"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Friday, January 1, 2016

Blog on Hiatus

Thanks for following us through the world of place-conscious teaching. The blog is on hiatus now, with no new posts planned.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

990/1200/1201: Literacy Narrative Rough Drafts

My student, S., writes upside down. Literally, she turns her paper upside down and forms her letters in a way I've never seen before.

My student, B., told me on the first day of class he had no intention of buying the book or reading it.

My student M. thinks this class is beneath him and keeps trying to trap me on loopholes.

J. can't come to class because her baby is sick.

A. has been homeless for most of his adolescence and may be the best natural poet I've ever encountered.

I have Liberian refugees in my classes, some brought over as children, some the children of refugees. Some have lived in north Minneapolis, a historically black and low-income area, for several generations. I have Hmong students whose parents are nervous that they're losing their language. My students are low-income, first-generation, some who take advantage of North Hennepin's food bank because they are hungry. Some think of community college as an easy alternative to classes taken elsewhere.

To say that my students are diverse is an understatement. To a one, however, their lives are focused elsewhere, away from where they come from. They may be escaping war, maybe poverty. Some are looking for a change in their lives. Every day, my pedagogy and I are being challenged--mostly in really good ways. I've been wanting to work with more diverse students since I taught in the W.H. Thompson Scholars program at UNL.

Primarily, I've noticed that the resistance I'm facing is largely fear-related. Many of my students are in my class (which is in the Baltimore model of composition, with developmental students in the same classroom as non-developmental students) have had terrible experiences with English classes and most of them believe that they cannot write, they hate to read, and to say reading and writing are boring is much easier than admitting that they struggle or that they're afraid to risk in their writing.

They're turning in the rough drafts of their first Writing Project, a literacy narrative, and seeing their work in the last four weeks, I know that many of them started off enjoying reading as children, but hated being told what to read in middle school and high school. Most of them have had bad experiences with writing, particularly high school teachers telling them that their grammar is bad or that they're not good at writing. (Which just makes my blood boil--who does that?!) And one bad experience turns them off writing and reading for life. I know that they're working an uphill battle in terms of content here.

I've noticed that the students most in need of my help are the ones who are most resistant, the ones who show up chronically unprepared, or don't show up at all. Retention is on my mind, but I want to keep them in the class because they need it on a broader level. I'm still struggling with the best way to do that.

One major change to my pedagogy is a much more committed effort to the scaffolding of assignments. A Think Piece leads directly into their rough draft. We do a worksheet-led activity on the Think Piece to help them expand into the rough draft. I've never used worksheets so prolifically before, but I learned early that with so many ELL students, they need a moment to think through the day's actity. My main strategy in rough draft workshops is for students to read aloud, but I'm needing to come up with a more effective strategy--and today, they're being guided by a worksheet. 

My student, T., is nontraditional and emails me that she wants to be in another group, because her group spends their time talking about how much they don't want to be in the class.

My student R., is Hmong and a member of the active duty military.

I have seriously underestimated the emotional component to teaching seven classes at NHCC. The teaching part, the pedagogy, the ability to reform class activities in my head because of immediate needs--that I've got covered. It's my student who's food insecure, my student without health insurance for her sick baby, the ones coming out of war zones--that I am finding very difficult. Rewarding, as I'm working my way through each class and marveling at the unique perspectives they're finding more courage to share, but it's not without its toll.

Week 4, done. I'm really excited to see where the rest of the semester goes.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Mary Pipher: First Pages, Drowned Children, Trains and Numbers

I'm starting this blog post before I go to campus to teach my second section of 990/1200/1201 because it feels important, because I'm on my second pot of tea and trying to clear cobwebs from my brain and an anvil on my chest.

Yesterday, we started talking about Mary Pipher's book The Middle of Everywhere, about refugees in Lincoln, Nebraska, and even though it came out nearly fifteen years ago, it still feels familiar, especially in my new Twin Cities home where refugees have also been rehomed. I've been watching discussions in my former home of Fargo/Moorhead, where officials are working to rehome 250-some refugees and F/M objecting, for reasons that are stupid and xenophobic. We're talking about literacy in my classes, how what we consider literacy changes from one context to the next, how we think of ourselves and what we know as important.

Yesterday, our discussion was relatively benign. We started with a free writing: this book is now fairly old. Is it still relevant? How should we think about it?

We acknowledged current inflammatory rhetoric about immigration.

In our small group discussions, one of the questions I posed to one of the groups was what is our responsibility to refugees? What is the responsibility of the government? What is the responsibility of charities, like Lutheran Social Services, who are working so hard with refugees in Fargo/Moorhead? Years ago, my sister worked for The Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis, taking statements from Liberian refugees for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Many of my students are Liberian.

Today, I'm about to repeat the same discussion over the same material with a different group of students, but the divide between yesterday and today is immense.

Yesterday, the photograph of the tiny Syrian boy named Aylan, drowned and washed up on a beach, splashed across all of my news sites and my social media. It achieved what it was meant to: I saw my nephew in that boy and I can't rid myself of that image. I don't consider myself to be overly emotional, but I don't even know if I can form vocalizations to talk about that in class today. And yet, I need to find a way.

Yesterday, I saw an article about Czech police stopping trains of migrants: "Pictures in Czech media showed police officers writing registration numbers on the wrists and arms of migrants with permanent marker pens, while the refugees themselves told reporters they were travelling from Budapest, had purchased valid train tickets and were allowed to board by police in Hungary." 

Yesterday, I saw a photograph of a boat filled with people and the caption: "If you want to stop refugees from Syria, Iran, and Iraq, quit bombing their homes."

Yesterday, I saw an article about Iceland wanting to increase the number of refugees it allows into the country, with quotes from citizens about wanting to take refugees into their homes.

Today, when I ask my students what is our responsibility to refugees, it won't be benign.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Where I'm From, NHCC Edition: Up North

I started classes last week and I've been pondering this blog post since that first day. I'm teaching two sections of the combined developmental/general composition (990/1200/1201) and they really are everything I hoped they would be in terms of stretching my teaching experience. My students are a wonderful mix of ethnic groups and experiences; refugees, some recent, some brought over as children; immigrants, recent and not; all ages. Their first writing assignment was "A Short History of My Reading and Writing Life," while responding to Anne Lamott's "Shitty First Drafts" and Marie Foley's "Unteaching the Five-Paragraph Essay." I don't know why I expected resistance from them in that assignment, that I expected to read how much they hated reading and writing, how boring it was--probably because that's been my experience with my more privileged students--but that wasn't the case. My students miss class for court dates and I know they're more likely to be fighting for custody of their children than they are appearing for an underage DUI. My students don't have their education as their first priority--and that's not a lever I can use, like I could with my more privileged students--education is only one part of their lives. They had wonderful stories to tell (that will make for excellent seeds for their first writing project) and even that little glimpse into who they are--I tell them that their weekly Think Pieces are my favorite part of the week and I'm absolutely not kidding.

We're starting our Writing Project 1 (Literacy History Narrative) with a "Where I'm From" poem, something I've never taught before. In fact, I've never taught literacy narratives before--so this is all new to me. But there's something here that I didn't expect: what I'm learning is that when I asked my students to identify where they're from on the first day of class, I learned that there's the Cities and its environs and "Up North." I'm from Up North a couple of them said, because they knew that their classmates wouldn't know where they came from. It's a thing here, I'm learning, to say you're from Up North, as if there isn't anything of importance outside the metro area. Maybe there isn't or maybe it's just a foreign concept to live outside an urban area. I don't know--but it really is a thing here. I know that when we talk about politics, we talk about the Metro area and "greater Minnesota," but actually living here, I'm starting to see how that mentality is being shaped and how it's actually playing out. Intellectually, it's fascinating--especially as it's a completely different mentality from teaching at Concordia, where most of my students came from rural areas.

The learning curve is steep for me here, in a good way. Last Wednesday wasn't a great day in my 1200/1201 class, where one student told me in the middle of class that he had no intention of buying the books and no intention of reading them. Another student was arrogant to the point of serious disrespect. I left that class wondering what I'd gotten myself into. Intellectually, I know that resistance in composition classes is often bred of fear--and so that's a good thing to remember. But Monday redeemed everything, made me remember why I'm a teacher and why I don't know that I could be as happy doing anything else.

One of my girls in my 1200/1201 class hung back after our 990 (after the 1200/1201, we have our developmental class, which is 50 minutes with just the ten students who are in 990/1200), and I'd reminded them of the reading assignment for Wednesday, which is the introduction and first two chapters of Mary Pipher's book about refugees in Lincoln, Nebraska, The Middle of Everywhere. She said she'd read the book over the weekend--she didn't mean to read the whole thing, but before she knew it, she was done. It was so interesting, she said. That makes my little teacher heart go pitty-pat, I said--so many of their first Think Pieces identified that they started to hate reading when teachers forced them to read books they didn't want to read. And here I am, requiring them to read a book I think is interesting, that fits into what we're talking about, and I hope against hope that they find it valuable--but it really means a lot for them to say that out loud.

(In my literature class later that day, one of my guys walked out (we'd discussed Edgar Allan Poe) and said, "I used to think Poe was so boring! And now I think he's amazing!")

Yesterday, in my TR class (different section from the MW), we were discussing definitions of literacy and I mentioned my niece, who just started Spanish immersion kindergarten and was finding it difficult on a lot of levels, both in language and not knowing anybody, and one of my students said she had a cousin in Chinese immersion who would come home and try to speak Chinese to them, but her family couldn't understand her. She'd try to speak Chinese to her grandparents, but they don't speak it anymore.

I can't wait for their "Where I'm From" poems--and I straight-up can't wait for their literacy narratives. This is going to be amazing.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Final Friday Prep

It's the Friday before classes start and I'm starting to get an idea of what I'm doing next week. Tis the life of an adjunct to have one's schedule up in the air even to the last minute. I'm learning flexibility here. I'm thrilled to teach the composition here, because it's one of the few places in the country that's using this model of separating out its developmental students from its classes. I think it's brilliant--we all learn more when we are challenged by our peers, see models of work and behavior we want to emulate, and I much prefer talking about writing students in terms of what they bring to a classroom, rather than their "deficiencies." 

So, I'm teaching a 990/1200/1201 course, which is six credits for me. All 25 students take 1200/1201 together (the code difference has to do with the 990 component) and then the 990 students take two extra hours a week with me. Everybody's doing the same thing, with a little extra attention to the 990 students. I plan to approach this like there's no difference between the "developmental" and the "regular" students, not even calling attention to the way that the class is set up. We are who we are. 

Today, as I'm trying to figure out how to use D2L, finalize my syllabus (or at least the first two weeks of each class), I'm also thinking about new ways to start off the semester. Since I'm thinking so strongly about highlighting student strengths, I think I'm going to have Colaiste Lurgan playing as they walk in. We're talking about cultural literacy in the first couple of weeks in my comp class and though we're talking about refugees (Mary Pipher's The Middle of Everywhere) and Hmong refugees in St. Paul (Kao Kalia Yang's The Latehomecomer), what Colaiste Lurgan does with its students is terrific. Irish is compulsory in Ireland and many kids go to these summer schools for immersion experiences so that they can pass the requirements. Naturally, many kids hate this. But a few years ago, the administrations decided to translate popular songs into Irish and make music videos of them--and whatever the students' strengths are, they're incorporated. Voice, dance, fiddle, and more. The way this one activity--whose goal is to strengthen language--also strengthens students' beliefs in what they bring to a group, that's terrific. And it's what I want to do this semester in this class. It's going to be a fun one. 

We had two days of workshops this week, as many others did, and hearing all the great things NHCC is doing with and for its students--I'm so glad to be here. (I'm also getting a better sense of what it means to be a state school...) A beneficial thing they did for us, that I haven't seen in any other pre-semester workshop setting, is that they had actual workshops for us to attend--actual professional development--which was brilliant.  I went to one that showed us how to migrate our grades from D2L (the management software NHCC uses) to the registrar's office. That was less than helpful, because I didn't even know where to find my gradebook in my class in D2L, so I made notes for later. 

But the second two were great: the first was "Sexual and Dating Violence Bystander Training For Faculty" led by Chad Henderson, director of the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution--part of their Behavioral Concerns and Response Team, and Sheila Lindstrom, sociology faculty, who had just come back from Green Dot training in Washington, DC. I've never been a part of a non-residential campus and it definitely has its challenges, when keeping its students safe. The information was very important, very timely, and I'm so glad I went. Partly because I'm teaching my Intro to Lit as crime literature, but also because when the fall Assay comes out, we've got an article on there, an annotated bibliography by Christian Exoo and Sydney Fallone titled "Using CNF to Teach the Realities of Sexual Assault to First Responders: An Annotated Bibliography"--and I'll update this post once Assay goes live and you can see it--and as I'm listening to this information, I'm thinking of the various aspects of my professional life colliding. So I'm going to send both presenters Christian and Sydney's article. 

The last session I went to was on "Responding to Students in Distress," by the counseling center--and as a new employee, I wanted to know more about the counseling center as much as I was hoping for new information. As anybody who teaches first year students knows (and English teachers who often require personal writing in their classes), we see a lot of distress that goes beyond what we're capable of handling. 

So, the takeaways here: actual workshops during workshop days (rather than updates on construction, etc. that could be taken care of in an email) are something that every institution should work towards. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

New Adventures at North Hennepin Community College!

It's been a long time since I posted here, but I'm inspired to start it up again as I embark on a new adventure in teaching at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Since I last posted, many things have happened, including the publication of my first book and the birth of my brand new nonfiction studies journal, Assay, which will publish its third issue in about two weeks.

I'm in the midst of planning my new classes at NHCC and as I'm reworking my Place and Community class for this particular group of students and their needs, so much is changing. Just on a personal level, it's a new place for me and that always shakes new creativity loose, both for my own writing and pedagogically.

So, here's where I'm starting: I finally finished Imagination in the Classroom: Teaching and Learning Creative Writing in Ireland, edited by Anne Fogarty, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, and Eibhear Walshe, as I'm writing a review for New Hibernia Review. It's fascinating on a lot of levels, only partially because I just got back from Ireland a few weeks ago, where I basked in the glory that is the Galway Arts Festival. (Which is why I'm listening to the incongruous combination of Little Green Cars and Damien Rice this morning, because I got to hear both of them in concert.) The trip gave me new perspective on my own writing--one of which is that I realized that I lost the joy of reading somewhere along the way, so there's a post coming about Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill's Selected Essays that I found in Charlie Byrne's bookshop in Galway--and that kind of energy always finds itself in my teaching.

As I'm working on formulating this review, I'm trying to document its process for my students--we all know that our work doesn't spring fully formed, but very rarely do we see the iceberg under the water. Art, of any persuasion, requires work. I've also been working on my own writerly habits this summer, through Julia Cameron's book The Sound of Paper, doing the work of being a writer, focusing on my process, rather than product. It was in Galway a few weeks ago that I realized some truths about myself as a writer, things I'd lost over the past few years in the transition from my teaching at Bowling Green to my PhD at Nebraska--and I'm slowly starting to get those pieces back and it feels really good. I'm hoping that reporting on my pedagogy as I used to will also help me regain some of what I've felt has been missing lately.

This semester, I'm teaching and intro to lit (will post on that later) and two sections of NHCC's gateway composition course, which combines developmental writers with those who tested into Comp I--the format I'm not exactly sure of yet (I just got the job a few days ago), but I'm really excited for this new stretching of my teaching, both pedagogically and personally. I've wanted the chance to work with first generation and low income students since teaching in the Thompson Scholars learning community at Nebraska--and so I'm very, very excited about this. Since I don't know the parameters of the course yet, what the departmental requirements are, I'm formulating the basic class anyway and I think it's going to concentrate on this kind of scaffolding:

  • Literacy narratives: where they come from (George Ella Lyons' poem), what they bring to the classroom (rather than the deficiencies they think they have), and what constitutes cultural literacy;
  • Using Bonnie Stone Sunstein and Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater's textbook Fieldworking, we're going to research a community of their choosing. This will involve interviews and oral history work, as well as objective library types of research. I've always found that separating field research from library research is problematic.
  • This research project will then expand into an advocacy project, working on the difference between arguing and advocacy, to formulate a plan that identifies stakeholders and proposes something that would benefit this community.
Obviously there are kinks and how this works out is going to depend on the specifics I get from the department, but I like the way this is shaping up. I've never taught literacy narratives before, so that's going to be a fun new thing for me. When I've taught this before, I used Mary Pipher's The Middle of Everywhere, which is about refugees in Lincoln, Nebraska--and that's great when I was teaching in Lincoln, but I also want to incorporate something local. I picked up The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang, about Hmong refugees in St. Paul, and that might fit the bill.

So, here's to new adventures in place-conscious pedagogy!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

IWC 100 (NDN): Final Drafts and Reflections

I can't believe how bad I've been about reporting on my classes this year.  I'm just going to blame it on the incredible mental energy required in starting a new job, with new classes, while also being on the job market.  And once again, I'm writing this as we're under another blizzard threat, this one of the Out Like A Lion variety.  I'm supposed to go to Aberdeen, to Northern State University, to read--a reading that was rescheduled from last fall because of a blizzard.  If I can't get there, again, the blizzard might have bruises from my temper.  But we'll see.  I'm glad I haven't taken the winter survival kit out of my car yet.

Mostly, it's a week of readings--and it's been long enough since I've read that I'm way too excited about it. Especially since it's my first reading since my first book, Water and What It Knows, was accepted by the University of Minnesota Press!  How exciting is this?!  So, I'm reading in Aberdeen Tuesday/Wednesday and then I'm part of the Faculty-Student Reading Series at Concordia on Thursday night and I'm reading with seniors Lisa Streckert and Heather Burtman.  And we're all reading some form of travel writing--it should be awesome.

Anyway.  To the classes.

A few things have happened in the NDN class lately.  They turned in their final drafts, with their Prezis, last week, and I've been working my way through them.  And I am incredibly humbled by the work that they've done, to the point where I don't care if they're brown nosing me in their reflections with what they've learned.  I don't care.  This field research project, which asks them to research a disaster that happened in their hometown and create not only a written paper but a Prezi that will be attached to their local library/historical society/newspaper, is heavily dependent on interviews and primary research.  Most of them have never done interviews before and one of the things I've been most impressed with them is watching them get over their fear of talking to people.  The ones who have gotten the furthest out of their comfort zones and emailed mayors and other people they don't know have produced the most interesting projects.  The ones who only interviewed family and friends are definitely lacking the truly fascinating perspectives.  I had a couple of projects that went generationally with their interviews, interviewing somebody from their own generation, their parents' generation, their grandparents' generation--and that was likewise fascinating.

In their reflections, many of my students wrote that they're no longer afraid of talking to people they don't know, that the risk involved in calling up the mayor or somebody who works for the DNR is worth it.  They might say no, but they might say yes.

One thing I learned:  next time I do this, I might require that they talk to somebody in the government, somebody outside their family/friend memory bank.

Another thing I learned:  next time, I'm going to ban the phrase "the community came together" or "we learned what we were made of" or anything remotely resembling that cliche.  In one paper, I counted "the community came together" 12 times. The sad thing is that those cliches mask the truly interesting moments.  What does it mean that the community came together?  For that student, part of it was that the community housed students from the local colleges.  In another paper, it meant new networks that brought together disparate groups of people.

Another thing I learned:  next time, I'm going to focus more on how what happened in that place is different from any other time and place. For instance, I had many students writing on the various Red River floods, from Fargo to Grand Forks to Valley City, from 1997 to 2009.  What's the difference between Fargo's experience in 1997 and Grand Forks' experience?  Between Fargo and Valley City?  Between Fargo and Oxbow?  They're absolutely different--but how?  We're going to spend more time on that.  In hindsight, I'd do more with examining how the Tri-College affected the Fargo-Moorhead flood efforts; I'd do more with the Air Force Base in Grand Forks.

Something that freaked me out:  when my student writing on the 1997 flood in Grand Forks wrote that he was two years old when it happened.  When did I get old?

The goal of this project is to create new knowledge that has never existed in this form before.  And for me, the real risk of this project is the public Prezi, which I've never required before--because I want that community engagement.  I want my students to understand how what they do in a classroom is much larger than an assignment, that they are a part of something larger.  Concordia is committed to Being Responsibly Engaged in the World (BREW)--and right here, for this project, that's what that means for us.  I'm so ridiculously proud of my students, even the ones who clearly didn't care and didn't put in the time or effort--such is the life of a teacher of required composition.  Because these Prezis are public, I'm sharing a few of them as they come in (attached to their local organizations) and I'll post more as I get them.  Several of my students will be interviewed about their projects by their local newspapers and have parts of their papers published.  One of my favorite moments has been watching their faces (and reading this in their reflections) when they hear from these places, that anybody actually wants their work--and is excited about it.  They've never considered that anybody might be interested in what they're doing.

So, here's the Prezi on the 1972 flood in Randall, MN:  click here.

I learn things every time I teach.  Learning from my students is my favorite part of the job, even as another favorite part of my job is hearing "I never thought about it that way before."  During this project, I watched one student learn that all the tornado prep we all take for granted (tornado drills in schools, going to the basement, etc) came about because of the 1965 tornadoes through Minneapolis, not too far from where she lives.  I watched another student pore into the archives of her town's newspaper and discover that the majority of the photographs she'd been looking at were taken by a great-uncle who had changed his name.  I watched student after student question how memories turn into history and why it's important to preserve what we know, even if it's a storm that took place six months ago--because it's history.  It formed us, even if we're not completely aware of all the ways.

My students in these two classes have been remarkably resilient throughout this semester.  It's been A LOT of work for them, but I cannot believe how much they've grown and improved.  But it's also a test to spend an entire semester on natural disasters, which is one of the most not-cheerful subjects in the world.  I'm so proud of them.

Last week, we watched Donald Worster's lecture on water and the Great Plains--and a huge kudos to my students for not falling asleep.  I had to preface the lecture with why I was torturing them with it (and I pushed pause several times for us to discuss what he was saying, so we broke it up), but it's really hard to watch a guy standing behind a podium and he doesn't move and the camera doesn't move.  We'll start discussing Eric Reece's book The Lost Mountain tomorrow, about mountaintop removal coal mining, and last week and this week, my students are bringing to class examples from news sites about current human-caused disasters going on right now.  So far, we've had articles on the Casselton, ND explosion, the Galveston oil spill that happened last week, and the mudslide in Washington.

We're approaching this last project--on human-caused disasters and why the subject of them is so complicated--from the perspective of exploring complications.  My brilliant sister Kim Babine, who is the legislative liaison for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).  She's going to Skype with us in two weeks, to bring us another set of complications to think about.  What's the state's interest in subjects like this?  The Sandpiper pipeline that's proposed to run across Lakes Country (and too close to the Headwaters of the Mississippi River)? What about the PolyMet mine in the Iron Range?  How does the state balance economic development and making sure there are jobs, so people can feed their families, with natural resource management and conservation?  It's not as easy as saying Keystone Pipeline Good (or Bad).  So, what are the complicating factors?

And my final thought today is that the Hjemkomst Center has an exhibit right now on Minnesota Disasters.  Be still my ridiculous heart.  I wonder if there's a way to get my students up there.  Hmmm.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

IWC 100 (NDN): Special Guest Star, Ted Kooser!

I've had a couple of really spectacular classes this week, not only in my Natural Disaster Narratives (NDN) classes, but yesterday in my Place and Community class (also IWC) was also really great.  This morning, our sunshine is back and I don't quite believe the Weather Channel when it says it is two degrees and there isn't any windchill.

This morning, we had a bit of shuffle with my NDN classes, because Ted Kooser (we read his book of poetry, Blizzard Voices, last week) had to reschedule our Skype, which was supposed to be Monday.  So we talked about interviewing on Monday and today we mashed the beginning of Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time with our phone conversation with Kooser.  We basically did it, but Friday's going to be a day full of Dust Bowl.  It's true, just like all these other disasters, I get too excitable about it.  I had to give my students the disclaimer that the Great Plains is a subject I get very excitable about, I have soapboxes and opinions, and this does not mean that mine is the only opinion, that I am trying to convince them of something, or that they cannot disagree with me--in fact, I would like to be disagreed with.  

Grasslands!  Bioregions!  History! Why should anybody care?

I can feel myself getting excited just typing.  It's a problem.  I did recommend Google for those terms and places they don't recognize, so we'll see how that goes.  Also, there's a certain level of inexpressible glee that only comes from teaching books that have that many Post-It notes in them, that many notes in the margins, the book that you guard with your life and never let anybody touch, because those notes are not replaceable.

But why should anybody care?

I look forward to pressing them on this question as we keep going.  History is only boring when you forget that it's about real people.

Then, about 9:00, we called Ted Kooser, who's just about the nicest person on the planet.  We started off with some questions about the blizzard itself, about the poems (why he chose to not name the voices, where Ron Hansen's short story gave them names), we asked about the poetry as preserving something that might otherwise be lostwe asked about his writing process--AND HE READ US A BRAND NEW POEM HE WROTE THIS MORNING.  Be still my little teacherly heart.  We talked on Monday, as we were going through some interviewing things, about getting the interviewee to say something new, and it doesn't get much better than that.  He talked about getting up at 4:30 to write, suiting up for the work, and I think it made an impression on my students that he considered it work.  He talked about writing every day, and he talked about failing most days, that only a couple of days out of the month does he end up with anything that's usable, but he needs to show up.  He talked about working in the insurance agency and the importance of being able to write--not creative writing--but just clear communication.  

After we hung up with him, and we were debriefing, my students seemed a little stunned that he read us a new poem, that he apologized for its rough form before he did (and I said, remember that first workshop we did when I told you no apologizing for your work (they nodded), and I said, it doesn't go away...).  They also seemed very taken with the idea of failure and that he allowed himself the failure.

This blog post is indeed today's love poem to Ted Kooser.  I love the guy.  What I didn't know is that a jazz musician named Maria Schneider put some of his poetry to music and she just won a bunch of Grammy's.  Poetry is alive.

And the world is beautiful.

Friday, January 24, 2014

IWC 100 (NDN): Ground Blizzard #4

From Wednesday:

There's a certain deliciousness to the fourth ground blizzard of the winter landing on a day that my NDN classes meet.  We're still talking about earthquakes, but it's still relevant.  I don't know what it is about ground blizzards--as opposed to regular snow-from-the-sky blizzards--that have this special quality.  I was a bit nervous about leaving the house this morning, because where I live in south Fargo is basically open country, which equals white out.  But once I got out of my maze of apartment complexes, the roads were protected enough that it wasn't too bad.  Could be worse.  I'm just glad the roads weren't slick.

Today we finish Jonis Agee's The River Wife--and on Friday, we get to Skype with her.  I'm excited about that, just by itself, but I've had a lot of caffeine already this morning, so I'm even more excited.  To back up a few days, I introduced them to the concepts of the Southern Gothic--which this book fits into--and asked them to pay attention to a few things in particular.  First, instances of the supernatural--ghosts and other weird things (like references to Jacques staying young and fit as he ages).  Second, the role of the built environment (the inn, the house) in the formation of the plot, as well as the natural environment.  These ideas seemed to catch fairly well, and in the days since we first talked about this, they've been able to discuss them in class.

The other major concept I introduced them to was Othering.  I had them read two brief pieces on it--and this coincided with one of their weekly Think Pieces, so many of them wrote on it.  As I expected, they mostly wrote about high school cliques, the treatment of jocks and nerds, as what they knew of Othering--and so in the last couple of classes, I've asked them to go further.  Where does Othering happen?  How and why does it happen?  What's the role of power in Othering?  One of my students, who is of Latino descent, however, wrote about his experiences Being Othered--and it always breaks my heart to read about how terribly they've been treated.  It's one of those teaching moments that I want to bring to the large group, but I would never embarrass the student like that.

We talked about MLA on Wednesday, which chewed up a lot of our class time, so we didn't get as much time to talk about the book as I wanted--so that's our plan for today.  It's always a risk to teach a book you love (and always so delightfully surprising when students write about how surprised they are that they like it)--but this book is so, so good.  I think we'll also do some in-class writing

I'm still struggling to get my students to pay attention to the news and current events (West Virginia--Elk River, in particular), but I think that will come as we get into talking about more current things.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

IWC 100 (P&C): Blizzard Days and Pursuit of Place-Consciousness

7: 32 am.  This morning, I am not in a good place.  I do not feel good.  Most of this is due to the fact that someone in my apartment complex thought it would be a good idea to plow the parking lots with the little backhoe thing that makes the most annoying beep-beep sound when it backs up--at 11:00 last night. He did a lot of that backing up (plowing out the parking spaces, mostly) outside my apartment window and he didn't finish till after midnight.  My alarm goes off at 5:00.  Add to that my inability to read the ingredients on the yogurt I bought two days ago--which contained sneaky artificial sweeteners, which I'm allergic to--and no wonder I've been feeling like crap.  It's dark, it's cold (-12 with -29 windchil), and I'm about to walk into my 8:00 classroom, for only the third time.

Sun Dogs, South Fargo, -36 windchill
Last Thursday, when we would have had class, Concordia closed (which shocked everyone, because it NEVER closes)--because we were about to have a blizzard with very dangerous winds.  Not much in the way of new snow, but ground blizzards are just as bad.  People in town, apparently, were complaining that everything was closed when it was just fine--but once you got out of the wind-protected inner streets, it really was very bad.  I live in South Fargo and I couldn't see the street from my apartment window for most of the day.  But the point is that I'm playing catch-up with this class on a syllabus that doesn't leave much wiggle room.  So it'll be interesting to see how the new class plan I've cooked up for today works.  We don't know each other very well yet, so I'm hoping that we can get talking.  We'll see.

And yesterday, on the way home, we got hit with Polar Vortex #2, which took the windchill down to -35.  The sky was clear and blue, with the wind kicking up enough of the ground snow to make visibility a problem as I was driving home.  As a result of all this, the sun dogs were glorious.  Full sun dogs.  So, I went a few blocks south of where I live and took some pictures.  There's just something about sun dogs that makes me irrationally happy.

Here's the class plan, to talk about some readings from Paul Gruchow's Grass Roots (on the rural world), some excerpts from Emilie Buchwald's anthology Toward the Livable City (this is a change from last semester, when I didn't use very many urban pieces at all, which in hindsight was a ridiculous oversight), with a couple of chapters from our textbook on Fieldworking, and a couple of critical articles.  It's going to be a hefty day.

But here's the plan:  Because we can't talk about each of these pieces individually, like the original lesson plan, I'm going to get them into their groups and get them to do some synthesizing--and to do this, I'm going to have them make some web/bubble charts and get them on the various white boards in the classroom.  I need to get them physically out of their chairs and moving if I have any hope of them doing more than staring at me.

Here is the prompt:

  • With references to as many pieces as possible, what do places require of us, to know them well?  What kind of knowledge is required?
  • How do we come to know a place well?  (Look particularly at the Fieldworking chapters.)  And why should we?  What is at stake if we do not know the place where we are?
  • What kinds of knowledge do these pieces reference?  (For instance, Gruchow mentions breadmaking and tomato canning.)  What kinds of knowledge are valued?
    • What are the differences--and similarities--between rural knowledge and urban knowledge?  Put Gruchow's tomato canning alongside the urban gardening piece--what do they have in commong?
  • What is the larger purpose in coming to know a place?

10:00 am.  Post-class.  Sometimes I need to forcibly remind myself that my freshmen are still not completely college students.  That they will make enough wrong assumptions that I need to be more explicit than I think I need to be.  For instance, they assumed that since we didn't have class on Thursday, we would push everything back.  So half of them did not have their assignment for the day done.  But I had (a bit) assumed that something similar would happen, so this get-out-of-your-seat sort of activity would at least form a composite of knowledge.  

I also underestimated my international students.  I haven't had students with such severe language issues before and this is already proving to be a challenge--in just basic comprehension.  I'm meeting with them (separately) tomorrow, to hopefully clear some things up and give them some tips, but I also set them up with Academic Enhancement, as another resource.  This is going to be a tough semester for them--and a huge learning experience for me.  Right now, the problem is basic comprehension of the reading--and so I worry, greatly, that if reading is this much of a problem and, as they told me after class today, that they can't follow their group-mates' conversation, the writing is going to be even more of a hurdle.  Whew.

So, at various times in the activity, I had them write their bubble webs on the board--and one of the coolest things about the way this turned out is that even though they were all working with the same basic material, the connections and webs they made were completely different.  Love this.

We did this for about an hour--this is a 100 min class--and to bring it together and talk about some of these ideas, I asked them to do a free write.  Make connections, write about things they connected and discovered that they hadn't before class.  And then we used that to talk about some of these ideas and articles--ideas of idea-diversity, mixed realities, even how integral food is to our cultures.  We talked about Paul Gruchow's farming ideals with the article we had read on urban gardening; we connected urban knowledge to rural knowledge and how in certain ways we devalue both.  

To wrap things up, I walked them through one of the chapters in their Fieldworking textbook I had assigned and watched their faces change as I briefly flipped through freewriting (which we have done), bubbles and webs (which we just did) and then introduced them to double-entry field notes, which they will do.  I think this is definitely an activity I will do again.  

On Thursday, we're doing their proposals in class, so I'm excited to hear where they think they might ground their papers.  Last semester's projects were diverse and fascinating, so I'm looking forward to these too!