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.

The Impatient Writer’s Chicken Soup

The Impatient Writer’s Chicken Soup: Advice on the Writing Process and a Delicious Recipie

By Sara Codair

Soup and writing have a lot in common. One important connection to note is that they both improve when they are allowed to sit and simmer for ample time. If I eat a soup that hasn’t been sitting long enough, the vegetables will be hard and the flavors won’t have had time to fully permeate the broth. If I don’t let a story rest between drafts, my characters won’t mature, my meaning will be shallow and my language will be flawed.

When I first decided to try and publish my writing, I made the mistake of thinking a story was done too soon. I wasn’t sending first drafts out, but I wasn’t letting the stories rest long enough either. I’d finish a draft and jump right into the second and third. I’d think, Well, I can’t think of anything else to change, read it one more time and think I don’t see any grammatical errors. I’d send the draft out to a publication and a few weeks later, get a rejection.

Before submitting it elsewhere, I would revisit the story. The type-o’s and grammatical errors would leap off the page. I’d cringe at excess words and forced dialogue. I’d gape through plot holes and be left with little or no resolution at the end. I’d feel like my insides were twisting around with regrets and what if’s.

Did they stop reading after the third typo-o?

If I had better dialogue and a stronger plot, would this story have gotten accepted?

I observed the same thing hurting my students, though in their case, it was more procrastination than impatience. They wouldn’t leave themselves enough time to let the story rest, so their final drafts of essays would be riddled with grammatical errors and logical flaws that they caught on their own when given the chance to review the essay in class before turning it in.

I am a very impatient person. I like to know what is going to happen next, and when I know something I want is coming, I want it now. I hate waiting. So even after I realized I needed to let my stories rest, I would have a hard time making myself wait, just like I never wanted to wait for my soup to finish cooking.

DSC_0823When it came to soup, I realized that rice was the answer to my impatience. If I used pasta, the pasta would be soft enough to eat fifteen minutes after I added it. However, if I used rice, I had to wait at least an hour after I put the rice in if I didn’t want to be constantly crunching on uncooked rice. I cheated a couple times, but learned my lesson after getting a hard grain stuck between my teeth. Furthermore, I could plan the time I cooked the soup so I wasn’t hungry while I was cooking it. Or I could eat a snack while I was waiting for the broth to boil so I wouldn’t be starving as soon as it was edible. This way, by the time I ate it, the flavors would be fully permeated.

With writing, I use similar strategies. I can send it to a reader who I know will take longer to give me feedback. While I’m waiting, I can work on something else, eventually returning to the story with a fresh eye. I can finish it right before I collect a stack of essays from my students knowing I wont really be able to pay it full attention until I am done.

I can read a good novel as soon as I finish the story. Or better yet, a good series. The best option is starting a new story, getting so immersed in that one that I need to know what happens next so I write it for a few weeks until I finish and then go back to the original story and catch those bland descriptions and comma splices.

If your impatient like me, make sure you find your rice so you can let your story rest before you call it done and send it out. Now, enjoy my recipe for impatient writer chicken soup!

Ingredients:DSC_0805

¼ lb of chicken breast

1 small Yellow onion (or part of a large one)

1/2 a bell pepper (red, orange or yellow)

1 stick celery

DSC_08171 large carrot

1 small potato

five cherry tomatoes (I prefer Sun Gold)

1 Box of chicken broth (or equivalent of homemade stock)

1/3 cup of brown rice

2 Table Spoons of olive oil

1 Teaspoon of Thyme

Directions:

Step 1: Put your chicken in the microwave to defrost.

Step 2: Dice your onions and bell peppers while the chicken thaws.

DSC_0809Step 3: Add olive oil, onions and peppers to the pan.

Step 4: Cut up the chicken into small pieces and add them to the pot.

Step 5: Cut up your other vegetables while the chicken cooks. Add them as they are cut,
starting with the ones that take the longest too soften: carrots, celery, potato, and tomato. Add the teaspoon of thyme once all the veggies are in and stir, cooking until the veggies are tender.DSC_0811

Step 6: Pour the broth in and bring it to a boil.

Step 7: Add the rice and reduce heat to low. Allow to simmer for at least one hour. However, the longer you let it cook, the better it is going to taste.

Compost for Packrat Writers & Teachers

DSC_0828

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.

***

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.

DSC_0628