The True Value of Continued Education

Few will deny the many values of continuing education for all professionals–especially for educators. After all, how can we prepare our students for the world and the workforce of tomorrow if we as teachers don’t continue to learn, grow, and adapt? Technology is constantly changing. New teaching techniques are constantly surfacing. New information is constantly becoming available. It’s imperative for us to keep up with, if not ahead of, these changes. Naturally, attending workshops and conferences and enrolling in graduate level classes can help us learn about the latest technologies, techniques, and tools–but that is only the most obvious reason to continue our education.

Recently, my Instagram buddy and fellow teacher and writer, Kathryn Fletcher (check out her blog, Quill and Books), posted about a class she is taking, and the fact that being a student again helps her to be a better teacher. I, too, have noticed this phenomenon. From 2009-2013, I was enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Denver, and last month, I completed an accelerated graduate course on gifted and talented students through the University of Richmond. While my classes provided me with the traditional benefits of education–knowledge, information, skills–they also made me a better teacher simply because I was reminded of what being a student is like–of what being a student is.

Providing Examples to Clarify Expectations

I’ve heard two schools of thought regarding providing students with examples of projects, papers, or assignments.

The first school of thought seems to be that providing examples can be helpful to our students’ understanding of our expectations for their work, and is in fact integral to their ability to meet our expectations. Those who ascribe to this school of thought might feel that to not provide an example would be unfair, withholding information necessary for the students’ success.

The second school of thought seems to be that providing examples limits students’ creativity, imposing upon them a sort of template. In short, providing examples at best encourages students to think inside the box and at worst, fosters plagiarism.

Having recently been a student myself, I find I fall somewhere in the middle. As a student, I find access to examples at the very least a source of peace of mind. They help me understand my instructor’s expectations, and put me at ease. They also give me a basis of comparison. Is what I have completed so far up to par, or do I need to up the ante? They eliminate a lot of the stress associated with a weighty project or paper, and can make concrete what might otherwise feel like an abstract task. They do, indeed, provide a sort of template.

As a teacher, however, I understand the fear of boxing my students in, of limiting them to the standards set by the example–when perhaps they are capable of more. To help satisfy both teacher me and student me, I recommend providing several, different examples, all exemplifying different strengths and suggesting different ways a student could successfully complete the assignment. In this way, I hope the examples will inspire my students, acting as a jumping-off point instead of as a single route to successful completion.

Clear Directions

This seems obvious, but really, having been simultaneously a student and a teacher for four years, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of clear directions. List them in bullet points; create numbered, step-by-step lists; draw one of those concept map things that visually explains the steps students need to take to complete the assignment. Make yourself clear to your students in any way they need.

That said, it’s impossible for us as teachers to anticipate what every single one of our students will need for clarity–so be approachable. Encourage students to ask questions if they don’t understand, and when they do ask questions, make sure to answer with patience and understanding. Teacher me knows that can be very challenging, especially when you feel like you’ve already answered the same questions five times in the last five minutes. Sometimes, though, teacher me has to remember that if I have had to answer the same questions five times, maybe my directions weren’t clear enough the first time. In teacher me’s defense, maybe the students didn’t read the directions carefully enough the first time (or at all!), or maybe they weren’t listening carefully enough the first time (or at all!)–but student me always feels warm and fuzzy when an instructor answers my question as if I am not, actually, an idiot.

Empathetic Feedback

This is perhaps the most important lesson I learn (again and again) when I take a class. I teach writing, so I am constantly picking apart students’ written work. My intent is always to help my students become stronger, more effective writers, but I must admit that after reading dozens of research papers, my comments grow a bit more terse and a bit less forgiving. It’s completely unintentional, but I’m sure that’s no consolation to the student who wrote the twentieth research paper I read.

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The picture on the left shows me during the fall of my senior year in high school (student me!). The picture on the right shows me during the spring of my eleventh year as a high school English teacher (teacher me!). One of the values of taking classes as a teacher is remembering what it feels like to be a student, an experience that, in and of itself, can improve our teaching.

But guess what? Student me had to write three papers for the most recent graduate course I completed. And they weren’t perfect. But my instructor’s feedback was gentle and helpful.

And freelance writer me just got a rejection notice from Crowd Content–so clearly, my work wasn’t up to their standards (their feedback, which was less than constructive, wasn’t up to mine).

And novelist me found out a few days ago that Goodbye For Now did not win the James River Writers Best Unpublished Novel Contest.

And blogger me knows this blog post, too, will have its flaws (especially since I’m writing it way past my bedtime). And I won’t particularly like it if someone points them out (though, depending on how it’s delivered, I may feel grateful for the advice after my ego recovers).

And what does teacher me take away from all of this? Teacher me is reminded to bear in mind that when students turn in their writing to me, be it a journal entry, a research paper, a short story, or an essay, they are turning in a little piece of themselves–and it’s personal, however academic it may be. And so, whether a paper is the first I’ve read tonight or the thirty-first, I must treat it with the utmost respect and tenderness. I am indeed responsible for helping to improve it–or rather, for helping its author improve it–but I am also in a position to either build up or tear down another writer. I am partly responsible for the way a student writer will feel when he gets his paper back from me. Will he feel empowered, or downtrodden? Part of that depends on how I deliver my suggestions for revisions, as well as how helpful and specific my feedback is.

Rubrics

One of the most helpful tools for student me when I am writing a paper, completing a project, or working on any academic task is a clear understanding of how the instructor will evaluate the final product. What criteria will be used? How much weight does each element of the assignment carry? Where should my priorities rest? Student me likes a good, straight-forward rubric. I use it as a checklist and a guide.

Overall Lesson

Really, though, what is the most important lesson I have taken away from all the classes I have completed? A reminder of what it feels like to wear the students’ shoes. I’ve been wearing primarily teacher shoes for the last eleven years. It’s good, every now and again, to step back into the classroom as a student. As a teacher, it can be so easy to get bogged down in the to-do list of the teaching day, which often extends long after school hours: take attendance, run copies, grade papers, input grades, print progress reports, set up the bell ringer, update the curriculum map, fix the typo you just found on next block’s quiz, update the bulletin board, turn in the lesson plans, change the seating chart (because clearly Sarah and Jimmy can’t handle sitting so close to each other), and, for heaven’s sake, please find a few seconds for a potty break somewhere in there. Taking a class helps me remember that my students need me more than my to-do list does. This year, when school starts again, I hope teacher me can remember what it feels like to be student me–and teach accordingly.

 

 

 

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The Value of Rereading

Just a few minutes ago, I finished reading my friend and fellow writer Charlene Jiminez’s blog post, “Finding the Universal Truth in your Work.” I found it so thought-provoking that I was inspired to share my thoughts (before I lose them).

Emotional Experiences and Life Experiences

As the title of her blog post makes plain, Charlene writes about universal truths in our own writing. When I was in AP English Literature as a high school senior, my teacher refused to use the word “theme,” instead demanding that we discuss universal truths. I embraced this idea. To me, it made the literature more relevant–more real. I wasn’t searching for some obscure (to teenage me) author’s message, which, I was sure, wasn’t really his message, anyway, but some critic-imposed theme originating in academia; I was looking for truth, a pursuit that seemed much more noble.

Our ability to discern the universal truth in the writing of others directly correlates to the value we will or will not place on that writing. It directly affects our ability to understand a work of literature beyond its surface elements (characters, plot, setting–that sort of thing), and to instead see those elements as tools used to communicate a truth about the human condition. At the same time, as Charlene explains, while our ability to discern that universal truth does not depend on our having had the same life experiences as the writer or characters, it does depend on our having had the same emotional experiences.

Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature.

For example, the first time I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was unimpressed. Really. It was, as they say, “meh.” I was unmoved. It was my fourth year teaching. I had just been assigned the honors classes, and the book was to be the students’ summer reading assignment. I read the book from cover to cover–all the introductory material, all the acknowledgments, everything. I took notes in the margins. I read carefully. But I didn’t like it. It was a chore. A year or two later, we changed the summer reading book, and Their Eyes Were Watching God collected dust on the shelves of the English department work room for several years. Two years ago, though, we reintroduced it as part of the core curriculum for both the honors and academic level classes. Since several years had gone by since I’d read the book, I decided I’d better read it again. Sigh…

The second time around, I loved it. What had changed? It was the same book with the same introduction, the same acknowledgments, the same notes in my same handwriting. Certainly, the story hadn’t changed. The writing hadn’t changed. Even the universal truths hadn’t changed.

But I had.

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Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated ten years of marriage. Developments in our relationship over the years have affected my ability to better understand universal truths in books like Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

While I had not been married off by my grandmother to a man three times my age; while I had not run away with a man who swept me off my feet only to find myself stuck in a loveless marriage; while I had not nearly died in a hurricane or (spoiler alert!) shot my one true love in self-defense, I had a deeper capacity to understand the emotions these situations elicit because I had had my own life experiences that had deepened my understanding of what it means to be human–of love, loss, friendship, and self-actualization.

Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated a decade of marriage. The experiences we have shared  helped open me up to the truths expressed in Hurston’s novel. Our marriage, and the sense of love and commitment I feel for my husband, expanded my emotional capacity, and helped me feel what Janie feels, though our situations are very different.

I had a similar experience with one of my all-time favorite books, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The first time I read it, I was an undergraduate at Michigan State. I. Loved. It. The complexity of the characters’ relationships, and of the characters themselves, fascinated me. It all seemed to so novel, so shocking, so eye-opening.

Several years later, having graduated and been in the working world for at least as much time as I’d spent in college, I reread it. I still loved it–I still refer to it as one of my favorite books–but my love wasn’t as enthusiastic the second time around. I was older. Maybe a little wiser. Maybe a little jaded. Whatever it was, somehow, the book’s impact wasn’t as powerful.

A book is never the same book twice, because you are never the same reader.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has also affected me very differently at various points in my (emotional) life. When I read it as a junior in high school, despite my teacher’s assertions that Daisy was shallow and flighty, I really admired her. I wanted to be like her, or, more accurately, I wanted to be loved like her. Now, 15 years later, I’m far more fascinated with Nick and Gatsby’s characters, and with ideas like personal responsibility (or lack thereof), the American dream and how far one is prepared to go-should go–to achieve it, what it means to be American and how this book fits with our national identity, among others.

What changed?

Only me.

Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature. We don’t need to have had the exact same life experiences as the writer or characters, as long as we have had life experiences that allow us to have the same emotional experiences. You may never have lost your spouse to a car wreck, but you may have lost him to another woman, and thus experienced loss and grief (among other feelings, no doubt!). A book you may have genuinely related to as a teenager may seem trite when you reread it as an adult. Something you may not have grasped in a book when you were a bachelor may be crystal clear when you read the same book after you’ve been married for fifteen years and have two children. For these reasons, and others, rereading is valuable. A book is never the same book twice, because you’re never the same reader.

But I Already Know What Happens

I’ll admit it. Sometimes I dread rereading a book I’ve already read multiple times. Even if I’ve actually read it only once. Even if I really liked it. Even if it’s been years since I read it. I mean, I already know what happens.

But the fact is, I’m an English teacher, so sometimes (lots of times), I have to read the same book more than once. Besides the fact that reading the same book twice (or more than twice) can prove a different experience every time, every time I reread a book (and as an English teacher, I reread many books, many times), I find something new. Students sometimes marvel at the way I can read aloud and write notes in my book at the same time, without missing a word. Here’s the trick: When you know the story line and characters and setting–the basic stuff–your mind is free to notice deeper elements like motifs, author’s purpose, writing strategies–or even universal truths. The more times I have read a book, the more familiar I am with its fundamental parts. The more familiar I am with the fundamental parts, the more literary elements I am free to notice and attend to.

While you may know the plot like the back of your hand, and have certain sections of dialog memorized, rereading a book can still prove an enlightening and surprising experience. Instead of waiting for just what happens next, you’re waiting for what revelation dawns on you next. What will you notice about the author’s word choice or rhythm? What epiphany will you experience regarding theme or the use of setting? What literary devices have you somehow missed the first (and second) time you read the book? What cunning turn of phrase has escaped your notice–until the fifth reading of Huck Finn?

 

Are you gonna be famous one day?

“Oh! Look at this!” I said upon receiving an unexpected e-mail from Turtle Island Quarterly this evening. “One of my pieces is going to be published–again!”

“Are you gonna be famous or something someday?” my husband responded. His question probably sounds a little extreme–delusional even, and I’m sure my response sounds equally so:

“Well, it would be kind of lovely, wouldn’t it?”

For a moment, I let myself bask in a little limelight at the kitchen table while I ate my ice cream sundae, imaging all my literary dreams coming true someday.

“I mean, it’s kind of insane,” my husband continued. “It’s never been like this before.”

I don’t really advertise the rejections–not because I am ashamed or embarrassed or disappointed (though I am always disappointed)–but because they are so frequent that telling you–or anyone else–about them would get old. Fast.

By “it’s” he meant my writing. By “like this,” he meant the sudden and recent success of my writing. Over the course of the spring and early summer, I’ve experienced:

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Nine Lives: A Life in Ten Minutes Anthology is available at Chop Suey Books in Richmond, Virginia, or online.

“Well,” I said, “I wasn’t really trying before.” Which is basically true. I was writing. Or not. I was submitting my writing. Or not. Whatevs. There was no concerted effort on my part. I was sporadic, unfocused. It’s only been in the last year or so, inspired by a desire to ultimately see my novel (and novel-in-progress) published and for sale (and selling!), that I really began to put myself and my writing “out there.” I haven’t met with all the success I would have liked, at least not yet–my novel remains unrepresented, my novel-in-progress is still in progress, my submissions spreadsheet was near-decimated when the file somehow got corrupted–but I’m making strides, and that feels really, really good.

Rejections are part of the writer’s life. They just are.

What I haven’t told you yet? I get far more rejection e-mails than acceptance e-mails. But I don’t really advertise the rejections–not because I am ashamed or embarrassed or disappointed (though I am always disappointed)–but because they are so frequent that telling you–or anyone else–about them would get old. Fast. Saying, “Oh, such-and-such agent doesn’t want my manuscript” or “Oh, such-and-such magazine isn’t interested in my poetry” would be kind of like walking around every Monday saying, “Hey, it’s Monday again.” You already know and it’s not fun to hear about. It’s just a fact of life. Like Monday is a fact of the 9-5, five-day workweek life, rejections are part of the writer’s life. They just are. I quickly reached a point at which I read them, and disappointed but unsurprised and more or less unfazed, file them away.

One insult could knock someone’s self-esteem down so far, that that person would need seven different compliments to build her confidence back up. The same is not true of rejection e-mails and acceptance e-mails. It doesn’t matter how many rejection letters I’ve gotten–it only takes one acceptance letter to pick me back up again.

When I was a sixth grader going through the D.A.R.E program at school, the police officer who visited our classroom each week told us it took seven (or some number I can’t exactly recall) compliments to outweigh one insult–that one insult could knock someone’s self-esteem down so far, that that person would need seven different compliments to build her confidence back up. The same is not true of rejection e-mails and acceptance e-mails. It doesn’t matter how many rejection letters I’ve gotten–it only takes one acceptance letter to pick me back up again.

I hope one day to hold in my hands books I have written with them.

So, am I gonna be famous one day? Who knows. It would be kind of lovely, wouldn’t it? In the meantime, I plan to enjoy writing–and seeing my writing published, whenever and wherever it is. And even if I’m never famous, I hope one day at least, writing will provide my main source of income, and I will hold in my hand books I have written with them. Because that would be truly lovely (even lovelier than fame).