Life training is job training

As I hang out with my fourteen month old daughter and watch her alternate between playing with the puppy and eating the de-husked pieces of popcorn that I’m leaving for her (sometimes both at once as she feeds the popcorn to the puppy), a sentence occurs to me that is one of those great truths that we come up with once in a while:

Being a mother is being everything to everyone, all the time… and on half the sleep.

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Now I know that this blog is supposed to be about writing and teaching and learning, but that's exactly why my kid, husband, puppy, and kitty (and mom, and dad, and brother, and in-laws and…) all make appearances. I do think that a lot of what I have learned being a wife and mother is helping prepare me for whatever is ahead of me in the classroom. If you have experience being a mother or mother figure, you know that you have be be prepared for people with different needs and perspectives, and you have to be able to change up what you're doing with no warning.

Teaching someone who can't talk, and who you can't tell if they understand anything you are teaching them, is certainly good training for teaching any one. You have to think of so many different ways to explain things including visual and auditory, and you can't just rely on the text book. You can't expect the pupil to conform to your way of teaching, you have to figure out how the pupil learns the best and go with that. You have to try to cover all of the bases and teach everything that you can think of that might possibly apply, then you have to let go and watch what happens. And let's not forget the innate ability of babies and toddlers to turn any adult goofy.

Now, that's not to say that you should hold the hand of every one of your students and spend every waking moment working on new and different ways to write you assignments, but a little creativity and fun go a long way to helping your students figure out how they learn best. I had the great good fortune to be home schooled for most of my formative years, and that helped me figure out how I learn best. Unfortunately, most of your students will have gone through a standard school system with overworked teachers and strict requirements that don't allow a great deal of creative thinking or exploration. The best teachers, the ones that your students look up to and remember years after graduation, will be the ones who were creative and exploratory, anyway.

I'm not saying that everyone should run right out and find a baby to raise, but there are opportunities for everyone to mother or mentor.  If you take these opportunities, not only will they often look really good on a resume, but they will help enrich your life and teaching experience, as well. Every teaching experience is also a learning experience, and should be appreciated for it.

And going to college was the second best test for how much I could get done on too little sleep…

A misery shared…

Just kidding. Writing isn’t a misery… most of the time.

image Porter and Menolly, working hard at the “Learning Farm”

What I am laughingly trying to say is that if you’re having a hard time writing, you might consider a different approach: collaboration. It is amazing how much I can get hashed out just talking to a trusted friend or loved one about a story, and if the person you’re talking to has a vested interest in what you are writing, as in it’s their writing too, so much the better.

One of the tenants of first year English at the college level is workshop and collaborative writing. It always gets mixed results, and there hasn’t been any project structure that can account for all of the potential problems with group projects, but when it works, it is one of the greatest learning and writing experiences that you can get.

Now, most students have had a very bad group experience in school, and very few have had great ones. There is often one person in the group that is a leader and does most of the work, one who is a follower and will basically do the least amount of work to get a decent grade, and one person in the group who simply doesn’t show up. There are ways for individuals in groups to try and keep the work load and participation balanced, but so few students know these tactics or how to employ them, so they just go through the project as quickly as they can and keep their head down hoping for a passing mark.

This, of course, is not why teachers assign group work. If nothing else, seeing how other people view your work and getting their feedback on it is one of the best things to happen to any writer. While you might be writing for yourself, if you ever intend to be published, you are writing for an audience, too. If you don’t have any idea what the audience thinks about your work, you don’t know how to give the audience what they want.

On the collaboration front, if you have more than one mind working on a project, you’re guaranteed to get something more creative and more interesting to more people. You simply can’t get away from the fact that someone else will look at your writing with another perspective and other ideas will come to them that wouldn’t have necessarily come to you. If you’re actively trying to put your individual spin on a piece, you’ll get something even better because your separate perspectives are focused in one direction.

There are a couple of different ways that you can collaborate that are advantageous, and I’m sure you can come up with new ways, as well. You can write the entire story together, each pick a character or a couple of characters, switch off chapters, even one of you come up with character development and another work on plot while a third is creating the world. There are all kinds of ways for writers and creative minds to inspire each other and come up with great work.

So you might groan when a teacher assigns you group work, but there are a lot of great reasons to complete it, not the least of which is that you will probably have to do group work in the ‘real’ world, as well. And you never know, maybe this will be the group that changes your mind about group work?

And yes, this post was inspired by watching two one-year-olds (see the picture!).

Back to the Basics

It’s a good idea to revisit what we already know to be true. One of the things that I have been blessed to do in the last two years is take another look at the building blocks of English writing in academia, mostly from a ‘how do I help these students understand what I mean’ perspective. I do think that this closer look at something that I feel like I have known forever has made me a better writer and student myself, and I was surprised to see how often these ideas and techniques came up in my graduate level classes, too.

But now I’ve graduated and have yet to find a teaching job, so what am I doing?

Going back to the basics.

Basics in almost every way. In career ways, I am on a job search like I haven’t done since I was first in the job market. I do have more experience and I have more skills, but the availible jobs don’t seem to have changed much.

Also back to basics in the things I am doing to keep busy and maybe make some money in the meantime. At least basics for me. I am going back to my original idea that if I am going to make money in a creative way, I’d better have more than one creative endeavor. I’m revisiting my novel, for instance, and digging out the notes that I’ve gotten back on it. It’s time for that fourth draft (watch this space)!

I’m crafting again: beadwork, knitting, and crocheting. These were originally taken on as a hobby, but it made sense to try to add that to the list of things I could do to make money. Shameless plug #2: Check out my Etsy page!

We’re planning on doing music again, as well. The summer reading program is about science, which isn’t exactly spot on with our stuff, but we certainly don’t dislike science-y songs, we just need to learn some. And we can get back into songwriting in the schools, as well, with a little more official paper to back us up (as in, my MA, of course).

And then there’s the basics in my personal life: my family. I changed my verbiage just a couple weeks ago. Instead of “I’m unemployed since I graduated.” I switched to, “I’m a stay-at-home mom since I graduated.” I remembered that we were expecting me to have a little bit of a wait before a job opened up for me, and the complete gift that I am getting from this is getting to stay home with my daughter who is almost a year old. Anyone who is a parent says, “Enjoy it, this won’t last!” and I am very grateful to have the time with her while she is small.

And you want to talk about basics, there is nothing more basic than helping a child grow and learn. How do you help the child learn to talk if you aren’t sure how many words the child understands? Can you start a child learning to read before they can talk? How can you help them learn more than one language at once? I expect to get many great ideas and stories for my classroom from this kid.

So for now, I’m focused close to home and working out my building blocks for the next step. But don’t worry, I’ll still have stuff to say here, so you won’t miss out!

(not like you’ve been missing out for the last year while I was busy finishing my degree and having a baby.)

And so it begins…

In like a lamb, except that I’m talking about a period of four months, not thirty-one days. I do hope that the ‘out like a lion’ isn’t going to apply to this school semester, but I’m willing to pay the price for my metaphor if that’s how it works.

But I do have to say, right now I am pretty sanguine. The difference between my nerves last semester at this time and this one are night and day. I’m coasting on a finished syllabus and a bare-bones first paper, and feeling pretty high and ahead of the game. I had to get to finals week (when there wasn’t anything I could do about anything, anyway) before I was this comfortable with my class.

Granted, I have a class under my belt. My greeness this time of last semester does not escape my memory. The sheer number of times I had to revise the schedule is proof enough of how untried my teaching skills were.

But now, after meeting my students and even getting most of their names, I am pretty calm about the whole thing. I’m looking forward to reading their papers, and I think a lot of them are looking forward to writing them. I supposed that’s a boon — this semester the students got to pick which section they were in, so they picked Narrative and Descriptive. Pair that with my penchant for that type of writing, as well, and you’ve got at least one explanation for my unexpected chill.

I know that the semester of teaching was most of it, though. I went through a class, I taught 24 students some things, I passed most of them, and I got good evaluations (except for one, but one outta 24 ain’t bad, right?), and none of them threw anything at me. My boss is happy with me, and so is her boss, and the whole department is still behind me. At least, that’s how it feels. Have I mentioned that I am EXTREMELY lucky to be at the school I’m at?

So, if I could tell my past self one thing, it would be, “This, too, shall pass.” I mean, I’d probably be annoyed with my future self for telling me something I already knew, but it really is the best advice I could give.

Nose to the Grindstone

I’m still at the point in semester (as in before semester starts) that I’m just nervous. I know there’s excitement in there somewhere, but right now, I’m sure that I won’t get anything done, and I’ll get to the first day of class and have forgotten to put on my metaphorical pants that morning.

‘Course, it doesn’t help that I was in denial about the beginning of the school year until about a week ago. Summer lasts forever, and this summer has been long in comparison. “Endless horizon, time hurrying by,” as a great songwriter I know once wrote, and that’s particularly true when you start getting eighty-degree weather in May. We joke that summer is the day we play baseball, then we plan a whole year’s worth of stuff to put in that day.

So now is the time to knuckle down and get myself ready for the school semester. Due to updates, I can’t work on the online portion of my class (which is a lot of fun… like putting together a puzzle!), so I’m working on my syllabus.

The syllabus is a lot of scheduling, a lot of policy writing, and a lot of careful reading (now, I did put that assignment after the introduction, right?). I feel like a lot of it is unnecessary, but I know it’s not. I know that I don’t want to get into that situation and not  have the policy. I know I want to avoid the embarrassment of having the wrong assignment in the wrong place. I want to have everything in clear black and white so there aren’t any possible questions, and we’re all on the same page, literally.

I do know that the Syllabus is really only looked at the first day, and occasionally after that when someone can’t remember what’s due. The only important  thing to the student is the schedule. I also know that most of my students will lose their copy the first day of class and rely on the online copy that I post.

This is okay, especially if I have to change the schedule, something I did a LOT last year. And as long as I have given them a copy, I know that I will be okay whatever I have to enforce. Also, the syllabus is more like a guideline if there are issues… you can’t teach all 25 students exactly the same, and the policy may need to be stretched every now and then.

Really, I just need to take a deep breath, close Jewel Quest, and get to work. It’s nearly painless, and once it’s done, I’ll be far happier about the whole semester. I’ll know that I’ll have something to talk about on the first day, anyway.

But I’m writing a blog post instead…

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