I've been re-reading Patti Smith's Just Kids, a memoir about her early years in New York when she and Robert Mapplethorpe were growing into a sense of themselves as artists. The insecurity of that process strikes a chord with me-the idea of not being sure who you are or where you are headed. We don't always know where our choices will lead us--but that shouldn't lead us to entropy, should it?  The memoir reminds me that art often comes from doubt, that the artist wills herself into existence.

Life is so unpredictable. We are capable of transformation at any moment. I love this passage from a Mary Oliver poem, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Sometimes, we assign questions like that to the young. . . but I've been thinking about how--no matter what age we are--that question still applies. We still have choices about what we will do with the rest of our lives, no matter how many years remain.

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So . . . I clearly haven't been blogging much over the last few months. Well, really over the last year. Here's the thing: I've been writing a lot, just not here.

Blogging was important to me for a number of years. It was a way for me to develop a positive relationship to writing after really not being a confident writer for a number of years. It was a first step towards a surprising progression to where I am now. First of all, I have embraced an identity as a writer. I really enjoy writing, not all the time, not every day, but when I feel like it. . . . and I feel like it more and more . . . I've come to realize that I write for me--and if it gets published, that's just a bonus. A bonus I love, but a bonus nonetheless.

So this summer, I've been researching a project that I'm deeply interested in. I traveled to Baltimore and New York to RESEARCH, of all things. Yeah, I loved seeing friends and two cities I love, but it was a trip devoted to deeply satisfying work. I discovered things that I don't think many people today know. It was exhilarating and exciting, and I wish I could go to Annapolis tomorrow and Boston too (though I'll be there in November).

Last week, I went to Lake Tahoe to meet a friend for a Writing Retreat. She was really dedicated--wrote for most of the day compared to my few hours a day. But, wow, I loved what I was doing. I'm working on a more personal essay, not what I really do generally, but it's been a good challenge to try to articulate why something is really important to me. I hope it gets published (and I think it will), but if it doesn't, I've so enjoyed the process.

Today, I was talking to a friend on the phone. He told me that he envisions me as a writer, that he feels like that's my next step. Interesting since that totally fits how I've been feeling for the last few months.

I'm grateful for writing, for friends who encourage me to write, for progress, for not giving up, for having enough time to write, for so many things. As I move towards the school year, I hope I can continue to carve out writing time.

(Just an aside. My deep thanks go to Janet Stevens who drove me all over Baltimore. I owe you.)

A year ago, I joined a Facebook group for people who agreed to read 110 books during 2011. Then, I did the math and realized that there was no way I could accomplish that goal so I quickly left the group. Still, I decided that I wanted to step up my commitment to reading, so I've spent the last year reading much more than I normally do. Because much of the time I read on the treadmill, I didn't read a lot of heavy books, but I have still managed to complete 54 books this past year--and since I'm in the middle of three other books, there's a chance that I'll add to that list before the year's end.

Some of the books have been forgettable; others keep coming back to me. I had purchased Richard Flanagan's Wanting a long time ago but had never read it. It isn't the type of book that I'm usually drawn to, but I find myself thinking about it occasionally and wishing that one of my friends had also read it. The novel combines several story lines: an aboriginal girl in what is now Tasmania, the British colonizer John Franklin who first takes care of and eventually destroys her, and Charles Dickens who creates a play about Franklin's disastrous trip to the Arctic. It's a meditation on desire and colonization--and the destruction that we can leave in our wake.

Another book that I've recommended to several people is Annia Ciezadlo's Day of Honey. Ciezadlo and her husband are journalists who spent several years in Iraq and Lebanon after 9/11. While there, she became obsessed with discovering local food traditions and their origins--so her account of being in the midst of the Iraq war includes recipes and stories about food.

I also really enjoyed Henrietta Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the story of the African American woman whose cells, now labeled HeLa, are used in scientific research all over the world. However, her cells were taken without her informed consent and her family didn't even know about let alone benefit from their sale. Not one to read a lot of scientific work, I was still fascinated by this story.

I look forward to another year of reading. For now, here are my favorite ten books of the year (in the order that I read them):

Richard Flanagan, Wanting

Jim Burke, What's the Big Idea?

Annia Ciezadlo, Day of Honey

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Patti Smith, Just Kids

Dorothy Wickenden, Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake

Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers

Philip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice

Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table

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Lately, because of something that happened to a former colleague, I've been thinking a great deal about the tragedies that are too much a part of life. Each time I've considered blogging about this, I've found myself absolutely unable to do so. Oddly, the fact that it's the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is the only thing that has enabled me to attempt this blog entry; I started writing thinking I was going to blog about something more distant, but ended up tackling something that, in all honesty, I still don't feel able to adequately discuss.

Although I try to look at all the positive things that happen in the world, sometimes the flip side, the side where people are cruel and dangerous and commit unspeakable acts, can't be ignored. During the first week after Jen's death, I felt this need to understand how her ex-boyfriend could ever do such a thing to someone he supposedly loved. I kept wanting a newspaper to publish a long article about who this person was and how his life had led him to such a horrible act. No such article has been published yet. I spent last weekend in San Francisco and forced myself to stop scanning internet news sites to find out more about Jen's murder. I also thought a lot about this need for an explanation--and realized that I probably wouldn't ever understand how this man could do what he did . . . no newspaper article could ever account for how someone could take the life of another.

So I'm left in mourning over the ugliness that human beings can perpetrate. I'm not celebrating Jen's life here--that would resonate too much of closure and I feel like she should still be alive making a difference in the lives of those she encounters. I'm also not typing the name of the man who killed her--I'm too angry about the fact that their names will be linked in almost any story written about Jen. There's no happy ending to this story, only sadness for a life which ended too early, too violently, and too undeservedly.

This morning, my friend Doug posted an article on Facebook--it was intended for our mutual friend Esther, a native of the Netherlands, who just returned from spending a month there. The article, "The Dutch Way: Bicycles and Fresh Bread," discusses differences between American and Dutch culture, emphasizing how respect for bicycles and bicyclists are inherent in such everyday practices as how one opens a car door (by reaching across the body with one's right hand, which also allows the driver to look behind before opening the door).

The article uses the phrase in my title, "a preference for simplicity," to point out the deeply embedded cultural differences between the U.S. and the Netherlands. It made me ponder what my life would look like if I tried to shift my everyday practices towards simplicity. Since the article uses food and transportation as its basis, these are also the areas of my life that I'm considering. In the area of food, I tend not to cook--I buy a lot of prepared foods which involve too much packaging. This is an area in which even a little change would have a lot of impact. Right now, I'm cooking more because I have more time--so I need to think about how I can continue this practice when my life gets more stressful. I do have an herb garden and some sorrel growing in pots in my backyard--and there are plans in the works to get some raised beds in my yard.

As for transportation, although I don't even have a bike anymore, I think I do okay with this. In fact, I blogged about this same issue a few years ago and have made some changes in my life. I drive a Prius, I tend to run errands in groups (i.e., go to the grocery store after my gym workout and group my visits to one geographical location), I try to work at home when I can, I'm one of the few people in Fresno who walks from one store to the next in the outdoor malls instead of driving, and I really like walking when I can. I'm sure there are still small improvements I could make, though. I'm going to have to think about that--and about what other areas of my life could be shifted towards simplicity.

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This entry was originally posted on The Icing.

One of the things we don’t talk about enough as teachers is how much fun (yes, I mean it, fun) it is to prepare for a new class. Just before the holidays, my department chair asked me to teach a class in an entirely new area for me since one of my colleagues and friends will be out on maternity leave this semester (congratulations, Ginny!). Because I had so much grading and grant writing to do, it has taken me awhile to get to class preparation. I conferenced with Ginny getting her advice on how to teach the class, I ordered books, and otherwise gathered materials. But it wasn’t until last week while I was on vacation that I was able to really start reading the materials.

So, yes, I was on vacation in Mexico and I read a lot–I read when I was stuck in airports with long layovers. I’d read in the morning when I woke up and wasn’t ready to go out for breakfast yet. I’d read at night when I returned to the hotel tired after a long day of doing what tourists do. I even took my textbook down to the zocalo (in Oaxaca) one night and read while I ate dinner on an outdoor patio. And you know, the readings were deeply engaging, interesting, and otherwise enjoyable.

The class that I’ve been asked to teach is Literacy Studies. Although much of what I do in relation to English education is devoted to how to teach reading comprehension, writing, and literary analysis in secondary classrooms, Literacy Studies is more focused on the effects of literacy in people’s every day lives. This morning, I’ve been reading essays about the history of standards-based education–and how the discipline of English/Language Arts and the basis for standards are antithetical. I’ve also been reading about how we impose certain expectations about school engagement on adolescents without questioning whether those frameworks are accurate or not–and about the ways that adolescents will assume certain attitudes about school because they think that is what is expected of them. I’m learning about the difference between the autonomous model of literacy vs. the ideological model.

As I read, I take notes on post-its (because one of the books is borrowed from Ginny). My mind keeps making interesting connections. I want to send one article to the Writing Project listserv to see what teachers think about it. I am refining what assignments (both writing projects and oral presentations) I want my students to do. I’m thinking about the questions that will frame how I organize my class. I’m trying to come up with ways to make the material accessible to undergraduates. I still have about a half a book left to read, but I’m starting to feel a lot more comfortable about this subject area–and I’m really looking forward to discovering what my students will think of the ideas in these texts.

I’m excited to teach the class–I just hope I can figure out how to get my students excited about this content, as well. Teaching is an intellectual exercise–which is one of the reasons that I love my profession so much.

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I know, I know. I've gone totally AWOL over the last month. What can I say except that I've been really busy and productive in other ways.

For now, let me fill in the gaps briefly:

Life is an adventure.

Teaching is a really satisfying career.

Diigo and all the other techie stuff I've been learning about rock.

Ask me to tell you a story--that's what I'm working on right now.

That will have to do for now. Two more days of teaching. Big projects to grade. I'll be back when I'm either done with grading . . . or when I'm avoiding grading. 😉

Yesterday in my Methods class, we focused on teaching revision strategies. I went to the old classic, Barry Lane's After the End which has great ideas about how to teach revision. After skimming the book, I decided to model a specific strategy for my students, one that Lane calls "Growing Leads." I told my students the following "story":

I have a really interesting story to tell you. It's a story about betrayal and loss. This is it. It happened when I was little and it was a really sad day. My brother had a shovel. And then my other brother was punished by my parents. Any questions?

My students reacted almost immediately, asking a variety of questions which I wrote down on the white board. You can probably imagine some of the questions they asked, everything from "What were your brothers' names?" to "Why was your brother punished?" After we had covered the white board with questions, I went through each, giving an answer using complete sentences. Soon, my students had a good idea of the real story . . .

One day my parents were having a yard sale. They had to run some errands and they left my teenaged brother Ted in charge. My younger brother Jim decided to go with them, but before he left, he looked at my brother Ted and said "Don't sell my little red shovel." A while later, someone was poking around the yard, somehow saw Jim's shovel, and wanted to buy it--and Ted, being the good capitalist that he is, happily made the sale. You can imagine Jim's despair when he returned and his shovel was gone.

After I had answered my students questions, I talked with them about how each complete sentence could be a lead to my story--I asked them to choose which ones they thought would be particularly effective. Then, I asked the students to divide into pairs and try this strategy with their own writing (I had asked them to do a freewrite at the beginning of class about how they spent their Halloween). As the students shared their freewrites and asked each other questions, the noise level was higher than it had ever been in my class.

After they had gone through the process themselves, we talked about how this activity would encourage students to be willing to revise their work--they would see how many different possibilities there were, at least for the lead.

My students loved this activity.

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In response to the California budget crisis, CSU faculty voted to accept furloughs this academic year that would result in about a 10% cut to our pay. As expected, the CSU administration has failed to demonstrate that our furloughs have actually saved jobs. In fact, from what we've heard, next semester there will be even more layoffs, and the administration is talking yet again about raising tuition. From my vantage point, it looks like furloughs have not accomplished the goal of saving faculty and classes.

These furloughs have, however, changed my relationship with my job.

First, a confession. I'm a (recovering?) workaholic. For my first three years of work at Fresno State, I had the equivalent of a course overload every semester so that I could work with a tutoring center at a local public school. In my years at Fresno State, I've frequently sacrificed a personal life in order to work hard for the good of my students and my institution. I've volunteered to be on many committees and to serve in leadership positions. I've done workshops at local schools and districts, most of the time not receiving any payment except the satisfaction of knowing that I'm helping schools, teachers, and students (which is a great reward in my book). My philosophy has been that I can fit it in if I really care about it.

When we submitted our furlough plans (we were allowed to choose some of the days we would be on furlough), we also committed not to work on those days. For the first time in my academic career, I've had work-free days . . . because, yes, I have almost always worked on weekends. I'm still adjusting to this concept since furloughs happen in the midst of a busy work week. But I'm also learning to fill those days with socializing, yard/house work, my own personal projects, and exploration of new terrains and interests.

The result has been a surprise to me. Finally, I actually feel like I have a satisfying balance between a personal life and work. Moreover, furloughs have made me rethink what I do on weekends. I know I can't have my weekends be completely work-free, but I'm going to do my best to at least avoid grading on the weekends. And I'm feeling much less guilty about weekend time spent on things other that work. I think the furlough system is curing me of my workaholic ways--and many of my colleagues are experiencing something very similar.

Furloughs aren't fair to students who are paying higher and higher tuition, only to be forced to stay in school longer because they can't get into the classes they need. They aren't fair to faculty who have devoted their working lives to providing a good education and working for the good of the university. I will continue to spend 90% of my working life doing the best job that I possibly can. But for the 10% that constitutes my furlough days? The doctor is out.

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This entry was originally posted on The Icing:

So . . . I’m really enjoying my classes this semester. It feels good to be back teaching the same group of students over a period of a few months–I missed that in Norway when I’d have students for just a day. There’s just so much more I can do with students when I get to know them and what they need.

I have two classes this semester. I’m teaching a Popular Fiction class for the first time. This is only the second G.E. class I’ve taught in a regular semester–and because I’ve never taught the class before, I’m still figuring out what I want my students to leave the class with. I know I want them to enjoy reading, to be willing to make forays into unfamiliar genres, to make competent and informed analyses of literature. I think we’re doing that so far, but it also seems like I should be giving them a deeper understanding of genre and the history of literary production. I’m still working on these. So far, we’ve read a detective novel, In the Woods by Tana French, and we’re in the midst of reading a Western, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage.

The students were really engaged with the French novel which has an unreliable narrator who is also a detective. We had great discussions about whether we could trust anything this narrator told us. And the ending of the novel lent itself to discussing the expectations of the detective novel genre and the ways that French subverted those expectations. It totally worked–and I’d love to teach this novel again.

The students aren’t quite as excited about Zane Grey–but they are willing to explore and analyze the novel. They’ve asked good questions and excelled at character analysis. I think this novel will work all right–and it’s a great example of an early novel which set the path for future Westerns. I’m loving these students and their willingness to participate and try out new genres.

The second class I’m teaching is one I’ve taught for years: English Teaching Methods and Materials. The majority of the students in this class are doing the first part of their student teaching, so they are motivated to learn how to teach English/Language Arts. The class this semester is enthusiastic, funny, a little whiny (students in this class always are, so that’s okay), and intelligent. I love teaching this class. Today, I switched gears in the middle of class because a student said that she wasn’t really getting the chance to try out the ideas she was learning in this class. Because we were discussing an article by Marty Nystrand on dialogic discussion, I was planning to do a Stop and React activity with a chapter from Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street–and I realized that I could have some of my students lead the discussion. I explained the activity to them, then asked for volunteers. With the first two students I had to intervene frequently to help them frame appropriate questions (they wanted to be much more directive than they should in this activity), but students quickly got the hang of how to use more open ended questions. I had to bite my tongue a lot because there were things I would have asked or ways I would have responded–still, I liked that this activity gave my students an opportunity to practice how to create a more dialogic classroom. And afterwards, a student waited quite awhile (lots of students asking questions) to tell me how much he had learned from the class and expressed the hope that we’d do this type of thing again.

Today, it felt so good to be a teacher. I love my job.