Week 1

An anonymous colleague and I are writing notes back and forth about our courses. I’m posting here. My postings will be in casual letter format:

Dear Friend,

Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me about our courses . I especially want your ideas as we both try to increase engagement in our online environment. I’m in week 2 of the 8 week late start online class, and I went ahead and changed the submission time to 6:00 p.m. as we discussed. I’ve had good results so far. No one has died from (or complained about!) the change and students are asking for help earlier. Best of all, I’m not getting frantic messages at 11:00 p.m. I’ll keep you posted on the quality of the submissions. We’ve just had the Get Started module and a few small assignments.

I’ll be interested to hear your results from the extra credit opportunity that you’re trying. Have a great weekend!


Play “Meet Your Teacher”

I have never been lucky. I never win contests, sweepstakes, the lottery, the one-armed bandit in Vegas, or even a BINGO game. In fact, every time I enter a game of chance, I immediately begin belting out En Vogue’s 1992 classic “No, You’re Never Going to Get It”. However, I did “win” a door prize once. In a former life, the equivalent of our CTLE was giving away prizes for anyone brave enough to attend a presentation called “Make Life Easier Using Excel’s Concatenate to Combine Text Strings”. As you can imagine, faculty would rather attend an exciting department meeting than attend that smash hit. I was the only one who showed up. I won the door prize. Although I remember absolutely nothing about the concatenate function, I do still refer to my door prize frequently and keep it by my bedside just as some might keep their daily devotions, Vanity Fair, or a glass of warm milk with a shot of brandy. My prize that day was 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors (1990) compiled and edited by Robert Magnan.

If you think this is life changing book that fortifies our call to teach. You would be wrong. This is a brief 61-page glorified pamphlet that provides short, to-the-point tips that make a professors’ life easier and helps differentiate experienced faculty from novices. The tips are brief. The tips are practical. The tips should be common sense. The tips range from the simplicity of erasing white boards to the complexity of drawing up a strategic plan to improve teaching and learning to benefit every class and every student. It would be unthinkable to believe that I could incorporate all 147 tips into my teaching, but my goal is to evaluate each one and determine which are feasible and which will make the classroom a more rewarding experience for the students. The practical tip I am presenting now is one Magnan calls “Meet the Teacher”. Let me begin by stating that I do not like to talk about myself. In an online class, it is easy. I post my bio and, Boom!, I am done. In a face-to-face class, I tell the students how to pronounce my name and that is pretty much the extent of our bonding. And even that does not work because my name continues to be butchered all semester long. Magnan suggests that the semester should start with a teacher introduction and a Q&A session. Yah, I do that. I review the syllabus and ask for questions. As you can imagine, there are hardly ever any questions.

Magnan suggests a slightly different approach. He suggests that all handouts and the syllabus be distributed to the students with ample enough time to read. Then the students should form small groups and decide to collectively which questions to ask regarding the course. Give the students free rein in their questions. They can ask anything that will inform them about the class or the teacher—either professional or personal. This approach will likely result in more questions than traditionally asked. If the questions are about items that should be obvious from the syllabus like grading, expectations, assignments, or attendance, Magnan suggests revising the syllabus if the questions arrive from lack of information or ambiguity in the materials.

The questions about the less obvious are those that may be of greater importance.  Why did you choose to teach? What are your qualifications? What have you done outside of academia? What do you like or dislike about his course? Magnan encourages instructors to be human. Answer the questions. By answering the questions, the instructor gets to interact with the students in a personal way.

This tip/approach is not simply an opinion by the author. Back in the late 80s, Chickering and Gamson (1987) presented seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. These principles have been rigorously researched and have provided enough evidence to indicate that they work. The suggestion by Magnan to interact with students reinforces one of these principles—contact between faculty and students (Chickering & Gamson, 1987).

Magnan also suggests answering any questions posed by students openly and frankly, but not in excess. As an instructor who hesitates to share personally with students, I agree. I want to share enough to let students know I am human, but not so much that I cross a line. My modification to Magnan’s tip is to provide several questions that are fair game and then allow students to choose the questions they wanted answered. This modification will still allow faculty/student interaction without crossing a line that may invalidate the respect and authority needed to manage the classroom.


Top 5 Tips to Success in Learning and creativity

Do you ever get writer’s block? Do you sit down to take a test and your mind goes blank? Do you wish you were more creative? Try some or all of the following tips to enhance your learning and creative success.

Mindfulness is a hot topic these days! It is really about awareness and focus. Don’t let life happen to you, take control of your life and pay attention to your thoughts and your actions. Be present in everything you do. If you drift, bring your attention back to your breathing so that you can refocus. Notice your environment: the colors and shapes, the smells, the sounds, and the textures. Multitasking is the opposite of being mindful.

Exercise will enhance blood flow to the brain and build Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) which helps to grow new brain cells and connections. Exercise also helps us produce endorphins or happy hormones which relax our mind and help us build confidence and good mood. A quick walk or swim can do wonders for getting creative juices flowing!

Rest well by sleeping for 7 to 8 hours each night. Readjust your schedule to make this happen. If you don’t make it a priority, your body will find a way to make you rest, which usually comes in the form of illness or injury. A rested brain can focus better, remember better and help you to be creative.

Nutrition is a critical component because without planning we may not get the critical nutrients we need. Eat every four hours to avoid blood sugar drops. Eat whole foods rather than processed or refined foods to slow down the digestive process and control blood sugar better. Foods containing oils that are beneficial to the heart and brain include walnuts, avocados, and salmon. Two-thirds of your plate should come from plant foods (whole grains, fruits and vegetables).

Build habits for future success! You are building habits every time you repeat a process, good or bad. We tend to have a lot of mindless processes that end up becoming automatic…we do them without thinking. Starting tomorrow, work on a simple habit that you would like to work into your routine. It could be as simple as waking up and saying three things you are thankful for about yourself, another person, and your environment.

The bottom line is that you have to take care of your mind and your body.


Not Knowing Any Better

I love what I get to do five days a week.
Every day in my classes, I am asked “why?” by a student, and everyday it makes me smile.

I have been thinking about this a lot in light of the fact that I was asked by PTK to speak at their induction ceremony tonight and I needed a topic. I looked around me to find my inspiration, and it came from my students. A student as a “why” question and I knew what to talk about with PTK… the importance of asking why.

Often when we have been in academics for a long time, we forget to ask the creative why, or why not questions.  We have been told that something is cannon in our discipline because it is, or we are told that something can’t be done because it simply can’t be done, and after a while, we have accepted those answers and we stop asking the questions. Our students don’t know that they should not be asking those questions, so they ask, and good for them.

Sometimes we need to challenge the idea that something can not be done. Admittedly, if something has not yet been done, most of the time it can’t be done… but sometimes, it simply has not been tried with the right approach. Our students can see the situation with fresh eyes, and because they don’t know any better, they ask.

Here’s to not knowing any better.


Don’t Mind Me. I’m Just Breaking the Rules

I know you’re reading this, but technically this post does not exist. I love Write6x6, but since I’m on sabbatical this year, I can’t participate in any on campus activities. Hence why you are not really seeing this post.

But I could not resist posting about my inspirations for who I am today. No doubt it is those who came before me and had the responsibility to coach and/or supervise me. I was an athlete growing up; pretty much still am to this day, so I’ve had many coaches along the way. And when I started teaching, I realized that department chairs served in much the same capacity as a coach for teachers. My first teaching job was at Deer Valley HS way back in the day. My first chair’s advice to me was: “I’d rather you beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.”

Well, I took that advice and ran! I thought she was crazy, but if that is how she wanted to play it, I was game. The quote is attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. The idea is not that you abuse the situation and just do whatever the heck you want. It’s meant to encourage others to go for things if they truly believe in it. A lot of good ideas go by the wayside because it’s too complicated to figure out how to get permission. Hopper believed “If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It is much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.” So it’s really about knowing when to push the boundaries.

In my 30 years of working in education, I’ve learned that there are a lot of naysayers, those who can’t think outside the box and just want to follow the status quo or their perceived rules. It’s a wonder we get anything done sometimes, but I think it’s those that push the boundaries and take risks, and often have to beg forgiveness, that help move things along and drive innovation. So that has pretty much been my motto and way of life for the last 30 years. Luckily I didn’t have to do a lot of begging.

So I’d say I was inspired by that first chair, and because I took her advice, I think it shaped who I am today as an educator. It opened up lots of opportunities I may have never gotten had I asked for permission first.

Cheers to Jeanne Sabrack who now teaches adjunct at Scottsdale Community College.

Unforeseen struggles for my students and I

The beginning of the spring semester started my  7th year here at GCC. The semester started out the same , but I soon found that I was struggling with my college mathematics courses. I had taught these courses numerous times before and could usually anticipate the questions and confusion throughout each topic. This semester I thought would be no different, but I soon realized that many of my students had not taken a math class in 5 or more years and their knowledge about the basics were lacking,  The reason for this change is the way we now place students (High School GPA only). I had to really think about the knowledge that I expect my students to have when they enter my class, but also how I can help them remediate these skills if they are lacking.

I had to go back to the basics and started to explain examples differently, give some in time reviews, extra review practices and give some more ticket in the door and out of the door exercises. I am finding it difficult as the semester continues because I see that they are struggling more and they ask numerous more questions. I am grateful they feel comfortable enough to ask questions, and I am hoping that the extra information I have added to the course is helping them, but we will see.

I am hopeful for them and I will continue to try to support them as much as I can.





The Professor and the Politician

This is my third time doing a six-week blog for Write 6×6. In previous years, I focused on the prompt and sort of went spur of the moment with what I talked about with very little connection or theme between posts. I wanted to shake things up a bit this year. Over the next six weeks, I am going to take an in depth (or at least as in depth as six blog posts allow) look at the skills that teaching develops and how those skills can be useful in other arenas. Before I get into specifics, I need to provide a little context…

author and wife dancing at wedding
The happiest day of my life

Those who know me know that my life has undergone some significant events in the last half decade, starting with my marriage to my partner of (now) 17 years. In 2017, the first year I participated in Write 6×6, I was still in the process of adjusting to life in a new area and trying to get both my physical and emotional well-being on track. Life’s track is more like a roller-coaster and finding any sort of balance was near impossible, but through the ups and downs I began to find bits and pieces of a better version of myself.

Moving forward to 2018, I had become active in my local community by serving as a member, and eventual chair, of the Economic Advisory Board. That volunteer service forced me to expand my knowledge of web design, photography, videography, content creation, and marketing. The reason I say expand is because being an online instructor had already provided me with a base knowledge in most of those areas. My skills as an English instructor specifically became invaluable when I was placed on the Planning Commission. This may come as a shock (/sarcasm), but how laws and municipal code are worded can have a major impact on their effectiveness (and legality).

Snip of Municipal Code
Boring essay? Try legalese…

In Summer of 2018, the unexpected happened. One of our local council members had to retire for health concerns, and I was appointed to fill the vacancy. It was both exciting and horrifying at the same time. As a teacher, I have always striven to see the good and promote the best in those around me, and that effort was almost always reciprocated in kind. I discovered in my time as a volunteer the political arena had the potential to be a much uglier experience, even with the best of intentions.

Image of author and Mayor shaking hands after appointment.
The smile hides the fear of my appointment.

Without going into specifics, I will say that both my excitement and my fear have been justified on multiple occasions. Outside of the support of my amazing wife, the thing that has kept me from drowning in the stormy seas of politics has been the experience and skills I acquired over the last dozen years of teaching. Over the next few weeks I want to elaborate on those skills and why they are so important and underrepresented, and exactly the sort of skills communities need. I hope that maybe (just maybe) in the process I will encourage fellow instructors to get active in their communities as well.

Best case scenario: I succeed.

Worst case scenario: I educate.

It is a win-win.


Small Gestures

     A long, long time ago when I attended high school for its excellent social atmosphere and academics were easy and less important, I was kind of a mess of not knowing what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go or maybe even who I wanted to be. There was something I did know: My counselor at the time, Dr. Brown, was not going to give me a psychological compatibility test that would show me the type of man I should look for as a husband. As a 9th grader, I was mortified, and if high school was going to prep me for boyfriends and marriage, I wanted nothing to do with it. Luckily some of my friends recommended I just go see their counselor, Mrs. Paluch, and so I did.
     Rosie took me under her wing and gave me some sense of purpose by suggesting we start a peer mentoring program and recommending me for Anytown, U.S.A., a leadership camp focused on diversity. One time Rosie even took me to a reading at A.S.U.--Adrienne Rich! These were all valuable experiences in my life, and I could not be more grateful to Rosie for seeing something in me that maybe I couldn't see at the time, for caring about me. At a basic level, she saw me.
     While I currently work with adults, I try to remember that teachers can help and inspire people of any age. I try and see strengths in my students and recommend books or documentaries or the Honors Program here at GCC. Doing so is my way of giving back and honoring the teachers and mentors who aided me along my way. Rosie was  a true gift to me in high school. I don't know how many Dr. Brown orphans she adopted, but I often feel gratitude that even though it may have meant a greater workload for her--and I know that now--she never said anything about that. She gave her time, so my experience was better. I hope I have done and can continue to do the same for my own students.

“Seek opportunities to show you care. 
The smallest gestures often make the biggest difference.” 
John Wooden

Flying Books Deliver Daily Inspiration

This is my reality: All day…every day, books fly through the library and ultimately land in my hands. It’s as if these items take flight from the book stacks and land right on my desk… This experience of coming into direct contact with countless, random books every day inspires me tremendously. I wish I could track how much I’ve grown and learned, professionally and personally, since I joined the GCC Library family. Working in Access Services at an academic library is certainly a dream come true for a bookworm like me. A sample of our library’s extensive collection materializes each day. On every horizontal surface, books perch patiently, inviting me to take a closer look.

The written word speaks to my soul. Spoken words are fine, but reading words on a page transcends an auditory experience. Silent and deep, books change my life, one sentence at a time. Each book feels like a stepping stone. Or maybe more like shells on the beach…I ignore most, but certain gems capture my attention. In the same way, some books go unnoticed while others introduce me to a perfectly-timed message with lasting effects. It’s magical actually.

Momentary, random encounters can yield deep thoughts.
Recently I found the words of Octavia Butler and Brian Bilston.  In the library, inspiration is just a page away…

Refugees by Brian Bilston

They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
Welcome here
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
They cannot
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way

          (now read from bottom to top)



Back to Basics

This morning, I am bedeviled by the details. I’ve spent the last 2 hours chasing a microphone problem. I had a lot of equipment running along with the mic the last time I used it, so Jenn (our awesome Office Coordinator) and I tried every combination of equipment and microphone one at a time, eliminating possibilities. These included:

  • lighting: on, and off
  • various cables: touching, or not
  • mic 1, mic 2, or mic 3
  • camera power cable: plugged in, or not
  • camera battery: attached, or not
  • camera mic settings: auto, or manual
  • camera monitor: plugged in, or not, powered, or not, muted, or not

We were chasing a buzz, and not the fun kind. Rather, the annoying kind, where in addition to voices and the sound of the air conditioner, our mic is randomly recording the most annoying audio buzz ever. And spoiler, we did not find the cause.

But our search uncovered another problem. Mic 3 was only recording sound on the left channel.

Disgruntled, we were about to begin trying to isolate that problem.

  • Maybe our camera’s microphone jack is bad.
  • Maybe there is a camera setting we need to adjust.
  • Or maybe the mic is malfunctioning.

Fortunately I had one of those intuition flashes that I get now and then. I’m always grateful when I notice and act on them. In this one, a picture of the headphone plug popped into my head, and I had to go compare the plug of Mic 3 to Mics 1 & 2.

See if you spot the difference:

The plug for Mic2 has 2 stripes, and the plug for Mic3 has one stripe.
Mic2 plug on the left, Mic3 plug on the right

If you noticed the stripes on the plugs, give yourself a gold star. 🌟

In case you’ve never run into an audio plug with only one stripe, here’s what’s going on. One stripe indicates a single (mono) audio channel. If you see two stripes, there are two (stereo) audio channels. This is basic information I was taught in my very first class about microphones.

illustration of stereo audio plug with two black stripes, and mooo audio plug with one black stripe
Image by Scansound.com


So, my “problem” microphone is working exactly as expected.  And my flash of intuition or memory just saved me a chunk of time, because there is no need to test this microphone in different equipment to figure out if the “problem” lies with the mic or the camera I connected it to.

Lesson: No matter what trouble you are troubleshooting, start with the basics.