Thursday, December 22, 2011

School's Out

It's that wonderful time of year when school ends, the holidays begin, and those of us who teach on college campuses get 3-4 weeks off. Growing up I always thought my parents had the ideal job - teaching college students, enjoying an academic environment, continuing to learn, and summers and January off. Now that I have the same job my opinion remains the same.

I really love my schedule. This past semester I taught 4 face-to-face classes, one each day, Monday through Thursday. Then I also taught one online class. As I live within walking distance of the school, there is almost no commute, so teaching one class per day is ideal. Over the break I'll be working more on my book and preparing to teach a new course, World Lit II.

I hope you also enjoy whatever time off you have this season, and have a very blessed Christmas and New Year.

Thanks for reading . . .

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Teaching online

So I'm almost halfway through my online World Lit course and . . . it's just not the same. I'm going to give it chance. I am already scheduled to teach one more online course in the spring. My initial reaction is that teaching online limits the essential professor/student interaction, and student/student interaction that is so much an integral part of teaching and learning. There are ways to engage the students, and I need to learn how to better do that online.

Here's how it works. Students log in, preferably daily, and read the lecture, watch the power point presentations, read the text, and then do the learning activities. Learning activities consist of answering 2 discussion questions for each unit. After they answer the question, they also need to respond to two other students' postings. There is some interaction there. I'd like to see more. Then they take a quiz and write either an essay or a shorter response.

What do I miss? What I miss most is the instantaneous student response. Body language is so important -- I had no idea until I started teaching this class. Just by looking out at my class I can tell who is interested, who is bored, who is tired, who is preoccupied -- by the way they sit, slouch, sit forward expectantly, smile, yawn. I miss all of it teaching this online class.

Monday, October 31, 2011

We do much more than teach

Midterms are here and it occurs to me that as a teacher, I do so much more than teach my students. Yes, teaching comprises the bulk of my time and effort with my students, but I also play other roles in their lives. Lately I have had to confront students about poor effort and late work. I feel almost like a drill sergeant, urging them to work harder, step to it, get the essay handed in, one, two, three. In this role I am not compassionate, but I'm tough. If you do not get this work done, you will not pass the class.

Another role I play is one of counselor. My students have myriad issues and often their circumstances prevent them from achieving success in school. Many of my students are parents, many work, and some have difficult family situations they are dealing with. For these students I need to listen, show compassion, and care for them, while not altogether abandoning my role as teacher. One of my students emailed me today; her babysitter could not come and she already has two absences. What should she do? Thankfully, I teach another section of Comp 1, so I encouraged her to attend that class if possible, and avoid racking up another absence. Problem solved.

Then there is the comedienne. After all the serious work, sometimes we teachers need to lighten up the class a bit with some humor. Nothing soothes a tired, stressed out student (or teacher) like a little laughter.

Drill sergeant, counselor, comedienne = teacher.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Survey - read an online book or a physical book?

Here is the question. Would you rather read a book online, or read a physical book? Please reply in the comment section to let me know what you think. I have my preference, which most of you reading this probably can guess, but I'd rather not reveal all until I have the results of this informal online poll.

My son Ben is reading Great Expectations for his 8th grade honors English course. The teacher has put a link online and asked all the students to read the book online. If you have ever read Dickens, you know that he writes very long, complex books with dozens of characters. Personally, I enjoy Dickens very much, but he is not an 'easy read.' There are benefits to reading online. You can search for a name, and see every instance of that name, or go to a specific place where that name is mentioned. There are drawbacks as well. Yesterday I walked to the library to check out Great Expectations. Oops - there goes my bias.

I'll reveal the results of the survey in my next blog.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Creating characters

One of the best parts of writing fiction is the freedom to create characters. In the case of historical fiction, certain restraints limit what an author can do. What is known about a person cannot be altered, I believe, but within the framework of what is known, there is still a lot of freedom to flesh out the person, to breathe life into her or him, to make them real. In my case, Joanna Vassa was a real person. Visiting her gravesite was a moving experience for me. Since I've been writing about her for about 5 years, she is real to me, but even characters I have made up have become real to me. Joanna lived. She married. She loved. She lost. She died. I hope, through inspiration and prayer, I am creating veracity as I imbue her with life on the pages of my book. As you read other works of historical fiction, think about what the author had to work with, and how they created a character, not out of nothing, but out of something.

Then there are the fully imagined, fictional characters. I have come to love and admire my main characters, but some of the minor characters, who were not even in my original outline, have really brought a smile to my face, and sometimes I laugh out loud as I'm writing their lines -- the novel is dialogue-heavy. Near the end of the book, you have to read almost to the end to find him, is Abner. He says what he thinks. There are no filters, no barriers, no judging whether something would be appropriate or not. Abner is a shoeless, illiterate 10-year-old boy, with freckles sprinkled across his face, a single mom, an abusive dad, and two little sisters. He says whatever he thinks. For instance, he asks Joanna "Why're ye brown?" Or, when asked about his pa, he tells Joanna his pa died, and adds, "He weren't such a nice person no'ow. He liked the drink."

Kids tell the truth. And then, at some point, they learn to think about what they're saying, and how it might affect others. They learn to dissemble, and they learn to lie. When they are small, and they ask out loud "why is that woman so fat?" we tend to try to shut them up. We want them to be honest, but not that honest! And then, much later in life, we tend to re-embrace that honesty kept to ourselves for most of our lives. Have you noticed how older folks feel the freedom to say what they want, and are not as cautious about how it will affect others? The best characters are so lifelike because they remind of us real people. That's the art, the challenge in creating characters.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Don't disparage the sparrows

I like birds. I feed and watch the birds in my yard, I go birdwatching -- by myself, or with my son Ben -- and I go on birdwatching walks led by experts. A few weeks ago I went kayaking with a friend and we saw a yellow crowned night heron and a great blue heron, up close and personal. They are big, beautiful birds, and though not rare, not entirely common either.

So I just put some bird seed down in my backyard, and within minutes a common house sparrow landed and began to eat. My dad used to feed the birds in our backyard growing up, and he would coo at them and talk to them. The scrub jays came right up and took peanuts out of his hand. He treated each one with tenderness. So when this sparrow landed in my yard I thought, don't disparage the sparrows. It's so easy to disregard common one -- birds, even people. In the city we see hurting people all around us; it's common. And it becomes easy to disregard them. I pray that I will not disparage the commonplace - whether they be birds or people. May I instead, notice the common ones and thank God for them.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The "A" grade

As I read my World Lit students' first papers I was happily surprised to find myself giving out A, after A, after A. I love giving A's! These papers were very well written, and they had insights into Gilgamesh that truly impressed me, causing me to consider things I hadn't thought about. I could take no credit for their exemplary writing, as I didn't teach them how to write an essay, but I did take a small amount of credit for their thorough understanding of the text.

I opened class with telling them how impressed I was with their essays and how happy I was to grant so many A's. One student replied by saying "I thought professors hated giving A's." Now I'm not sure what led him to that conclusion, but what a pity a student would think his professor would only grudgingly award an A to a deserving essay. I don't allot many A's, only because they are not earned. But when I can give an A, when the student clearly deserves an A, I am only too happy to write on their paper a nice, fat . . . . .

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Small victories

Warning: I'm going off topic for this blog. Yesterday I had a small victory, and I wanted to share it with any who read this blog, and to encourage you in your own small victories.

We live in Jersey City, which is notorious for two things -- litter and jaywalking. Of course there are many positive aspects to living in Jersey City -- the diversity, proximity to Manhattan, waterfront, church. But the litter really bugs me. I mean really, really bugs me.

So the cemetery next to our church is usually full of litter. Guys hang out in front of the cemetery and drop bottles, cans, wrappers, boxes, newspapers, and other assorted trash. They apparently have no concerns about how it looks. When I walk by it every day I cringe inside. Occasionally I clean it up myself, when I absolutely can't stand it any more.

Several months ago I called the head of Commercial District Services - the folks who sweep up and clean Bergen Avenue, right down on the corner. I asked if they could take a half-block detour and clean in front of the cemetery. By the way, the cemetery is owned by the city, so they are the responsible party. He told me they would discuss it at their meeting, and never got back to me. I tried a few more times and couldn't reach him.

Yesterday, in a fit of frustration, I called again. He acted immediately. When I walked by the cemetery on my way to school this morning there was not a piece of paper, a bottle, or even a cigarette butt in sight. Not only did he send someone to clean it early this morning, he sent me emails showing 'before and after.' What a lovely sight - just grass and gravestones. He promises me they will now keep it clean.

This is a small victory, but for me, and important one. How our neighborhood looks is important to me, and it sets the tone for our block.

Is there something that really bugs you, that maybe you can do something about. Take some action. You might be surprised at how God can use you to make a difference.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Help

If you have not yet read The Help -- read it. If you have not yet seen the movie -- see it. Usually I like to read books first, then see movies, but in this case I saw the movie, then read the book. This is the first time I have seen a movie based on a book and they were incredibly closely aligned. I think back to Hunt for Red October, or Shogun. The books were much better than the movies.

In The Help, the casting was perfect. The movie brought to life the characters in the book, who were already pretty lively! The plot in the book was carried over almost perfectly to the movie. There were some subtle, and one or two not-so-subtle, changes, but all in all, they were magnificent reflections of each other.

The books evokes the time period well. Historical events, like the murder of Emmet Till, the bombings of churches, sit-ins at Woolworths' counter, John Kennedy's assassination, were present but background to the characters and the story. The characters run the story and they are beautifully realized. I especially like Minny and Celia.

This is what good writing looks like. A good story well told. That's what I'm aiming for in my book, but when I read a good book like this, I'm almost tempted to give up, stop writing, and just keep reading.

Read the book - you won't regret it.

Lessons from Students

School has begun. Just as I look forward to the ending of a semester, I also happily anticipate the beginning of a new semester. Classes started on Wednesday and I've met with Comp and World Lit students. In World Lit I asked my students to write a page or two on this question: why should we study world literature? Some of their answers were very insightful. I'll share a few of them with you here. I'm paraphrasing!

When we read about other cultures and other time periods, we learn about not just about those people, but we learn about ourselves.

Reading about long-ago time periods can help students escape the pressures of modern-day technological society. Reading about a time without cell phones and computers, or even electricity, can provide a much needed respite from the stresses of everyday life.

Learning about other religious traditions can make us more tolerant and understanding, which is important in the society we live in where many religions are practiced.

The journey we take by reading a book or story could change how we see the world.


Friday, August 26, 2011


Last Saturday night, after the sun had already set, I sat in my backyard, in the gathering dark, and finished my book. No flashes of lightening, no voice from heaven "Well done, my good and faithful servant," no high fives -- a quiet, uneventful, ending. Ah yes, but while the first draft is indeed finished, the work has just begun. Now I begin the even harder work of editing, revising, rewriting, moving, cutting, keeping. On one level, I'm very excited. I have met my goal of finishing the first draft before school begins (August 31). Near the end, as I finished Joanna's story, my trip to England really paid off. Some of the places I visited play a large role in her story, and one of my side visits produced a new scene in the book.

This fall I hope to find the time, in the midst of teaching and committee work on campus, to do what's necessary to make the book presentable to an agent.

In the meantime, students will arrive in my classroom on Wednesday, ready and eager to learn . . . I hope. I am certainly ready and eager to teach!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Manipulating lives

As I approach the end of one story line, of Equiano's sister Olu, I have decided to make her hard life even more difficult. Of course she was kidnapped at the age of 12, and enslaved on a rice plantation for over 20 years, then had a harrowing escape, and now finally when things are looking up for her, I'm going to hit her with post-partum depression. Why? It's hard to describe why as a writer I do certain things with my characters. I have an outline of how the story will go, and how it will end, but as I write at times the characters lead me, and I find myself following. I tend to think through scenes and passages before I write them; that's just the process I go through. Think, write longhand, type. That's my process. So although one part of me wants Olu to just be happy, the writer in me feels this stage in her life is right, it's appropriate, it fits.

As I near the end of this storyline I find myself slowing down in my writing, not wanting it to end, just as I do when coming to the end of a good book. I will need to read and edit and revise for weeks, maybe months to come, but the writing of this storyline is nearing an end. And I am beginning to miss my characters already.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


It's amazing how much one can accomplish while procrastinating. During the past week I have managed to wash windows, feed the dog, take her for a walk, do laundry, grade, feed birds, take a nap . . . all while avoiding sitting down and writing. Now that school is over, I have loads of time -- it stretches out in front of me like an endless desert -- to write. And I have told myself, and many others, that this is the summer I will, I will, finish my book. So now it's here. And it's so hard to get started.

Yesterday I wrote 5 pages. Today I wrote 5 pages, and hope to write 5 more. Olu is leaving the Virginia area, with a few other ships headed north to New York, although they will actually land in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. I'm still trying to decide when her baby's daddy (soon to be husband) will catch up with her. She escaped from the plantation without telling him, but he's been looking for her since she left in December. It's now July 9, 1776 -- in the book, at least.

So as you think of me send out a prayer that I would be diligent to complete what I have begun -- and complete it well.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

End of semester lessons

With only two classes left, and no actual teaching, I can accurately state the semester is about to come to a close. The fun part, and the hard part, has arrived. The end of a semester is the very stuff of life -- its essence. Some students have succeeded, and some have failed. Some have tried their best, but it wasn't good enough. Some haven't tried hard at all. As in life, I tell my students more than 50% of success is showing up. Success is helped along by effort, and the providence of God. (I don't give much credence to 'luck' - whatever that is.) Lessons they learn in class go beyond subject/verb agreement, how to reduce anxiety when speaking, and lessons Odysseus learned on his odyssey. They are learning the importance of showing up, putting in effort to achieve a positive result, working well with others, persevering, taking responsibility for failure and taking pride in success.

In my Comp 1 classes, students need to pass a writing proficiency test to pass the class. Most of my students are anxious about passing, and very relieved when they find out they have passed. Some are not surprised when I tell them they have failed, and some remain in disbelief.

Today I had the joy of telling 90% of my students they had passed the test, and the class. A few students actually whoop and holler, no kidding. A few students hugged me. Others smiled and offered thanks. When I tell students if they passed the test, and inform them of their grade in the course, I look them in the eye. Some are comfortable with that, while others avoid looking at me. I know it may be cultural in some cases, but I think it's important to deliver both good news and bad news directly -- no matter how much it hurts (both them and me).

So the last week of the semester is full of joys, and trials, triumphs, and failures. But there is always next semester. There is always tomorrow -- another life lesson.

Monday, May 2, 2011

End of semester

Why is it that we teachers look forward to the end of the semester with so much glee? I love teaching, and I enjoy most of my students. But somehow, when the end of the semester comes, I can't wait for it to be over. Of course I look forward to the beginning of a new semester as well. Teaching is very cyclical. Like the seasons, it has a beginning and end. More definitive than seasons, which often take their time getting started, getting warmer especially. But there is an ebb and flow that is comforting, that feels natural. Semesters have a beginning, and an end--both of which I look forward to. So by next week the spring semester will end. Some students will be happy, some disappointed, and a few probably discouraged. But there is a new semester waiting, and with it another opportunity to learn, to achieve, to make new friends, to succeed--both for the students and for us teachers.