Category Archives: Methodology

Why We Ditched School Altogether, Part II

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(Click here to read “Why We Ditched School Altogether, Part I”)

When I transitioned to herbal remedies in place of drugs four years ago, I remember thinking, “Good thing we aren’t in the medical profession!” If I were a pharmacist or married to one, for example, I’m not sure how well that switch would have gone over for all involved hahaha.

But as a college writing teacher married to a tax accountant, I figured we were safe from such life-altering displacement. Taxes are as certain as death, they say; and everyone believes in education.

Insert corny sound effect: ba-dum tshh.

This past summer at the most recent adjunct-faculty meeting I attended for the English department at Salt Lake Community College, I made my big confession: “Guys, I’m a traitor. I’ve converted to unschooling.”

It got the laugh I’d intended, but also lots of questions. “Unschooling? What’s unschooling? I mean, I get that it’s not doing school, but what does that look like?” Read the rest of this entry

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Video Messages

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I’m not a big video watcher. If given the choice, such as with news stories online, I prefer to read the article.

Maybe it’s so that I can skim, maybe so I can interpret the story for myself instead of having the newscaster do that, and maybe just because reading feels more private whereas turning on a video immediately attracts the attention of my children.

But I use video a lot when I teach. It’s such a powerful medium, hitting us with both sight and sound, able to add color and images and music to words.

With some scenes in my novel, I’ve been thinking how much easier they would be to show in a movie. If you want tension in a movie, you have lighting you can dim, sets you can creepify, music you can make ominous, glimpses you can give of movement in the shadows. In the novel, I have to do all that with nothing but words.

Last week my sister-in-law shared a video message from our church on her blog, which got me thinking about videos as rhetoric rather than just storytelling. And yesterday I stumbled across this one below that appeals so well to my personality.

I love her message of individuality within religion, of how she says she thought God wanted her to be a certain way and then she realized she “totally made that up.” And I love the way it’s paired with a green bird on her finger, a painting of a female matador, and all these other visual glimpses of the unique individual she is.

If I were to create a video expressing my perspective on being a Latter-day Saint (LDS), or Mormon, I’d want it to be a lot like this. (Except different, obviously, since the point here is uniqueness.) And I’d want to share it not just with those who aren’t Mormon but with other Mormon women too.

Sometimes we do get wrong ideas, interpreting words the wrong way. Sometimes we get stuck by those wrong ideas, like the LDS women I sometimes meet who feel like they “can’t” or “shouldn’t” have their own pursuits, etc. Sometimes the simple yet powerful medium of video is perfect for providing new perception.

But it’s also great for someone like me who teaches two evenings a week and writes novels at home during the day, trying to balance my own ambitions with raising young kids. The message I take from the video is reassurance that I’m okay.

What video messages have you seen that used the medium well? When do you think the audio and visual components of video are necessary to help words mean more?

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How Many Associations Does It Take to Implant a Word?

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This is a post about revision: revising the words we link together in our brains.

A week ago, I decided — based on deep personal reflection — that I had a glitch in my system.

I saw part of this documentary called What the Bleep Do We Know? and learned how much our emotions really can overrun our whole body, producing chemicals in the hypothalamus of the brain that then attach to our cells and literally make every cell in our body crave certain emotions, from the indulgence of overeating to the drama of bad relationships. We hardwire our own brains, forming our habits based on the neural connections of the way we process our thoughts. The more you use a certain connection, the thicker the bandwidth becomes, so to speak, the faster the brain leaps to the habitual response, and the harder it is to unlearn it.

So when after watching the clip I suddenly recognized my own horrible thought process, I knew I had to work fast and hard to stop it.

The trouble? I’m stingy.

Who would have thought? Certainly not me! I’m an optimist, I guess, in that I had called it lots of nicer names like “frugal” and “efficient” and so on. But I woke up to the fact that it had gone too far because I realized that I constantly horde my time, my energy, my attention, etc, trying to grab ahold of as much of it as I can to keep for myself. Maybe it can be partially excused as a gut reaction to the overwhelming demand of three small children and wanting to preserve as much of my own life as possible. But anyhow, the point was that I didn’t want to be that way.

I didn’t want my automatic thought process to be self-pitying, begrudging my kids for taking up “my” time. Instead, I wanted to be generous — and plant the word “generosity” so firmly in my brain that it would create a detour from my stingy ways.

But how do you undo those high-speed bandwidths in your head? From what little brain science I’ve read, the best strategy is to form as many new connections as possible. The more threads you create between an existing idea and a new one in your brain, the more likely you are to remember the new idea.

Here’s a sampling of what I did.

First, I came up with a new “affirmation,” meaning a new truth to replace the old notions. It’s not enough to negate the old one; you have to move it out of the way with something better. So instead of allowing myself to think that giving away my time and energy, etc, meant less of it left for myself, I decided my affirmation would be “The more I give, the more there is to give.”

Rationally, that makes no sense, because in finite terms it’s just plain wrong. There are 24 hours in a day, and the more of those hours I give away, the fewer are left.

But, with a different set of associations, I convinced my brain that the new affirmation is true. For example, think of love. Love isn’t finite, and the more we love, the more our capacity to love expands and thus the more love we have to give. It’s also been true for me with breastfeeding my baby that the more I feed him, the more food there is. Expanding capacity.

Next, I listed all the ways that I wanted to be more generous and expand my capacity to give:

  • love/affection
  • time
  • energy
  • service/help
  • opportunities
  • friendships/relationships
  • attention/interest/listening
  • praise/validation
  • opinions
  • permission/approval
  • appreciation/gratitude
  • cheerfulness/smiles
  • friendliness/using people’s names
  • gifts
  • resources
  • prayers/thoughts/concerns
  • posture/oxygen

I went on to find dozens of quotes dealing with generosity, for example 2 Corinthians 9:6 from the Bible: “He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully.” Every new quote became another link in my brain solidifying the new connection.

The last idea on the list above — posture and oxygen — actually ended up being the biggest help. I am a horrible sloucher, mostly out of laziness, and I’d recently learned that better posture improves oxygen to the brain. So, as another connection, I told myself that throwing my shoulders back and inhaling deeply would be my way of being generous to myself. How has that helped? Well, over the past week every time a situation has come up where I would normally pull back and try to withhold my energy and attention, etc, my brain has gone through a series of alternate steps:

  1. I recognize the situation as a trigger and consciously decide against taking the habitual path.
  2. I throw my shoulders back and inhale, concentrating on feeling the oxygen going to my brain. It’s a stall tactic to give myself time to reroute my thinking, but oxygen is also an enormous help for open-mindedness.
  3. I focus on the person needing my generosity, whether it’s a child who needs to tell me a very long and irrelevant story or a baby who needs me to realize his diaper needs changing.

And every time it’s been rewarding. Have I still gotten as much done this week? Nope, not really. But slowly I feel like I’m expanding my capacity to give to my children and to others around me, and that will probably pay off better in the long run. Plus I like to think that the scripture verse from 2 Corinthians is true, along with the adage, “What goes around comes around.” Perhaps generosity will be the secret to getting done what I need to as well, once I’m better at it. And thanks to all the associations I generated, I feel like I have a good shot at improvement.

This whole story was my long-winded way of saying that in order to plant a word in your head, you need to give it as much to work with as you can.

A shorter way to prove the point would have been telling you my strategy for vocab acquisition when I was studying for the GRE seven years ago. I made it a point to find as many of the words as possible in a context that I knew, such as in the books I was reading at the time. (By the way, the Harry Potter series uses more GRE vocab words than you would think!) The result? Seven years later, the words I can still use and define from all that memorizing are the ones where I created dozens of extra associations via the context of a story.

Anyhow, what do you think? Ever tried to rewire your brain or ever needed to implant a particular word? What strategies have you used that work?

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What Is Happening Now?

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As if I haven’t shown enough video clips lately, I have another one today. I can’t resist! It worked so well sharing it with my intermediate students on Wednesday that I had to show it to my husband after class, and he enjoyed it so much that I’m putting it here as well. And, on top of being entertaining, I think it shows a key aspect of good writing.

But first, the background.

See, this week was one of those in life where all your priorities shift the instant you touch your crying baby’s head and burn your hand on it. Especially when it’s to the tune of 102 degrees x 5 days and the baby will only sleep in your arms and he sleeps so fitfully that you can’t move at all or he’ll cry out. He’s fine now, but getting to the computer was not possible before Wednesday’s class. Rather than leisurely typing out every detail of my lesson plans, I knew I would have to find one good central idea that I could build off of for 75 minutes without a detailed plan.

God [or insert interpretation of your choice] didn’t let me down. I prayed to find an effective video clip, and two seconds after the prayer (not even exaggerating) I found it on the YouTube app on my phone. Usually I show clips that I’ve already seen somewhere, like from movies I’m familiar with, so I really do credit the prayer for giving me one so perfect even though I’d never seen it before.

The lesson topic was an introduction to reports, which they’ll soon be writing, and whenever I approach a lesson I’ve got a million objectives in my head, not the least of which is doing a better job than the previous semester by trying to help students avoid the pitfalls that the last class fell into. In the case of the report, it was that my summer class didn’t quite grasp that this isn’t an encyclopedia article detailing the entire history of your subject. I wanted this semester’s class to understand that reports are about what’s happening now.

So that’s what I led with: the simple question, “What’s happening now?”

Sometimes it’s kind of nice to throw them off with a question like that, one where they won’t see the point right away. It helps to grab their attention and keep it. We talked about Egypt’s dictator stepping down, about the A.I. beating Jennings at Jeopardy, about the last of the 4.3 billion IP addresses running out soon, about the latest studies and trends and so on.

With the IP addresses, those students who knew about it likened it to the Y2K scare, where yes everything had to be switched over but it really wasn’t going to be that big of a deal.

“Exactly,” I said, not because of Y2K but because the lesson was going exactly where it needed to: showing them how you find the balance between talking about what’s current while giving enough background information to help your audience understand it. The student who mentioned Y2K was helping give the rest of the class perspective on what’s happening now.

That’s when I pulled out this clip and had them watch for two things:

  1. How does the report maintain a balance between current information (what’s happening now) and background information (what happened before that helps us understand what’s happening now)?
  2. How does it balance between giving enough information to those who know nothing about the topic and keeping interested those who are very familiar?

See what you think. The bonus is that it’s funny just to watch, even if you aren’t teaching yourself about reports.



Afterwards, we talked about starting with what’s current and always coming back to it, weaving between the back story and the latest news. We discussed how most of the class wouldn’t have understood the point of the study without those clips helping them understand what The Colbert Report is like, and yet the clip still had to start with the news that there’s been a study about The Colbert Report, or else you wouldn’t have a context for why he’s telling you what Colbert is like. The two — present and past — have to be presented together, but always bringing the emphasis back to the present.

And now, as I’m writing this post to tell you about the event, I find myself recognizing how much it applies to other types of writing as well, from correspondence like memos and emails to entire books. When writing a novel, for example, you want to tell what’s happening to the character “now” while weaving the expository information in gradually, and only giving as much background as helps your reader understand the now.

So there you have it. While I’ve shown plenty of video clips on the blog lately, it’s been a while since I brought the topic back to writing — especially novel writing. Just typing the word “novel” makes me salivate; I should probably drum up some time for that now that we’ve survived the five-day fever. Any time I can hack at my manuscript with a new perspective, it helps improve it even more. This time around, maybe I’ll keep in mind “What’s happening now?” — as I hope my students will when they write their reports.

Any thoughts?

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Saving Us from Ourselves: Didactic Humor That Hits Home

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With DVR, it’s rare these days that we actually watch a commercial, but this one grabbed us last night:

Afterward, Hubby confessed, “Um, that was totally me today. Oops.”

A few weeks ago watching The Colbert Report we heard author Sherry Turkle describe how two people can be sitting together, like at dinner, and not even acknowledge each other because they’re busy using their computer devices (or something like that; I’m paraphrasing). We looked at each other and made a pact that we would shut our laptops and put down our phones during dinner from then on and actually interact with our kids.

But what’s funny about it is that The Colbert Report is on Comedy Central, and Colbert himself never appears to take any of his guests seriously. The Windows Phone ad is humorous. It’s sort of like the post I wrote a few months ago about how sit coms foster maturity, though in that one I focused on the story aspect rather than the humor.

What is it about humor?

Well, let’s think. Laughter supposedly makes you live longer by releasing endorphins or whatever.

Being able to laugh at yourself is supposed to be good therapy.

Southwest Airlines proves that humor can help people pay attention to things they would otherwise tune out, like flight safety information (if you’ve never flown Southwest, get a taste here).

We know that jokes succeed thanks to irony, which is when the actual is different from our expectations — in other words, surprising.

And in the book Make It Stick, surprise is listed as one of the qualifications for helping a message have a lasting impact because our brains are programmed to let things go in one ear and out the other if they “make sense” (why waste energy filing away something we already know?) whereas our eyebrows shoot up and our eyes go wide at a surprise, across all nationalities and cultures, because we’re hard-wired to soak in as much new information as we can when something doesn’t match our expectations (our brain wants to “know better next time”).

Maybe this means I should be telling more jokes in class!

But it definitely means we’re hooked on The Colbert Report, and now I get to claim that it’s good for me. After all, it makes us laugh at ourselves: “Look at what we learn from comedy!”

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First Impressions

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Monday is the beginning of another new semester at the community college . . . and I’m nervous. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been teaching since 2004. It doesn’t matter that I have a stack of glowing evaluations from satisfied students last semester.

What matters is that for some reason I’m not so hot at first impressions.

I swear that I wear professional-looking clothes and shoes, comb my hair, show up on time, smile, all of that. I’m not flunking on those counts. It’s just that somehow I fail to convince students to be excited to show up to my class again for day two. It usually takes until day five, eight, or even ten.

Over a lunch of Cafe Rio pork salads and quesadillas, I talked it over with my sister on Wednesday. Her university courses started this week, and already she had such glowing praise of her professors! “This teacher is amazing and so nice and the books she chose are going to be incredible to read because the way she described them made you want to open them and read them right now, and this other teacher—”

“Um,” I interrupted, half raising my hand like a timid student. “How do I do that? How do I make my students excited about my course?”

She winced a little. “Well, the class is about [such and such technical and highly interesting thing] and the books deal with [fascinating angle of said interesting thing], so . . .”

I finished it for her: “So the trouble is that I teach first-year composition, and who’s excited about that?”

Is that really it? Am I doomed from the get-go because I teach a general education course, whereas my sister is at the end of her major, taking classes custom designed by the professors to be exciting for English nerds? It seems like such a defeatist attitude!

So every semester I go in armed with some new first-day strategy to bolster instant enthusiasm. I give them letters written by previous students, reassuring these newcomers that the course is great and they’ll learn so much. I do activities and show movie clips and try to warm them up to me and to each other as quickly as possible. But still, somehow they won’t be convinced for a few weeks.

Any suggestions? What’s the key to it? What could a gen ed college teacher do or say on the first day to win you over?

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