Making the Space

The space a class is taught in often has a profound impact on the students’ attitude and the ambiance of the classroom’s community. It’s not everything, but it can go a long way. As an adjunct, I have virtually no control over what room my class is taught in, so I’ve learned to make the most of what I have.

This semester, I have one particularly rowdy group. Their attention is easy to loose and difficult to hold. The classroom we are in has tables that 2 to 4 students can sit at.20160412_161229The tables are lined up so the students all sit facing me. It’s set up for a traditional, lecture style class.

In other places I’ve taught, and even in other buildings of the same school, I’ve had classic college desks, desk/chairs on wheels, and tables on wheels.

The heavy, not moving rows of tables are by far the worst. The students wind up expecting a lecture. They sit with their friends or hide phones under the big tables and cruise through social media all class.

They were okay for the first few weeks of class, but quickly dissolved into random interruptions, side conversations, abuse of phones and chaos.

So by midterm, I got fed up. I knew I needed to make some kind of change. The content I was using in class worked fine with other groups, so I thought I’d try changing the space and structure.

I got to class early and dragged the heavy tables together in the center of the room so it was set up like a conference room instead of a lecture hall.

The students were confused when they came to class, but quickly adapted. They didn’t all get their usual seat by their friends, and even if they did, they couldn’t easily hide their conversation or phones. It wasn’t just me looking at them, but their classmates.

When we started a discussion, instead of asking for volunteers, we just went around the table. Students were allowed to say pass if they weren’t comfortable talking, but few took that option in a majority of the discussions. Eventually, I did allow the discussion to take a more natural form, but by that point, it was much easier to moderate.

While I still noticed a few people texting, no one was having side conversations and the interruptions were minimized. Students were more respectful of each other and of me. They listened and made eye contact with the people who were talking. They stayed on topic (mostly). Everyone who did talk contributed something valuable to the discussion whether it was presenting their research or on strategies for avoiding procrastination.

By making a few adjustments to the layout of the room and structure of discussions, I transformed a the rowdy class that gave me anxiety to one I look forward to teaching again.

Evil English Teacher Alphabet Soup

DSC_0859Evil English Teacher Alphabet Soup

By Sara Codair

Evil English teachers. Grammar Nazis. Every school has them. If you yourself are an teacher, you probably know exactly which of your colleagues cringe at the tiniest of errors, covering their student papers in blood-red ink. Whether you are a teacher or not, it is likely that you encountered one of these people at some point in your life.

This soup was inspired by the teachers who make students so worried about where to put commas that they forget to think, creating essays that are pretty but shallow. This soup is to raise awareness of the teachers who send students away in tears – students who wrote brilliant essays but lost thirty points for misplaced comma’s, improperly conjugated verbs and informal language. This soup like looks like words drowned in red ink. It tastes as beautiful as the writing would have been if that red tide had not drown it before it learned to swim.

Correct grammar is important, but it is not everything. Students who didn’t learn grammar in middle school and students who are not native speakers of English will not master English grammar in one semester. Sure, there may be a handful of students who benefit from the strict, Grammar Nazi style class, but most panic, get too stressed and give up when confronted with that kind of teacher, or they over rely on tutors to help them get through the class while vowing to never speak to that instructor again once the semester is over.

If you worry about grammar on first and second drafts, your ideas won’t be fully developed simply because you cannot devote your full attention to ideas if you are stressing about grammar. Whenever I find myself editing prematurely, I wind up stuck on how to finish a piece or where to take. When I wait until the third or fourth draft, my ideas are fully developed and I can put all my attention to cleaning the piece up and making it beautiful. So why subject students to standards even professional writers cannot hold themselves to? Students don’t have time for the kind of editing we do before publishing something. I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach grammar at all. I’m just saying we shouldn’t drown students with it.

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Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oilDSC_0834
  • Half of a large yellow onion or one small onion
  • Half of a large bell pepper (red, orange or yellow)
  • ¼ lb of ground beef (substitute with extra veggies for a vegetarian option)
  • 2 small carrots or one large carrot
  • 1 stick of celery
  • half a zucchini
  • seven cherry tomatoes (preferably sungolds)
  • a few sprinkles of dried thyme (or fresh equivalent)
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil (or fresh equivalent)
  • 1 teaspoon of dried oregano (or fresh equivalent)DSC_0847
  • ½ can of tomato paste
  • 1 box chicken broth (use vegetable stock for a vegetarian option)
  • ½ cup of alphabet pasta

 

Step 1: Put two tablespoons of olive oil in a medium or large saucepan.

Step 2: Dice the peppers and onions then add them to the pan. Let begin them cook while you defrost the beef in the microwave.

DSC_0837Step 3: Add the beef to the pan, constantly stirring and breaking up as it cooks. I prefer small pieces of meat, so I will keep chopping with a wooden spatula until it is thoroughly broken up.

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Step 4:
Cut up the carrots, celery and zucchini, adding each as it is ready to cut. For this  soup, I like to the leave the carrots round and cut the zucchini into tiny rectangles. Cut and add the tomatoes once all the other vegetables are in.

DSC_0844Step 5: Measure and add Thyme, Basil and Oregano. I used dried this time around, but prefer to use fresh when it is available.

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Step 6: Add the tomato paste, stirring until the meat and vegetables are as coated as possible.    

Step 7: Add the chicken broth, stirring until all the past has dissolved and turned the broth red.

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Step 8: Bring the soup to a boil and add the alphabet pasta. Turn the heat down to low and let it simmer for at least one hour before serving. Store leftovers in the refrigerator.

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If you are a teacher, please use your correcting pen cautiously. Focus on one issue at a time. Give mini lessons on grammar before students do a peer review in class. Don’t spill the soup on your papers.

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Compost for Packrat Writers & Teachers

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I’ve always hated throwing things away. I still have ten-year-old shirts purchased when I was in high school, moldy craft projects from 15 years ago, and a Pocahontas journal filled with writing in a “language” I made up when I was six. The “language” is nothing more than over-glorified scribbles vaguely reminiscent of cursive, but I can’t let it go.

My 790-square-foot house is cluttered things that appear useless to others. My mother continuously urges me to get rid of “stuff.” As soon as I begin thinking about it, my hands sweat, my stomach churns and my mind races:

I need this!

What if want to write about that next week?

What if accidentally throw away the mortgage bill?

DSC_0814This attachment to objects and fear of getting rid of stuff goes beyond inanimate objects. I often feel guilty discarding carrot peels and potato skins. When it comes to writing, the idea of cutting or deleting even one line can be physically painful, even though I know cutting unnecessary lines and words is an essential step in the writing process, especially with flash fiction.

Writing a story in 500 words is a challenge that requires the writer to be economical with language and ruthless with editing. “Above the Influence,” the first story I ever published, is a piece of flash fiction – a 500 word story that got shortlisted by Mash. If it weren’t for the concept of compost, that probably never would have happened.

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My interest in compost started a little over two years ago when my husband and I first became homeowners. In an attempt to cut down on waste and add more nutrients to the garden, we began putting food scraps in a compost bin. Eventually, we obtained a stainless steel container  for the counter, and a larger backyard composter.

DSC_0946I no longer trash the carrot peels, tomatoes stems and potato skins. I put them in the compost, knowing that after they spend ample time decomposing, they become fertilizer for next years crops. It’s much easier to toss them if I know they are still serving a purpose.

The concept of compost makes it easier to be ruthless when editing. I never have to delete anything for good. If a line doesn’t work or is unnecessary for a story, I cut and paste it to a compost file (currently titled “The land of misfit lines”). The line can rest while my mind decomposes it, breaks it down to the most basic form of ideas, so that one day, when I am working on a different piece, it can add life and vitality to it.

Furthermore, I’m a big fan of “save as.” After I finish a first draft, I let the story sit for a day or two. When I’m ready to begin draft two, I save it as a new document. If I don’t put all the cut words  into the compost, I know the originals are saved. This also allows me to track my writing process and see how the story evolved from draft to draft. Its light years more efficient that fighting to find a use or justification for every unnecessary line in the piece delivered it.

In graduate school, I hated to cut anything out of my papers. I’d waste hours finding a way to make a line work; I’d add extra paragraphs to an essay that was already over ten pages just so I wouldn’t have to cut one line. When I was tutoring, if a student brought me an essay that just didn’t work, I’d do everything I could to help the salvage as many words as possible. Both me and my students would do okay, but the writing wasn’t our best.

Now, whether I am editing my own writing or helping a student, if something isn’t working, it goes in the compost. The result is that both me and my students write better. Each word is heavy with meaning. The organization is easier to follow. There is no fluff.

The concept of compost can also help me let go of ideas in the non-writing side of life. I know that if I try something, whether it be at home or in the classroom, and it just doesn’t work, that I can put it in the compost. I’m not saying no forever or completely ruling it out. I’m putting it aside where it can get deconstructed and become a basis or fuel for future ideas, making them greener and more productive.

I’ve learned how to avoid cramming so many ideas in one paper that no one reader can deconstruct it. I’ve learned how to let go of methods that just don’t work. Now, if I could only find a way to apply this concept to the ancient pieces of jewelry, notebooks of math homework, and dented keepsake boxes I just can’t seem to part with, both my first and second floor could appear simultaneously clean.

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