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.
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.
I've just completed my last presentations of the year at Byåsen VGS in Trondheim. Maria, a teacher who is originally from California, organized my trip. The teachers asked me to do five of my eight presentations--so this visit allowed me to revisit many of the presentations I've done this year.
The U.S. Teens Speak has been by far the most enjoyable presentation for both me and the students, I think. The students always get a kick out of my sarcastic question at the beginning, "Has anyone in the room ever seen an American T.V. show?" Of course, every one of them has. The long version of the presentation includes videos about fashion, transportation, cultural diversity, facing challenges, and everyday experiences. Most of the students really feel a connection with the Fresno High students, I think because their videos illustrate what they do every day: go to school, hang out with friends, get distracted from doing their homework. My favorite of the Fresno High videos was created by Axel Fipps and Matthew Mungia, who use humor in their depiction. Every time I show these videos, I think about the students who created them--who probably have forgotten doing so and who would be amazed at the large number of Norwegian students who have watched and discussed their creations. Their teacher Delaine Zody is going to invite me to talk to her students (the ones who made these videos) next year when I return. I can't wait!
I have also really enjoyed my literature presentations. Thanks to the help of Gry Engeseth at Framnes Kristne Vidergående, I found the perfect texts to use in my literature of immigration presentation. Throughout the year, I started with a Stop and React activity using Sandra Cisneros' "Geraldo No Last Name." The students almost always actively participate in talking about this story. Then, I divide the students into groups to talk about three poems: Janice Mirikitani's "Recipe," and the two poems that Gry found for me: "Immigrants" by Pat Mora and "Education" by Serafin Syquia. All three of these poems work really well; the students find them easy to understand, but still quite meaningful. Each group shares their poem with the class, and then we enjoy listening to Tato Laviera recite his poem "AmeRican." I like ending with this poem because it's so positive about ethnic diversity.
The second literature presentation I do is on American Indian Literature. When I presented in Karasjok, the teacher warned me that the students' English skills weren't very strong, so I created a presentation using a lot of visual elements. I enjoyed this version of the presentation so much, that I've stuck to it ever since. In this presentation, we talk about 2-3 written texts: a Dine trickster story, a poem by Luci Tapahanso, and a poem by Sherman Alexie. I also try to help students visualize contemporary Indian life by showing them videos of fancy dancing, hip hop powwow, and two clips from the movie Smoke Signals. I've incorporated controversial pieces of art like Edward Curtis's "Chief Garfield, Jicarilla," Fritz Scholder's "Indian with Beer Can" and Wayne Eagleboy's "We the People." All in all, students seem to enjoy this presentation.
During this trip, I also gave the Food in the U.S. presentation to a group of students who are studying catering and the restaurant business. Usually the vocational students have weak English skills which results in quiet presentations. Every once in awhile, there's an exception to this, though, and the students at Byåsen were definitely among the exceptions. In fact, these kids were so fun. In this presentation, we start by talking about fast food, which is basically what most Norwegians think of as being "American food." We also look at what was eaten at different time periods by different groups of people. I have a section where I show video related to regional cuisine: a song about southern barbecue which still makes me laugh, a documentary about taco trucks, and a commercial about food in California that ends with a testimonial by Arnold Schwarzenegger which always surprises (and amuses) the students. The presentation ends with the students creating "recipe poems" about American food. Almost always their poems focus on fast food, even though I've tried to give them a picture of other types of American cuisine. Still, the poems are funny, and the kids love sharing them.
The last of the five presentations I did at Byåsen this week is on California Immigration and Diversity. This is a more lecture based and my least favorite presentation, so I'll spare you the details. I revised it recently because I'd gotten bored of it . . . but I've still mostly had success with it. This time around, I had some technical difficulties with the sound that translated to a rough start which I never really moved beyond. Ah, well. Most of the presentations went well, and I was able to salvage that presentation during the second half of the class which was devoted to the literature of immigration.
At the end of the day, I had Maria take a picture of me with my last group of students. They were such a good group of kids and I feel lucky to have ended on such a positive note.
I also feel incredibly lucky to have had this year in Norway. It's been such a year of growth for me, both professionally and personally. I'm glad to have experienced both success and failure this year, to have had the opportunity to revise and perfect presentations, and to have figured out how to use humor in my presentations. I've become much more comfortable presenting to large groups of students, though I still prefer talking with just one class.
As I move on to the next big thing in my life (I wonder what that will be?), I think I'll be stronger, more flexible, wiser.
One of the great things about my job is that I work with students who go on to become talented, devoted English teachers. Repeatedly, I have the strange but wonderful experience of encountering an accomplished teacher who was once my student. Shoushan was in my class just last spring, but now she's teaching 9th graders full-time. She's also a blogger--check out her blog and make a comment so that she'll be encouraged to blog more!
Tonight, Shoushan and I met at Teazer World Tea Market, an independent tea shop with a big city feel. It's a funky space with wooden ceiling fans that rotate lazily, cloth lanterns emitting a fuzzy light, and concrete floors. Tonight the walls were adorned with interesting photographs--one was a black and white photograph of a bathtub fused to the back of a rhinoceros. Strangely compelling.
I'm not a big tea drinker, but this was one of the first cold nights of the fall, perfect weather for my orange ginger mint herbal tea. I usually need a lot of honey or sugar in my tea, but this had such a nice flavor that, on John's suggestion, I didn't put in any sweetener in at all. The combination of ginger and mint created a nice tingly feeling in my mouth. Shoushan's chai reminded her of the tea she drinks at home. We were both quite pleased with our choices. One thing I like about Teazers is the friendly employees who are willing to make suggestions and guide tea novices like me. Find this guy, I think Nigel is his name. He's the one who knows the menu inside and out. John was also really helpful and entertaining with his story of working in Starbucks, living in Istanbul for a year, and returning to Fresno unable to work in a place like Starbucks again.
Shoushan already has great stories about teaching: the kids who confide in her, the student who questioned why anyone has to take "English" classes if they already speak "English," and the ways that she encourages her students to become readers. Last semester, Shoushan was the kind of student who went beyond what was assigned to explore Shelfari, create a blog, or read a book just because I mentioned it in class. She's independent, smart, fiesty, funny, and good hearted. She's a great example of how learning comes from within . . . teachers don't impart knowledge, we share what we know and hope that our students will be interested and motivated enough to explore further and deeper, internalizing concepts in their own unique ways.
Deborah Dean's Strategic Writing transformed how I think about teaching writing. I'd already become a devotee of the idea of teaching writing as decision making, i.e., helping students understand that writers make choices when they write and that those choices change the text in crucial ways. Dean's book helped me build on that idea with her emphasis on how human beings are strategic and how we can help students understand that they can be strategic when they write.
Yesterday, Debbie spoke to the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project's Summer Institute (held in conjunction with the Merced Writing Project). Her workshop emphasized that, for most students, the writing process involves creating a series of products that mark the "steps" of the writing process. As teachers, we fail to help students understand that the parts of the process are actually strategies that can be used in different writing situations. In her book and workshops, Debbie works to help teachers shift the way they and their students think about writing. She has developed a number of creative assignments that help students practice different strategies, and she asks students to reflect on how the strategies they use for one assignment can be used in other writing situations.
This approach makes so much sense to me. As teachers, we should be more concerned with helping students develop a wide variety of writing strategies that can be used outside of our classrooms and beyond the school experience. We do students a great disservice when we teach them that they can follow a series of steps that will "work" for any writing situation. Writing is too messy and complex for that to be true. Debbie's book encourages us to transform our classrooms in order to help our students become independent, successful writers.
I've been tied to the analytical essay for a long time. Semester after semester, I've assigned my students to write these kinds of essays and too often been disappointed in the results. It's rare to find a student whose insights into literature are keen, yes, but it's even more rare to find a student who can write coherently and elegantly. In my work teaching a secondary English teaching methods class, I talk with my students (prospective teachers) about making writing engaging and meaningful. Yet, in my own university classes, I've held on to the analytical essay as a marker of a kind of intelligence important to an English major.
This semester, I decided to try an experiment in an upper division English class. I gave my students the option of writing a multi-genre project that analyzed one of the texts we'd studied. In multi-genre projects, writers work in a variety of genres that they combine as a way of reporting information. One text includes a sample project in which an elementary school student uses comic strips, scripts, short stories, etc. as a way of presenting information about dinosaurs. As I thought about this type of writing in my class, I saw some exciting applications to literary analysis. For example, students could write an interview in which they made up questions about the text that the "writer" responded to. Another possibility was that they could create a script of invented classroom discussion about the text in which students had differing opinions or worked towards a deeper understanding of the text. As I prepared a prompt for this assignment, I became certain that this was a viable option to assess students' ability to do literary interpretation.
The students who chose this alternative were excited about the possibilities, as well. My sense was that they started writing much earlier than the students who went with the more traditional assignment. But one of the most striking things to me as a teacher was the quality of research that students did in order to create their multi-genre project. One student decided to write about a poem by Janice Mirikitani, whose parents were incarcerated at the Tule Lake (California) Internment Camp during World War II. Shannon went to a special collection of oral histories in our library and couldn't stop reading. She used these oral histories as a basis for a short story, one of the genres her project included. Another section included rules for interior design (from a design text) and pictures of Japanese rooms which she connected to the limitations placed on Japanese women. She also did more traditional literary research. The result was a really wonderful project that demonstrated a deep understanding of Mirikitani's poetry.
Not all the projects were as successful, but one thing was clear to me. Students cared much more about their writing when they created multi-genre texts. They took pains to come up with genres that helped them to explore their chosen text, they worked to create art and illustration to complement their writing, and they delved into the texts and supporting research with the desire to understand.
I still think traditional literary analyses hold an important place in literary studies, but I also plan to use multi-genre projects judiciously in the future.