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

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!