No Back to School Blues

For many childless adults, the idea of having summers off and going “back to school” in the fall is a distant memory. However, for those of us who haven’t spent much time working in the illusion known as the “real word,” summers off, or at least a off from our regular job, is a very real thing.

For the past two years, my summers have been a taste of what life might be like as a full-time fiction writer. I’d wake around seven or either, check social media and do a little bit of writing while I was still partially in dream world. I’d spend a little time in my garden then go back to writing when the sun got too hot. I’d write for three or four hours, take a break to swim or walk, then go back to writing for another three of four hours.

I wrote at least two dozen short stories. I was sending out anywhere from one to seven submissions a day and as a result, getting an acceptance almost every week. My list of publication credits grew exponentially, and I even got paid for some of my stories.

DSC_0172.jpgNow that September has arrived, the weather is cooling and leaves are changing, I’ve rejoined the rest of the adult who get up in the morning and go to work. Thankfully, my job is one I love, and once I get used to being there, it hardly feels like work at all. Instead of spending the whole day lost in my words, I get to help developing writers find their voice.

My students generally are not aspiring to become best selling authors or prize winning essayist. Many of them want to be nurses, police officers, psychologists and pre-school teachers. They are not only trying to improve themselves, but find jobs that have meaning, jobs that will let them build their communities.

They need strong literacy skills to do this, no matter what field they choose. Whether it be in email, classes or writing grants, words are a tool for communicating, for learning and for bringing about change.

While I will miss spending my days writing fiction, I’m glad I’m back at work. I learned a lot about writing from my summer binge, and I’m eager to share with those whose words will have a more direct impact on the communities I live in and near.

Finals Week and Chicken Soup

As the semester comes to an end, it can be hard to remember to eat at all, let alone eat healthy. This was true for me when I was a student, and still is true now that I am a teacher. Since women cannot survive on chocolate alone (though we often want to), I believe it is critical to make sure that I do not let the stress get to me.

No matter how chaotic it gets, I need to eat and I need to take time to make sure I don’t burn out. Writing, cooking and taking pictures are often therapeutic for me, so before I dive into the grading this morning, I am taking some time to make food and a blog post.

Friday night, I was too tired to do much cooking, so my husband picked up a rotisserie chicken from a local grocery story, and I boiled some Jasmin rice.  We barely ate half the chicken, so I decided to save to rest for soup.

I started with vegetables:  Half a large onion, a quarter of a bell pepper, one large carrot and one stick of celery. I cut them up and sautéed them with olive oil, thyme and parsley.

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Next, I added the left over Rotisserie Chicken.

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More dedicated and experienced cooks would use the whole thing to make stock, but I have a very limited amount of time allowed for writing and cooking this morning, so I just ripped off some white meat and threw it in the pan. I didn’t use all the leftover meat, so I put it back in the fridge in case my husband (who is a much better cook than me) wants to use it for something.

We did have some jasmine rice left over from Friday, maybe a 1/3 cup, so I added that to the pan next.

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I stirred it, letting it all simmer for a few a minutes, then added a box of organic chicken stock.

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I’ll let it all simmer while I grade. At noon, when I need  a break, I’ll have a bowl of soup, giving my body some veggies, protein and grain to help it power through the next round of papers. I’ll put the left overs in the fridge and take them to work for lunch on Monday and Tuesday, guaranteeing that I will have something healthier than cookies to eat between my classes.

©2016 Sara Codair

A Fun Run for the Developing Writer’s Brain

Creative Writing exercises are my favorite thing to do in class. However, I used to think there wasn’t room for them in a first year writing class. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Teaching any kind of writing without creative exercises is like a coach who doesn’t encourage his or her athletes to run or weight train.

Whether you are training to improve you skills at soccer, crew, or baseball, running is one way to progress. Or, if like me, you are not a fan or competitive sports, you can run to make your body stronger and healthier. I run because it eases my anxiety and keeps the copious amounts of cookies I consume from sticking to my hips. One could say the same thing for pushups, crunches and weight training. They improve your body so you can use it more effectively.DSC_0394

Creative Writing exercises are like running or doing push ups. They strengthen the brain and its ability to translate thoughts into words. It doesn’t matter if a person’s goal is to write copy for a website, a lab report, a short story or a persuasive essay. Doing writing exercises on a regular bases will strengthen the parts of his or her brain that translate ideas into sentences and paragraphs.

This is a realization four years in the making for me. When I first started teaching English Composition or College Writing, I thought that since my goal was to teach academic writing, I had to use traditional academic methods. At the time, I believed that mean brief lectures about essay structure followed by discussions on nonfiction texts.

There is nothing wrong with having students read and discuss texts that follow a similar style to the ones they plan to write. However, a college writing class can be much more than that. Boredom, Breadloaf and a slew of academic articles have convinced me that I can and should teach creative writing in a class where the end goal is an academic research paper.

It shows the students that writing can be fun while enhancing their ability to efficiently translate their thoughts to the written word, it facilitates skill transfer proves to the students that they have something to say and that it doesn’t take too long for the first draft of that idea to be born on the page.

One of my favorite creative exercises to do with my students is the never-ending story. Here are the directions I give my students:

  • Take out a blank piece of paper.
  • In a few minutes, I am going to play a song. When the music starts, you are going to start a story. The story can start with a character, a description, action or some combination of all three as long as it is inspired by the music.
  • When the music stops, pass you paper to the right.
  • Read what is on the paper that was passed to you.
  • When a new song plays, continue that story. However, you should let the music inspire how you continue it.
  • We will repeat this process eight times.

I play a variety of songs, ranging from Lindsey Sterling’s Crystalize to Drake’s Hotline Bling. A large variety in genre and style will wield hilarious stories and an interesting discussion about what kind of music facilitates writing and what kind interferes with it down.

The reflection and discussion that follows can’t be skipped. This is where students realize the activity was more than just a way to destress at the end of the semester. If you can get them to name the skills or strategies they used when composing on the spot, they can put those aside as tools for when they get stuck on an assignment. If the students get can make a connection between the kind thinking they did during this process to the  kind of thinking they did when doing other kinds of writing, they will begin to understand that skills do transfer from one genre to the other (something some academics think doesn’t happen in first year writing classes).

On the surface, the never ending story and other creative writing exercises may just seem like “fun” ways to fill time in class. However, they are actually valuable strategies for encouraging metacognition, skill transfer and team work.  They encourage students to think quick, reflect on how music or sounds affect their writing and asks them to participate in a non-verbal collaboration. They focus more on the process than the end product. Most importantly, the have fun while they are learning something.

 

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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Adjunct and Writer

I write fiction, and I teach. That pretty much sums up my life during the school year. In the summer, I write even more and spend insane amounts of time outside.

Being adjunct can be tough because I have drive a lot and don’t get benefits,  but I am fortunate enough to have a part-time tutoring job that adds some stability to the mix.

Furthermore, adjuncting supports my writing habit without stifling it. I get summers off and a weird schedule, leaving me plenty of time to type up the stories overloading my brain, revise them obsessively them send them off places and practice copious amounts of rejectomancy.

I’ve only been trying to publish my short fiction for a few months, so I’m happy to say I’ve had three pieces published so far.

The first, “Above the Influence”, was published by Mashstories.com.

Constellation Run and Un-Rung were published on 101words.org.

The others are forthcoming from Fantasy Crossing and Sick Lit Magazine.

I’ll post links to them when they are available!

Follow my blog for insight into the life of a writer/teacher, tips on writing, and tips on teaching. I may post the occasional story or vignette too.

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