Class Writing Opportunity: THE FICTION PROJECT

November 19th, 2009 Comments off

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As a creativity challenge, I recently signed up for THE FICTION PROJECT, sponsored by The Art House Co-op. Registrants (before Feb) will be mailed a Moleskine sketchbook in which to tell and show a story using words and art, based on a surprise random theme. Most participants scan and share their work-in-progress, with commenting available much like a weblog. The deadline is in April, when sketchbooks are returned to be put on permanent display in the Brooklyn Art Library.
The length of the experience nicely fits into a college semester-length calendar for the coming Spring, so I thought I would recommend it to others who are considering a creative class project for their art or writing courses. The “rules” are flexible enough to allow collaborative creations for the class as a whole, or to allow individual entries. The site offers an educational discount for groups over 10.
Visit my profile and feel free to friend me if you sign up. I don’t know what I’ll be doing for this project, or if I’ll even succeed, but I know it will be very weird.

Categories: FYI, Praxis Tags:

John Irving Worries For New Novelists — Should Teachers?

November 5th, 2009 1 comment

Thanks to the twitterverse, I was turned on to this video by author John Irving when asked about the future of the book:

The anxieties presently circulating about the marketplace for fiction certainly are causing a lot of changes in the publishing industry lately. In October, price wars among booksellers splashed on the headlines, causing many — including the New York Times — to worry about the economics of publishing and the resultant devaluation of the printed book itself. Some speculate that this is all due to the mainstream attention and interest that ebook hardware is finally getting, especially the Amazon Kindle.
Updike speaks to the impact of all this on young writers. I am starting to wonder how the role of creative writing programs and the teaching of creative writing professors will change as a result, since young writers are who we serve. Here are my thoughts — a rapid fire of brainstorming, more than fully-composed thoughts — about what, perhaps, creative writing teachers should be considering.
For one thing, we should neither give up on the book, nor hide from the realities of the trade by squatting behind a library shelf or the literary canon. We need to be engaged with the present AND the past, with a toe dipped into the future of our students, as well.
We should adapt to paradigm shifts not by teaching to the marketplace but by teaching to the long-view and by persistently putting publishing into historical context. Students need to be aware of current industry realities, and we need to be engaged in it to understand it completely as teachers. But there is wisdom in our experience and we need to share that experience, in order for students to recognize that publishing as an ever-changing process, and is never “stable” in any fixed way. It has always been historically-contingent, and always been in a state of flux across time. The “book” has always been an artifact of the marketplace of ideas — a trace artifact of a cultural movement always in-process. This is as true of business trends as it is of artistic movements, and often one change is simply responding and/or adapting to the other.
We should discuss electronic publishing not as the “new” or the “best” but simply one medium for messaging which is as equally valid for expression as any other. When it comes to publishing contracts, ebooks are just one license among many that a writer can act on, and while one license may be more economically viable at any given time than another, all are equally legitimate ways to transfer intellectual property to an audience.
We should inform students about intellectual property law, and advise them to protect their property — or to know what rights they’re donating to the public domain when they unleash it free online or in free ebook giveaways.
We should encourage experimentation with format just as we encourage experimentation with the blank page to poets.
Too often writers glom on to one format or medium or genre and fixate on it (usually because they derived some success within it) — and this includes everything from the Kindle of today to the illustrated manuscript in days of old. We need to engage new technologies while also understanding the book as a technology itself. But more than that, the key point for new writers to understand — after they’ve learned the art of writing and become interested in pre-professional, career trajectories — is that the products of their imagination and craftsmanship are also ultimately social texts once they become published. Writing, when all is said and done (and revised and marketed) is a form of property that can be traded, and graduates of writing programs rarely learn enough about this stage of the process.
Publishing needs to be considered a stage of the writing process. It is the end stage, but not necessarily the terminus of the process. Books get printed, but the life of the book does not end when the ink dries. There are dialogues that open up (such as in reviews) and books are often updated and revised, serialized and sequelized…and one book experience always informs the next book experience, for writers who survive it.
It is good to teach students “the book life.” To think of writing as a way of life in a culture that is not inherently friendly to that way of living. Texts like Jeff Vandermeer’s recent title, Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer are movements in the right direction. Courses like our own “Publication Workshop” at Seton Hill U, are others.
Sharing the end results of work produced in a classroom — in end-of-term class readings, in class-generated anthologies, in online literary magazines — are all forms of publication. Many teachers neglect to exploit this as an arena for learning the way. Because it’s the messiest part of the process, and the part where “rejection” (beyond grading systems) looms. Bridging the conventional forms of classroom publishing (such as a reading of revised work to the classroom at the end of the term) with emergent formats (such as video recordings to be uploaded for public comments from youtube) will engage writing students with the marketplace of ideas today.
In addition to the “book life” and being aware of the status and reality of the economy of writing, there is also something simply called the “reader’s life.” We should remain role models for engaged readers as much as writers, with an interest in the output of the publishing world. We should advise students to take literature courses and spend time in the library. We should buy books, and practice what we preach by investing in the world that invests in us as authors. We should share and explore new technologies and trends in publishing and talk about these formats with our students. We should show that we are readers as much as writers — we are bookish. Students need to see us reading, hear us reciting published works, spot us in the faculty break room reading a kindle, recognize us in the audience at a public poetry reading, see us browsing the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, sit across from us at a table in the library. When they do so, they will see themselves reflected in the world of books as a real, lived experience.
Last week I bought a Kindle. I carried my ebook device around all week not to show off some new gaget, but to say Look…this might be what our future looks like. I’m interested in where this is heading…are you? I opened up a dialogue with readers on my horror writing weblog, about the ebook watershed. I uploaded documents for a Dean’s Council meeting to my Kindle and brought it to the meeting instead of printing them out or using a laptop. I showed my Kindle to almost every student who came to my office for advising this past week, for both the “wow” factor and to say “hey, you might be getting your textbooks this way someday.” Down the hall, my colleague ordered a Kindle DX for his journalism courses, and posted an interesting blog about the kindle’s impact on academics. Teachers and writers open up conversations about books; books are portals into conversations about culture. Writers shouldn’t be worried, but engaged and thoughtful; we need to be steeled up against the fluctuations inherent to the industry, but also willing and able to transcend it. That’s the skill of the creative writer — telling a good story transcends the medium and the economics of the exchange. But we also have to be creative in finding ways for getting our stories heard.
And we need to keep publishing our own writing, creative or not, as well. That’s the only way to truly learn what it’s like out there. To accumulate knowledge of the book world and bring it back to our classrooms, whether explicitly or obliquely. The skills and knowledge that we’ve always taught will never go out of fashion, but we need to recognize what is at stake in our students’ lives when changes are on the horizon.
It seems almost criminal to advise a student to become a novelist without also arming them with some sort of knowledge and wisdom about the marketplace for fiction. The power of an educated writer is not simply to write well, but to join a community of like-minded thinkers and to participate smartly in the world in which they hope to operate, economically as well as discursively. We can react to changes in the industry with optimism or skepticism, but we should never abandon the one certain thing we have to give writers of the future: hope, balanced by wisdom and intelligence.

Categories: Praxis Tags:

Teaching NaNoWriMo

November 1st, 2009 1 comment

National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) launched today, sending millions of people “with a book in them” to the keyboard in an attempt to churn out a rough novel-length manuscript (minimum of 50,000 words to ‘count’) by the end of November. People engaged in this activity all bond on the nano website, encouraging each other and sharing tips, posting and boasting their latest word counts all the way to the end.
I’ve never done it, but I’ve always been intrigued by this collective endeavor of binge writing. I’ve signed up on the site and lurked, just to see what people are up to. It appeals to me, as a writer who works in manic, highly-caffeinated spurts, and as a teacher who believes in the collaborative learning inherent to a writer’s workshop community. A number of our more productive Writing Popular Fiction students and even some faculty dare to “nano”…it’s awfully difficult for a full-time faculty member to take on such an enormous task during the endgame of a Fall semester, when term papers come pouring in and advising for the next term is afoot, but it can be done.
Maybe college profs need a NaSchoWriMo for writing scholarship? Now is the perfect time to get to work on those conference papers you want to present next Spring, after all.
In any case, I noticed that teachers are actually beginning to use NaNoWriMo in the classroom, and that the site has a Young Writers Program that fosters an educational mission. The site includes some GREAT novel writing workbooks for young adults — and the program can even lend out NEO word processing hardware to students in need.
It’s a great idea. And it can be used creatively. From a class-collaborated story to simply a study of the novel itself, teachers are tapping into NaNoWriMo as a form of learning that reaches outside of the walls of the classroom and participates in the “outside world” even as it focuses the attention needed for cultivating the intimate and interior setting of the imagination.
Daniel Moulthrop shares his experience “Teaching NaNoWriMo” in a google doc, suggesting that the main benefit is “a month of unbridled creativity vs. school as we know it” which leads to increased writing fluency and — after the initial hurdle of starting to climb what seems to be a very high mountain — a reduction of fear about writing.
To any teachers out there doing this: GOOD LUCK!
I don’t have much to offer, but over on my horror writing website, I have a section called “Instigation” that offers “twisted prompts” for creative writers that you can crib from to get your students working on a dastardly plot point.
You also might get your class involved in twitter.com for this project. There’s a lot of activity on that site — just search for the #nano hashtag or “follow” NaNoWriMo.

Categories: Praxis Tags:

Whose Class is it Anyway? Presentation on Improv

October 30th, 2009 4 comments

The slides for my “Teaching and Learning” presentation today on Improv and Teaching are here on google docs:

Whose Class Is It Anyway?

For related topics (including a two-part review of Impro by Keith Johnstone, click the improv tag below.

Categories: Praxis, Theory Tags:

Fair Educational Use of Popular Culture

October 26th, 2009 Comments off

I watched this video this morning, as part of my preparation for a course in “The Teaching of Popular Fiction & Writing” next Spring. I liked the level of advocacy here for educational use of pop culture material in the classroom, as well as the emphasis on ‘best practices.’ You can download the full report from the Center for Social Media.

I share these professors’ enthusiasm. But fair use can be a muddy area to define and the issue can get complicated. Even so, the essays available at EDUCAUSE on educational fair use are enlightening for those who are trying conscientously to sort out these matters. One essay from EQ that struck me was “Managing Intellectual Property for Distance Learning” by Liz Johnson, which offers a decision-making model for breaking down the numerous choices that a teacher could consider when sharing materials in an online course, for instance.
Most of what I know about copyright, I learned as a writer, not an educator, and the coverage in the Chicago Manual of Style stands at the foundation of what I know of the subject. I’m no lawyer (so please don’t ask me any legal questions on this topic), and whenever I reseach the subject of copyright and fair use in online environments on the web, one of the things that trips me up are nagging questions about new laws: “am I reading the most recent law? does it cover new emergent technology and the latest digital copyright standards or is this an outdated article?”
Regardless, I think it is important to be clear with students about the ‘situational ethics’ of using copyrighted material in the classroom or in an online environment. I once had a student download an article I shared in an online course, only to turn around and post it to their blog to share with others…I had to inform them that this was a copyright violation, because when I shared it the first time, it was only for educational use and that the author’s rights were protected because it was online downloadable behind the firewall/password-protected CMS service. Now I go out of my way to make sure students understand that the principle of fair use is in place in the classroom, and explain that it is a little bit different than how material is shared in the outside world. It might even make sense to make ‘fair use’ itself a topic for students to study, particularly in any course where the students are learning how to work in an area that produces intellectual property (the arts, writing, journalism, etc. etc.). If one thing is clear to me about fair use doctrine, it’s that the context of any use is everything.
A few additional informal points that guide my own praxis on this subject (your mileage may vary):
+ Avoid using outside sources as “window dressing” — they should be the lumber of the learning mill. Analyze, utilize, discuss, work with whatever you bring into the room.
+ It is wise to do a little research and contact an author if you wish to use their material in a classroom. I have never met a writer who said ‘no’ and having permissions gives you license to use the work in a way that might expand what ‘fair use’ dictates. Some will expand your permissions, or offer tips on how to acquire more material on the cheap/free (e.g. have their publisher send you an instructor’s guide, or point you to a discount on a book); some will even offer to appear in an online chat or take interview questions. This also expands your network.
+ When in doubt, err on the side of conserving the copyright holder’s rights, and be clear about the ‘boundary lines’. Not only does this reduce your likelihood of violation, it teaches by example and will set a precedent for respect of property in your classes and with your own intellectual property.
+ Cite as you would like to be cited. Teach as you would like to be taught.

Categories: Praxis Tags:

Teachers on Twitter

October 22nd, 2009 Comments off

Good article by Josh Cohen on the Teacher Professional Development Sourcebook today, called “Teachers Take To Twitter.” Along with giving some tips for twitter usage, the key point is that twitter is building a community of teachers. Cohen cites Bill Ferriter, a 6th grade social studies teacher, succinctly:

“Searching Twitter is searching the minds of teachers. It’s collective intelligence. When you can pick the brains of 200 highly accomplished teachers, you’ll get good success.”

I set up a separate account on twitter for my teaching-related work at http://twitter.com/arnzen. I enjoy the connection with that “collective intelligence” that Ferriter mentions. It’s half faculty-lounge, half-development conference. The trick is to ‘follow’ other teachers…do searches for words like ‘pedagogy’ and connect with the most interesting ‘tweeters’ by following them. Your network will spread.
Of course, twitter can be used in the classroom, too (though I have yet to try this). Emerging Ed Tech gives six good examples. Academhack gives a great overview of its possible applications in “Twitter for Academia” (which was picked up by The Chronicle). H Songhai gives even more depth and anecdotes about it.
I can imagine setting up a specific account name on twitter for a class, with all students doing the same, and each ‘following’ each other on the site — and using these short tweets for chats, or live (if everyon has the technology in a lab, or laptop situation) as something akin to ‘clickers’ in the classroom, but with many more options and critical thinking applications than simply polling quantitative reactions.

Categories: Praxis Tags:

Exploring Uncanny Digital Literacies

October 20th, 2009 Comments off

Over on my other blog, The Popular Uncanny, I wrote this evening about a neat Prezi presentation on “Uncanny Digital Literacies” by Sian Bayne, from the ESRC seminar series on Literacies in the Digital University (University of Edinburgh, 16 Oct 2009). She mentions a book called A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty by Ronald Barrett that I want to get my hands on.
For now, I’ll just embed Bayne’s presentation here — if you want to read some of my thoughts and light research on it, visit my blog entry entitled “Uncanny Digital Literacies: Defamiliarization in The Classroom” on The Popular Uncanny.

Categories: Theory Tags:

Innovation and Listening

October 20th, 2009 3 comments

This morning I was pointed to an article on “The Five Mental Habits of Innovative People” that I found interesting, because it identifies the skillsets I would want to foster in my students, especially in a course related to creativity (like writing).
Drawing from research by Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen at BYU, called “How Do Innovators Think?” [available at Harvard Business Publishing’s neat “Creativity at Work” page, which is worth a look-see], Jessica Stillman isolates (and explains) these five “mental habits”:

* Associating
* Questioning
* Observing
* Experimenting
* Networking

The researches suggest ‘questioning’ is really the engine that drives all of the above, yet “questioning on its own doesn’t have a direct effect without the others.”
In my classes, I have been a big advocate for question-generation — it is the trigger behind all “inquiry” — creative and scholarly — and it protects the teacher from doing all the thinking for the student (without thinking, no learning!). I run students through an activity I call ‘question-storming’; I often give them prompts for writing that encourage them to raise their own questions-at-issue; I’ll play devil’s advocate to challenge them to question their own assumptions; etc.
When a writer approaches the blank page “questioning” rather than feeling as though they need to be the “authority” they are open to making discoveries through writing…and they never have block.
What would I add to the list? LISTENING.
By which I mean “Active Listening”.
Although ‘listening’ (like ‘reading’) is related to ‘observing’, I don’t think people think of ‘listening’ as a skill that leads to innovation and creativity. They think of it as a passive act, which it is not. Part of this assumption of passivity comes from the education system: we sit in desks our whole lives, listening, listening, listening…more than doing, creating, innovating. The invisible work of learning happens in our heads, if we are self-disciplined enough to pay attention and listen actively. But that skill is rarely cultivated or directly taught.
LISTENING is crucial to mastering the art of concentration, but it also factors into creativity. As a creative writer, I could never write dialogue if I didn’t listen closely to how people actually speak — and not just listening to the words, but also to the musicality of it. If I did not listen intensely I could not know what it means to be a reader, who mentally ‘listens’ to the author’s voice as they read. Listening enables emulation and imitative learning, as well: when we listen, we see how others raise questions and discover the pathways available to us in an attempt to answer them. When we listen to an audience, we can test our own answers to questions by getting responses. So listening is a feedback loop into questioning. Listening fuels creativity. Not all creativity springs out from within us; sometimes it pools and settles in, before feeding into the outward flow.
If your teaching is in a rut, or if you want to try to do something innovative in your classroom to solve problems or enable excitement in the room, try listening to your students. You might learn something.

Categories: Praxis, Theory Tags:

Released Into Language

September 13th, 2009 1 comment

My quest for finding good books on creative writing pedagogy continues. A week or two ago, I decided to drop a chunk of my paycheck on titles I found on the cheap at half.com, and I’ve begun reading them with great abandon, as I prepare to teach a new online class on the teaching of writing for graduate students in our MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction.
This weekend I’ve been reading the late Wendy Bishop‘s book, Released Into Language: Options for Teaching Creative Writing (NCTE, 1990) — a book that is, astonishingly, available digitally via ERIC, the wonderful Education Resources Information Center. Though a bit dated by this point in time, Bishop’s text remains a quite solid study of the different ways that creative writing can be taught well in the undergraduate curriculum, arguing for a transactional and reflective approach that addresses where students really are, and how students really think, striking a pitch-perfect balance between praxis and theory.
While the classroom activities and approaches in the book are not necessarily new to me, what I’m enjoying most about reading this book is the way it articulates how the assumptions of graduate programs in creative writing don’t always translate well into the teaching of undergraduate programs in the same field. This is helping me rethink my own assumptions, as someone who often teaches similar material in both venues…and as I read it, I’m recalling just how often I have drawn upon my teaching of composition in the creative writing classroom, and vice-versa. I recommend all writing teachers take a look, if only for inspiration.
The title comes from a passage by Adrienne Rich (from her classic, On Lies, Secrets and Silence), which I like so much I wanted to post it here so I can return to it again later:

At the bedrock level of my thinking about this is the sense that language is power, and that, as Simone Weil says, those who suffer from injustice most are the least able to articulate their suffering; and that the silent majority, if released into language, would not be content with a perpetuation of the conditions which have betrayed them. But this notion hangs on a special conception of what it means to be released into language: not simply learning the jargon of an elite, fitting unexceptionably into the status quo, but learning that language can be used as a means of changing reality. What interests me in teaching is less the emergence of the occasional genius than the overall finding of language by those who did not have it…. — Adrienne Rich (emphasis added)

Empowerment. Social justice. Transformation. Discovery. It’s all encapsulated here, in this brief passage about teaching and writing.
On the topic of the cross-overs between composition and creative writing pedagogy, I’m eager to study another book that I’ve ordered: (Re)Writing Craft by Timothy Mayers. I think it will prove quite useful to us at SHU, since we are presently considering “(re)writing” our undergraduate curriculum a little bit in the year ahead.

Categories: Praxis, Theory Tags:

AASL Resources on Teaching & Learning

August 10th, 2009 Comments off

The blog run by Voicethread (which I’ve tested now with students in a current online class, and we adore it!) recently steered me to the American Association of School Librarians, which houses an excellent resource in their Best Websites for Teaching and Learning master list. Also recommended is their 2007 publication, “Standards for the 21st-Century Learner” which nicely outlines the standards for assessing information literacy today.

Categories: Praxis Tags:

PlanBook: A Strong Lesson Planner for the Weekly Calendar

August 10th, 2009 Comments off

Today I noticed that PlanBook 2.06 has been released for the Macintosh. It’s also available in a Windows version (which I haven’t tested yet, but hope to). If you like to use the computer to organize your ideas, I recommend it!
The key focus of PlanBook is on weekly calendaring. I tend to think this way, as a college teacher, and my course plan always is conceptualized right from the get-go on a weekly system. This excellent “lesson plan” generator allows teachers to organize courses in a ‘weekly calendar’ mode, while remaining flexible enough to keep individual class units in the foreground, through color coding and filtering systems. You can schedule classes, enter lesson information, link up entries to files, and print professional looking reports. While there are many software-based teaching tools, this one really fills a gap because few are about the actual organization of learning units, and most are instead focused on grading or student communication.
I don’t usually keep lesson plans the way that most people do; I organize my files by thematic clusters, and chart my plans on the syllabus, rather than in some private binder or lockstep chart. But I still found this software useful post-facto, because it allowed me to keep track of what I did every period. After a class, I would go into PlanBook, type out what I was able to cover in class that day, and save it for future reference. Later, I found myself going back to this ‘journal’ to both track what I wanted to quiz students on, and also plot out revisions to my future course calendars.
The interface is relatively easy to use, once you figure out the routine ways of keying in information for each course. Although I haven’t tested the Windows version, I know that it ‘fits’ the Mac paradigm well, and is intuitive enough to use in a customized way, depending on how you work. It is easily adaptable to different school calendar systems (like a 6 period school day or a two week rotation). This, I think, is one of its numerous appeals.
Software like this needs to be approached as a tool for organizing and planning. Most faculty might want this to plot out a course, week by week. It lends itself toward processing ideas in this way, and can help keep you organized. But many will likely say they can do this the old fashioned way, with pen and paper.
But I see the side benefits of doing this on a computer with dedicated software: you can run searches for, say, every time you’ve taught a particular text; you can build a good archive of lessons for assessment purposes; you can print out or e-mail your lesson plans to a substitute teacher from home; or you can simply publish your homework calendar for students to view online. Yes, PlanBook can publish your lesson plans to the web, and I think this is a very strong component of the software, especially if you don’t already have access to a campus Content Management System.
There’s not much more to say about it: it works, it helps, and it rocks. Verdict: A+!
PlanBook is a great way to “process” your calendar and I recommend you give it a try — especially if you HAVE no routine system of your own for course planning yet. Visit Hellmansoft to download a demo.

Categories: Reviews Tags:

VoiceThread for Educators

July 18th, 2009 Comments off

A few weeks ago I stumbled on VoiceThread and I keep mentally returning to it as a great model for hosting online discussions. It’s an exciting format, and I am considering it for any online course I might offer in the future. Beyond the “sitting around the table” structure that is so smartly structured here, what I like most about it, I think, is the ability to add to the discussion from telephone and via text message, which solves the “I can’t afford a webcam” problem to a degree.
Here‘s an instructor (Michelle Pacansky-Brock) talking about how she might use it in her art history courses:

And here’s Brock’s recent blog entry on Educause’s 7 Things You Should Know About VoiceThread. Classroom 2.0 has a good Wiki collection of links to sources and examples on VoiceThread, including my first introduction to it: a google docs slideshow called “Seventeen Interesting Ways to Use VoiceThread in The Classroom.
I’d love to hear comments from folks who have used it.

Categories: Praxis Tags:

“Student Outcomes”: Tiffany Brattina

July 17th, 2009 2 comments

“Student Outcomes” is a continuing series of interviews with my former students who are now experiencing “real life” after college. Considering how much of our work is based on the assumption that “learning outcomes” will be met, I thought it would be a good way to catch up with them and to see what sort of impact college has had on their lives in the long term. Past students interested in participating should e-mail me. Comments, as always, are appreciated. — Michael Arnzen



Tiffany Brattina, Seton Hill U class of 2007
Start with a brief bio that tells us first where you are now, then what your status was in college (e.g. “Creative Writing major, Volleyball player, Tetris fan, whatever.) Let your personality show.

Since leaving SHU I have thrown myself into my teacher career. In the spring of 2008 I worked as a substitute teacher for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU). Last June I was hired as an Autism Teacher at Bennett Elementary School. Bennett is part of the Prince William County School System and is in Manassas, VA. I moved to Virginia in July of last year and haven’t looked back.


In college I was an English Literature Major pursuing teaching certifications in Elementary and Special Education. I also enjoyed getting involved in campus activities. I was the president of two clubs and served as an officer of two others over the four years that I was on campus. My favorite of the activities I was involved in was Make-A-Wish.

Tell us where you thought you’d be now, back when you were a college freshman.

As a college freshman I never imagined that I would be living in another state so far from my family. I thought that I would be living in Pittsburgh and teaching elementary school in a local Catholic elementary school.

Describe your college experience in one word. Then elaborate in no more than five sentences.

Growth. In my four years on the Hill I grew from a young girl into a woman ready to enter the teaching field. When I stepped into Brownlee on the first day of college I was wholly unprepared for how naïve I was. With help from the people I now consider my closest friends, I learned how to live independently and to rely more on myself than on my family. I also gathered the skills I would need to be successful in the teaching field.

Describe one very specific lesson from the college classroom that you’ll never forget. Give us concrete details. Tell us not only what it taught you, but also how and why it worked.

It wasn’t necessarily a classroom lesson, but it was a lesson that a teacher taught me. It was the end of my freshman year and a teacher (who shall remain nameless) asked me to remain behind a moment because the teacher had a question for me. As the professor handed me my final project I was asked if teaching was really what I wanted to do with my life because I didn’t seem to get the basics. The exact words that were given to me before we parted were, “I would consider your options and try to pick a different field.” I didn’t know what to say. I was flabbergasted, hurt, angry, and scared all at the same time. I remember trying to hold back tears that were trying to escape and to make a graceful exit.


Later that night, after thoroughly bashing the professor with my friends, I made a decision that not only is teaching what I wanted to do with my life, but it was what God put me here to do. I think that I was supposed to learn that sometimes what we thought we wanted wasn’t exactly right for us, but what the professor really taught me was determination. In the following semesters I did everything in my power to put my best foot forward in all of my education classes. If I needed help, I went to those I knew would assist without judging me. My determination not only spurred my desire, but because of the lesson this teacher unexpectedly taught me I received the Rita Leseman Award for Excellence in Elementary Teaching. It was also determination that helped me to begin the Autism 3-5 program at Bennett where I am currently teaching.


If there was thing that I would love to pass on to students entering into college (and I’ve shared this with my brother that is entering Seton Hill in the fall) it is that determination for what you believe in will take you a long way.

What do you know now that you wish someone would have taught you in school? How might that lesson best be taught?

I know now how many different types of learning disabilities and disorders there are in the world. I had many classes that helped us to learn what some of the major disabilities are out there, but I think that I wish there were more lessons or even classes that helped students to specialize with their bachelors. I do think that it should be required that all teachers entering into special education should be taught more about Autism and the different ways that it is being treated. Also, that the teacher candidates are given a class on social skill teaching techniques. This is taught, but I think that an entire class fro the special education teachers would be beneficial.

What teaching method(s) were you subjected to that never made a dent on your learning?

I think that the method I hated the most was the “busy” work that I felt I was subjected to. When the work didn’t seem like it would or should be important to what I was learning I would procrastinate almost to the danger point.

What college experience did you find most displeasing at the time, but now recognize as an important contribution to your learning?

The portfolio. I know that everyone complains about it, but I know now that had I not made that both the college portfolio and then the English portfolio I would never have known how to begin when I put together a portfolio to send out with my job applications. I believe that it was this skill that helped me to get the job that I have today.

What habits — good and bad — did you pick up in school, that you still continue to apply?


  • Organization of my work and computer
  • Reading all the time (even to the extreme displeasure of those closest to me because I sometimes find myself blocking out everything around me)
  • Procrastination
  • Asking for help
  • Writing Lesson Plans

What do you miss about the college classroom, if anything?

The thing I miss most about the college classroom is getting to interact with those that are my age. I love teaching, but in my area of Special Education I don’t get to co-teach very often because my students are all self-contained. This means that they are only in the regular education classroom for a portion of the day and that is usually during their specials (art, music, and PE).

If there was one suggestion you would make to college teachers everywhere, what would it be?

Remember that at one point you were a student too.

THANK YOU, Tiffany, for showing us a new teacher’s viewpoints, and for all your honest feedback. Your determination clearly is paying off. I wish you all the best in your new career!
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Read more “Student Outcomes”!

Categories: Student Outcomes Tags:

Your Most Important Teaching Tool

July 13th, 2009 Comments off

“The classroom is like my garden. There is nothing that is ever ugly in it. If it is capable of blooming, it stays.” — Louis Schmier, “My Most Important Teaching Tool”, Peer Review

The quote above comes from Schmier’s reflective essay in the Spring 2009 issue of the AACU’s journal, Peer Review. (I blush to brag that I just learned my analysis of Rate My Professor from this blog was also cited by the editor elsewhere in this issue). In his opening anecdote, Schmier describes how he was once asked the question by her mentor, “What is your most important pedagogical tool?” and it later struck him that it was ultimately herself and “the power of [his] intentions.”
This may seem quite obvious. But the key word here is “intention.” It takes reflexive practice to really know what your own intentions are as a teacher. Our job title is a verb that sometimes becomes a tautology (“As a teacher I intend to teach”) that focuses on the content of the teaching, rather than the actual process of how we teach and what it means to teach.
This is why, perhaps, crafting and annually revising a “philosophy of teaching” statement could be a valuable “tool” for your teaching toolbox.
Schmier’s essay essentially concludes with such a philosophy. I really liked his iteration of seven elements that compose his “vision statement.” These are overtly optimistic and necessarily general, leading with the metaphor above: that “the classroom is like my garden.” It’s a good metaphor, though it ostensibly includes nurturing rather than weeding. The teacher feeds and cultivates, but lets learning take its own natural course.
In doing so, there must be room for aberrant growth and unpredictable weather. In another element of his vision statement, he writes: “The classroom is a shop of ‘serious novelties’…we must never get into a predictable, old-hat, stagnating, repetitive, and mind-numbing routine. New ways of looking at, thinking about, and using both the material and ourselves must be the rule of each day.” I share this vision. Constructing moments of ‘serious novelty’ is the only way to prime the pump of intellectual curiosity — which is a pro forma requirement for autonomous learning.
— postscript: thanks for the corrections Charles B.!

Categories: Theory Tags:

The Educational Value of Genre Fiction

June 23rd, 2009 Comments off

Cover to Writers Workshop of Horror
This week I’ll be teaching in our weeklong, intensive graduate creative writing workshops for the MA in Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill U. It’s always a great experience, and I particularly enjoy getting to teach and work with students and colleagues in my favorite literary genre: horror. Indeed, I’m rather fortunate to be able to do this, since the majority of creative writing programs in this country not only eschew genre labels, but also would likely eschew horror even if they didn’t. Genre, most assume, is too formulaic, too emotional, too popular (and therefore too oriented to the lowest common denominator).
Obviously, such hierarchical distinctions are usually an expression of “highbrow” class politics, or a culture which reifies the individual over the collective in the creative arts — but I won’t repeat the lessons of cultural studies here right now. Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how genre fiction — and particularly horror fiction, as I recently argued in a pedagogical essay on “Horror and Responsibilities of the Liberal Educator” — may actually be more “educational” than many literary academics realize.
Often “literary” fiction and canonical literature is considered of higher educational value because it has historical lessons to teach us about culture, or because it addresses universal issues pertinent to mankind. But this is no less true of genre fiction (and many genre stories are in the canon, actually). Genre fiction is castigated because it focuses more often on emotional payoffs than intellectual ones, but this is not all that genre fiction seeks. Horror stories, for instance, are often “cautionary” in nature, and therefore teach lessons. Readers of romances and children’s fiction often turn to these books for models of behavior in human relationships. Science fiction rewards knowledge of the sciences and often teaches readers about emergent research; mystery, likewise, teaches readers about criminalistics and is predicated on the notion that reader and detective alike will be engage fully in critical thinking as crimes are solved.
Thus, I’m mulling over the notion that the writers who create these stories have to be “teacherly” in their approach to the reader, to some degree. I’ve often heard the notion that the bestsellers of any given period not only catch the interest of the masses, but often teach readers something new — this draw to discover and learn is a large part of popular genre fiction. It assuages curiosity about “what everyone is talking about.” Yet at the same time, writers who seek to educate (usually) cannot be didactic or preachy or dogmatic about some ideological belief. As with “literary” fiction, good authors of popular fiction should raise issues of import (and often they pull these issues from the headlines, which ties them to time at the cost of being ‘timeless’) while keeping their own biases out of the story and lead readers to think critically about these issues on their own. The characters in a story often are models for such ways of thinking.
For the writers, however, their models are often each other. They read each others’ books, or find each other at conventions, or — for the dedicated — encounter each other in workshops like the program we host at SHU, or the less-academic-but-more-deeply-focused-on-genre groups like Odyssey, Clarion, Borderlands Boot Camp, Alpha, and the various workshops held in meeting rooms at genre conventions. I’ve taught at these, and they are not nearly as “amateur” or “commercial” as one might assume. Fan and genre communities are perhaps more critical and knowledgeable about their own genre than anyone else, as the work of Henry Jenkins and others have taught us.
I have the good fortune to appear in a new instructional book for writers in the horror genre, The Writer’s Workshop of Horror (ed. Michael Knost, Woodland Press, Aug 2009). Like the Horror Writer’s Association guidebook, On Writing Horror, this is an example of how the creative community of genre authors “teaches” within that community. What I like about these books is that they are not just written by a single author, but a gathering together of multiple views and voices in anthology form.
For those reading this who might have the opportunity to teach horror writing, and are looking for resources, you can order The Writer’s Workshop of Horror early from Woodland Press; it will be out in August, just in time for school.
I’ll end with a small excerpt from my contribution, called “Stripping Away the Mask: Scene and Structure in Horror Fiction,” which deals with issues regarding the pleasures of the taboo in horror, and how these are embedded into the structure (not necessarily the content) of horror narratives:

…horror is a striptease of suspense. It is an inherently exhibitionist genre, as much as it is the genre of fear. And this may very well be why horror gets a bum rap from the literati: horror can make a reader feel dirty, because it refuses to obey the inner censor that tells us that such-and-such is morally wrong, that such-and-such is ugly or grotesque, that such-and-such is perverse or unhealthy, that such-and-such is unreasonable or irrational, that such-and-such is dangerous or inhumane. Horror writers seek truth in the darkness. They remove the mask, to peer unabashedly at what it hides, horrendous warts and all….

If you wish to write horror stories, it is imperative that you understand this aesthetic. There are no “rules,” really, because readers only expect the unexpected when they pick up a work of horror. In place of rules, we just have a worldview that says: “Readers peek between their fingers. I refuse to look away.” We remove the mask.

I got the idea for this essay from the late author Robert Bloch, who defined horror in passing during an interview once as “the removal of masks.”
Is this not also the mission of liberal education?

Categories: Praxis, Theory Tags:
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