did I mention the bar on campus next to the pool perched on the cliff with ocean views? No carding. So there was really no hope for me back then, but understanding textual “boredom” might have helped me more appropriately teach writing to the struggling students I encountered early in my career, or rather, tried to teach. (Perhaps I have the wording all wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t be teaching them, but inviting them to learn.)

Regardless of what I call what I do in the classroom–teaching, or an invitation to learn, or modeling life-long learning–it’s often all about the penetrability of the text. Can students get into a text or can’t they? Knowing something about the text and its readability could help me. It was only in K-12 curriculum development that I learned about readability when I created and selected text for striving readers and writers. AND because I tend to connect information well after I acquire it to weave new knowledge for myself, I am only today getting around to this thinking, the connections, and these questions.

So… why wouldn’t this readability jazz help me talk about text with my students–emergent and proficient and all in between? It could give me a heads-up about how I could introduce a text, anticipate when students might need more information or context, or when I should use a text multiple times to ensure its status as a touchstone text–a mentor text. Also, because I am a writing program administrator, I have to think about professional development all the time. Could I help the composition teachers in my program if they could calculate readability levels and use this information to support teaching, high school dual enrollment, basic college classes, freshman composition, and junior-level professional writing classes?

I decided to try an experiment today during The Iron Bowl (and it’s lasted through the Oregon/Arizona game).  I took text from five chapters in an open educational resource, Writing Spaces, and ran it through several readability measures.  (Thanks to the folks who made these things online–can you imagine all this was done manually at one time? The math is gorgeous, but the labor is intense.) I tested all five chapters for three measures and then ran one of the texts through an additional measure just to check. All very casual at this point. I don’t make any claims that might be concrete, solid, or anything like “this is right” because I didn’t check my work, but has it been a fun project for Black Friday? Damn straight.

Most of the measures have been quibbled over in the past and most have been improved upon by the originators and then collaborators–including computer programmers who made modern readability possible online and made the measurement tools all the way open (I love open). I checked for the following (in order of chronological development from the mid- to late 20th century):

  • Flesch–measures reading ease; out of 100 which is the easiest; 60-70 is excellent for a variety of readers; lower scores=harder to read.
  • Flesch-Kincaid, measures text in a similar way to Flesch, but it weights things differently to find the approximate grade-level of a text (at least this measure used to be part of the tools in MS Word).
  • Gunning Fog–years of education needed to read fluently and with comprehension–12 is a senior in high school.
  • SMOG, Simple Measure of Gobbledygook (I swear), suggests the years of education needed to comfortably read a text. (I only used this on one text.)

Go Arizona! If Oregon loses, it will benefit TCU–I’m still “watching” football as white noise at minimum.

I’m not going into detail here, but each chart (below–Figures 1-4 with some notes) can be interpreted individually, but generally, I found the below interesting points (please note that each chapter appears twice on each chart–once without extraneous text included and once with everything–so there are ten bars total):

  • Readability for the text alone is higher (or more difficult) than the text which included everything: references, discussion questions, etc. I think this is because of the shorter sentences of questions and short sentences of the references–a guess for now.
  • Readability levels are slightly higher than I’ve heard is apropos for college: 2 of 5 are in the range I would have guessed for college level; 3 were just a wee bit higher.  And this next is all my memory: I think text for struggling readers in middle school and above (including adults) should be somewhere around 4th-6th grade; high school needs to be 8th-9th grade; college is something like 10th grade and above; post-BA college is much higher.

Well. Writing Spaces appears to rock readability. Still, I coded the names of the articles/authors for now, despite the openness of Writing Spaces, partly because this is fooling around, and it’s not comprehensive; it was just something that came into my head this morning. It could be something terrific later, and I think it will be. For today, it’s glorious fooling around.

(And just to be sure there’s full disclosure: I’m an assistant editor for WS and professionally invested–personally invested, too. And I would like to note that I am doing what I vowed I would in one of the first posts here: include mention of WS in every post, but that’s not been hard at all. AND it’s important for me to make this clear, too, no one involved gets financial compensation on that project–most of what I’ve learned about the open movement isn’t about money anyway; it’s about doing what’s right with the knowledge we gain/create and openly sharing for and with all. Here’s where a kicked-up version of Word Press might have served me better: perhaps I could have added this aside in a footnote.)

The below, Figure 1, is the Flesch measure results, the oldest chronologically, of the readability measures I applied. Here 100 is the easiest to read–100 being a wordless book, I’d guess. The lower the score goes, the more difficult the text. One chapter is in the 40s, but most are in the 50s-70s range: nice.

[Figure 1]

I know the names of the articles are all over the place. For today, I’m okay with this. Hope you are, too. (And the pictures are really poor quality–sigh–that’s something I can fix later. Hope it’s all discernible for today–I mean, readable.)

The below is a collaborative improvement (perhaps) of Flesch with Kincaid, though the measurement is slightly different than Flesch. The 10th grade level is about right, so I’ve read, for college readers–might could be this is correct for beginning college readers, but still generalities get me riled up if I think about them for too long. Might could be a lot of worthwhile work is on the horizon along this vein (or has been done already–need to get into that database). “Might could be” is a Southernism I have apparently picked up and added to my writing repertoire. Wonder what impact it has on my readability?

[Figure 2]

Below, in Figure 3, the Gunning Fog measure (1950s) suggests the years of formal education needed to comprehend a text in a first reading. I am SURE my economics textbook would have measured off the chart.

[Figure 3]

So fuzzy.  BUT so interesting.

I ran one of the essays, the one with the best readability rating in each measure, through SMOG and got this result:

[Figure 4]

That’s worse than them all for fuzz, I’m afraid: the grade level is 10.25 for essay 2LWO (the first part of sophomore year in high school). The Gunning Fog is 9.7; Flesch-Kincaid is 7.1; Flesch is 70.74. All right at the point where I thought college readers might be. But there is a multiple grade difference from the SMOG to the Flesch-Kincaid. Does that matter to me?  No. I don’t think it does.

Who says that these are all right, I wonder? I’ll need to find out if anyone says one measurement system is vastly better than another. But like teaching methods/strategies–I believe nothing is a panacea. Own all the tools, try them all, and individualize whenever possible. People teach people, programs DO NOT teach people. Or put another way: people learn from people, not from programs. No pre-planned curriculum meets the needs of every student. Teachers with a lot of tools to work with and some experience can build a field of dreams. Maybe readability can be another tool for college writing teachers–at least the college writing teachers I’m responsible for helping… and me.

Another thing I need to find out: does all this mean something to college writing instruction as a field? Or is it “been there, done that”? More thinking–great. Minimum takeaway: my syllabus is getting run through a readability tool before the spring term.

For Black Friday, though, I’m mighty happy to have had a project like this to keep me inside (it’s rained all day), to make me write about something I care about (writing about writing is a good thing), to let me think about football peripherally (not a bad thing), and to show me a path I might travel along professionally, or at least investigate more deeply (this might be a yellow brick road for me–where are my ruby slippers?).

Arizona really needs to get it together. It’s not looking good. Do I care more about college football than I let on?

Full disclosure time again: I really love team sports, especially college sports, especially baseball and football, but any sports as metaphors for writing is a fine thing. Hitting in baseball is nice for teaching writing. But isn’t a blog something like a pass in football, specifically a fade? I am throwing to you, the reader, way far down the field.  You had to get all the way through most of this to see what it was all about–but you trusted me, you looked back toward me when you thought the point might arrive, and there was the point, coming to you, and here you got to the end. And if this means anything to you, you can elegantly catch it and run to score in your own way. Isn’t that what writing, thinking, knowledge management, and open is all about? I pitch, you catch. Later, you throw it back, better than before–or better still–together, we do something spectacular.

Writing is indeed like team sports. Perhaps it’s more like being a pitcher than a quarterback, but no matter the details, it’s about trust and not being alone on the field. I find great comfort in that.

Last play of the game: the readability for this post. Go out 5 and turn left to the hash mark on zebra white blue 86 hut. And there’s the catch: I’m writing so 9th graders can get it. I’m good with my general readability level being at 9th grade. Might could be it’s my ideal audience. Might could be that I’ve never really stopped being 14 years old.

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The National Day on Writing…

“The” National Day on Writing… as if there should only be one.  I’m always going to celebrate this day as if my life depended on it (and secretly every day of the year).  It’s a day perfectly made for me (though I’m sure Congress and the originators of the whole thing never considered my needs for a hot second).

Tomorrow is the big day.  This year I’m honored to celebrate the day with a former TCU student visiting AUM to talk about his writing, his music, how he works, and what it means to share words with the world.  My former TCU student.  (The lyrics of a song he recently wrote for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and TCU Frogs for the Cure contain the words of breast cancer survivors–that’s one way to share words.  Watch this video, all of it, and then go buy his song on iTunes.  If you don’t buy much music on iTunes, make an exception because you need to own this one song to help find a cure.)

He’s doing amazing things with music and writing.  I can’t believe I’ve got a former student who is doing such beautiful things with his life, or that I actually know what’s up with him.  Normally, I’ve got a lot of rabbit in me.  I’ve rarely lived or worked in one place for long.  I haven’t much seen my students again after I’ve taught for a term, a year, whatever.  Aunt Marianna nailed it when she said I was naturally discontent.  Not unhappy–just always yearning.  I distinctly remember her telling me when I was 15 years old, “Honey, you’ll struggle because of your natural discontent, but it’s also a gift.  Find the right use for the gift.”  (By the way, who says that to a 15-year old?)

Now I get it.

So Tim Halperin is making a difference in the world.  I’m proud of him–as if I had much to do with it–but whatever part I played for a semester, it is something that makes a difference… to me.  I often wonder if I matter.  Do my actions help anyone?  Do I say things that make people joyful?  Do I create an environment around me that gives people a chance to grow?  He says I did that.  Thank you, Tim.

He’s come to perform at my university for AUM Writes! Day.  We started a day of celebration last year, because I’m big on days that celebrate literacy. When I slaved for a publisher sometime in the mid-2000s, I celebrated International Literacy Day by begging the vice president, fellow employees, and a book distributor to find a way to give 1,400 books to a local elementary school.  We did it.  On International Literacy day that year, trucks and people rolled up to a little K-5 school outside Dallas and each student in the school got to pick out a book to keep and the rest, 750 books, were donated to the school library.  I thought that might have been one of the best moments of my life.  Only one of the best as it turns out.

Now I work for an education experience provider–a university.  We have a lot less money than publishers, but I really dig the freedom and what money we have is mostly well spent.  Would I rather have a talented musician talking to students about his writing process or a new rug?  No contest.

Talking with Tim, I realized how lucky I was as I said aloud how lucky I was.  Or perhaps, it’s just a kind of fate.  I seem to have operated my life like a boat: I point my boat in a direction I think I want to go and then hope some current will move me along where I’m supposed to go.  Occasionally someone climbs aboard and sticks an oar in the water and moves me around.  Sometimes a bigger boat crashes into me, and I really move around.  Fate got us both back into conversation–in a fashion much calmer than a mid-sea collision.

Tim was a great student–a terrific writer who seriously worked the process and created smooth, easy-to-read prose.  I almost always tell students that the best papers are ones that don’t trip me up as a reader.  I am first a reader who wants to know something that they think is important to say.  If I stumble because I can’t understand, then I get all wrapped up in what I assigned.  I’d much rather just read than assess.  The gap between my reading pleasure and student writing is the teaching zone when I need to assess and guide.  Sometimes I’m good at finding what a writer needs to learn in order to improve.  At least I get my own motivations now and what purpose I might serve in the world.

I don’t remember all the work Tim created, but I remember it was easy to read and thoughtful.  One of his papers, though, was really fine; a profile on a musician/minister was visually well done (lots of green and photos of performances).  He was a breeze to teach: just did everything I said, was creative, thoughtful, and on time.  He was the first student I ever taught who invited me to an outside school event–an evening of his music at a coffee house (his then-girlfriend was in another class I was teaching).  I was delighted and entertained, and thought: he’s got it.  I also thought: 1) I hope he knows he has a gift; 2) I hope he finds joy in this gift always; 3) I hope he stays off drugs, then I bought four of his CDs and headed home to move away.

Of course, I lost track.  I moved away.  But I accidentally saw him graduate last year.  I went to see a long-time friend graduate from TCU (Maria who thinks I’m a ninja), and there he was.  We connected via email/Facebook later and got to talking about how I’d like to use his videos to teach project management and writing process.  One thing led to another (as so often happens when one chooses to live one’s life as an oarless boat); I got funding to bring him to the AUM campus to share his music and writing with my community.

Reconnecting meant I got to relive some of the most pleasant memories from that year.  I had been out of teaching for a long time when I started teaching his class: 8 am MWF in Aug. 2007, the first time I’d taught since the fall semester of 2000 when I’d been pregnant and working full-time for a publisher.  Not a brilliant move altogether, but there it was.  I’d committed to the department and to an elementary school partnership as well as to two dear friends who co-taught with me in a highly experimental three-teacher scenario while providing community-service credits to two high school students.  How did we think we could do it all?  We were full of ourselves and lucky (though, I will remind you, luck don’t go looking for no stumblebums).  We managed to do it.  I remember being engaged in that class and so full from the promise of the young people around me.  And yet I was exhausted.  That was it.  I couldn’t teach one more class ever again.  I knew it.  After the final exam, I remember crying because I knew I’d lost something, but I didn’t know what.  I walked home from that last class, two blocks was all, tears just streaming and steaming.  Christmas 2000 sucked.

Wait.  What happened to the pleasant moments I promised you?  Sorry.  Here they are:

My next walk on campus, seven years later, brought me back into the classroom–Aug. 2007.  (Much better, right?  On track and no tears.)  I was once again, employed full-time by a publisher, and had agreed to teach for the English Dept. at TCU (bless them always for the good they did me for so many years).  I remember thinking, hell, I can’t actually harm the students and maybe will do some good.  At the end of Ball Four (perhaps the single most personally influential book I’ve ever read, ever, ever, ever), Jim Bouton wrote about baseball, “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end, it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”  The thing that gripped me was teaching.  I just didn’t know it until I taught Tim’s class.  Each class I taught that day confirmed it.  I was finally in a place I was supposed to be.  From that day on, I knew I should be teaching, not publishing. (Though I haven’t exactly stopped wrangling around with publishers, it’s not the major focus of my life or employment anymore, esp. as I push back from entirely feeding at the table of corporate publishing excess and am working on a project that feels right and open because it is both of those things and more: Writing Spaces.  If I knew how to create footnotes in a blog, I’d have inserted one at the end of that last sentence speculating on whether I could legitimately mention Writing Spaces every time I created an entry in this blog no matter how I started out or what the general topic might be.  Bet on it.)

The end of that first day back in the classroom, I joined MLA so I could embark upon a traditional academic job search that fall.  And here I am celebrating The National Day on Writing for the second time, at an event that means so much to me, AUM Writes!, with my current students, colleagues, friends, and one former writing student who rocks, literally.  Fate.  Luck.  Yearning.  Or something else?  Discontent.  Who cares?

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Why I’m mad for free

I’m gushing over Writing Spaces, and I don’t care who knows it.  I can love a book about writing damn it.  Well, it’s a book that could be a book but doesn’t have to be a book…and this might be the most fabulous part about Writing Spaces.

At my university, we’re using Writing Spaces texts to help teach writing… in classes where writing is the subject.  Success so far.  Teachers of writing classes from FYC to basic writing to junior-level writing courses are reporting that students like what they are reading and are finding the chapters helpful in many ways.  Teachers are looking forward to the second volume coming out in December.

We have shared the WS link with our WAC/WID colleagues who are just this year undergoing training for incorporating writing into content classes across the curriculum/disciplines.  We feel that multiple essays from Vol. 1 will prove to be indispensable to our colleagues and their students.  I’m really excited to think about mathematics instruction using these essays–in our basic writing program overhaul this spring, I want to use some of these essays in conjunction with experiments in linking basic math and basic writing instruction.  These essays will also help us teach our basic writers to be teachers of basic writing to each other and younger children via video tutorials.  We hope to connect with local and international elementary-aged students through our online writing/learning portal.  The reading component will be based on long-time successful partnerships between college students and elementary students (like those of Write to Succeed’s Writing Partners program I and some grad school friends started in the late 1990s).

We are also using WS, Vol. 1 in a dual-enrollment course so high school students are reading texts intended for the college student writer.  Next semester–no publishing house text, only a handbook and WS, Vol. 1 and 2.  Students like reading about writing and reading essays written for college students.

This spring we’ll also use selected chapters to support a new series of informational/teaching sessions on college writing for our community: students and parents come to campus for AUM Writing Night.  They are escorted to different rooms: students read, think, and write with writing teachers.  Parents brainstorm how they can be effective supporters for their children who will be learning how to be college writers with more writing teachers.  Everyone gets something to write about; everyone gets a little refreshment; everyone gets to “take” home an open educational resource “textbook” they can study to truly get ready for the coming college writing years.  Based on the initial feedback from the dual classes, we suspect this will be a fantastic series.

Next summer, I’ll be using WS, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 to teach an NSF grant-supported Bridge Course (along with a handbook).  I can easily ask my students to read some chapters before actually entering the program.  I think it’s going to be spectacular.  One task: determine which pieces they will take with them to college to use, why, and name that collection of their own design.

Do you honestly think I wouldn’t use WS Vol. 1 and 2 in my grad writing across the curriculum class next summer?  I have to do it.  And my students will love it because they will take their learning and these essays from my classroom to their classrooms where they’ll teach: science, math, education, health, geology, social studies, psychology, and whatever.

Our illustrious Learning Center writing tutors are beginning to use Writing Spaces for prescriptions. Being able to recommend a reading to students to help in their research phase, or invention phase, is a powerful tool for consultation.  Happy, Happy LC.

I used to dream of a project like this.  And here it is.  Some dreams do come true.

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