Jul 18, 2013

Writing & Educating: A study of Philosophy

My good friend, fellow educator, writer and partner in crime, Gage, wrote a piece for the Boston Teacher Residency blog recently. His writing got me thinking about writing and teaching... and teaching writing and I came to realize that even though it was unstated, I have a well developed philosophy on how to teach writing to others. Simply put, learn by doing. Because writing is a process, it must be done constantly and repetitively. Sure, there are rules to learn that guide writers and show them how to do it, but to really and truly write, one must engage in the process. Sometimes, however, as a teacher, we must show students the process so they understand it.

I work in a writing center at a Texas college. One of the core philosophies of the writing center is to make the students better by not editing their papers and essays, but showing them how to improve their work by focusing on a specific aspect that can be strengthened. By doing this, the writing center makes students better writers because we don't take their work and make it better ourselves, we show them how to make their own work better through focused lessons on singular topics.

While I agree with this teaching idea, I disagree with its implementation. We writing center Writing Specialists are not to write or mark up students' papers when we work with them. The thought here is that if we do that, then students will just make the corrections we highlight and not actually learn from their mistakes. Maybe in some cases this is true but it doesn't give our students very much credit for trying to learn. I have yet to meet a student who's only aim was to have a writing specialist quickly read their paper and make some cursory corrections. Every student I've worked with has asked me to help them with something specific that they can learn and apply to their current  writing as well as their writing in the future. These students are eager to learn from us to make themselves better. furthermore, this awkward implementation gives us educators even less credit.

None of us work in the writing center to just glance at students' papers, do some superficial corrections and send the student packing. We are passionate about writing and it shows when a specialist stays a little later than they have to to make sure a student understands a concept, or when faced with multiple students, a specialist attempts to help them all. Whether we write on a students' paper is irrelevant when compared to these gestures. Moreover, sometimes writing on their paper is the best and easiest way to illustrate a mistake and how to fix it moving forward. It is frustrating when a rule hampers the furthering of knowledge.

Overall, I very much enjoy working in this writing center. I don't agree with that particular policy but it hasn't stopped me from getting my message to students. Still, it would be nice if my philosophy on writing and teaching matched up with that of the place I work.

Jun 17, 2013

Online Bios, Hate 'em!

I don't like writing mini-biographies, the kind used on websites to briefly introduce people to faculty or staff. They are terribly short and require you to cram some aspect of your life into 150 words or less. They are a pain to do and it annoys me just thinking about them. How can I distill my academic and work experience into such a small space? Here's one I wrote recently:

Rick is one of the newest members of the Ink Spot. He has taught English and writing at both the high school and collegiate level and is excited to bring his expertise to Mountain View. Rick has a Master of Science degree in Journalism from Boston University and a B.A. in English Language & Literature from the University of Chicago. Rick has worked as a freelance journalist for both online and weekly publications as well as a corporate communications writer. Most recently, he has worked as a substitute teacher for 6th-12th grade in the Little Elm ISD. Rick looks forward to bringing East Coast wit and Midwest charm to the Ink Spot.

Education, check. Work history, check. But does the bio really give a reader insight into who I am? No. I always feel like I'm missing some crucial aspect which is never found out until the bio is "live" on the website and effectively unchangeable. Here is another one, written for my Phreelance Writers blog:

Dash is a native of Dorchester who, despite popular belief and lack of an accent, actually grew up in Boston. He left Beantown for the bright lights and big times of Chicago and the University of Chicago. In 2007, he returned to Boston and met Gage through a tutoring job at the West Roxbury Education Complex working with high school students to improve their writing. Dash recently completed a Master’s degree in journalism at Boston University and freelanced for the Bay State Banner and UMass-Boston.

I feel like my personality comes through better on this one but it still remains informative in terms of my education. It even gives a sense of where I've lived in the past. But even this doesn't truly represent me, what I like and what I'm about beyond writing. Here's one more for you:

Rick spent his early years training in the Kung Fu style of Xiao Hong Quan at the Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng City, China. At eighteen, he left China for America and undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago. After receiving BAs in English and Ancient Greek and Roman History, Rick traveled the world, getting into adventures across Europe, Northern Africa and much of Asia. In 2007 he decided three years of the "wandering warrior" life was enough. Settling on a career in journalism, Rick was accepted to Boston University's Journalism program. He is currently a first year graduate student focusing on sports journalism. Rick enjoys telling stories from his "wandering warrior" days. Ask him about his time in Thailand. On second thought, maybe you shouldn't.

This is, by far, my favorite bio I've written and had online. Elements of it are completely false, but presented in such a way that they are believable. When taken as a whole, and mixed with truthful facts about my life, who's to say the bio isn't completely true? Did I grow up in Boston or a Shaolin temple in Dengfeng City, China? If asked, I'd probably just shrug my shoulders and smile. 

While I'm not a fan, I understand the necessity of these bios. As a writer, I can bang them out quickly but it's not my favorite type of writing. Still, finding something within the writing process of the bio can make it less painful. Besides, we all know you really want to ask me about my time in Thailand!

May 14, 2013

Constrained Writing

Sentences without verbs, impossible, right? Maybe not. So far, not one in this post. Yet, comprehension. How? Easy, language as a vehicle of knowledge. Clear meaning almost lyric in form just not convenient. Why? Good question. Michel Dansel, a French Doctor of Letters, an intelligent man. His passion against verbs, those "invaders, dictators, usurpers of our literature," notable especially in Le Train de Nulle Part, by Dansel, a book without verbs.

This type of writing, Constrained Writing, pure in format without the clutter of verbs. Dansel's belief, the clearest kind of writing. My opinion, not so much. Lyrical and poetic quality? Yes. Interesting thought exercise, of course. Useful? No, not beyond academically. A quotation from my friend, Veronica: "Verbs... So great! A post without verbs, not easy, nay, near impossible. Only nouns and adjectives, no spice without verbs!"

May 13, 2013

Jeff Bliss: Educational Martyr or Grandstanding Punk

Last week was pretty sweet for viral videos and auto-tuned quotes. Charles Ramsey generated enough content on his own to capitalize on a potential McDonald's spokesperson deal and he had not one, but two songs made from his explanation of what happened to him while eating a Big Mac. However, I think the rant by Jeff Bliss, sophomore at Duncanville HS here in TX, is just as interesting but for different reasons. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, check out the video below and the story on The Huffington Post. I'll wait... Yeah, so that went down. Bliss' rant begs the question: Is he an educational martyr, chaffing under the restraints and apparent laziness of his teacher who is so disengaged from her job that she refuses to interact with them? Or, is he a grandstanding punk who knows he will be filmed and put online with potential for viral stardom?

It's tricky. As an educator who has dealt with a fair share of lazy teachers, I understand his frustration. Handouts and packets should be supplemental material used to enhance a lesson plan. They shouldn't be the lesson plan. In this regard, Bliss is correct to call out his teacher. She is not teaching. As a student who dropped out of school but has returned, Bliss is in a position where he needs his classroom time to count and be as productive as possible. As a teacher, she has to facilitate that.

However, towards the end of the video it is obvious he is making a scene. It is difficult to tell when he realizes he's being filmed but there is a moment when his theatrics increase and his initial message becomes less important. Were his only concerns the lack of teaching taking place in the classroom he would have left after "This is my country's future and my education." As good a line as any as a finisher. But he doesn't stop there, he goes on because he has the attention of the class and the camera.

So, dear reader, what do you think? is Bliss taking a stand for what should be done or is he subverting the teacher's control of the class and learning environment just to shine a spotlight on himself? Let me know in the comments.

Apr 27, 2013


I'm trying to stretch. My fingers flex, my palm contorts for better grip. Forearm is sore, shoulder tight, must drop pen and shake out hand. My mind aches. My writing has atrophied. I've always thought of writing as a muscle, something to be used and worked out with regularity to maintain flexibility and strength.

I've spent years toning this muscle through active use and teaching others how to use their own muscle. I thought, for a while, that teaching others was enough of a workout to maintain my own levels of writing fitness. I was wrong. It's been almost a year since my last entry and in the time between much has happened. Perhaps too much. Suffice to say, there was plenty on which to comment which leaves me with no excuse for such a long absence. I'm putting myself in rehab, writing rehab. Bear with me as I work my way back to full strength. The skill is present, I just need to work on my endurance.