Tag Archives: reflection

School Lunch

The major downside to being an online instructor is the lack of meaningful interaction. Outside of a few e-mails, I rarely have a conversation with fellow faculty. Most of those are usually related to development of course materials or help with a student or technical issue.

When I taught face to face there was a fellow adjunct, Gary, who was in a similar situation. Twice a week I would walk into the adjunct office to find him sitting there at his laptop, cup of coffee in hand, smiling and commenting on the various comings and goings. Wearing a baseball cap and shorts, he made it clear he was just there to socialize. Looking back, I now understand and appreciate that longing he had to simply associate with a group of peers.

Sadly, I can’t come in a few times a week like he could, but what I can do is stress how important it is to do so if you are able.

Gary and I ended up having lunch a few times and talking about everything ranging from education techniques to our shared interest in writing fiction. I credit him with giving me enough courage to finally self-publish my first short story. Fast forward five years and I now have several short stories published, and am working on putting together a collection. Those lunch time conversations, and Gary’s need to socialize, were the main catalyst for me stretching myself to accomplish more than I would have otherwise done.

You never know how people you meet will influence you, it won’t always be positive, but more often than not in education it will be. Despite having various backgrounds, I find that most educators are open minded and friendly by nature (it is one of those unspoken requirements of staying in the field).

So, as I sign off for the last time this year, I wanted to leave everyone with a message of encouragement. Find a fellow teacher and go have lunch. Talk about ideas, education, hobbies, interests. Appreciate every moment of it, because whether you realize it or not, that ability to connect is not a given, and who knows, it may even help you become a better version of yourself.

 

 

Pride and Prejudice

After last week’s feel good story, this week is going to focus on the other side of the emotional coin: struggles and frustrations.

As an educator, there is a particular situation which can be extremely difficult and painful to deal with. That is entitlement.

Online course, end of the semester, grades due in 48 hours, inbox flooded with excuses ranging from computer malfunctions to ill pets, and in the digital pile of alibis one has several attachments. Teeth grind, palms clench, eyes close as the message opens:

“I was sick so was not able to hand in the last three essays, I have now completed them. Please remove the 0’s and update my grade. I need to pass this class to graduate.”

There are only a few options available in terms of response, and though limited, the repercussions are numerous.

If blessed with a deity-like ability to forgive, grade the papers, update the scores, and accept that by doing so, both syllabus policy and self respect are thrown out the window.

OR

Stand firm, say no, and accept that by doing so, both inbox and patience will be pushed to their limit by messages of vitriol and accusation.

As an educator, the reality is there is only one choice that maintains the integrity that is expected of the position.

Say no.

By doing so it will feel like the other tenets of education (kindness, understanding, and a desire to see every student succeed) are forced to the side like sediment from a river.

I promise they are not.

In education, scenarios like this will arise. They will be difficult, and that gnawing guilt those hate-filled messages leave is just a shadow on a wall, a fictional monster created by the fingers of a student who just learned some of the most important lessons of life.

Anything worthwhile must be earned, not given.

To be successful requires personal responsibility.

The earlier these lessons are taught, the easier they are to absorb. Have faith that once learned, the inevitable outcome is a wiser, better individual. That is what education is all about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is Your Favorite Book?

Recently a student asked me the question that English teachers get asked a lot–I imagine they do anyway.  “What is your favorite book?”

Oh no. This should be such an easy question, and the person asking the question figures he/she will get a really good book since clearly this English teacher reads voraciously and can offer up a good read. This thinking seems logical.  This thinking seems smart. It’s an amazing short cut to a great book. But all I can think is oh no. Clearly I need a go-to that I can just casually throw out like it really is the best of the best and my favorite.

Instead of an easy answer though, I have to spend what feels like eternity in my mind sorting through the books I have read, putting them into categories, and deciding which rise to the top of all categories. What is the criteria for my favorite book? How do all of these books stack up to that judging?

Don’t get me wrong. I like this question. I like it for the torture it puts me through. It’s an impossible question. I can’t choose one. If I’m lucky, I can give a list of top ten.

You’re all really asking for my top ten list, right?

But even then, books are favorites for their overall goodness, for the time and place I read them, for the place I was in life. Books come in and out of my list of top ten, so it’s not even a permanent list. Once and for all, I’m going to try and answer this question with my top ten list. These are, however, not in any particular order. I’m just not up for that mental task right now. But the books all moved me for varying and personal reasons. They all gave me a “book hangover,” the intellectual and emotional equivalent of the bodily aches caused by too much booze.

So here they are. What is your favorite book?

 

Vicariously Dreaming

This week is all about dreams, and I wanted to break away from the abstract big-picture view I normally go with and talk about something personal to me.

Several years ago through the glories of the internet I befriended a young man named Danny who, like me, was passionate about writing. Very quickly I realized he had a gift for wordsmithing, poetry, and editing that all surpassed my own. From that common love we became what would be the digital equivalent of pen pals. We share stories, poems, and ideas, and the edits that ensue always seem to produce much higher quality work for both of us. It remains a symbiosis.

Over the years I started to get to know Danny on a more personal level. Like me, he suffered from asthma but, unlike me, his asthma continued into adulthood and served as a constant source of hospitalization and medical bills. Like me, he has a wonderful sibling who serves as friend as much as kin  but, unlike me, whose father is an evangelical minister, politician, and pillar of the community in which he resides, Danny suffered through multiple negative parental figures.

Danny enrolled at the University of Cincinnati, initially pursuing a similar English degree to the one I had pursued during my Bachelor’s. It was at this point that I started to give Danny advice on more than just writing. In him I saw limitless potential and the same drive and passion for writing that I had as an early college student. I was a much wiser man than I was in college and had clear hindsight on all the poor choices I made during my academic career that impacted my professional and personal life down the road. I encouraged him to take advantage of the opportunities that came his way and, although I believe he would have made the same decision in my absence, he eventually became a writer and an editor for Odyssey. With that accomplishment he conquered one of my greatest regrets from my own schooling, failure to have meaningful writing experiences outside the classroom. As he continued to write more insightful articles he built up a portfolio and a reputation for quality that even my current resume would be jealous of.

Even though Danny is only ten years my junior, I began to understand what it was like to have a son to feel pride in someone else’s accomplishments. To see him grow in skill and confidence seemed more rewarding to me than it was to him. Without knowing it, Danny was purging all the demons of my past mistakes through his own achievements. It was a wonderful feeling, but I was unaware Danny was still dealing with his own demons. Thankfully, unlike me, he would face those demons down on his own instead of through someone else.

In 2017, Danny came out to the world in a lovely article. I had known for a short period of time before, but I could tell it was a struggle for him to admit it even to me, the professor who loves to talk about how important it is to appreciate other points of view and will rant for an hour about critical thinking skills.

In 2018,  Danny will be receiving the prestigious McKibbin Medal upon graduation and is on the precipice of making some major life decisions, but I can honestly say no matter where his life leads he is already a wiser, stronger man than I could have even dreamed of being at his age. I am truly thankful for the inspiration and confidence he has given me by simply having the courage that he has.

Danny,

Thank you for helping a middle aged professor dream again.

Now go conquer life.

 

 

 

Week 4: The “One Thing,” and How to Influence Assumptions

Welcome back to Week 4 of “The One Thing You can do to Raise Enrollment,” a six week “how-to” series.

Data is a powerful thing: It can confirm our assumptions as well as confound them, as in the story I shared in WEEK 1.

WEEK 2 empowered us upon learning that, when it comes to students choosing YOUR classes (and thus GCC), leaving choice up to chance is not our only option.

In WEEK 3 we covered how reputation is the most important factor in influencing people’s choices, and the importance of making our achievements public to enable people to make informed choices.

This week, let’s talk about your face.

Face Facts: Numerous published studies provide countless evidence to support the fact that, when viewing a photo of a stranger’s face, it takes us less than a second to formulate an impression .

Assumptions about the character of the person pictured are formed quickly.  One Princeton University study published by the Association for Psychological Science is a great example:

“Willis and Todorov conducted separate experiments to study judgments from facial appearance, each focusing on a different trait: attractiveness, likeability, competence, trustworthiness, and aggressiveness.” The results? Of all the traits, trustworthiness was the one participants assessed most quickly.

We cannot escape the fact that photos influence choice, so we will harness this fact and use it to our advantage.

Fear not – the good news is, people want to see trustworthiness and competence in your face, not a glamour shot.

Consider the following photos of these notables: Albert Einstein, Delores Huerta, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Conrad Wolfram.

    

The reasons for not wanting to post a photo:
  • I’m not photogenic.
  • I don’t like the way I look.
  • My face will break the camera.

 It’s not about vanity. It’s about character. It’s time to embrace the powerful sway your photo can have upon a stranger’s choice.

The employee bio page is the most underestimated tool available to you. A photo of your face, backed up with a personal quote, your areas of expertise, and a list of your achievements works to establish YOUR personal reputation while raising GCC’s reputation.

By doing this “One Thing” you enable the public to make an informed decision to choose… you.

WEEK 4 Homework: Because you are your own worst critic, your homework is to recruit friends and family to help you sort through photos of yourself to find one that captures the characteristics of trustworthiness and competence. The photo chosen by others just may surprise you.

TIP: The size of the photo on your employee bio page is 280×280 pixels. Make sure the photo your choose is cropped as a perfect square.

For tips on how to choose a photo, read Lydia Abbots’ 5 Tips for Picking the Right LinkedIn Profile Photo.

If you can’t find a photo, a GCC photographer is available.

Come back for WEEK 5: The “One Thing” Before and After

“You’ll never get a second chance to make a great first impression.”

 

Let’s Get Critical

Last year I went in depth on one of the most overlooked assessment tools, rubrics. My feelings and thoughts on that important tool have not changed, but rather than repeat myself this year I want to talk about a different type of assessment. Specifically, I want to talk about assessing the critical thinking skills of students.

The specificLightbulb critical thinking ability I have been working on is the ability to analyze and attack a strongly held personal belief. The idea being that a good critical thinker should be able to understand opposing viewpoints.

I have done this through a series of writing assignments in various forms over many semesters. The most recent iteration is a “Devil’s Advocate” series of assignments where students are required to write a defense of a personal belief one week and write a defense of the opposing viewpoint the next.

The reason I always do this type of assignment is because of my core belief that critical thinking is a skill that will be useful to students no matter their future profession. It is also a skill that is sometimes overlooked in the test-driven performance-centric world of secondary level education.

Think Outside the Box

A word of warning, these types of assignments do have issues that will arise and need to be planned for ahead of time. There inevitably is always a group of students who absolutely detest this type of work. I had a student go as far as claim I was trying to “force my liberal beliefs” on them through my position of power. That complaint didn’t go anywhere, but it is an example as to how difficult this can be for some individuals. It also is very insightful as to the ability of students to critically think.

I have only recently started to tabulate the data in any real form, and the number of students that are able to successfully “think from the opposing viewpoint” has varied over semesters. The one constant I have noticed in the last decade is that there is always a significant portion of the class (30-50%) that must change their topic or take a sarcastic tone to complete the task, which shows a lack of developed critical thinking ability.

No matter what the final numbers and assessment show, the need to reinforce critical thinking skills at the college level is, well, critical. There are elements of critical thinking that can be taught in any discipline or class, and if every course made an effort to include tasks that require critical thinking skills, the end result would be students who will be better prepared to handle the unknown, problem solve, and appreciate (or at least respect) the “other”.

Education prepares the workforce of the future, politicians, nurses, teachers, managers, everyone that has a job that requires more than a High School diploma. In a world of percentages, having the majority with a solid foundation of critical thinking skills will result in a better world for everyone.

Graduation Photo

If you have assignments that assess critical thinking, or have thoughts about critical thinking in the classroom, I would love to hear about it. Feel free to comment below or send me an e-mail!

 

I wore compression socks to work today

My non-teaching job forces me out of bed at 4:30am to work stock crew at a retail store and requires me to be on my feet for long periods of time. In an effort to combat the leg fatigue and edema, I broke down and purchased compression socks—and not the really cool kind that lifters and runners and crossfitters wear. The ugly kind…the ones that are purely functional and “flesh”-toned, with subtle hints of jaundice.

They are glorious.

I’m pretty sure they solidify my status as “old,” and while I may be a few years shy of my AARP card, they are a reminder of the ever-growing age gap between me and my students. Every year, I get older, but my students stay roughly the same age. When I first started teaching at community colleges, I was 29, just 11 years older than my youngest students. Finding course content that connected with them was easy, mostly because they had experienced the same significant cultural moments that I had. I could pepper a class discussion with references to the O.J. Simpson trial or Brandi Chastain’s game-winning kick and subsequent disrobing; and my students responded with knowing head nods.

AP Photo/The San Francisco Examiner, Lacy Atkins, File

That isn’t the case today. I’m 15 years older; they’re still roughly 18-25.

Earlier this week when a class discussion on precise word choices afforded me the opportunity to quote Inigo Montoya, I suggested that it’s important to choose words wisely to avoid comments on their paper like “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” My students didn’t laugh. Instead, they just stared at me…blankly. Even when I humbly offered, “The Princess Bride?…anyone? No? Just me?”…nothing. And in that moment, I realized that another one of my “go-to” references needed to be updated.

Giphy

Every semester, I’m faced with the reality that connecting with my students is much harder than it used to be. I am growing increasingly more aware of the fact that my students aren’t knowledgeable of the same events I am, nor do they relate to the world the same way I do.  As educators, we talk a lot about the importance of student engagement and its direct correlation to student success and retention, and so every semester, in an effort to close the growing age gap, I actively seek out new supplemental content that will help them make connections between their reality and the skills we ask them to master. Surprisingly, a majority of this new content comes from former students.

When a class asks me if I have heard about a recent event or seen a viral video or a social media post or a T.V. show, I carve out time to look it up. At worst, I find it obtuse or offensive; but even then, I am learning more about the interests of this generation of students, and that knowledge helps me connect to them in other ways. More often than not, though, it is something I can use during a future class discussion, and in those moments, they teach me, helping me understand their world—and mine—a little bit better.

I hope that I never lose the ability to make those connections with my students, that I never get to the place where my class never changes and I have become Ferris Bueller’s economics teacher Professor Binns, droning on incessantly and completely oblivious to my classroom of sleeping students. I hope that I never run out of new material…but if I do, I can always fall back on a cute kitten .gif. Everyone loves a cute kitten .gif.  

Giphy
 

Gather Around the Coffee Mug

The significance of building relationships is often overlooked in education. As a teacher, it is easy to fall into that boss/employee relationship with your students. As a professor, it is easy to get the feeling that you are on your own, with little support outside of the occasional observation from a superior.


Fortunately there is an easy solution to both of these problems:

Coffee.

Cup of Coffee
You can almost smell it. (c) giphy.com

When I first started teaching I had a difficult time managing the classroom. Despite their classroom antics, I found they still would always say hello or try to strike up a conversation when I was on my lunch break having a cup of coffee.

Eventually this evolved into a post-class ritual: I would leave the class, go the to the lunch area, and have coffee. Those students who did not have a class to go to would join me. We would chat about things, sometimes English related, sometimes movies, and sometimes just idle banter.

As the semester moved on, my insecurities within the classroom started to diminish. I was more comfortable with the class, and they realized I was just as human as everyone else.

Fast-forward a few years and I found myself in a similar situation in the Adjunct Faculty Office. There was always a silence there, the room serving as a cross street as we sped to our various destinations. On the rare occasion a question or idea would come up, but it was far from a daily occurrence.

Busy intersection
Off to class I go. (c) giphy.com


The solution was to make things more personal, have a chat, offer that cup of coffee. It wasn’t long before I started having lunch and coffee with a few of my fellow adjuncts. At those short meetings I was able to discuss assignments, classroom management, teaching techniques, and various other topics that made me a better instructor and a better person. One person in particular, Gary, even encouraged me to pursue publishing my short stories after the topic came up during one of our lunch breaks. That one conversation had a major impact on my life.

So the final message I leave is this: Students are people. Teachers are people. We all have similar fears, desires, struggles, and pursuits. Discovering that bond in a structured environment can be difficult, but put a lunch or nice hot cup of coffee in the mix, and friendship is just around the corner.

 

Making an Entrance

In my heart of hearts, I genuinely want those around me to succeed, and I take pleasure in watching them do well as they develop. I’d rather help people work out their problems than tell them what they need to do. I don’t consider any of those things character faults, but very early in my teaching experience I learned that certain actions can be confused with weakness. Weakness in the classroom leads to problems that are not easy to correct.

To say I was nervous on my first day in the classroom would be an understatement. I made the mistake of not wearing an undershirt, and my  light blue dress shirt was a drenched dark mess by the end of the 45-minute period. I imagine I seemed as ridiculous as Sir James Martin from Love & Friendship:

That lack of self-confidence and abundance of nerves  lead to problems throughout the rest of the semester. I found out very quickly that if a classroom doesn’t respect you as a person, they also will not respect your lectures, your grading, or your discipline.

That was a difficult semester, but as time went on I gained confidence and my nerves subsided. This lead to better relationships with my students and more success in the classroom. Year to year things improved incrementally. Eventually though, something happened.

Image of Luke from Star Wars about Overconfidence.
Ah George Lucas, your horrible dialogue rings true.

With my nerves fully at bay, my inner-nice guy came out again. With it, the entire catalog of issues I had in my early years started to manifest themselves again. Why?  Because while my students may have liked me, they did not respect me.

So here we are at the heart of the lesson folks: Respect is key. Respect should always be in the back of your mind when standing behind that desk. Whether it was nerves or being “Mr. Nice Guy”, I lost the respect of my students, and with it, full control of my classroom.

It wasn’t easy, and I still make mistakes, but I have learned to balance my kind demeanor with the responsibilities of being an educator. I found that I can still joke, have fun, and be myself, as long as students know I am serious about my job.

The most effective method I have found to encourage a healthy classroom dynamic is to start off strong. I like to make my first week of class filled to the brim with activity. I like to give students things to do, show them the gamut of what is to come: a journal, a discussion, a short essay, a quiz, and a reading. I do it all, because it lets students know that the primary goal of my course is for them to learn. If we end up having fun in the process, that is a bonus.

The classroom is a world with its own environment, dynamics, and life. It has the power to evolve and overtake you if you let it. Start off strong, confident, and focused, and that classroom will turn into an environment that encourages both learning and respect.