Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ups and downs

I'm a little disappointed.  I've been grading short essays (2-3 pages) and quizzes for the last two weeks.  It was my students' first essay and second quiz. 

Class #1 - quiz average went from 77% on the first one up to 81% on the second one, and their paper average was 83%.  

Class #2 - quiz average went from 76% to 87%, and the paper average was 81%.  

Class #3 - quiz average went DOWN from 78% to 69%, and the paper average was only 76%.  

What's frustrating is that that third class is my favorite.  I love talking with them, they try really hard, and they are just fun to teach, in general.  And yet their grades are going down.... And I'm not terribly sure what to do for them. *sigh*

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My (former) kids

When I was in high school, I had to do a certain amount of volunteer work for school. I think, as an honor's student, I needed to do something like 30 hours per semester. It was rarely a problem to reach the magic number, especially all the things I did through my church. But I wanted to do more than just the church events, and so I decided to talk with the County of Parks and Recreation and see if there were any possibilities there. 

It turned out that they had a program for autistic children ages 7-12 that met for about an hour and a half every Monday (or Tuesday) night. The idea was to give parents of autistic children a night off and, through games and crafts, work on the kids' motor skills, communication skills, and direction-following. I knew next to nothing about autism at that point, but I quickly learned a lot. I even read an autobiography of an autistic woman (Donna Williams, Nobody Nowhere: the Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic, 1994) and was thoroughly amazed at her experiences. I interviewed with two people - who were, I'm sure, a bit wary at first that a 14-year old could handle it all. But they quickly asked me to come on board. For three years, until the county eliminated the program, I went every week to help my kids.  

The kids would arrive around 6 p.m., and we'd immediately do some physical activity. We typically met at a school gym, and so they had balls and jump ropes, and we would do a lot of running/walking laps (to try to get them both active and following directions). After perhaps 30 minutes, we would then take a little break and give some snacks. Once snack time was over (usually 15-20 minutes later), we then did arts & crafts until their parents all arrived.  

As the only worker under the age of about 35, I was designated the one to catch the "runners." My favorite runner was a 10 or 11-year old girl named Mary. Mary was tall, almost as tall as me, and skinny. She couldn't have weighed more than about 70 lbs. She was nonverbal, though I'm convinced she understood more than she let on. Her favorite thing to do - anytime, anywhere - was run. We would try to sit down for snacks, and off she'd go. And I'd go after her, help her slow down, and try my best to bring her back to the table to join the others.  

Mary was just one of the kids who still have a special place in my heart. I don't remember all of their names anymore, though their faces are in my heart. One girl was very tall for her age - a good 4 or 5 inches taller than I was at the time - and decently verbal. The thing I remember most is taking her to the bathroom. She could do everything herself, but someone always had to take her. I remember that she would constantly be shaking her hands while we walked, and would talk the *entire* time. I would try so hard not to laugh while she was in the stall, because she would be telling me all sorts of things I didn't need to know. :-)  

Then there was this little red-head. I can see him, but his name is lost among a sea of students. He came my third year (the last year the program existed), and, boy did he make an entrance! Mary's sister often accompanied her to the program to give her parents a real night off. She was perhaps a year older than Mary, and a very pretty little girl. This little kid - and I do mean "little"; he was no more than 3 ft tall at the time - walked up to her and gave what we soon learned was his constant pick-up line: "You're pre--tty. Are you a Chris-tian?" (The "pretty" and "christian" were both drawn out and emphasized greatly.) The line changed every so often - "Your mommy's pretty. Is she a christian?" or "Mary's pretty. Is she a christian?" We laughed so much with this kid. His parents were, of course, mortified that their teeny 10-year old son was hitting on every female in sight. :-p  

There were others, of course. One boy who was moderately verbal; he could talk about his day, but he couldn't stand to be touched. He seemed to be in his own world through most of the day. Until we got to arts and crafts. This kid was an amazing artist. He could create the most amazing pictures, his crafts were always absolutely perfect (with no help from us), and he would sit and draw with perfect concentration until we made him leave with his parents. 

My favorite, though, and the one I loved most dearly, was a tiny big man named Artie. He was the oldest of the kids there - turning 13 or 14 by the time the program ended - and was completely nonverbal. He came up perhaps to my shoulders, and was at least twice my weight. He made two basic sounds - a siren noise when he was upset or angry or didn't want to do something, and he hummed when he was content or happy or enjoying himself. Because of his weight, he was our worst runner. Sometimes, when I was tired of running after Mary, I would slow down and walk with my arms around Artie. While we made our laps, I would talk to him the whole time. The other workers laughed that I talked to him like a regular kid. I supposed that I was too naive to treat them any differently from any other kids. I told Artie how much his parents loved him, how much I loved him, how much God loved him. Despite my coworkers' laughter, I talked to Artie every week, no matter what. After two and a half years of talking to Artie, one night something great happened. Everyone assumed that because he couldn't speak, he probably didn't understand much of what we said. So this night, he was playing somewhat dangerously on one of the posts that would hold up a volleyball net. He was walking in circles on the base, making it tilt dangerously. I yelled his name, said no, and then firmly took him by the hand and led him to the other side of the gym and gave him a ball to play with. He went straight back to the post. I said "no" again, and led him away again. He returned once again. This time I yelled his name, and he turned, looked straight at me, and gave this evil "heh heh heh" and went back to swinging. Everyone was shocked, because it was the first time he had ever shown that he understood exactly what it was that we didn't want him to do. Half laughing, half being firm, I told him no, told him he was a little stinker, and that now I was on to him, and made him leave the post a final time. I have never forgotten that little laugh.

I was watching a program tonight that included 5 autistic children (or at least autistic spectrum children), and thought, once again, about my former kids. It's been a long time now, and so those children are in their early 20s now. They'll always be in my heart. No matter how many students I have over the years, I think my heart will always be with that group of kids. I wish I had the time to work with kids like that now.

Maybe not right now, but hopefully soon I'll be able to give some of my time to those children. Remember, all children are special and deserve your best love. Some just tug at your heart strings a little more.

Here's to my kids.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Just a quick thought: In watching the presidential debates, I wonder if listening to political crap-speak is where my students learned the art of writing entire essays that say absolutely nothing.  

The only problem is that they admit to me that they don't watch debates, don't read or watch the news, and don't pay attention to what's going on in the world (outside of facebook, myspace, and twitter, at least).  

After the debate, I need to get back to my students' papers.  I'm almost done reading and commenting on one of my three classes' papers.  So far, I am not impressed. 

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Slight detour

I'm so excited, I have to take a small detour from writing about teaching/grad school.  This morning I completed my first 20-mile bike ride!  

It took me 1 hour 33 minutes, my average speed was 12.9 mph.  

I'm so happy!!! 

Friday, October 3, 2008

Representing yourself

Sorry for the long post, but the migraine medicine is keeping me up against my will tonight.

After a bit more angst, I completely rewrote my personal statement for the Fulbright, slightly revised a few parts of my proposal, and turned the whole thing in today - one day earlier than the if-at-all-possible deadline, and 11 days earlier than the absolutely-last-day-possible deadline.  I still have to translate both items into Spanish - and if at all possible I want to have those done by next Wednesday.  I hope to have it done by Monday night or Tuesday morning, get a few native speakers to read over them and make sure I'm saying what I think I'm saying, make revisions, and turn it in on Wednesday. 

I probably am most concerned about the personal statement.  To be blunt, I had no idea what I was doing with it.  Last year, I was told to explain why I study Spain, why I love it, how I got there.  So I traced my journey to studying Spain through high school, college, and graduate school.  The only response I got - show us more about you loving Spain.  

So this year I wrote a new personal statement and tried to show my passion for the people, place, and histories.  I spent much more time talking about my time in Madrid in 2006.  The response I got - it's too "intellectual" and we want more of your biography.  

So I went back to the drawing board.  I started getting frustrated because people kept talking about sharing your story of how you overcame things to get where you are.  But, really, I don't have a come-from-behind story.  I'm more the tortoise in the story - slow and steady, moving up little by little, keeping an eye on the goal.  I don't have a bad home life - my parents are still together after 35 years, my grandparents have been married for 65 years, and my other grandparents were married 52 years before my grandfather passed away.  I always was a good student, had no learning disabilities, didn't live in bad neighborhoods, etc.  

I talked with one of the only people in the office who had applied for this grant, and we talked about how they want a little bit of everything: your family background, interests, intellectual biography, career goals, how you'll be an ambassador, etc.  She said something that I think helped lead to a breakthrough: "Remember that you are writing for the National Committee and the nation's committee.  They don't have the benefit of meeting you in person, so you need to try to get across who you are, your personality."  

With that piece of advice in mind, I decided to just write a brand new statement.  I thought about who I am as a person - if someone hadn't met me, how could I try to help them see *me*?  I came up with a few things: my family, my faith, my travels, my studies, and teaching.  So this time, I started out talking about my parents - their dedication and hard work, my dad's love of history, our history-based vacations (of which there were *many,* trust me!), and my dad quizzing me before history tests (and telling me more stories to make things more exciting).  Then I talked about my parents' encouragement for my brother and me to explore the world and give back - primarily in the US through our church and through missions work abroad.  To try to get in some of my "outside interests," I talked about how my fascination with history began infiltrating everything - so much so that I was even slightly distracted by the living history around me while singing in St. Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh, or in the abbey on Iona, or at Stirling Castle - and so I chose to study history.  I actually only discussed why I study Spain in a few sentences, and then spoke about my goals as an educator, trying to explain why the Fulbright is vital for me as both a student and a teacher.  

I showed it to my advisor, who responded quite positively.  He thought that it did a good job of representing me as a person and not just a scholar.  Of course, I won't know until the last day in January if it gets me past the first round.  But I think my colleague's advice is the best I've ever received.  Hopefully it will serve me, and others, well. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


A note to all students: 

If you want a surefire way to confound, annoy, and generally anger your professors, there is only one thing to do: don't listen.  

I am constantly perplexed by my students.  Three weeks ago, I had to announce a major change on an assignment to my students.  The professor's syllabus was quite vague and ambiguous, and so the TAs decided to make the assignment much more focused.  We narrowed down their choice to one particular primary source and created a specific question they should answer for their essay (rather than trying to formulate an essay based on random discussion questions in their book).  I announced this change.  I wrote it on the board.  I reminded them the following week.  

Their paper is due in 48 hours, and I have received no less than twelve emails from students in the last 20 hours asking what they are supposed to be doing.  

Perhaps this is my own fatigue coming out, or my frustration that I am spending at least two days per week trying to figure out how to teach them what they need to know, but I do not want to answer these emails.  Here's how I see it: 
1) I gave them all the information they needed weeks ago. I write it out on the board, explained the entire thing, and specifically told them they should write this down.

2) They have had 19 days to ask about the paper if they did not do #1. 

3) Whether or not they act like it, they are adults.  It is their responsibility to obtain the information they need, and asking the instructor 48 hours before the paper is due - especially when I *know* that every one of these students was in class when I gave them the question - seems irresponsible.  How do I know that they were in class? Because the day that I explained all of this was the day they took their first quiz, and only 1 student still enrolled in my classes did not take the quiz.  

All of these combine with my own exhaustion to make me a not terribly accommodating professor this week.  They need to learn some responsibility, and they need to learn it fast. 

Speaking of these emails, I really wish someone would teach their kids how to write formal emails.  Did no one ever teach them that you should probably not write your professors using the same (bad) grammar as when you text your friends?  Some key faux pas in these latest emails: 

1) No salutation and no signature - which implies, respectively, that the student does not know either who I am or who they, themselves, are.  I actually told one student that I generally will not answer an email if I do not know to whom I am writing. 

2) The use of all lowercase letters

3) Confusing "your" and "you're"; "there" and "their"; and "cite" and "site"

Argh.  So my suggestions to students: Listen.  Pay attention.  Proofread.  Stop writing to me as if you are writing a text message or instant message.  And if you find yourself a day before a major assignment is due and you have not paid one bit of attention to me all semester, do not expect me to bend over backwards to tell you everything you need to know.  Be an adult; be responsible!