TA Update: Collaboration is Key

On Wednesday, I taught my first lesson of the semester. Whereas last fall I was TA-ing in a freshman course, this semester I’m in a sophomore seminar. For this lesson, I worked with my fellow TA (we’re in the same class this time around) to plan about an hour’s worth of content.

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Our First Plan

Originally, when we started thinking about what we’d like to do, we planned to do a game on evaluating sources for research. We were going to create a slide deck with various sources, split the class into two teams, and run a competition. However, we thought of a few problems with this:

  • What if technology was disagreeable that day? It’d happened before.
  • What if a slide isn’t sufficient space to share enough information for students to determine a source’s value?
  • What if the students didn’t know how to evaluate sources yet?

The last question was the big issue–and it prompted our revision of our lesson plan.

Our Second Plan

We put together a lesson plan that culminated in the game we intended to run, with some exercises first to allow the students to learn how to evaluate sources–and then practice. The problem was that we still felt like something was missing, our game still faced the potential issues of technology and space allowance, and now we were running into the second half of the class.

So, we emailed the professor we’re working with this term. She didn’t mind us taking more time, but as we thought about our plans, we discovered what was missing: how to incorporate sources.

After all, that goes hand-in-hand with evaluating sources. We discussed this with the professor, and came up with a new plan.

Our Third Plan

On Monday, the professor taught APA in-text citations. This was a great lead-in to our Wednesday plans. I taught evaluating sources (using the CRAAP method), and my fellow TA taught the students how to concoct an APA reference listing.

The two lessons worked well together, and we didn’t have to worry about the concerns I listed above. Overall, planning for this took about a week, and that includes both my fellow TA and I creating handouts and reviewing each other’s. It also included addressing printing concerns.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed working on this lesson together. It was great to be able to bounce ideas back and forth, and this reiterated for me something I had already learned (but reinforcement in this is always good): Even when teaching alone, it’s a great idea to share lesson plans, handouts, readings, assignments, rubrics…every piece that makes up the puzzle that is a course.

Great things can come of brainstorming. If we’d stuck with our first plan, it might have been fun and the students would have been able to test the knowledge that they came into class with…but that didn’t involve us actually teaching.

Our second plan was better in that regard, but it still needed some more oomph to go from abstract ideas to practical application in the sense that the students will have to create an annotated bibliography before they write their research papers. Those will involve APA references and evaluating sources.

We were able to get the students involved, teach them valuable, actionable information, and tie it in to their semester-long projects–all because we collaborated.

How Starburst Saved the Day

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I’ve had the opportunity to teach a few mini-lessons in the composition class I’m observing as part of my TA program, for which I’m grateful. I’ve noticed, during those lessons, that the students are a bit sleepy. It’s not a lack of energy on my part; I’ve taught martial arts for years and I understand that students feed off an instructor’s energy. Part of the problem is that the class is at 2 pm on a Monday; another part of the problem was gray skies. And let’s be honest, not every student wants to learn about grammar and the nitty-gritty of writing.

Class During Nap Time

When I was an undergrad student, whenever I had class around two o’clock, I’d get sleepy. With a full stomach from lunch, and often having been in class as early as 8 am (which meant leaving home at 6:30 am because of traffic and parking woes), by mid-afternoon, all I wanted was a little cat nap.

It didn’t help that one of my classes scheduled at that hour was a history of world music course, and for a month we studied nocturnes. With the lights off.

The professor made it dark and played me lullabies. Sleep was inevitable.

I finally got around to asking her not to turn the lights off because I really did want to stay awake and focus on class.

So, as a TA, after observing sleepy faces in my first mini-lesson, I tried to get everyone on their feet for my second. It worked moderately well, and it was part of this past Monday’s lesson (which ended up not being mini at all–it clocked in at 50 minutes). But I knew, from my second mini-lesson, that it wasn’t going to be enough just to get them up and moving.

For one thing, they can’t really move about easily in the classroom without tripping on the furniture. I didn’t want to cause an injury.

Acknowledging the Issue

I started out the lesson with an introduction on what we’d be covering–when to cite in an MLA essay. Then I abandoned my slideshow for a moment to talk with them earnestly about the realistic challenges of class at this time slot.

“It’s your first day off the weekend,” I said. “You’ve spent the last two days working, doing homework, maybe seeing friends or traveling. I get it–you’re tired.”

Then, I talked about how hard it is to stay awake in class. I told them about my undergrad music history class and the nocturnes. I got a few smiles.

“It’s cloudy, too,” I added. “That always makes me want to close my eyes and go to sleep. And I get that some–or maybe even all–of you aren’t that excited about MLA citations.”

I don’t claim to be a mind-reader. I don’t know what they were thinking at this point, but I imagine the smiles and nods I received were in appreciation of my willingness to understand how sleepy college life can make a person.

Having graduated from my undergrad program in 2007, it’s not so long ago that I can’t recall how much some classes–especially gen eds–inspired sleepiness no matter how energetic the professor was.

Let’s Call it What it Is: A Bribe

Perhaps they were expecting me to just move on with the lesson. But I’d hidden a bag of Starburst on the podium at the front of the room. I picked it up and held it high.

“If you participate today,” I promised, “you get a Starburst. And I got the good ones–the red and pink flavors.”

Suddenly, the room livened. Students laughed. More of them smiled. Some of them sat up straighter in their seats.

I told them I knew MLA citations weren’t their favorite subject, and I wasn’t above bribing their participation. So, throughout the lesson, students were offered Starburst for  sharing their work. Some students elected to share even though they didn’t want Starburst. They donated their candy to another classmate.

The key here, I think, is to offer the candy-bribe in exchange for active and willing participation.

I wouldn’t use the candy-bribe in every lesson. But I had a lot of material to get through and I knew it wasn’t as interesting as discussing literature or debating hot-button issues.

Final Thoughts

Is it okay to bribe students? Originally, I was going to use the Starburst to reward correct answers during an interactive part of the lesson. However, two things changed my mind:

  • My fellow TA and I split the Starburst and I worried there weren’t enough for that, so she suggested using them as a reward for participation.
  • As the morning and early afternoon wore on, I decided it’d be wrong to reward the correct answers with candy.

The latter is more important–I don’t think correct answers should be rewarded with some kind of treat. I think that would discourage students from participating if their answers were not correct. What good is it to reward students who get the right answer at the beginning of a lesson when the purpose of that lesson is to teach them the right answer?

I ended up giving away the remaining Starburst at the end of the lesson, but I think the students had fun with it even though they knew it was a participation bribe. They actively and eagerly took part in the lesson even though they were sleepy. Even though the first snowfall started outside in the middle of class. Even though it was a Monday.

Starburst saved the day this week, but it was also, I think, my honesty in the purpose for the candy and the acknowledgment and validation of their sleepiness.

MFA Update: Final Submission of the Semester

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Thesis

In just over two weeks, my final submission of the semester is due, and I just deleted what I’d written so far toward my 30 pages of fiction for that submission.

Yesterday, on my 3-hour drive to New Hampshire for my TA responsibilities, I had several chapter epiphanies:

  • The chapter about the Mystic Massacre needs to start right near the end of the event and fill in with carefully crafted flashbacks.
  • I need to flush out a conflict for my protagonist that shows that when the other men he’s working with are together, he becomes more of a bystander and less of a factor in making decisions. I need to go back and strengthen this in earlier chapters because it is at the end of this chapter that he overcomes that, in order to allow him to do what he needs to in the next chapter.
  • I need to emphasize his guilt that his actions in the previous chapter made the massacre more likely.

To accomplish all of this, I had to delete what I’d already written. This leads me to a conclusion I’ve long held but not experienced in a while:

Sometimes writing requires taking two steps forward, and one back.

This is okay. I think a writer ought to be comfortable with the delete key, and not fear it. Why continue to thrust writing on a reader that does not best serve the story? It might be lyrically beautiful, but that’s not enough of a reason to keep it.

So, that leaves me with two weeks to write, edit, and revise about 10,000 words–but I’m excited about the task.

Another major change I’ve made in my thesis is that I had planned, originally, on characterizing real people who lived in the past and influenced the events in my book. The difficulties with this approach proved to be three-fold:

  1. I felt constrained like I couldn’t take a character too far from who they really were. For a fiction writer, it’s important to have the freedom to develop characters.
  2. I wanted to make one such character an antagonist. However, I don’t think that person in history was the way I want to characterize him. This man has hundreds of descendants and I wouldn’t want to alienate them because I made their ancestor out to be a horrible person just to suit my story.
  3. There are many characters on whom I can find very little information. I felt imbalanced completely making them up on my own while other characters had definite timelines and personality traits.

For this reason, I need to rename all of my characters. This is a fun process, albeit time-consuming, as I typically like to do some research and choose names for a reason, instead of just picking them out of a hat. But I’ve already decided what I will rename my protagonist, so it’s a start.

Craft Essays and Exercises

I don’t often blog about the non-thesis work I’ve been submitting all semester. I’m not sure why, but with the semester winding down, this seems as good a time as any to write about these other elements.

The craft essays are both frustrating and satisfying. I always find finishing an academic essay satisfying because it’s like solving a puzzle. I love proving my point through writing, which I know is an unpopular opinion among many. Yet, I enjoy it. Even when I’ve not loved the book I was assigned, I’ve enjoyed writing the essay. I have two more to go. I’ll write one this week, and another next week for a total of 10 this semester.

My mentor assigned me 3 writing exercises this semester, all of which I found both helpful and enjoyable. Some of them involved research, one of them involved going to a place of personal emotion so powerful that it released some of the grief I’ve been working through since the death of my father a little over a year ago. I’m working on expanding that exercise into a short story that I will then submit to literary magazines and hopefully find a home for it. It might just be the most powerful work of fiction I’ve ever written in my life–I’m not trying to boast here, but I’m simply comparing it to previous work I’ve done.

Having completed my 3 exercises for the semester, I have no more to submit, which means my 30 pages can be completely devoted to my thesis.

Teaching

My TA experience is going so well. I’m really enjoying it, and yesterday I met with another professor who has welcomed me to stay at her house one night a week so I can split the drive. Speaking of driving, I was thinking about what tires me out about it. Driving up and back (a total of 5-6 hours depending on traffic, weather, and construction), isn’t what tires me out. It’s doing so as part of a 12- to 13-hour day. I’m on campus each Monday for 6 hours.

Next term, and the following term, I’ll be on campus twice a week, but only for about an hour or two each day. That means my 13-hour day will become two 7- or 8-hour days. This is a huge difference! I’ll have to try it out to see but I think I won’t mind so much driving up and back a couple of times a week. After all, I once had a 1.5-hour commute to a job I didn’t like, and I love being in the classroom.

Besides, those hours on the road give me ample time to think about my fiction, and I’ve made some pretty important decisions on that drive.

Getting back to the classroom, I’ve had some fun opportunities to teach mini-lessons, and plan to teach a few more. I’m starting to get to know the students, which I think would have happened faster were I sitting in on every class instead of every other class, and I’m frequently and overwhelmingly impressed by them. That’s not to say I had low expectations. I didn’t have expectations. I’ve tried to go into this semester with a blank slate approach as to what to expect from students, as this was my first chance to work with college students.

I also love tutoring. There’s nothing quite like working one-on-one with a student and witnessing that a-ha moment. I’ve experienced it before, but I’ll never tire of it. I liken it to a runner’s high.

I’m also really enjoying the TA Colloquium. This is a once-weekly, no-credit class that provides an opportunity to study and discuss pedagogical theories and strategies for the Freshman composition classroom. Some of the readings are challenging–this week’s caused a grammar-related existential crisis based on a 30-year-old debate about the value and approach of teaching grammar in college–but I enjoy them all the same.

The semester is half-over so my work as a TA will continue beyond the MFA semester (it will be the opposite in the spring), and I’ve really enjoyed growing alongside the students in the class I’m observing. The professor I’m working with has gone above and beyond, even finding me that housing arrangement for the rest of the term.

Final Thoughts

There’s been a lot to reflect on today, with the MFA semester drawing down. But I’ll continue my monthly update because just because the semester is ending doesn’t mean the work stops. Here’s what’s coming up between now and my second residency week:

  • Nov. 7 is the final submission deadline for this semester.
  • Nov. 10 is the deadline to submit my work for peer review at residency.
  • Nov. 14 I should receive final feedback from my mentor.
  • Dec. 11 is the day my peers’ stories are released so I can begin preparing my critiques. It’s also the last day of the TA semester and the date my teaching portfolio is due.
  • Jan. 7 is the start of my second residency; the day my peer critiques are due (though I will have them finished before then).

Also during this time, it’s my goal to make at least one round of edits to the thesis work I’ve done. I also hope to finish my work with the short story I want to submit. You can see that even though the MFA grading period will end, the work does not. For me, that’s a good thing. It’s always best not to stop and realize I’m tired until the end.

MFA Update: First Semester is almost over!

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It’s so hard to believe that my first semester is more than 3/4 over. I sent my third submission a week and two days ago, which means I should receive my mentor’s feedback in about five days. She’s been great about getting her comments to me within two weeks.

For my last submission of the semester…

I’d really like to submit revised chapters for this next deadline, if only because I’d love to have a few rounds of revision before submitting them for the winter residency peer critique. There’s not enough time to get her feedback on them between submitting them and the deadline for the critique pages unless I send my last submission in about a week and a half. I’ve already done some editing, so that might be possible.

On the other hand, another part of me wants to press forward. I know my mentor is a proponent of doing so as well. A good compromise might be to send her new material and submit my edited material for the residency workshop.

That would be the equivalent of working on two submissions at the same time, but I think I might be able to handle it.

I taught a lesson on comma splices…

And it went really well! I’m really enjoying my role as a TA. I worked with the professor, who is one of the department coordinators, to create a 15- to 20-minute lesson on comma splices. Despite the fact that grammar doesn’t really excite the students, most of them participated willingly, though in reflection if I taught the lesson again, I might gamify it a bit and offer candy rewards.

I’m not above bribing students to participate when:

  • It’s raining out,
  • It’s the middle of the afternoon,
  • It’s on a holiday that, until that year, students would have had off from school, or,
  • It’s grammar.

Again, I like grammar. But that’s not the case for everyone, and I understand that.

I may have filled my tutoring quota…

Just kidding. I was joking with a friend who tutored last semester because all semester long she only met with six students, and there I sat yesterday with no students. I’d already met with six since the beginning of the semester.

I wish the tutoring was by appointment, but I understand why the learning center offers walk-in tutoring. I forgot to bring my Kindle with me yesterday, and yes, I was in a library. I could have grabbed a book, but I didn’t want to leave my post just so I’d have something to read.

With my luck, that would have been when a student walked in looking for a writing tutor.

The six students I’ve tutored this semester have all been great to work with, and I’ve learned a lot from them as I hope they have from me.

I may be dead tired today, but…

That doesn’t mean I’m not writing in my head. I am. I’m staring down this last submission of the semester and trying to narrow down the three mentors I will put on my list for next term. I drove up and back yesterday. It wipes me out, but I’ve decided to hold off on looking for an apartment for now because I can’t do that, work two jobs, fulfill my TA duties, and get all my schoolwork done.

Something had to give. Bye, apartment (for now)!

MFA Update: TA-ing

I love being a teaching assistant.

Since my last update, I’ve started my work as a teaching assistant. I’m really enjoying it so far! I’ve observed class for two weeks now (though I am only there one day a week and the class meets two days each week), I’ve tutored two students, and I am really enjoying my TA colloquium class.

Having taken a seminar in teaching writing for my MA, I feel as though I have the foundation and vocabulary for diving in and assessing different pedagogical strategies with my fellow TA and the coordinator of the department who is running the course.

In class, I’m enjoying listening to the students discuss readings as a class and in small groups. I can tell from their responses that they work hard to develop a clear understanding of the texts they’re reading. Right now, they’re working on memoir essays. Today they have a workshop that I wish I could attend, because I like memoir essays. They’re fascinating and employ a number of creative elements that are also required by fiction.

I had the opportunity to talk to one of the students during my tutoring hour, and was more than impressed with the work already put into this assignment.

I ended up changing my tutoring hour; originally it was in the middle of the day, but I was one of five tutors in that time slot for writing, which I thought was overkill. Now I’m tutoring in the late afternoon, and I’m the only writing tutor at that time so there’s a stronger chance I’ll get to meet with students.

That is, after all, why I’m there.

There are other tutors in that time slot, but all for math. Listening to them work with their students, I can say with certainty that I would have made a poor math teacher. Writing is a great fit, as I knew it would be. I’m passionate about teaching and want every student I work with to leave having learned something new.

I’m looking forward to teaching a class, but I know that won’t be for a little while. I don’t mind that, especially as I still haven’t moved closer to school.

I was planning to stay overnight at a hotel, and thought I found a good deal…but I stayed there one night and the place left me feeling like I needed seven showers. So now, I’m back to driving up and back in one day. I know there are friends I can stay with if I get too tired or need to do something on campus the next day, and that’s a good option.

But I’m going to move up there. True, I only have to be on campus one or two days a week throughout my TA program, but if I live closer, I can observe more classes. The more teaching styles I can expose myself to, the better.

For the next couple of months, I will be working like a dog to bank some extra cash for the move.