Beginning Again

Tomorrow classes start for the fall term, and I officially come back from medical leave. I’m walking again (I’m slow, but relatively pain-free), and so looking forward to getting done with the entire college thing, and getting on with whatever that “real” life thing is. Once again, I’ll be working with a group of freshmen student their first-year writing seminar — the same seminar that I’ve had the privilege of working with for close to four years. I love it; it’s my favorite part of my entire Berea College experience.

I’ve already met my group of freshmen students, and they’re fabulous. As usual, the professor and I will ask students to meet individually with me during the first week and a half of the semester. During this meeting we simply have a casual conversation: usually about where the student has come from, why they chose Berea, and how things have been going since they arrived on campus. These initial meetings are extremely important as we’ve found that once a student has meet with the TA, they are more likely to come back when they need help, have questions, or need general support. Making sure they come see me on a regular basis is vital to the students’ overall success in the course.

Tomorrow morning I will hand out a sign up sheet for these appointments, and thus another semester (my last semester) will begin (again). I am so looking forward to it.


Accidents Happen: Tips on Dealing with Leaves from College

Hi All,

In college we often have to deal with things that are beyond our control. We begin college with the assumption that we’ll just breeze through four years and be done with it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen so smoothly. In other words, life gets in our way, and we have to prioritize and re-route our course.

As I’m writing this, I’m facing my second giant medical crisis of my college career.

The first happened on January 20th, 2012. It was my second semester of freshmen year, and I woke up one more finding it very difficult to breathe. Later that evening I was told that I had life-threatening bilateral pulmonary embolisms, and that it was unlikely that I would make it through the weekend. Upon hearing this news, I immediately looked at my mother and told her to call my college advisor, because in the off chance that I didn’t die, I also didn’t want to get kicked out of school for being missing in action. Two or three weeks later I was back at school, only had to drop two classes, and was able to finish the semester just fine.

This time around I’m not going to be able to bounce back so quickly. I fell on some black ice earlier this week and broke my kneecap very badly. I can’t walk, drive, or bend for at least a month. After that the doctors will start slowing bending my knee to different angles every couple of weeks for another 10-12 weeks, and then we’ll start rehab. By then I’ll actually have to learn how to walk again. I don’t imagine that this will be fun, but more than the knee, I’m upset that I’ve lost my independence, and my ability to be a student.

So, here are some tips for dealing with medical and personal crises while you’re in college:

1. Let your school know as soon as possible. This is absolutely key. The earlier you let your school know what is going on, the more they’ll be able to help you do what you need to in order to come back next semester.

2. Be in touch with your professors individually. Mass email is fine, but it’s also important that your professors are aware of what is going on.

3. Remember that you can go back. Too often, when people leave school they never go back. Remember that you can go back, and that most of the time you should.

I’ll be back to school in the fall, and in the meantime I’ll continue blogging here and on some of my other blogs.

Happy Writing!

Working with Student Writers

I’ve been working with student writers for three years in my role as a teaching assistant and peer leader. One of the challenges of this job is that I am both a fellow student and someone with a kind of authority in their lives. I find that it helps me to do my job better if I simply think of myself as a part of the support system for these students. Thinking about my jobs in those terms allows me to not over-complicate it. I know that my role is to use my skill set in order to help students find their voices, and become better writers. My job is not to make these students the best writers, or even to make sure that everyone gets and A in the class.

With all of that said, there are certain that I do (or don’t do) in order to facilitate one on one meetings with students.

1) Avoid providing too much feedback. This concept has been preached to me over and over again for the last three years. I’ve heard it from professors, I’ve read it in books, and more importantly, I practice it on a daily basis. Instead of overwhelming students with a sea of comments on their drafts, I focus on one or two major things that they can work to significantly improve their work. This is not the time for nit-picky grammar fixing.

2) I ask a lot of questions. Um, like a lot of question. The Socratic method is an amazing thing. It is important, however, to not ask questions in a way that makes students close down — in other words, don’t be an asshole when you’re asking these questions. I tend to ask questions like “tell me about your thesis” or “what is it you’re trying to say here.” This way, you’re opening up room for a conversation with a student about their writing, and you’re asking them to think critically about the choices that they’re making.

3) I ask them what they want to work on. Now, sometimes I don’t always follow what they tell me they want to work on, especially if it’s the first draft and they’re asking me to check their grammar, but I do usually ask the question. I ask this question because I want to know what they’re thinking about their paper when they sit down to talk to me. I’m also asking because I want to know where they think the weak spots are.

4) I invite them to bring back another draft. I always end sessions by telling students that they are more than welcome to bring  back additional drafts for us to work on. If I haven’t already said it enough, writing is a process, and there are no magic number of drafts. I want to see multiple drafts from students because it helps both of us do our jobs more effectively.

Of course, there are other “rituals” that I find helpful, but these are the big ones that I do at almost every meeting with students.

Moving Past Being a Bad Writer

I wanted to follow up my previous post about audience by unpacking this idea of pushing aside the things that prevent you from getting words on the page, and look at some ways to move past those things.

At some point in our lives, many of us experience the trauma of getting back a paper that we worked really hard on, and finding a sea of red marks. Our eyes swiftly skim the lines looking for the fatal flaw in our work — there must be some reason for all this symbolic blood on our papers. Unfortunately, many students come to internalize these marks and comments, which were usually written with the best intentions, but are still a puzzling teaching practice. All of a sudden, by attempting to help these students become better writers, these teachers have succeeded in doing the exact opposite. They’ve branded these students as “bad writers.”

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this time and again on this blog, but I don’t actually believe that bad writers exist. Writing is a practice, and given the right tools, an appropriate length of time, and ample support, practically anyone can produce a “good” piece of writing.

The trick here is eliminating all the reasons for not getting words on the page, and making sure that you allow yourself time for revision once you’ve gotten words on the page.

Writing Problem #1 — Maybe you’re terrified to write even a short paragraph. Being asked to write 300 words seems like an impossible task for you.

Solving this kind of problem happens through forcing yourself to write frequently about things that you care about in extremely low stakes settings. Perhaps you keep a journal where you write about your life. Maybe you aim to write 300 words worth of facebook statuses a day. The point here is that you hold yourself accountable for practicing putting words out there. The more you do this, the better you’re going to get.

Once you’ve gotten comfortable with this, you raise the stakes and begin figuring out ways to edit and improve upon what you’re writing. You begin exploring sentence revision, organization, and other concerns.

Writing Problem # 2 — You have no problem getting words on the page. You can free-write the shit out of just about anything, but somehow you still get D’s on almost every paper you turn in.

The trick here, my friends, is learning the art of revision. This was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn. I was brilliant, and I knew that anything I produced would be brilliant, too. I had no idea what anyone was talking about when they asked me to revise what I’d written. Regardless of whatever high horse I was on at the time, you do actually have to learn how to move past the free-writing phase in order to grow as a writer. Once you get the basics down, revision can actually be a really fun process. It can sometimes feel like working a puzzle.

I’m definitely going to follow up with strategies for revision, mainly because it’s fun for me. 🙂

Thoughts on Audience

As a writer, I’m suppose I’ve always been aware that at some point my work will be read by an audience. In a traditional school setting, that audience is usually a teacher or professor who has handed out an assignment that will be seen by them, and only them. Eventually, most people who write do so beyond the boundaries of the education system, and they then have to take into consideration that their audience is going to be wider than just a teacher or a professor. Most good writing teachers will recognize this, and provide opportunities for students to practice and master writing for different audiences. This is a process that I’ve seen happen for many years now, both as a student, and as a writing TA, but I had never considered when the audience should be considered in any given project.

In last week’s class, we spoke about the intricacies of considering audience in our writing, and I’d previously assumed that I just instinctively knew the “right” time to begin focusing on the needs of my audience when I sat down to write. I figured that I’d been aware of who would be reading my work the entire time, and had written with them in mind from the first sentence. Then I read Peter Elbow’s article, “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience.” In this article, Elbow claims that in the first few drafts of a project, writers should ignore the audience, and simply focus on getting all of their thoughts down on paper. This was the moment when I realized that I’ve spent much of my writing career doing just that.

When I begin any kind of writing project, I always have a notebook with me that I use to write down all of my thoughts. This is a kind of free-writing strategy that I’ve found helpful over the years. The practice of getting all of my thoughts on the page before I actually begin the paper has become such a part of my process that I no longer think about it. In reality, what I’m producing here is draft 1 (and sometimes 2, 3, and 4). This is the space where I find myself ignoring the audience.

In our class discussion, it was clear that many people find writing for a particular audience to be restricting. Some even found it to be the cause of great anxiety, especially if they’re writing for certain professors, or if they’ve got negative voices in their heads while they’re trying to write. In these cases, ignoring the audience becomes a way to open the floodgates and allow writing to actually happen. While this is easier said than done, sometimes just acknowledging that these roadblocks can make it easier to navigate around them.

Why We Revise

For years, I was one of those students who wanted to write an essay, get to the required word count, and then hand the pages in without ever looking at any of it, ever again. This, of course, led to frustration not only from me (what do you mean I have a better thesis at the end of essay? Is that really a C, or did you have some kind of stroke while grading my paper?), but also to all the teachers who tried so hard to get me to understand the importance of revision. I’m proud to say that I have since trained myself to resist the temptation to hand in my first draft of a paper, and I now engage in many rounds of drafting, rewriting, and moving things around until I’m mostly satisfied with the outcome.

The writing process, in general, is supposed to be extremely messy. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good writer. It doesn’t even matter if you’re a regular Joan Didion; you’re still going to have to sift through the mess in order to find what you need. Anne Lamott examines the messiness of the writing process in “Shitty First Drafts” from her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. As a teaching tool, I adore the language that Lamott uses in this selection; it is accessible, informative, and entertaining. This article offers an excellent approach to the writing process (one that I use often) that involves the first few drafts consisting “word vomit.” That is to say, you would write everything that came to mind without self-editing, or worrying about making it pretty. From there, you take all of that “shit,” and you look for connections and begin polishing and shaping your paper.

I often find myself discussing the messiness of the writing process with students. In fact, with the students in the GSTR 110 class I work with, we always force them to write using a process very similar to the one that Lamott discusses. In their first drafts of their first papers, we create a PowerPoint with a series of guided questions that they are asked to answer in a Word document. These questions are intended to get them generating words while thinking about arguments they might make, sources they might use, connects they might see, and so fourth. They are given about a minute per question, and the main rule of this exercise is that they may not self-edit and they may not hit the delete button. If they are stuck on a sentence, or want to change directions, they simply hit the Enter key and keep writing. The reading from Lamott would work well as a kind of justification for this exercise, which forces these students to do some serious revision.

At this point in my life as a writer, I’ve stopped wondering if I’m a good writer or not. I’ve come to the conclusion that I have the ability to be either. I have, within my grasp, the skills needed to produce papers that are well written, well argued, and that satisfy the expectations set by my professors and myself. In order to get to that point, I have to put in the work to revise, to rethink, and rewrite. For the most part, that’s all it comes down to.

Getting Back to Blogging — New Adventures to Come!

This week I’ve begun my final semester at Berea College. It’s certainly been a journey. I began this blog as a way to share things that I’ve picked up through my experiences as a teaching assistant and peer leader, and what I’ve found is that I often neglect to post things when I’m especially busy, or when I have breaks from school. This, I suppose, is to be expected, but as someone who firmly believes that developing and maintaining a habit of writing frequently, I feel the need to step up my game.

This will be my sixth semester as a writing TA, and I have to say that I have loved every minute of it, even the moments of frustration and insecurity have felt valuable, and worth all my time and attention. My job has been my favorite thing about every semester for the last three years, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to grow and learn alongside amazing professors and students.

This semester, in addition to my labor position as a TA/PL, I’m taking a class on teaching and tutoring writing. My goal for the upcoming months is to use this blog to write about, and expand upon the readings, discussions, techniques, and ideas that we explore in class, as well as in my job.

In this class, we will be working with a section of GST 150, which is a class for students who are either identified by the college, or self-identified as needing some extra help with writing. This group, like the GSTR 110 group that work with, is typically comprised of freshmen students. I’ve worked with two cohorts of GST 150 in the past, and found it to be a very enjoyable experience, and I’m looking forward to working with more students in this class.

In the coming days and weeks, please look for posts about interesting readings, ideas, and experiences. As always, I’d welcome comments and input from the readers of this blog; I love hearing from all of you!

Using Twitter in the Classroom

A few years back, the professor I work with ambitiously decided to begin using Twitter in the classroom as a way to bring social media into our class in a productive way that would get students thinking about how they interact with social media, and as a bonus it gave us a way to talk about films as we were watching with without actually having to press the pause button and have a typical class discussion.

Our use of Twitter in the classroom has evolved since then. We’ve been experimenting with different ways in which to use Twitter in the three years that I’ve worked with this program, and this year we decided to bring it up a few notches. At some point over the summer one of us had the crazy idea to use Twitter in place of traditional exit tickets. For those who don’t know, exit tickets are widely used in education as a way to check in with students and assess their progress before they walk out of class at the end of a period. We use our “Exit Tweets” in much of the same way. We’ve set up a class hashtag that the students use to tweet as a class. We typically ask students to do things like tweet their “takeaways” from a lesson, or to tells us about a source they’re planning to use in a paper. Keep in mind that they only have 140 characters in which to complete this task, and the hashtag takes up twelve of those characters, giving them 128 character left. This allows students to practice the art of being concise. They must choose their words carefully and say exactly what they mean with very little fluff.

Our Exit Tweeting has worked surprisingly well. Students are engaged, they’re sharing valuable information about their experiences as a freshmen, and they’re writing! Don’t forget that writing on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr all count as actual writing — you are producing actual words for an actual audience, after all.

We do still live tweet the films we watch, and that’s always fun, but adding exit tweets as a regular part of our class is allowing us to have more meaningful discussions than we’ve had in previous years. If you’re in education, I highly recommend that you do some research, set some guidelines, and then give tweeting for the classroom a try.

Preparing for a New Group of Students

I love preparing for a new group of incoming students. This will be my third year working with Freshmen at Berea College, and I’m just as excited this year as I’ve been in previous years. Something is different about my energy, though. Now that I’ve been working as a teaching assistant and peer leader for a couple of years, I’m feeling more comfortable in my role. I’m finding myself thinking like a teacher from the start, and using my experience as a student to build connections and make myself more relatable.

Admittedly, this role that I play is not the easiest or most comfortable to get into. I have to find a balance between being a fellow student and an authority in the classroom. In the previous two years, I’ve clung to the student role, because that’s obviously the role I’ve had most practice in. Being a leader among my fellow students has never been a challenge for me, but a figure of authority is a bit different. In this role as a teaching assistant, I do occasionally find myself in positions where I need to put on my teacher hat and leave my bare-headed student self behind. An example of this would be those instances (that happen far more than I’d like) where students repeatedly blow off meeting with me, and then later try to complain that they’re doing poorly in class, and they just can’t understand why. In the past, I’ve felt a extreme discomfort in the role of authority figure.

As I was sitting down and preparing for the new set of students earlier this week, I realize that I no longer feel the discomfort that was there before; I’m feeling like semi-professional, which is the best I can ask for in a job that no one should ever feel completely comfortable in (if you ever get too comfortable in a teaching job, it might be time to get out). It certainly helps that I’ve been working with the professor of this course for my entire Berea College career. I’ve been a student in the course, and by the end of this school year, I will have TAed for this course a total of four times.

I’ll finish up this rather random, and somewhat incoherent blabber by saying that each group of students brings on a completely different set of challenges, whether they’ve wildly exceeded our expectations from day one, or they’ve made it obvious that we’ve got our work cut out for us. I thoroughly enjoy getting to know them, and growing with them as they transition into college.




The Library is Your Friend

You know that building with all the books in it, some might refer to this mystical place as the library, it may seem obsolete with the invention of the internet, but that’s just not true. There are lots of helpful things in the library, not the least of which is your library reference section.

There’s a reason I spent half of my office hours in the reference section of our library at Berea. Students need to get comfortable with the resources available to them, and the reference section is an excellent place to do that. In most libraries there are reference areas that include a reference desk. At the reference desk you’ll find people who are trained at doing things like researching and navigating the resources available in their library.  These people are referred to as reference librarians, and they’re great!

Tip for asking questions at the reference desk: when you approach a reference librarian to help you find resources for a project or paper, make sure that your request is specific. For instance, if you’re writing an essay on high schools in the United States, you do not just want to ask for all the material on American high schools. You’ll waste your time searching through hundreds of books for slivers on information that may or may not be helpful as you continue writing your paper. Try telling the librarian a little bit about your paper, perhaps summarize your thesis, because this will help them direct your search.