Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A, B, C, D...Can't I Just Pick an Answer?

Most of my general psychology students are freshmen, not yet versed in the complexities of college writing. And yet, I persist in assigning them short papers. I believe that it's important for them to learn how to formulate an opinion and back it up, and to do so in writing.

Today, this blog is late, in part, because I was grading those papers. My class is small, and we've reached the lovely point in the semester where they've figured out what I want, they can put it on the page and earn a grade that makes both of us happy. From there, I hope we move to the point where they're actually getting something out of the assignment, and today, I had several sparkling glimmers of hope that we are, indeed, headed there. Today, I remembered why I assign those papers.

College classes are supposed to be challenging. Not everyone is supposed to get an A. But I depart from the conventional wisdom of the bell curve; I believe that if I'm doing my job well and my students are showing up and putting in the work, they should succeed. For some, that success will come in the form of an A; for others, in a grade higher than the one they began the semester with.

There are a lot of "ifs" in the previous paragraph. If they show up. If they do the work. If the myriad distractions that accompany college life don't win out over the mundane: doing the reading, going to class, doing the work. Earning a grade. Learning how to write a paper.

I assign papers to my freshmen because I believe they have something to say. Because I want them to integrate the class material with the real world and with their lives, because only then will they own the material, rather than merely renting it long enough to spit it back on a quiz.

Sometimes, there are jewels in those papers. A turn of phrase. A private revelation. Voice that makes me laugh out loud as a student dares to tell me what he really thinks about the topic at hand. Often, especially at the beginning of the semester, these diamonds are very much in the rough, but inevitably, as the semester goes on, they begin to sparkle.

There are times when my to-do list is long and I'm tired and grouchy and I wonder why I thought this was a good idea. Tests can be graded in half the time.

But tests don't always show me what my students know. True insight can't be measured by a multiple choice response; a real grasp of the material and a bit of self-expression can unfold only on a sheet of blank paper.

Whoever I am, I bring into the classroom -- teacher, writer, mother, counselor, wife.

And if I'm lucky, by the end of the semester, my students will trust me with whomever they are. With each paper, they put a little more of themselves on the page, intermingling bits of themselves with the material, staking a claim, making a connection.

Fearing writing a little less each time.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Road Less Traveled

I was beyond late when I got in my car on Saturday to drive up to my writers’ critique group retreat. As a result, I had every intention of taking the highway and shaving time off my trip. 

Then the sunshine hit my windshield. Sunshine I’d been craving for several days. As I took in the fall foliage along Queen Street on my way to grab my Starbucks, I thought about how pretty the drive up would be if I took my usual route.

I grabbed my chai and got back in my car.

And got on the highway.

In my defense, I started out on the scenic route, but as I drove through town, hitting most of the lights along the way, I began to rethink my decision. There were plenty of row houses and quite a few people who’d make interesting characters for a book (and were probably already interesting characters in their own right), but the slow pace did little to convince me that the scenic route was the better choice. 

As I contemplated more stop-and-go driving along the way to the destination I’d hoped to arrive at hours before, I grew more impatient and decided, in essence, that sometimes the road less traveled by is overrated.

Life’s like that, I guess. There are things we need to do things quickly and things we need to do well. The perfectionist within cringes at the need for speed, but the practical part of my personality prods me too, reminding me that life requires balance. Doing routine things quickly leaves us time to linger over the things that matter, working painstakingly on them until they are just right. 

And so it was with my trip. Taking the scenic route might have been balm for the soul had I left an hour or two earlier, leaving time to savor both the trip and the projects at the journey’s end, but once that window of time had closed, the drive became something I needed to do quickly in order to allow maximum time to do my writing well. 

As it turns out, I got a few fall benefits despite my need for speed. The foliage at the end of my drive, just before I got to the park, was just as beautiful as what I’d have seen had I taken my usual route. And thanks to a phone call from my daughter less than a mile before my turnoff, I ended up missing my turn and driving past the boating area, a detour that allowed me to take in not just trees dressed for fall, but two views of the lake as well. Had I thought of it, I could have pulled up a picnic table, unpacked my laptop and written right there, but by that point, I’d left all spontaneity behind, lost to the nudge of the ominously ticking clock.

Sometimes, when we take ourselves too seriously, getting weighed down in time and place and routes and destinations, we forget that we might just be exactly where we’re supposed to be.

Photo credit: Dianne Uscowskas Crawford

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Freebie: What I'm Reading in Ten Minutes or Less: Resiliency

In the psychology classes I teach, I talk to my students about risk and resilience. It's an overriding theme of human development -- balancing the odds against us with the odds in our favor -- and one that often makes the difference between success and failure. Resilience is a key ingredient when it comes to turning figurative lemons into lemonade.

We're all at risk. Our genes create a blueprint for not just height and eye color, but for predisposition to illness and disease. Our experiences run the gamut from ideal to simply awful, depending upon what life hands us at any given time. Part of developing into a healthy human being is learning how to manage risk and, even better, beat the odds and blow risk out of the water.

So, how do we do that? By developing coping skills that help us to bounce back, skills we can instill in our children as well, so that they learn that disappointment is not the end of the road. Sometimes, if we frame it properly, it's a boomerang into something even better.

I first heard of the National Association of School Psychologists (this week's source) when I was in graduate school. As an aspiring school psychologist, I was a student member for a while, but allowed my membership to lapse when I embarked on a different career path. Now, several decades later, I can access much of their information online, including a quick how-to on this very topic. Though this week's Friday Freebie offers advice to parents on building resiliency in children, it's advice we can take to heart and put into action as adults as well.

After all, you're never too old for lemonade.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Rain, Rain, Go Away

The last day or so has been challenging. Nothing big, really -- just a succession of minor annoyances, culminating in the unexpected demise of my car yesterday afternoon. But, hey -- it got me home, and like its driver, it's feisty. It will be fine, just as soon as I write a check to free it.

I will be fine, too, but today is a day I could have used some sunshine. After muddling through a cloudy morning cloaked in more than my fair share of self-pity, I realized that I was getting in my own way. Sunshine or no sunshine, I had a choice to make. I could keep muddling and mumbling, or I could change my outlook.
Simple, I know -- and exactly what I would have said to someone else. But when I'm the one doing the muddling and mumbling, that self-pity cloak gets nice and toasty, and a cold, hard reality check seems much less inviting.

Reality check #1: I'm healthy. I have a family who loves me (and vice versa). I love what I'm doing with my life right now.

That wasn't so hard.

Reality check #2: Disappointment is inevitable. So are tired cars and cloudy days.

I gave myself the reality check speech on the way to one of my favorite places, on the way to the job I love. But it wasn't until I came out of Starbucks smiling, then looked down at my cup to see the little hearts one of the baristas had drawn (how did she know I needed that?) that I realized I had to keep looking. The clouds weren't likely to part on their own any time soon, so I needed to beat down the gloom with a barrage of the little things.

My favorite drink in a cup with my name and little hearts. Beautiful fall leaves that outshine the dreariness of the rain. Another car to drive (my daughter's), alleviating my transportation issues. A classical music station discovered amid the saved stations in my temporary mode of transportation. A parking space a reasonable distance from my destination. Students who inspire equal parts joy and exasperation.
I don't mean to be a Pollyanna, and I am well aware that true blues aren't blown away by an act as simple as counting one's blessings. But taking the time and initiative to cast off the cloak of doom and  look at the world through rose-tinted lenses can be the beginning of the end of a persona of self-pity more often than we think.

Some days, you get sunshine. Other days, you have to hunt it down with a magnifying glass.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Gone Visiting

I'm posting on The Susquehanna Writers' blog today. Come visit and give me some advice on how to dispose of buried treasure.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday Freebie: What I'm Reading in Ten Minutes or Less: Naps

One of the advantages of having a non-traditional work schedule is having the ability to follow my body clock. If I need to crash in the afternoon (and I often do), I'm at liberty to do so. I used to feel a little guilty about it, until I realized that a quick nap in the afternoon often means I get a second wind and am able to concentrate better in the evenings.

And that got me thinking, and sent me in search of today's topic: naps. One of my favorite bloggers, Michael Hyatt, compiled a lot of the information I found in other places into one brief, well-organized blog post.

Is he pro or con? Find a comfy spot (don't forget your blanket), curl up with his blog and see for yourself.

Have a relaxing weekend.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tap Dancing through a Minefield of Homework

You know that old saying about the shoemaker's kids going shoeless? That's how I feel every time my daughter asks me to help her with a paper. You'd think that a writer would be in a wonderful position to assist a teenager with her writing assignments, but I am slowly coming to understand that doing so requires tap dancing through a minefield. Shoeless.

As a writer, I don't really think about how I write. I just do it. I haven't even thought about topic sentences in decades, let alone intentionally crafted or used them. Sure, they have a tendency to show up on the page, usually in more or less the right spot, but that's after forty years of practice. When you ask me how they got there, I am often mystified.

To make things worse, I'm a pantser. I don't plan -- I just write. Okay, maybe I plan a little, but I don't structure my writing the way my daughter is required to structure her school essays. Consequently,   I'm always terrified that the advice I give her is going to run counter to what she's supposed to do. If I urge her to put her passion on the page so that her voice comes through, am I discouraging objectivity and formal writing style? If I suggest that the number of sentences in a paragraph is, indeed, variable and that writing a first draft without an extensive organizational chart might be a good place to start, will she lose points for organization and structure?

And that's the easy part. When I edit my own work, I am brutal. I don't worry about hurting my own feelings or maintaining my own self-esteem. A finished product that is tightly written with good voice will boost my self-esteem more than any darlings on the page that ought to be killed off because they aren't blooming where I have planted them.

But brutality has no place in parenting, let alone in the editing process that is inevitably in its final stages twelve hours before the finished product is due.

And so the tap dancing begins. I wield a pencil instead of a pen because if I cover the page with "suggestions" (as I do with my own work), I can erase the evidence if it mounts to painful heights. I choose my battles, letting some things stand in the name of voice and individuality, stubbornness -- some things I just know she won't change -- and yes, self-esteem.
As I begin to back out of the minefield, the second guessing begins. If I let some things stand, will her teacher do the same? Or will my daughter get her paper back covered in the ink I saved, then come home wondering why I didn't tell her to fix those things? I am, after all, a writer.

Tap dancing barefoot through a minefield of essays.