Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Wrong 20 Minutes

You'd be surprised how often students come into the Writing Lab twenty minutes before their paper is due. That specific number comes up all the time. Students who have class at 8:40 show up at 8:20 asking us to "check it" or "make sure it's good." There's honestly not a lot we can do in the last twenty minutes before their teacher expects a final draft because we have to figure out what the student needs to talk about or do in order to learn, plus they have to make changes and print before they are late for class.

That's not to say that there's not a lot we can do in twenty minutes. Two students came in this morning, on at about 9:30, another about ten minutes later. I had to leave for a meeting at 10:00, so I didn't have a lot of time, but each of them got some good work done in about twenty minutes.

The first student had a draft of a paper. It was a summary and response to an excerpt from a book about how being a nerd instead of a cool kid is advantageous in the long run. She had about a page and a half of initial thoughts, and I helped her see the skeleton of ideas she had and how she could add meat onto those bones. We talked about structure and focus, wrote some ideas on the whiteboard, and she was ready to tackle a much more detailed, intentional draft about how she went from being inbetween nerds and cool kids when she was young to choosing the nerd camp as an adult because she saw the advantages of education.

The second student kept talking about how she was writing about the same thing. The first thing I cleared up with her was that she wasn't. They were responding to the same essay, but she had different things to say. She didn't have a draft yet, just a very general thesis statement about dedication being key to success. I asked her how she saw dedication leading to success in the essay (nerds!), whether she was a nerd or a cool kid growing up (cool kid), and how she experienced determination as an important factor to success (cheerleader turned teen mother goes from cool kid to not-so-cool kid and figures out that life is tough but you have to keep on keeping on).

Both of them spent the right twenty minutes in here. If this would have been the twenty minutes before their papers were due, they would have been in trouble because they didn't have much to hand in and they didn't have much time to work. But they came in early enough to get their ideas straight, start thinking through the details of how they learned what they learned, and crank out solid drafts of their papers.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Measure of Success

A student who has come in regular intervals over the past few semesters shows up. We each say hey, and he take off his hat and looks at the crown. See, I tease him about wearing Yankee hats. We have a no-Yankee hat policy in the Learning Center*, but he was sporting the Sox (White, not Red) logo, so he was safe. I pointed out that he didn't even know what hat he was wearing today, and we laughed about that.

The hat policy wasn't all he was learning about. Later, after he filled me in on his assignment, a summary of the movie In the Bedroom, he was running through the basic ideas of the story. The class is writing about revenge, and he got to the part in the story when one of the characters wants to take revenge because he got "angry and stuff like that."

The student stopped and said, "No, 'not stuff like that.' He was angry." Then he continued. I felt awesome right then**. I didn't say anything about his use of such a vague phrase. It was like he took a giant pen and scratched a line through what he just said***.

That was cool. That made my morning.

*I find stuff like this helpful to disarm a place like this. It would be easy for a Writing Lab to feel like a nerdcave, academically isolated and only focused on papers papers papers. When we create faux policies like not allowing Yankee hats or requiring people who do math in the writing area to bring us donuts, we poke fun at the institutional nature of the place, show an awareness of the outside world (those Yankee hats never have to do with papers) and show a little humanity (donuts = hungry). Everything is strategic around here, even disdain for that NY logo that shows up on the heads of so many students who can't name their Yankees.

**It only had a little bit to do with the fact that I find myself doing this automatically when I hear words. I don't tell people when I do it. That's rude. I always tell people who ask if I'm going to correct their grammar that I have a policy of not correcting people's grammar out in the real world because people who do that don't have any friends.

**"...angry and stuff like that..."

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tell the Truth

Yesterday, a student working on a process paragraph showed me her work. It was about how she planned to study for her first math test. I asked her about one of the steps, the one where she comes into the Learning Center to work with a tutor. Specifically, I asked her what she did with the tutor.

She told me she didn't actually come in, that she planned to do that, but didn't make it because of her schedule. I advised her as I always advise people in this situation: Tell the truth.

I asked about details when she had none. I told her that telling the truth bases your paper on facts that can be used for evidence when necessary, when someone like, say, a Writing tutor asks for more detail. I informed her that her teacher might ask her about it and she might end up not being able to answer her teacher, which is not a good thing.

For some reason, sometimes people come to me for advice, but elect not to take it*.

She left the imaginary meeting with a tutor in her paragraph and emailed it to her teacher. Her teacher's reply said that she did not have enough detail in the section where she discusses visiting the tutor. The teacher would like more details from a meeting that never happened.

Tell the truth!

*Like the guy who is just now taking my advice to move on to drafting his second paragraph--he already told me what it's going to be about--instead of spending the rest of the morning tinkering with his first paragraph. He's already spent a good hour on it, and I told him more than once to move on and get the rest of the paper drafted.

Friday, February 19, 2010

FAQ: Can I ______?

Writers sit at their computers, drafts on their screens, and look up at me to ask, "Can I ______?" all the time. They usually want to know if they can write a certain word or insert a certain punctuation mark.

My answer: yes.

Always: yes.

They need to see that they have ownership of their papers. That does not come from me telling them that they can or cannot do something. They take ownership when they think about "should," not "can."

When it's words: I always tell them that they can write whatever they want, but they need to think about if they should write it. They need to consider what they want to say and make the decision themselves: Does it support my point? Does it need to be there? Is it veering off topic? Does it make my essay better? Does it make me sound intelligent?

When it's punctuation: I ask them what job they think that period or comma or whatever is doing, and if that's what needs to be done in that spot.

I really like telling students they can write what they want. They are too accustomed to just doing what they are told without thinking about why. They need someone to say, "Sure, you can do that, but what happens when you do?"

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Spell It Out

Today, a scene:

Student: How do you spell "sincerely"?
Me: How do you think you spell "sincerely"?
Student: I have no idea.
Me: Does it start with a B?
Student: Well, no. It starts with an S.
Me: So you do have some idea.
Student: Yeah, I guess so.
Me: Give it a shot. I won't tell you if you're right or wrong until after you give it a shot.

Student resembles a spelling bee contestant for a minute or two, toying with letters, debating between i and e after that initial s, sounding it out in his head, scratching down letters and erasing them. When he's got a full attempt, I take a look: "sencerely." So close.


I write "Sincerely" on the whiteboard behind him.

Me: Most people who tell me that they "have no idea how to spell a word" are usually one, maybe two letters off when they actually try and spell the word. You were close.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Whole Lotta I Dunno

This is the first week of Spring classes here at Pima, and most of the questions I've answered have related to schedules, class locations, online classes and other nuts+bolts kind of things that come up at the beginning of the semester.

One of the interesting facets of the beginning of a semester is that I see what school does to people. Not classes, not subject matter, not teachers, not a component of the educational system, but the system itself: it freaks a lot of people out.

One guy was working on his first assignment for his Technical Writing class. He had to answer a few questions in the form of a memo. The first page in the chapter he was directed to showed an example of a memo and broke down its characteristics.

He asked me to help him clarify and then just kept talking about the class. Eventually, I asked him what he was hoping I could clarify. He pointed to the example of the memo and asked if he should write his like that. I said, "That or...?" He said, "I don't know." I pointed out that his teacher asked him to write a memo and gave him an example memo, so it makes sense that he should take what he's been given instead of assuming there are other possibilities he has no idea about.

For some reason, he assumed there were other unspoken options than the obvious one. Interesting.

Another guy was registering for MathXL, an online tool for math classes that I often see math students using on the Learning Center computers but know little about because I'm not the math guy around here. Larry the Math Guy was busy with another student, but he gave the student a registration sheet to follow and off he went, registering away.

At one point, he raised his hand and said, "Should I click the first one?" As I walked over to see what the first one was, I asked him if the first one was true. He read it out loud. It went like something like this: "I am using MathXL for a class and need to sign on to my teacher's class in MathXL."

Again, I asked if this was true. I looked over his shoulder and saw the second option was something about "studying on your own." He took a second and then said yes, the first one was true and clicked it.

For some reason, he needed confirmation to go ahead and choose something he already knew was true. Interesting.

I find this fascinating because of something I heard in a TED Talk recently: "Education doesn't actually work by teaching you things. It actually works by giving you the impression that you've had a very good education, which gives you an insane sense of unwarranted self-confidence, which then makes you very, very successful in later life."

That's a quote from Rory Sutherland, an ad man, speaking about intangible value, not education, and I think he's right. It's a bold thing to say, and a potentially difficult sentiment for a teacher to hear, but I do think the value I received from my education was not the small items of material, the facts and figures, concepts and ideas that were passed along. It was the fact that I don't shy away from problems or assignments because I know I can figure them out if I give them a shot.

The problem for both of these students wasn't a lack of resources or support. They were each sitting at a public computer in a free tutoring center, holding all their class materials. The problem was a lack of confidence.

The answer in both cases was right there. Write a memo and use the example memo. Choose the option that is true, not the one that is false. The intangible value of education is problem solving, the ability to think, choose, adapt, revise, and to do so boldly. Hopefully, this semester gives those two the self-confidence to know that they can choose what they already see as the right answers.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Let's Get It Started

Last Saturday, I taught the first 2010 session of my Upward Bound* enrichment class. Because it was the start of the year, I addressed a common question that I hear in the Writing Lab: How do I start this?

Many student writers get an assignment and they just sit down and start banging keys. Or they just sit down and start staring at the computer hoping the paper will magically appear. However, before they write the first sentence, they need to know where they are going.

I gave the UB students a common assignment here on the DV campus, that significant place paper. I talked about how many students begin those papers with sentences like "Many places are significant to many people." True. That's actually so true that it's the seed of the assignment. The trick is to get past that and into the particular place and it's particular significant to you.

We talked about how they need to start with a basic claim**. Not a fully formed thesis yet, just an idea of Your Topic + What You Are Saying About Your Topic. I gave them some scratch paper and had them come up with a few ideas. Here are the places they came up with and the significance those places hold to these students, and a snippet of what we discussed about each.

Shower: get thinking done
(not the functional use of the place, but an unexpected function of the private place that turned out to be shared by a good portion of the students--student discovered commonality that he didn't assume would be common)

Ditch: privacy to paint

(unexpected place to be used by someone for anything, let alone a creative endeavor--intriguing from the get-go)

School Auditorium: break in and run off energy

(use of place focusing on one characteristic--big open space--instead of main characteristic--stage--that readers wouldn't assume)

Bathroom: unwind and get away/get out of things

(student focused on not only the privacy but the Do Not Disturb nature of the bathroom as a way to escape responsibility of rest of house)

Track: face a challenge, release stress

(discussed at how two people use same space differently: one to overcome and accomplish, one to escape and only compete with self)

Tennis Court: be in control

(student said it was where she could "be herself," elaboration lead to idea of exerting control; we discussed how even her close friends and family could learn something about her by reading an essay that explores this idea)

Kitchen: quiet place to draw

(asked students what they expected the significance to be, answers included cooking, food, and gathering; student instead pointed out particular characteristics of his kitchen--quiet, solitude--and how his unique talents play into how he sees that place)

Basketball Court: show effort, just play and not be judged

(again two students with two views on one place, one focused on competition and one focused on freedome; discussed how specific details--in a gym vs in a park--alter the expectations of a reader)

Golf Course: release anger

(opposite of expectations--golf as difficult game that frustrates people--that would be intriguing and need the explanation an essay would allow)

Open Field of Grass in a Park: see nature and remember place in the world

(student originally said "open field" and further questioning revealed the park; discussed how providing that detail was vital because "open field" could mean many things to many readers, so it would be important to direct readers to proper mental images)

Black Box Theater: become another character

(unique place unfamiliar to many people would ask the writer to provide good description in order to understand the difference between becoming another character in a traditional theater versus becoming another character in a black box theater)

These were intelligent answers that were brainstormed in only about ten minutes, so the students saw how little time it took to form a basic claim. I told them that they would now just need to explore the truth of that place's significance in their essay. They wouldn't have to make anything up or hope to be divinely inspired to write three pages about a place that is significant to them. They already know why it's important, so they need to explain it to those of us who don't see that place like they do.

I told them to file these essays ideas away in case they are ever asked to write about a significant place. Maybe I'll run across one of them in a future DV class.

*UB is a bunch of high schoolers who are looking to get into college. The program exists to help them do that. I am there to help them get a leg up on what they'll need to know about writing for college. They are generally good kids whom I enjoy spending some Saturday mornings with.

**I used a road trip analogy: you want to know where you're going before you pull out of the the driveway. This was interesting because a couple of the students had actually taken a road trip that had no known destination. I had to revise my metaphor: it may be adventurous to set off on the open road with no destination, but that strategy is won't work out when writing a paper.