Archive for September, 2009


What?! There’s a Paper Due Tomorrow?

September 30, 2009

The first quarter after I returned to school was challenging. I was trying to work and be a good mom and keep up with everything around the house and do the best I could in my courses. At school, I did a pretty good job of staying on top of all the reading and I did well on my mid-terms. I was quite self-congratulatory. I could do this, I thought, despite feeling like there was never a minute that I didn’t have several things I should be doing. And then it happened. The night before it was due, I realized I’d completely overlooked a paper I needed to write.

Fortunately, it was in a literature course and the essay was related to a novel we’d read. I had everything I needed to write the paper since I’d gone to class, kept up with the reading, and taken lots of notes. Still, I had to stay up all night writing. I made it, but I also realized that my organizational skills needed enhancement if I was going to remember to deliver snacks as an elementary school room mother, get holiday packages in the mail, manage the details of home life, keep up with an irregular work schedule that revolved around numerous customer deadlines, and juggle the myriad requirements of school.

The next quarter I began a procedure I used all the way through my doctoral studies: a large, color-coded calendar that showed the quarter at a glance. If I can’t see the big picture, I can be seduced into thinking that I have a lot of time. In reality, deadlines can creep up quickly! My color coding was based on the colors available in file crates and folders and somewhat matching highlighters. At the beginning of an academic term, I got all of my syllabi together and wrote the due dates of everything from reading assignments to term projects on the calendar. As I wrote something down, I highlighted it with the color assigned to that class. Everything else I needed to do went on the calendar too. I used small Post-It© notes for important reminders of things like doctor’s appointments or two dozen cupcakes for a bake sale, affixing them to the appropriate day.

I also color-coded books (round dots or colored tape on the spine) and other resources for each course and kept materials in colored crates that hold hanging folders since they can be part of the color coding too: a red crate for one class, blue for another, and so forth. They also stack so your materials don’t take up too much room. I had separate notebooks for each course and saved them (these can become useful later, especially in your major). If you don’t want to save notebooks, have some sort of filing system that allows you to keep selected materials from each course, especially hard copies of all your papers. Don’t rely on the availability of an electronic copy, no matter how faithfully you back up.

The colored file folders were used for random thoughts as well as related information I collected. I always carried a folder for each course in my backpack so that I didn’t have to take all of my notebooks with me everywhere. You never know when or where you’ll have an idea.

What kinds of organizational strategies keep you sane?

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by
• Douglas Adams


What If?

September 29, 2009

For more than thirty years, I’ve saved an article from the newspaper entitled, “Help for Women Searching for New Careers” (Ray Howard, July 7, 1977, Salem Statesman-Journal). It serves as a reminder of the kinds of rational-economic motivators often used to convince students to return to or stay in school and it took me nine years to ignore its advice to enter a field in need of females: “business, architecture, engineering, science, law, medicine, dentistry, transportation and computerization,” none of which interested me.

During junior high and high school, I took aptitude tests and I was told several times that I had an aptitude for engineering. In retrospect, I realize that this is probably because I am an artist who loves working with my hands and I am very detail oriented, but I have never wanted to be an engineer. It is words and images, not numbers, that speak to me. Not so for my oldest son. He’s a math teacher and for him, numbers have personalities.

If you are searching for direction, it can be difficult to separate your personal desires from societally-, familially-, institutionally-determined relevance related to jobs and dominant culture definitions of success. We are all bombarded by messages about what it means to get ahead in life. Success is defined for us daily by the advertisements we see, by the movies and television we watch, by the things we read, by our friends and family. Determining what personal success means is an ongoing challenge because of this bombardment. I wrote the following in my journal in 1987, shortly after I returned to school:

If you are always told what you are not.

If you are never encouraged to pursue the things you love.

If you are raised to believe that what others want of—and for—you is more important than what you want for yourself.

If you do not even know what you prefer because it is not a question asked of you nor one that you have asked yourself.


What if?

As I’ve said before, anyone who’s in school is likely to have to take things s/he isn’t particularly interested in. Sometimes those subjects turn out to be more interesting than anticipated. Sometimes they’re still a drag. But if they fit into the big picture of meeting a goal that resonates with you, it will be much easier to learn from them. As much as you can within the constraints of what’s offered, try to take at least one class each quarter that is something you look forward to and not something you just need to get done.

What messages have you gotten about what you should do with your life?

When I began my freshman year at an Oregon university, I was an elementary education major and all of my classes were pre-scheduled for all four years. My advisor told me that I would be unable to take any Spanish, music, or literature classes, all classes I had been looking forward to taking. I decided right then that my college career would not be something I was going to dread; it was going to be something I looked forward to. So I changed my major to English and Spanish with a music minor, and any class I felt passionate about, I took.
• Master of Arts in Teaching student, literacy history, fall 2008


Why Are You Here?

September 28, 2009

It’s the first day of school here  and on Friday I met with a small group of incoming students. Some of them were fresh from high school and others were older, coming back to finish a college journey they’d started earlier in their lives. Whenever I talk with this kind of group, I ask them why they’ve decided to come to school.

Of course, many of them note the location and specific majors and their desire to get a good job or meet new people or play sports or participate in other activities. Many others say that they are in school because of parental pressure or because they do not know what else to do. Even graduate students may find themselves questioning paths they have automatically pursued because it seemed like the thing to do, or because they felt they had to. I’ve created an ongoing found poem from more than ten years of responses entitled “Why Are You Here?”—and part of it follows here:

Why Are You Here?

I am in college to run cross country and track. I want to be fast. Plus to get a secure job. Mostly, though, I just want to be really fast.

I came to figure out more about myself and who I’d like to be.

I’m really here to find out what I’m interested in.

I’m here to insure a better future for myself and my two-year-old daughter.

I’m here selfishly. I’m here to figure me out, learn things to make me happy, and become the person I want to be. Granted, I’m not sure what kind of person that is yet, but I’m working on it.

I’m here trying to take my art farther than it is. I don’t think my overall learning—math, English, etc.—is important in the least compared to my art (to be honest).

I am here to learn to better myself and hopefully to gain the tools I’ll need to fulfill
some dreams I don’t yet have.

If I have to work for the rest of my life, at least I want it to be something that I love.

I’m here because I believe the people who’ve told me that college opens doors.
Secretly, also, I want to pin down my passions.

This is the best place for me to become a better me.

I am here because I want to gain a broader perspective of the world and I want to figure out what I truly want to do with my life.

I put off my higher education many years ago. I am thirty-seven and I am at the point where I am looking for a deeper knowledge of many things in life—some things not taught in a classroom even.

This is completely last minute because
I finally believed in myself enough to try to get into college.

I want to make myself proud.

I am here to find my passion and to live the rest of my life doing what I love.

I am here to learn what my talents are so that I can use them in life.

I’m here to help me live a happy life.

Neither of my parents went to school. I hope to break through and better my life.

I’m not sure I can ever really know what I want to do with my life. I’m here to try to find out.

I am here to become smarter.

I want to be able to fulfill all my dreams.

I’m here without a major and I’m trying to figure out what I really want to do.

I’m in college because I’m tired of blowing my life away. I feel pressured by my family NOT to blow my life away in school, but I want to get into a field that I really enjoy.

I just don’t know what it is. Everyone is expecting me to fail. I want to prove them wrong.

Wherever you are today, ask yourself: Why am I here?

In ninth grade, I had to write a paper on the career I would like to have. I chose an acting career because it was something I had dreamt of doing since I was little. I received an F on the paper because my teacher said, “acting isn’t a real career.” This affected my intellectual development because I had worked very hard on the paper and did not receive any credit for my work.
• Jessica J., Master of Arts in Teaching student, Significant Events in Adolescence” assignment


The Uniquity File

September 27, 2009

When I was teaching in a high school dropout prevention program, many of my students felt that school had little relevance for their lives. They saw no reason to stay in school except that it was something to do before facing the realities of life after school. They weren’t interested in what they were studying and couldn’t see any purpose to it. I’ve encountered the same challenges in my jobs in higher education. In each case, part of my job has been to help students persist by seeing how education can help them achieve their dreams for life after graduation.

This hasn’t been easy, particularly with high school students. Many of them didn’t know what they wanted to do beyond not being in school and it became clear to me that we wouldn’t get anywhere if they didn’t have anywhere to go. We gathered daily for discussion and began to brainstorm ways to collect data from our lives to help create current interest as well as a vision for the future. We needed some systematic way to collect information and we wanted it to be more than just a journal. The Uniquity File was born.

I created the word “uniquity” after a brainstorming session. I’d written down several words related to our conversation: equity, diversity, uniqueness, equality, forbidden (which led me to think about iniquity), and ubiquitous because who we are is always with us. These files began in folders and expanded as they began to include collections of things that interested each of us. We didn’t have access to computers, but if we had, our collecting would have been easier to organize! Several of my artmaking projects have their origins in things I saved in my uniquity file during my years of teaching high school. My file has become many crates and revisiting the materials is like working on an archeological dig as I sift through the layers and see what appears and reappears.

What if each of us had a “uniquity” file that followed us from year to year, school to school, job to job–throughout our lives—detailing what we are good at, hope for, are passionate about, love to learn, envision for our lives? What if we explored these things in the context of our learning and our work and our lives? What if all of our schooling had been focused on uncovering our talents and aspirations and helping us find ways to build a life around them?

How might education be different for us?

How might our work be different?

How might our leisure time be spent differently?

These what ifs are possible, but it is largely up to you, although you’re likely to find many allies along the way: professors, staff, family, friends, other students, and community members who will be drawn to your purpose and vision and want to help you achieve it. Education, because it is a collective enterprise, is often focused on what is determined to be relevant by the larger cultures in which we live. Finding personal relevance—and resonance—requires you to become actively involved in making your learning meaningful in the context of your aspirations.

If you are someone who has found your purpose and is pursuing it, I applaud you. You are fortunate. And there’s something you can do: you can help others by sharing your path and by listening and by being a friend who cares.

What is the first thing you would put into your uniquity file?

The best way to succeed is to discover what you love and find a way to offer it to others.
•Oprah Winfrey


Learning Is a Choice

September 26, 2009

At the end of his first year in college, one of my students wrote:

This year draws to a close thankfully. College is a hell of a place to meet people and party, but school work is required. So all the students do the work, not to get outstanding grades, but to remain eligible to be in college, not to learn, but to hang out with their friends and have a good time. This is not the rule that all students live by, but a sizeable amount of people feel the same way I do, because that is why they are here too. I don’t have a major, so there is no goal for me to work towards and the classes I take I take because I need the credits, not to learn about Statistics or Geology. I know I’m not alone either; many college students do this each term. What are my goals for next year? Well, they are the same as this year: meet new people and party with them, and oh yeah pass classes so I can stick around a couple more terms. (Anonymous, 2000)

He was making a choice to be in school while also making a choice to waste his time there. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. We talked about his lack of purpose and about how much his writing had improved since the beginning of the school year. The rest of this self-reflective essay was an honest assessment of his lack of serious involvement with his learning and although it was painful for me to read, I appreciated his honesty and was glad that he had moved past making excuses for why his work was substandard and just barely passing. He had to redo many assignments throughout the year, frustrating to both of us since I knew he could have/should have done better the first time. His reflection allowed us to talk about how he might better approach the rest of his studies. He did find a major that interested him and he did graduate. This is not always the case for such students, however.

It is very tempting to blame the professor’s lack of clarity or the difficulty of the text or the lack of time or your own preferences for lack of success in a class. These things may all be true, but they can all be addressed and overcome. If assignments aren’t clear, ask, but do it before an assignment is due. If you don’t understand a crucial concept in class, ask for clarification or further explanation. If you don’t understand something outside of class, make note of areas of confusion and ask. (I have always been an asker, and often after class, other students have thanked me for asking what they thought would be considered a stupid question. Thanks, folks!)

As a teacher, I always welcome email inquiries about assignments or course content. Most professors will have avenues set up to provide help outside of class. I appreciate hearing from students since it allows me to adjust what I’m doing. Many times, student emails become FAQs for Blackboard announcements. If one person is wondering, I know there are probably others who find something unclear as well.

Join a study group so that you can talk things over with others who are taking the same course. Have someone you trust proofread your papers. Take advantage of office hours or other help times offered by a professor. Find out what kinds of additional assistance are available at your school and online: writing labs, tutoring, and math labs, for example. The choices you are making when you do these things and others that target being a successful student will move you from being a student to being a learner, and honestly, it’s much more fun to be in school when you experience the excitement of struggling with and mastering learning. And learning is a choice.

Have you ever struggled with learning something and been successful in your efforts to gain new skills and/or knowledge?

You must take personal responsibility. You cannot change the circumstances, the seasons, or the wind, but you can change yourself.
• Jim Rohn


Idiosyncrasy Credits: Earning Credibility in School

September 25, 2009

Yesterday I wrote about being a self-directed learner and finding something that interests you to study on your own throughout your time in school. One of my interests was why people drop out of school, but I had another interest I’m still pursuing: adult students. When I was working on my bachelor’s degree, I wanted to understand myself—and others like me—better. We were commuting. We were working. We were parents. We had complicated obligations outside of school. We weren’t experiencing college in ways I’d always imagined.

I interviewed other students. I asked professors what students do that drives them crazy. I read lots on my own and, whenever I could, I made some aspect of adult learning part of my coursework. I got a fellowship to write a non-traditional student handbook that paid my tuition for a year, so my personal interests definitely paid off.

Most professors won’t tell you if you’re being irritating. There are some things they address in their syllabi: tardies, late work, absences, for example. But there are others they may not say anything about that can affect their willingness to recommend you for opportunities that may arise, especially in your major. These behaviors can also affect your ability to have choices about your learning. Talking too much and dominating the discussion is one thing. (Usually profs will say something when you’re talking when you should be quiet!) Another is acting bored and not paying attention. You may think it’s a professor’s responsibility to keep you interested, and while I don’t disagree, it’s very difficult to be interesting when you face a sea of clearly uninterested faces, people whispering to their neighbors, or a bank of laptops you suspect are hiding games of solitaire, emails, and websurfs.

My least favorite student behavior is sucking up. I really dislike it when a student tries to flatter me in hopes I will look kindly on inadequate or sloppy work. I’ll probably smile and not say anything about the flattery (although I often return work without grading it when it isn’t ready to be graded). The student will never know how I feel about the attempt at flattery, although s/he may guess when it doesn’t equal an A in the course. Only excellent work will earn that grade.

A student’s caring, high quality work gives us something genuine to talk about, inspires me (people don’t go into teaching just for the money), and is often the basis for enduring friendships long after graduation. Even students whose work isn’t particularly good to start with earn my respect when they take feedback and use it to improve their work. Some of the most memorable students I’ve had have struggled with understanding course materials, or struggled with writing or research or some other academic skill, but they stuck with it and went on to produce markedly improved work. This can be especially exciting for teachers—student learning keeps us going!

These students—those who do excellent work and those who work to improve their work—earn idiosyncrasy credits with me. This concept is one I first read about in psychology books I bought at a thrift store. I encountered it later in Debra E. Meyerson’s 2001 book, Tempered Radicals. She describes idiosyncrasy credits as initial conformity that later allows you to advocate for change or ask to do something a different way.

In other words, you do what a professor asks in the way s/he asks and “bank” the credit for conforming so that when you do ask to do something different, it is clear that you understand—and can comply with—requirements. Once a student has gained credibility through classroom behavior and high-quality work that meets stated objectives, I’m much more likely to trust that her or his “outside-the-box” ideas will meet requirements as well.

All of this works on the job too.

What else can students do to earn idiosyncrasy credits in school?

The idea that the majority of students attend a university for an education independent of the degree and grades is a hypocrisy everyone is happier not to expose. Occasionally some students do arrive for an education but the rote and mechanical nature of the institution soon converts them to a less idealistic attitude.
• Robert M. Pirsig (1974),
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


How to Learn What YOU Want to Learn

September 24, 2009

Every course has objectives that must be met. Lots of times, they are stated explicitly in the syllabus. These objectives represent common learning goals for all students, regardless of who is teaching the course. They may be related to school standards, state standards, national standards, and/or professional standards, and are usually non-negotiable. What may be negotiable is the way meeting those objectives is demonstrated, although for purposes of getting grades in on time, demonstrations of learning are often standardized, so that the instructor can quickly tell if students have learned the required material.

Different kinds of material require different kinds of demonstrations too, since some classes build on specific knowledge acquired in earlier courses. Everyone in a theatre course might perform a different monologue as a final demonstration of learning, but in a chemistry course, everyone takes the same standardized final test. That’s why many courses have prerequisites—course(s) you need to take before you take other courses. It’s also why you may be required to take placement tests before you take certain required courses, particularly for writing and math.

But back to negotiation and a way it can be useful for you. Determine what interests you and what your personal learning goals are beyond just getting your degree or certificate. That’s the first step. For example, you are in a nursing program and you are interested in working with a specific population; or you are an English major and you’ve always been fascinated by a particular author; or—like me—you want to be a teacher and you’re determined to understand why people drop out of school.

Next, you look for ways weave that interest into your coursework. Sometimes, all of the demonstrations in a class are standardized tests, but often, you will have some choices about research topics, or people to interview, or self-selected reading, or related out-of-class experiences, and you can often negotiate to make your interests fit with the class requirements. In addition, you can be an autodidact, meaning that you are self-taught about a particular aspect of a subject.

Why bother to study something on your own when you’re in school and time is short and you’re already under a lot of pressure? Two primary reasons: you will be teaching yourself how to be interested and involved in learning, and some of that learning-to-learn will transfer to your courses; and second, if you bring related and applicable personal insights and information from your interests into a course, you’re on the way to earning idiosyncrasy credits that will allow you to further personalize your learning.

Tomorrow: idiosyncrasy credits explained.

What would you be interested in learning about on your own?

Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.
• Isaac Asimov