Archive for the ‘advice’ Category

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Save A Hard Copy Of Everything That Might Be Important To You. This Does Not Mean You Should Keep Everything, But Some Day You’ll Be Glad You Did Some Selective, Creative Savery.

March 10, 2012

And bring me a hard copy of the Internet so I can do some serious surfing • Scott Adams, Dilbert

During the latter part of the twentieth century (golly, that sounds self-important!), I taught in a high school dropout prevention program. I often recorded my students’ words so I would remember them. Years later, I’ve forgotten most of those words, but I can revisit them because I have that written record. Now that I teach teachers, I’m especially glad I saved so many things that help me be first person present in my high school teaching past. I’m also glad that I have hard copies of my related reflections. I am both amused and saddened when students tell me that they have electronic copies of materials and don’t need hard copies, dismissing my pleas to print and file. Today’s computer is tomorrow’s obsolete, toxic landfiller. And all those electronic files you saved on your Apple IIe? G-O-N-E!

I’m especially happy that I saved what follows here. When teachers are frustrated by their students’ behavior, it’s easy to forget that what we want them to do may matter very little in the bigger picture of their lives. Sometimes acknowledging those realities is a first step toward helping students engage in the kinds of empowering educational experiences that really do change lives, or at least change perceptions about possibilities. In the quotation/reflection that follows, students’ comments are in italics, interspersed with my own reflective thoughts:

Always the Same • Always Different

So I sit and listen and again I am overwhelmed by all I cannot do, a thousand problems that I cannot solve, the pain I can’t prevent, the angry lives unfolding opening sharing revealing more than I want to know because I’m only one and I’m carrying this invisible sack of worry and troubles of my own, the one that’s hidden from them behind my sunny smiles, the smiles they crave like candy or even some kind of drug, smiles withheld so often in so many places that when they get one, they cannot get enough.

And so I sit and listen and begin to understand that this always comes first. This dreadful torrent that pools in front around among us—each story adding to the waters that swirl with blended colors of our private agony. We stir the waters, salty with our tears, seeing each other with eyes washed clean. Every year the same. Every year different. Games and names and sharing our shallowest safest memories until we cross this bridge over our waters into another world. A place that’s real. Circled round, lounging on floor and couches, waiting for someone else to trust. Open. I’ve seen this many times, but I always wonder if. If the time will come when ones together become us, when we see the sameness underneath the difference, when what matters less is overwhelmed by what matters more. And so it begins.

My stepdad says I can’t go nowhere in the house. Just stay in the garage he says and if I want to be there I got to pay rent.

He stops.

There’s a freezer out there, but they got a big ole lock on it so I can’t get in. The only bathroom I got is in this trailer my grandma left in the yard, but it don’t work so I go in the yard at night if I have to and just cover it up.

He stops again. We wait. He doesn’t sa anything else. No one says anything. He’s hanging out there. Naked. Me? I want to jump in and say something. Offer something. But it’s not my tie. Another voice, so quiet we can hardly hear begins.

We sold our Levis yesterday. We were holding on to those, my mom and me. We like them a lot, but they wouldn’t give us anything for our Wranglers. My mom is gonna get a job pretty soon. Waitin’ for a call. I wrote a poem about being homeless. Wanna hear?

She pulls a piece of paper from her backpack—her new backpack—we can still do that much around here—supplies and backpacks and winter coats and PE clothes and bread and peanut butter and Ramen noodles and sometimes milk and even juice. She reads her words about doing homework by the glow of a cigarette lighter and dreaming of the better life she’ll have if she can only graduate.

And I wonder. What the hell am I doing? What am I promising? Acting as if this place we sit ifs the gateway to some promised land that offers all the things they’ve never had and maybe never will. We sit surrounded by pictures of their dreams and homes and happiness, cars and children, freedom to be to do to have to dream and have it all come true. I lose sight of why I’m here. What I can do. It gets lost in the sea of what I can’t. But still I, still we, listen.

I’m pregnant. Again. You’re gonna know soon enough so I might as well tell you. This time, it’s twins.

Period. We wait, but she just sits and glares. Folded arms and I know she’s just waiting for the word—any word—a wrong word—so she can up and bolt and leave this place and run to get the only piece of love that life has given her. Pick him up from daycare. Go to the park. Push him on the swing. Imagine that the life he’ll have is different form her own. Now this. And what’s it going to mean? We wait. Staring into space. Avoiding eye contact. Is it safe? Will it stay here? Will he be broken never to be fixed if we remove these masks, dismantle the facades, discover we are all in places we would never choose?

So I’m sleepy, you know. And you all poke me when I drift off and yell in my ear and I jump and you think it’s pretty funny, don’t you. Well, I’ll tell you this and you can see how funny you think it is. My dad left and he isn’t coming back and I’m working now ‘cause my mom’s two jobs just don’t cut it any more, not with five kids. I’m the oldest, man of the house now, my mom says. I work till four every morning and damn straight I’m tired. So leave me the hell alone, okay?

He slouches back and closes his eyes. We wait some more. And so it goes.

There are many spaces we inhabit that are filled with adolescent or adult angst and challenges, but often we don’t know our students or our friends or our colleagues or co-workers well enough to know what kinds of difficulties they may be grappling with. Sometimes we don’t even know these things about our families. As you go through your day, I hope you’ll take care of yourself, of course, but I also hope you’ll be charitable and kind, knowing that you don’t truly know what kind of burdens may be weighing down the others you encounter.

I also hope you’ll keep a hard copy of important information you may want to revisit some day!

What is it about today that you may want to remember tomorrow? How do you plan to do it?

I finished the paper, but the computer ate it. It’s gone. I have my notes, but nothing else. • Comments I’ve heard countless times during my teaching career, W-OZ

 

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I Am Motherwise; I Cannot Be Otherwise

May 8, 2011

There is an alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmuted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness. • Pearl S. Buck

It is Mother’s Day, my first Mother’s Day without a mother to call, to get a card for, to send something special that would tell her that I see her as a human being, know her as a person, hope to make her happy because I understand how impossible it is to feel that your work as a mother is ever enough. But she is gone and instead I celebrate the wisdom that permeates my being.

I was looking for examples of my educational philosophy to include with materials for Humanizing Instruction, a course I’ll be teaching this summer, and I came across a speech I gave several years ago for a local alternative school’s graduation. As I reread what I shared, I thought of the words of Pericles who wrote, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” My mother’s wisdom is woven into the fabric of my teaching life:

Congratulations. I am honored to be part of this celebration. I was also daunted when I tried to think of what to say to you. As most of you can imagine, no matter how many times you speak in front of an audience, it’s challenging. And on an important occasion like this it’s particularly challenging. What can I say that won’t sound like a bad Hallmark card or a particularly cheesy self-help book? What wisdom can I share that will be memorable in any way?

At first, I was going to speak about the importance of alternatives in education. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t know from our own lives how important it is for schools to value each human being for whom she or he is. But I can’t bring myself to talk about systems today, regardless of how meaningful they are. Instead, I hope to talk with you about things that matter as you continue on into the rest of your life.

I decided to ask other people what they would say if they were speaking here today. I asked my relatives, my students, other teachers, my son, my husband, and even a couple of people in the checkout line at Target. Some of them told me not to worry, that no one ever remembers what a speaker says anyway. Others offered me the kind of heartfelt sentiments I believe in, things that have been said so many times before to so many people celebrating important milestones that they sound like clichés. But there is truth in clichés, and Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that what is not spoken from the heart will not reach the heart of the listener. These words are from my heart, and I hope they will reach yours.

I’d like to share a story about my mother. She’s 85, and still working as a musician. She’s also filled with wisdom that comes from closely observing the world and thinking about what she sees, hears, and experiences. And that’s my first piece of wisdom. The world is vastly interesting for anyone who really sees it. Don’t be bored. Be interested.

But back to what my mother told me: One of her friends called her in tears, distraught because someone had stolen her purse and was using her driver’s license and her credit cards and even her Social Security number. This friend kept crying to my mother that her identity had been stolen, and this is where my mother shared something with me that I cannot forget.

She said, “Even while I comforted her and told her she would get past this, I couldn’t help thinking that we get very upset about this kind of identity theft, and yet every day we allow other people to steal our personal identity when we compromise who we are or what we want to do or be because of someone else’s expectations or because we’re afraid that they won’t like us or we’re worried that what we want to do will seem silly or impossible to accomplish.” My mother was speaking from her heart. It isn’t easy to grow old in our society, particularly if you are still active and still talented, and still want to share your talents with the world.

There are times when it seems that you are always too something: too young or too old or too inexperienced or too unrealistic about your hopes and dreams for your life. And here’s my second piece of wisdom: Life actually is tough sometimes if you aren’t independently wealthy and you have to pay everyday bills, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up your vision of who you are and what you can be.

I am a poet and an artist and I don’t make money doing those things, but I love them, and they allow me to love my life and stay interested in my own possibilities even though I also have to work for a living. It’s actually not true that any of us can be anything we want to be—the NBA is unlikely to have wanted me no matter how much I wanted it—but each of us can be far more than we imagine if we accept that some of the things we choose to do will feed our souls, but not our pocketbooks. Despite the fact that Mark Twain said that be yourself is the worst advice you can give some people, that’s my third piece of wisdom: Be yourself. Be your best self. Believe in—and live—your possibilities.

Here is my fourth piece of wisdom. It is more challenging to live in personal truth than you might think. No matter how old you are, there are likely to be well-meaning people who think that they know better than you do what you ought to be doing with your life. The late undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau followed his dreams throughout his life, and often faced difficulties. He was asked why he persisted despite them, and he replied: “If we were logical, the future would be bleak indeed. But we are more than logical. We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work.”

Here’s what I believe to be the true alternative message needed in every student’s education and it’s my final piece of wisdom: You matter. What you do matters. How you live your life matters. Your small acts of kindness and goodness and truth and beauty and hopefulness can change the world. These are all clichés. But they are all true.

If we have lived ordinary lives, it’s difficult to imagine that our passing will matter to anyone except those who knew and loved us, but you do not have to have known my mother to know who she was. Her wisdom lives in me and her influence lives on in every classroom I create. I am motherwise and I cannot be otherwise.

What is your wisdom?

There is a wisdom of the head, and…a wisdom of the heart. • Charles Dickens

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Ten Reasons To Consider Writing A Teaching And Learning Blog (Reason Zero: You Can List The Main Points Of Your Presentation In An Easily Accessible Format That Also Illustrates Your Topic)

April 22, 2011

The real problem is not whether machines think but whether people do. • B.F. Skinner (1969), Contingencies of Reinforcement

I am presenting at an educational technology summit today and although I have a handout with examples, I also wanted to illustrate the use of a blog in some related way. As I was working on something else, it occurred to me that all I needed to do was write a post that listed the main points I’ll be covering. I’ll have something to show and I’ll also be creating an outline for the presentation (and yet another reason to “consider writing a teaching and learning blog”). Ain’t life grand?

Here are my ten reasons to consider writing a teaching and learning blog:

1. You Can Embed Class Assignments In Your Posts

2. You Can Address Concerns Without Singling Out Offenders

3. You Can Model Civility Through Your Digital Fingerprints

4. You Can Create Content Collaboratively

5. You Can Provide Easily Accessible Assessment Help And Hints

6. You Can Reference Research You’d Like Students To Think About

6. You Can Encourage Reflective Journaling And Metacognition

7. You Can Connect With Colleagues Who Face Mutual Challenges

8. You Can Provide Food For Thought About Important Issues In And Out Of The Classroom

9. You Can Learn To Write Brief—Or Relatively Brief—Pieces Quickly

10. You Can Learn About Yourself As A Writer, Teacher, Learner, And Otherwise Creative Person, Even If You Don’t Intend To!

I can think of other reasons, but I’m not planning to talk about them today, so, well, never mind! Here’s some home•work for you:

If you were beginning a blog—or starting a new one if you’re already a blogger—what would you write about first? What would you call your blog? Why? What advice would you give yourself—or any other blogger—related to carefully crafting a public persona?

This is perhaps the most beautiful time in human history; it is really pregnant with all kinds of creative possibilities made possible by science and technology which now constitute the slave of man—if man is not enslaved by it. [Women too.] • Jonas Salk

 

 

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Overcoming Writer’s Block: A Favorite Hint From The Ex-Lax® Of Writing Teachers (That Would Be Me!)

April 6, 2011


I asked Ring Lardner the other day how he writes his short stories, and he said he wrote a few widely separated words or phrases on a piece of paper and then went back and filled in the spaces. • Harold Ross

A student once called me “the Ex-Lax® of writing teachers” and I know what you might be thinking. However, this title was not bestowed because my assignments encouraged students to produce nothing but crap. (I do not censor this word here because it got me into trouble several times as a high school teacher, as did the word piss. There are some people who consider these words swearing, but my Grandma Wilkins, an extremely religious woman who said “hmmmm” instead of hell, used these particular vulgarities all the time, so I am inured to their power to shock.) No. I got the laxative title because the alternative school students with whom I was working were producing writing—lots of it—much of it coming from angry adolescents whose reluctance to put pen to paper had caused them to fail previous classes.

I am trained as a secondary English teacher. This means that I know the conventions of writing and I am also overly familiar with the conventional ways to approach writing as a task in school. And that’s the problem. Writing can be fun, but writing that’s always bounded by rules and prescriptions of properness is seldom fun for anyone. Because I made my living with words, often writing under deadline, before going back to school to become a teacher, and because I have been a lifelong researcher of creativity, I know that much of what I was supposed to be teaching about the processes of writing was also crap. I am definitely in favor of eventual correctness and I am not suggesting opening the gates and letting all manner of misspellings and grammatical incorrectness run rampant over the world’s pristine white pages. I am suggesting that an initial focus on these things can stop writers before they begin. I am also suggesting—No, wait! I’m asserting!—that the process of writing is highly idiosyncratic and that processes designed to help student writers may actually hinder some of them.

Some creative people approach writing tasks in well-mannered ways. They are organized and they know where they are going before they begin. I admire them. Surely this is some species of magic. There are writing teachers in this group. Other writing teachers—or teachers who require writing in their courses—are not writers themselves beyond having written the requisite papers or theses or dissertations for the courses they took along the way to getting their degrees. They muddled through these tasks and are sure that if they recommend the magic of well-ordered writing to their students, it will work for these others in ways that it did—or didn’t—work for them.

These teachers can be dangerous. They require standardized pre-writing and brainstorming. They require students to provide carefully detailed outlines before beginning papers. They require well-organized rough drafts that must be approved before an actual paper is written. They require perfectly stated theses and perfect paragraphs from the start. There is a correctness at the heart of their approach and all things must be done properly and in the proper order. These teachers require. They require. And they require some more. And they constipate those of us who have our own processes, whose writing emerges from the chaos of ideas.

I have long admired the work of Peter Elbow who reflects in his 1973 book, Writing without Teachers, on his own experiences as someone who wanted to be a teacher but struggled with writing. Elbow’s theories of composition are autoethnographic, and emerged from his life. Mine have as well. My favorite writing laxative comes from his book, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (1981, 1998). It can be found in Section II: “More Ways of Getting Words on Paper,” where Elbow describes “first thoughts,” saying that this activity asks the writer to just dump* out what s/he is thinking about the topic, acknowledging that these initial ideas are “not good thoughts or true thoughts—just first thoughts” (p. 61). This initial dumping reduces the pressure of initial significance and organization that often causes writers to procrastinate. Once students have something, they can begin to find directions for potential exploration.

Elbow’s idea is related to Ken Macrorie’s (1970, 1976), “I-Search” processes detailed in Telling Writing. To begin an I-Search project, the researcher asks questions:

• What do I want to learn more about? Why am I interested in this?

• What do I already know about this subject?

• What do I need to learn about this subject?

“First thoughts” and “I-Search” beginnings are kinds of brainstorming, another piece of writing theory that has become formulaic and patterned, with well-meaning teachers requiring students to draw circles and lines and make Venn diagrams and engage in multiple kinds of teacher-directed pre-writing activities with colored pencils and Post-It® notes and other aids to creation. However, as the writer Jessamyn West said in an interview in September 1957 in the Saturday Review,There is no royal path to good writing; and such paths as do exist do not lead through neat critical gardens, various as they are, but through the jungles of self, the world, and of craft.” I heartily agree. I am a list maker, a card collector, a file creator, and a bitpiecer. This means that I write my way into projects bits and pieces at a time—a paragraph here, a phrase there, a page or two in the morning when I awake—filing it all away until the deadline looms and I have to piece together the wordy mosaic of thought and bring order to the chaos.

There is a time for editing and proofreading and making sure that writing is ready to be read. There is a time to consider audience. There is a time to adhere to accepted conventions, particularly in an academic context. That time is not at the beginning of a writing task when writers must mindfully make meaning through an activity as personal as expressing voice on paper. I’ll end with a lengthy quotation from Writing with Power. If you want to be Ex-Lax® for your students, consider his words:

“Perhaps my general point would be clearer if I called this section ‘More Ways of Producing a First Draft,’ but I want to emphasize the fact that first-stage writing need not take the form of a draft. That is, it need not be a single connected piece of writing. There is no good reason why you must try to produce something in your first cycle of writing that resembles the form of what you want to end up with, Of course, if you have a vision of how your piece ought to be structured, yes, by all means do your raw writing in the form of a draft. But if you only have the hint of a hunch or some initial thoughts or incidents or images and you can’t see how they should be shaped, it’s usually best to go ahead all the same and plunge into what I call raw writing. Instead of a draft you will be producing a pile of rough ingredients. The fact is that you usually get more and better visions for how to shape these ingredients by starting to write them out however they happen to come off the pencil than by waiting till you get the so-called ‘right’ structure. Any structure that you dream up before actually getting your hands dirty in the writing itself is apt to be like a plan you work out for travel in an unfamiliar country: it usually has to be changed once you get there and see how things really work” (p. 47).

What do you do to overcome writer’s block? How do you begin a new writing project?

The writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anticlimax. • Alfred Kazin, Think, February 1963 [Or herself. Sigh.]

* I trust that you are applauding my restraint as I pass up the opportunity to indulge in some verbal pun-ishment here.

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All I Want For Christmas* Is A Smile. No Need To Wrap It. Just Give It To Me. Actually, I’ll Be Delighted To Get It Any Time Of The Year. P.S. I’ll Be At The Airport And At Target This Afternoon. Maybe Taco Bell Too** And I’ll Be Looking For My Gift.

December 23, 2010

Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.
• Mother Teresa

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), First Earl of Beaconsfield, British prime minister, and novelist, once groused, “It destroys one’s nerves to be amiable all day.” Goodness knows I understand what the Earl was griping about. It is difficult to be cheerful when you’re tired, grumpy, out of sorts, busy, angry, worried, upset, cranky, hungry, disappointed, sad, impatient, frustrated, irritable, or annoyed.

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.
• Thich Nhat Hanh

When all of your energy is focused on getting through the day, a smile can seem like frosting on the cake of your presence. Nice, but not necessary. After all, isn’t it enough to give us cake? You’re there. You’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re taking money, serving a Happy Meal®, wrapping presents, preparing an eggnog latte, giving us a fistful of stocking-stuffer-singles for a twenty, unlocking the dressing room, dishing up, checking out, waiting on, listening to, and doing it all while wishing you were somewhere else since you’re running out of time to do whatever it is you’d rather be doing. I get it.

Attempt to be cheerful. Who knows, it might work.
• Ann B. Davis (1994), “Alice’s Unspoken Rules,” Alice’s Brady Bunch Cookbook

I get it, but I am disappointed when I don’t get a smile with my service. Perhaps I am expecting too much, but if you’re wondering what you can give someone that doesn’t cost anything except a bit of muscular and emotional effort, give a smile. And to everyone who’s generously distributed smiles this season, including those directed my way, many thanks. I’ve tried to pass them along.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
• Leo Buscaglia

Smiles matter. I am aware that this sounds like the very best of the worst kind of mindless happytalk. It’s a cliché, and there are plenty of people out there with good reason not to smile. I know. But whether I’m in a restaurant or a grocery store or a gas station or an office building—or teaching a class—the attitude of the people I encounter matters.

What sunshine is to flowers, smiles are to humanity. They are trifles, to be sure; but, scattered along life’s pathway, the good they do is inconceivable.
• Joseph Addision

If I’m feeling grumpy myself, a smile reminds me to mind my manners and return it. If I’m disheartened or sad or overwhelmed, a smile reminds me that these feelings will pass and my own smiles will return. If I’m eating a meal, a smile makes the food taste better. If I’m encountering bureaucratic intransigence, a smile increases my patience. If the person in front of me is holding up the line while hunting frantically through purse or pockets or wallet for whatever it is s/he needs to finish checking out, a smile boosts my tolerance. Smiles matter.

There is not a soul who does not have to beg alms of another, either a smile, a handshake, or a fond eye.
• John Dalberg-Acton, (1834-1902), First Lord Acton, author, historian, politician

If you’re wondering what you can give others at any time of the year, give them your smile. Think of it as community service, a volunteer activity you become part of by joining a club with no meetings and no dues whose sole mission is to spread a bit of cheer and good will. Be a grin philanthropist and give freely.

If someone is too tired to give a you a smile, leave one of your own, because no one needs a smile as much as those who have none to give.
• Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

* This season there are many who tentatively wish me a “Merry Christmas,” recognizing that there are those who celebrate other—or even no—festivities. My title, however, references a holiday song written by Don Gardner (1946), “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,” a tune that’s been parodied many times, including in the 1960s when Dora Bryan sang “All I Want For Christmas Is The Beatles.” Now, thanks to iTunes, she can have them.

** The return of the bean tostada makes me smile. It was my favorite high school off-campus lunch. Add a bean burrito and I was ready to embarrass myself in the afternoon. I am quite fond of the musical fruit.

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The Spirits That Visit Me In The Night Are The Reminders Of Work Undone, The Lists Of Tasks Yet To Be Completed, And The Host Of Possibilities Of Things I Could Accomplish If Only I Were Less Human

December 1, 2010

By surviving passages of doubt and depression on the vocational journey, I have become clear about at least one thing: self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch. • Parker Palmer (2000), Let Your Life Speak

 
I’m currently teaching a course called Human(e) Relations, the “e” added by me as a reminder to all of us that in our dealings with others, it is important to be humane because we are all human and thus fallible and likely to disappoint even as we also deliver joy and delight. It is inevitable that few of us will be as practically perfect as Mary Poppins claimed to be.

It is three o’clock in the morning and I cannot sleep. Too many things that need my attention are lined up, waiting their turn. They are patient, but they do not go away. They wait. And I feel their weight. I close my eyes and hope that sleep will take me away for a few more hours, but soon I stare into the darkness, knowing that it will not, and I succumb to temptation, turn on the light, pick up my pen, and write my way into the day.

It’s the end of a quarter. Next week is finals week. Assessment tasks loom as does the necessity of preparing for a new quarter even as I finish with this one. My lists have lists and all my good intentions mock me, a chorus of inky voices reminding me of the undone, half-completed, unfinished realities of my life. No matter how much I do accomplish, it is never enough.

The life of an educator embodies the realities of “never enough.” No matter how much we do or how much we give of ourselves, it is never enough. There is always more that we could, should, truly believe we ought to do to enhance our students’ learning experiences. There is further research to be done. There are new technologies to embrace and integrate. There are additional effective methodologies to employ and additional worthwhile activities to design. There are always always always more connections to be made—real world and individual and interdisciplinary—that will help students engage with whatever it is that we are teaching. There is always more.

We do what we can.

We do more than we have energy for.

We plan to do better—and more—next time.

We hope.

As I watch the clock tick out the minutes before I must get ready for the morning’s work, I create a new list of things I hope to accomplish at quarter’s end: a book proposal to finish, articles to write, conference presentations to prepare, dusting and other mundane chores that get neglected because there is always something more interesting or pressing that I need to do, books to read, research to delve into, artmaking I’ve put off, cookies I’d like to bake just because I seldom do, friends I’d like to see, and I realize that although these things are all worthwhile and some of them are even likely to be relaxing, there is no place on my list to simply stop my headlong rush into life and relax.

I must relax. I must renew. I must remember to reconnect with myself and revive my spirit if I am to continue the work that is my vocation. So must we all.

Regardless of how or whether you celebrate any holiday at this time of the year, I hope you’ll give your self the gift of time. Your life is your gift to the world and it deserves some loving care. You do not have to be an educator to need–or heed–this advice.

No one has time; we have to make time. • James Rohn

For the sake of making a living we forget to live. • Margaret Fuller

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The Write Stuff Too, Or As Nathaniel Hawthorne Said, Easy Reading Is Damn Hard Writing

November 6, 2010

Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
• Gene Fowler

I’ve just finished more than ten hours of reading over the last few days and I’ve been keeping track of some hints for writers based on things I’ve been seeing over and over in papers.

The ablest writer is only a gardener first, and then a cook: his tasks are, carefully to select and cultivate his strongest and most nutritive thoughts; and when they are ripe, to dress them, wholesomely, and yet so that they may have a relish.
• Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare (1827), Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers

Edit. Edit. Edit. This is hard work and requires you to read what you’ve written with a critical and thoughtful eye. I read many essays that are compilations of ideas from several essays that are stewing in the writer’s mind. It is not the editor or reader’s job to tell you what to include. It’s your job to determine a direction so that the editor/reader will be able to help instead of becoming lost in a forest of words.

I try to leave out the parts that people skip.
• Elmore Leonard

Lengthy, repetitive paragraphs that include the same information said in several ways generally need sentence-combining and serious deletions. And lengthy paragraphs need to be broken up. Any time there’s a paragraph of a page or more, it’s probably too long.

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.
• Truman Capote, McCall’s, November 1967

Read what you’ve written out loud to someone else. You’ll likely catch awkward sentences this way. When someone says that your writing is “awkward,” it generally means that something is poorly worded and stops the reader who has to try and figure out what it means or who is struck by something that just doesn’t sound right.

When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.
• Enrique Jardiel Poncela

Please, I beg of you, do not rely on the thesaurus provided in your word processing program’s “toolbox.” It doesn’t necessarily provide you with the correct word when you’re seeking a substitute. When you look up the definition of a word online, be sure to read all the meanings to be certain that you aren’t accidentally saying something you don’t really mean. This is a particular problem with words that may have negative connotations.

A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.
• Baltasar Gracián

Sometimes the writing I read, particularly when it’s related to personal beliefs, is platitudinous, filled with worthy aspirations and high-minded concepts, but devoid of personality because no personal connections are made with the content. Simply using first person does not assure that your words will connect the writer with your meaning. You must use stories, anecdotes, and other concrete examples that bring your beliefs to life and that make for interesting reading. Is your writing compelling, enthralling, infused with your experiences, and written in a way that only you could write it? Or could your work have been written by anyone?

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
• Anton Chekhov

Read what you’ve written after letting it sit overnight, or at least for several hours. Sometimes what’s on the page seems to be the opposite of what you mean. Getting distance from your work is useful.

No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.
• Henry Brooks Adams (1907), The Education of Henry Adams

Most unique. Peak pinnacle. Canine dog. Beware redundancy. Beware the use of clichés as well.

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.
• James Michener

Regardless of how creative you’d like to be, when you’re writing something that will be read quickly by someone (an application letter or essay, for example), your writing should have a clear organizational structure that allows the reader to readily understand the point(s) you are making. This includes having a clear introduction with some kind of statement of purpose, an organized body, and a definite conclusion that returns in some way to the introduction, reminding the reader of your purpose.

Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.
• Sholem Asch

There’s almost never a time when an exclamation point is really needed in formal writing. When you’re tempted to use one, think about it and unless you can truly justify its use, remove it.

An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.
• F. Scott Fitzgerald

Then/than, choose/chose, loose/lose, and other personal challenges need to be identified and given special attention each time you write.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
• Mark Twain (Zinn’s corollary: And lightening is yet another thing!)

Write out the word and; don’t substitute the ampersand (&). This goes for words like 4th and 5th as well. Use fourth and fifth. I won’t list all the substitutions that reflect the drift of textspeak into writing, but each of them is inappropriate for formal writing.

The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.
• Mark Twain

Reading what other people have written and trying to help them improve their work is time-consuming. Few people who do so want to annoy the writers they’re hoping to assist. Still, this sometimes happens since many papers are hard-birthed and no one wants to be told that their baby is ugly in any way. Be grateful for feedback and realize that in the end, you can do as you wish with it (unless, of course, there’s a scoring guide or some other kind of guidelines you have to meet).

Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged. We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper.
• Isaac Bashevis Singer

See “The Write Stuff “ (Zinnfull, October 25, 2009) for additional hints, including the correct use of myself, agreement issues, and the need for interesting titles.

What’s the first step you could take to improve your writing?

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
• William Wordsworth

Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes.
• Theodore Dreiser, 1900