Excited about the Mystery

She (a student last week) asked if I was starting to feel sad.

“Not really,” I said, then wondered if I sounded too calloused.

But I’m not calloused, just experienced. I’ve been saying goodbye to students for over 20 years.

Besides, I plan to see many of them again. There are no rules against hanging out with former pupils.

The same goes for colleagues. I’m convinced I’ll see more of some of you post-retirement, when my schedule is more flexible, and when I’ll miss the daily hall-chats I take for granted now.

No, I’m not sad. I’m pensive: thankful for the past, optimistic about the future—but still clueless about what I’ll be doing in another month. And, strange as it may sound, I’m comfortable with—even a bit excited about—the mystery.

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Dream Job

It was this time of year, 17 years ago.

I sat in a small room on the second floor of the CUB at a table filled with members of Amarillo College’s English Department. Most of them have long since left or retired: Hodges, Huber, McGinnis, Knight, Zimmermann, Ford and Woodyard (only Dodson and Netherton remain).

And they asked questions. Not the ones I expected—about my dissertation at Texas Tech, about the major theories and theorists of rhetorical studies.

No, these educators wanted to know if I would be comfortable teaching mostly Comp I classes for freshmen. You see, most English majors want to instruct literature classes: American, British, Literature of the Western and Non-western worlds.

“Comfortable?” I said. “That would be my dream job.”

And it has been.

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She Bought My Dinner: 19 class days left

When I asked the waiter for my ticket, he pointed to an empty table and said they had paid my tab.

That’s a first. A student bought me dinner. Anonymously.

Wasn’t sure how to respond. Should I send her a thank you note? Write a comment at the bottom of her essay—next to the grade?

“You must get your criteria in the thesis statement. 65—Oh, and thanks for dinner!”

I felt sheepish, awkward, embarrassed.

But, also, noticed, appreciated, surprised.

Well, I put the note on her essay. “I’ve paid for a lot of student meals,” I wrote, “but never had one buy mine. You made my day.”

And it didn’t look too awkward placed alongside her 92.

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Fear of the Undone: 20 more class days

It’s what has made me anxious and panicked the last couple of weeks and what has prevented many routine pleasures, including writing this blog.

But no more.

Today, I realized that simply because time soon will run out for me at AC, and because my in-basket is overflowing with things that still need doing—I will, nonetheless, not finish every task; some things will remain undone.

Profound insight, huh? I have only 24 hours in a day.

So I’ve decided to face it. There will be things, even good things, things I consider important, things others consider important, that will remain undone—as they have every day for my last 60-something years.

So I guess I’ll just have to decide what needs doing most. And, tonight, I’ve chosen this blog. Hope you enjoy.

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First Teachers

Teaching teachers—it’s what I thought about doing 20 years ago while finishing Ph.D. studies.

If I teach 100 students to write, I reasoned, I will influence 100, but, if I teach 100 graduate students who will one day teach writing—you do the math—teachers of teachers influence thousands.

But I ended up sticking with first-semester students at a community college, partly because I like being their introduction to college-level learning, and partly because of the role such an educator can play. There’s a reason we remember first grade teachers best.

Because those who teach first teach most. Not only is all (or most) of the material new, but first teachers (in college as well as in public schools) get a chance to shape the moist clay of student attitudes before they harden into recalcitrant habits.

And first teachers do more than cover the subject matter. While Charlotte was teaching first graders, we used to compare notes. We both encouraged study skills, time management and understanding /cooperation between peers. We talked of plans, hard work and hope.

Parents are first teachers. Last night I watched my kids with their kids, and I couldn’t help but notice how much of their interaction was didactic. One doesn’t have to be a professional educator to teach. Parents do it all the time, as do employers, managers, coworkers, even friends.

And every one of my students fits in one of these categories. They are—or will be—teachers. Which means I still get to teach teachers.

Well, sort of.

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A New Dream

Not because of the things I’m doing now—but because of the things I’m not doing—

It’s why I’ve decided to retire. Yesterday, Charlotte and I called old friends we haven’t seen in 20 years. There were stories, familiar laughs and a few tears. 20 years!

Which is about as long as I’ve been teaching college English and hanging out with these amazing students. The things I’m doing now—they’ve been a dream come true, and I’m glad I gave them the best of my adult years.

But it’s time for what I’m not doing—reconnecting with good friends, one-on-one time with grandkids, more moments with a patient spouse who, once again, had to find things to do this week while I graded yet another stack of papers.

And writing—I sat down the other day and listed titles to a half-dozen books I want to pen. And I’m haunted by the fear I’ll never get to write them.

Yep, it’s time for the new dream.

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Helping Students Want to Write

How do you get students to want to write? Because I was a writer before I became a teacher, the question wasn’t hard.

I knew what inspired me, and it certainly wasn’t money or fame. Not that I’m opposed to them—would take either if you offered—it’s just that, so far, my writing hasn’t been good enough to merit that kind of reward.

What motivates me is readers. When I write something funny and get a smile, or something sad and produce tears, or come up with something insightful (too rarely) and get an “ah ha,” I’m hooked.

Maybe addicted is a better word. I have to do it again.

So that’s what I do for students. I become their reader. With little notes in the margins of their papers, I let them know how their stuff is affecting me:

“Scary. Your courage is inspiring.” Or, “this is beyond funny. You crack me up.” Or,” How sad! Can’t believe she just left you guys.”

Does it work?

Apparently.

We’ve finished with out-of-class journals (four entries per week) for the semester, and I’ve already had students ask if they can keep doing them.

Which leads to a final point. If one helps students want to write, he’d better want to read—because he’s going to do plenty of it.

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The Want-to Part of Writing

I help students with the want-to part of writing. It’s not something I learned in school.

Schools focus on the have-to’s. You have to take this class to graduate. You have to fill X number of pages to make an A on your paper.

Of course, motivating with “have-to’s” is not bad. We all do things every day (show up to work, visit the dentist, pay taxes) because we have to.

Have-to’s work; they just don’t work completely; they don’t work best.

A student who has to write will turn in his essay on time. A student who wants to write will finish it early, leaving time for multiple revisions so the composition will be not only good, but very good.

A student who has to improve her grammar will make the required trip to a writing tutor. A student who wants to write more effectively will visit a tutor multiple times, maybe even purchase a handbook at her own expense, so poor grammar will not get in the way of her clarity.

You get the drift. One who has to write does what he has to. One who wants to write does more than she has to.

So how do you get students to want-to? Tomorrow’s blog.

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The Power of We

This morning I watched students edit one another’s essays. Their expressions said it all. The occasional smile and/or nod told me the pedagogy was working.

I have students read and comment on each other’s writing because . . .

Positive reinforcement works. Praising a student’s strengths makes those strengths even stronger.

Modeling works. Observing successful strategies in a peer’s writing helps one adopt those strategies in his or her own stuff.

Groups work. It’s something I learned in summer camp and church jobs before I became a college teacher.

When God said it wasn’t good for man to be alone, he was referring to more than the need of Adam for an Eve.

Call it the power of we. People succeed best when they succeed together. In church, we called it fellowship; in college, we call it collaborative learning.

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Messy First Drafts

“Messy first drafts,” I tell my students, “are not only common for professional writers, but necessary.” Because, as Professor Furnish used to tell us grad students, “90% of all good writing is revised writing.”

And, of course, one can’t revise what isn’t there.

Sounds easy—to produce a collection of disjointed thoughts that touch on what we hope to say but somehow can’t say, at least not as plainly and persuasively as we intend.

But it’s not easy—because we don’t like messes, especially the ones we create. And so we stare at the empty page and wait, and stare some more, and wait some more and more.

Which is what I’ve been doing most of the last hour.

Perfectionism is not my friend.

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