Where are we going again?
The Handbasket » Posts for tag 'writing'

Motherhood 1 comment

Once again, Mother’s Day rolls around and I find myself in a pensive, reflective sort of place.  Looking back, or down as my colleagues would say from my standard perspective of 50,000 feet, a pattern emerges. Early May is always the end of two long semesters, and that always feels like the end of a marathon, emotionally. This year has been especially challenging, with the stress of a potential strike, and the sense of powerlessness one has to do anything at all, individually, to affect the eventual outcome. The deeper frustration at having no ability to affect the systemic issues that would cause such a disruptive and disturbing action to even be considered.

All that aside, teaching is a kind of parenting, I think. I recognized a while back that I engage with my teaching practice as a sort of parent/guardian/mid-wife/mentor/coach. I’m not interested in lecturing and I have no confidence at all in such a dynamic resulting in any “learning” of any kind. I’m constantly scheming about fun ways we can get groups of students involved in classroom activities that help them learn and practice their communications skills. Sometimes I think these are more fun than my students do. Also true of parenting, perhaps.

Where teaching – formal teaching – and parenting are different has to do with evaluation. In my experience, healthy parents love their children unconditionally. Without reserve as to their actual level of skill or knowledge. And here is where it gets emotionally tricky for the parenting teacher, because it is our job to evaluate, to judge. To assess whether skills and knowledge have actually been acquired and successfully demonstrated. Unlike some of the more quantitative skill sets, evaluating communications skills is tricky and somewhat subjective. There are some very good communicators who are not so good with funky details of applied English. There are extremely poor communicators who managed to ace all their quizzes and any assignments that did not involve eye contact, and thus will pass the course.  There are students who hate anything to do with communicating who cannot understand why this is important or relevant in any way.

As a “parent” figure, I get a little attached to them all – and herein lies the danger for me. I don’t want to fail any of these, my pseudo-children. I feel affection for them – I find most of their quirky, undisciplined, messy, “sense of entitlement” selves endearing. I want them to succeed, to feel like they are successful. I hate being the judge. But I am. And, this past term, it was my job to fail roughly 20% of my communications class. It simultaneously breaks my heart and makes me angry.

I challenge anyone who thinks that teaching is a cushy, over-paid  job to actually do it, full-time, for two semesters running. Then, we’ll talk.

I had an awesome good news story this term, though, and it taught me a lot. In the Fall 09 semester, a student came to me mid-point in the term and explained that her parents had arranged for her to get engaged in Dubai during the last three weeks of term. This young woman has aspirations of becoming a journalist someday and so she knew that this communications course would be important to her. However, her actual ability in this area was proving to be rather weak. Not “failing” weak, but weak. As it happens, the last three weeks of this course involve working in a team to research and deliver a presentation. Thus, if she was going to be out of the country, it would be impossible for her to complete the work.

We worked out a compromise. I gave her an “Incomplete” and offered to have her return to my class in Winter 10 (this past term) to complete the team project with another class. She did so, contacting me exactly on schedule and arriving in class exactly as I had asked her to. There was a change in her. In the intervening three and a half months, she had matured and she was clearly able to demonstrate and use the communications skills I had been mentoring her class through the previous term, even though her average at the time she departed was around 57%. Her team, under her leadership, rocked the final presentation. This was a revelation to me – that students, even weak ones, continue to “learn” the material AFTER the course is over. This makes me feel better about the 10 or 15% who SHOULD have failed, but didn’t because of the strength of their quizzes, the mid-term or their group effort. Maybe some stuff will sink in and re-surface later. One can only hope.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before – here it is again in a slightly different context. I’ve always been a bit of a language nazi. Good writing makes me swoon and bad writing makes me gag. This has been true since about Grade Six, I think. So, I was well-entrenched as the self-appointed language police in my household from an early age. When my oldest brother was living in Saskatchewan for a time, lightyears before the age of the Internet, my mother would pain-stakingly write him one page, hand-written notes, usually weekly. She would sweat and labour over each phrase. Her letters wound up reading a bit like this:

Dear Ben,

Harvest todday again, beans. Almost done here, going to Thomas place tomorrow. Combine jammed but it is ok now. Mae brought kool-aid, cherry, and a pie. Too hot but can’t wait. Bails dry soon but no time. John Deere had oil. Leaky again but Aubrey had the right hose and fixed. With clamps. Charlie got a new radio, Fred Woods says new fridge back-ordered. Made cookies. How are you?

Love, Mom

Once, when I was about 16, I came upon her writing one of these, with her face wrenched up in serious concentration, the clicker end of her pen in her mouth as she thought. I scoffed, rolled my eyes and generally behaved like a 16 year old know-it-all who could critique the mechanics but missed, entirely, the depth of communication and love that was being successfully poured into each note. I feel ashamed when I think of this incident and I note, ruefully, that I do not have any such letter from my mother, even though I moved permanently away from home when I was 18, and 20 years would pass before her death. She would not bring herself before the language police again, and I don’t blame her.

But what I wouldn’t give for one of those letters.

I remember this incident often and it helps me be a better teacher. Clearly, for some people writing is extremely difficult. For others, it is easier. Put another way: some very good, talented, valuable, smart people are terrible writers.  Being a good writer does not necessarily translate into being a good person. My role, my job, is just to teach a skill. Try to help each individual express themselves a bit better when they leave my course than when they started.  If they reach a certain external standard, I have to let them move on to the next challenge. That is the best I can do.

Thanks, Mom … Happy Mother’s Day!

Extended Absence Greeting 4 comments

Hey there – remember me? 🙂

So, the last few months of 2009 became a muddy blur during which time writing, and exercising, took a backseat to the following:

  • caring for the lovely Freddie as she recovered from surgery to repair ruptured discs in her spine (neck). My home became a baby-gated, cushioned, modified pet crate for seven weeks. My dog was in pain and I felt helpless. And then, shortly afterwards, broke. So grateful that Freddie’s Other Mom, and the lovely WWBA, were able to be such a supportive part of this adventure. But it did take its toll. Freddie needs to be carried up and down stairs and, at first, needed more, shorter walks. I live up two flights of stairs and my routine was tied more than ever, to Freddie’s requirements. I was exhausted.
  • … and thus got I ill myself with a persistent bronchial infection – several weeks of coughing and hacking and sleeping badly.
  • having my car vandalized, right here in the underground parking lot. Stuff stolen, car damaged. Much time and energy lost over a 10 day period, dealing with this. Not to mention feeling just a wee bit violated.
  • grading 174 really sub-par essay-like business reports in 3.5 weeks. That is a real number, 174. 87 in the first round that had to be done quickly and returned so they could have feedback to complete and hand in the second round. Second round to be graded to the grade submission deadline at the end of term. This activity will suck your brain out through the eye of a needle and will rip your heart out of your chest, tossing it away like last year’s PlayStation. Don’t let anyone tell you that teaching isn’t an emotional pursuit. After teaching plagiarism (how to avoid it, not how to do it) as a topic in class, finding students who persist in the behaviour is like getting smacked up the side of the head with a 2 x 4. I’m not sure I can explain why, it just feels … horrible.  It does get balanced out, of course, by students who really do make incredible progress and there were some really fine moments of this as well. Somehow, though, this term, the amount of grading and the roller coaster ride it took me on just about did me in.
  • ongoing negotiations with management on workload issues (see above) and the looming possibility of a strike that no one wants yet that seems difficult to avoid. Multiple meetings with management over next term’s workload. A workload review by a larger committee. Not much progress. Stress. Self-doubt. Worry.

As you can see, not a lot of writing took place. Furthermore, I actually have found myself daydreaming of the smell of my gym. What I’ve learned is that my mental and emotional health is linked to these two activities. Thus, I resolve to re-prioritize and get both disciplines back into my life. Although I’m going to wait until mid-February to actually step on the scales, I think. Yikes.

Anyway, thanks for your patience – all three or four of you. 🙂 Stay tuned for more … as for now, I’m off to the gym!

Read This Click Here To Comment!

Everyone in my readership who considers themselves "a writer" – or who is interested in writing as a process – should read this. It puts all our miserable excuses into perspective.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

Some Introductions … 7 comments

A few of my "face2face" real life peeps have leapt onto Vox in the last while. I feel I need to make introductions … as though people are standing around with damp napkins, half-finished cocktails, half-eaten cheese puffs, and staring at each other.

Meet Kaivalya, who doesn't say much here because she has about a dozen blogs in other places to juggle. However, she deserves first mention as it is because of her encouragement that I now play hockey. (Gee, too bad about the loss last night … 😀 ) She also takes fabulous photos … Perhaps if we nudge her, we'll win her over to the Vox side.

Speaking of nudging, wizzy needs to get her blogging butt in gear. Was that harsh? I'm sorry. The thing is that wizzy is an extraordinary writer who appears wed to pen and ink and paper. It is ok – there is no need to leave your primary relationship … you just need to negotiate an open writing relationship and have a fling with blogging. Wizzy has the distinction of being my First New Toronto Friend from when I moved here 14 (yikes) years ago  … so … maybe not so "new" anymore. She is a closet line dancer and sushi fancier.  Once upon a time, a time far far away now, we formed two thirds of a Troublesome Alto Trio that came perilously close to being ejected from several choir rehearsals for the crime of uncontrolled giggling. Wizzy does not play hockey, but her sister does, so that single degree of separation – not the sushi or the giggling or the history – saves the day. You are lucky, you …

Unwittingly,  Kaivalya and Thumper21 play on the same hockey team on Mondays. Although one might not think it possible, I believe that Thumps is slightly more obsessed with hockey than I am, if such things can be measured. She is certainly more poetic about it than I am. I have had the great good pleasure of enjoying several Christmases in a row in the company of Thumper and the lovely Mrs.Thumper (also an ex alto).  One might think it is because of the hockey and choir connection but, between you and me, it is the dogs. Thumper is a dog person and, as we all know, dog people are good people.

Tessera is also an alto, but she has soprano hair. She can't play hockey because they don't make a helmet for hair like hers. I think she is ok with this. Also an aspiring and talented writer AND a dog person to boot. Now, if only she had a relative who plays hockey …

I met tankyouverymuch when we were on the same softball team together a while back. Yup, softball, not hockey. Can you imagine? Tank took a wrong turn into hockey for a bit before finding her true calling in the boxing ring.  Some find these sports hard to distinguish. There are no sticks in boxing, as far as I know. (tank? help me out here …) Tank is literate, beautifully twisted and has a generally non-pugilistic approach to life, unless provoked as she was one time when wizzy and I ran into her on the street one night after a sushi extravaganza. The scene between the two of us, Tank and the drunken lunatic is difficult to describe but will live on in all our memories. Well, maybe not the drunk's …

Dry Ice lacks a hockey connection that I am aware of. Because she hails from parts East of here, she *may* be a fan of the team-that-dares-not-speak-its-name-here, I'm not sure. There are Knights Who Say "Ni", and there are Fans Who Say "Habs" (AAARRGGH!) She is an extraordinary gardener – some of her plants are as tall as she is, which is very tall. Her husband is a better guitar player than he thinks and together they enjoy wine, travelling, music and, well, just life as far as I can tell. Oh – they are dog people, thank goodness. Phew. Without the hockey thing, it was a bit tenuous there for a minute.

Finally, Lex is not new to Vox. Lex was here first and she made me suggested I come here. This absolves her of the need for any hockey connection as I am almost as obsessed with Vox as I am with hockey. Lex knows food and photography and much much more. At another one of her online haunts, she just posted a rockin' Vietnamese Pho recipe that we all need to try very soon.

Ok – mingle everyone … pass the cheese puffs …

(Have you de-lurked today?)

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

Top of page / Subscribe to new Entries (RSS)