IMG_3792 Back in September, we got an awfully big surprise.

Around the third week in August, I had started having undeniable pregnancy symptoms. We did some math on our fingers and excitedly planned for a due date of May 6th, which seemed perfect: I’d be on break between teaching semesters (May is my biggest chunk of time off every year), Hubby would be through with an always-grueling tax season. We’d have plenty of time to rearrange our three boys into bunk beds and all that. And we had plenty of time to wait a month before spreading the news to family and friends, so we didn’t tell anyone yet.

IMG_3455Still, we both admitted that something felt off. There was something different about this pregnancy, but we couldn’t figure out what it was.

Three weeks later, in the middle of catching ourselves up on Downton Abbey, the baby kicked me.

I put my hands on my stomach and suddenly couldn’t pay attention to the captivating drama of Mary and Matthew anymore. I froze, waiting for it to happen again, my head spinning to catch up with what this meant.

It meant I wasn’t seven weeks along, that was for sure. It definitely meant we weren’t due in May.

When the episode ended, I timidly revealed the news to Hubby, and we spent the next hour laughing at the possibility. Could it really be true? Could we have been pregnant since last May and not known it?

Two days later, an ultrasound confirmed it: we were over eighteen weeks along! Due February 8th.

IMG_3905With a girl!

Everyone’s response to the news? “I didn’t even know you were pregnant!” Well, we said, neither did we!

Since that ultrasound September 14th my priorities have swung in a wildly different direction. I abandoned the blog and put all my spare energy into prepping our house and lives for a new baby in less than four months.

Today is the first day in those months that I feel suddenly open to blogging, ready to see if I can still write anything after so long out of practice. The older boys’ room is finally outfitted with a bunk bed (including a new handmade quilt for my five-year-old who was previously in a toddler bed), a mural to fill the wall space, and painted closet shelves. The other room now holds a toddler bed, a crib, a changing table, a rocking chair and a train table, with just a few things left to arrange on the walls before it will feel complete. I’ve crocheted a flower blanket, sewed a floral chair pad and girly owl pillow for the rocker, and continued nesting like that to my heart’s content. IMG_3929This past weekend her grandma bought us a bright pink car seat and a neighbor loaned us a bassinet. Her closet now has just enough size 0–3 months clothes for us to get by for a little while. I can finally feel ready.

Last night, sporting a basketball under my shirt, I walked into a room full of strangers facing me in their desks, probably wary as the first thing they learned about their new college English teacher is that she is nine months pregnant. But once we got going, and they opened right into discussion so easily, I felt the usual thrill of discovering I’ve got a good group of students — knowing we’ll be able to analyze and dig into complexities and have the room hum with enthusiasm because I can tell they’re interested and they care. It reminded me how much I love all that, including discussion here on my blog.

At the same time, this is my fourth time around having a newborn, and I know my limits. I cut down to just one class this semester so that those 75 minutes twice a week are my only commitment in these next few months besides my baby and three boys.

This post isn’t an announcement that I’m back to blogging, just an update to confirm that I’m not.

Since my last baby, I’ve learned a lot about shaking off stress and living a peaceful life. That’s the life I want to welcome my daughter into — in just three short weeks! Writing will resume when it feels right.

The Best Way to Learn Is to Teach

I spent this morning writing something that might seem odd to people outside of my own religion. Basically, I was preparing a “sermon” for Sunday, even though I am not any kind of pastor. In the LDS church, we have a “lay ministry,” meaning that everyone volunteers their time to serve the church rather than being paid. Instead of a professional pastor giving a weekly address, the bishop of the congregation (who usually serves only about three or four years until a new person is asked to be bishop) doesn’t speak every Sunday or even all that often, delegating to the church members instead. This week I was asked to be one of the speakers and deliver a ten-minute talk on the atonement.

Every time I’m asked to speak, I marvel at how much it feels like it’s for me more than those I’ll speak to. Ten minutes isn’t much time compared to the hours I’ve spent reading and studying the topic and carefully choosing the best of it to present. I gain so much from the opportunity to teach others.

It reminds me of the retention pyramid I learned as an education major in college. On average, we remember only 5% of what we hear, 10% of what we read, 20% of audio/visual material, 30% of a demonstration, 50% of a discussion, 75% of what we do ourselves, and 90% of what we teach.

I know from experience how true the pyramid is. There are so many things — like punctuation usage, for example — that I didn’t fully grasp until I both used it myself and taught it.

Sometimes the pyramid haunts me as a teacher. I can find lots of ways to create activities so that students are participating and thereby hopefully retaining 75% of the material. But I’ve had a harder time thinking up opportunities to let them teach.

Maybe that’s why being asked to teach something at church always feels like a huge blessing to me — a chance to really integrate some concept into my life that wouldn’t stick with me as well if I were on the other side of the podium.

And today it’s renewed my determination to find more ways to give that opportunity to others. I can let my older children teach the younger ones to do things. I can give my students more time for peer reviews and other activities that allow them to teach each other.

If we are all teachers, everyone gains more.

What do you think? What concepts have you been able to teach someone else and understand better yourself? What ideas do you have for letting students teach each other in a writing class?

Leave a comment!

First Impressions

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?

Leave a comment!

Perpetual Student Itis

not me, but wearing my favorite color (I'm sort of coveting her outfit and her student status at the same time)
Yes, you’re right: not only is that not a real disease, it sounds really dumb. But still, it’s an affliction of mine.

No, not the way Wikipedia describes it. Apparently being a perpetual student means continuing to take classes for years without working toward a degree. I never had that issue. Perhaps the disorders need to be renamed in order to distinguish them. Perpetual means “continuing forever” while another word like perennial might better convey the students who only spend a few years at it. I’m definitely in the perpetual camp: this is a lifelong thing for me, not just a phase.

I went straight from high school to college; not only never took a semester off in college, but stayed for summer term almost every year; went straight from my undergrad degree into grad school (and was so bored the summer in between since I’d gotten so used to summer school); loved grad school more than I thought was possible; died of boredom during the couple years I stayed home after grad school; shouted hallelujah when I got hired by the community college to teach (if I can’t be a student, at least I can still be at school regularly); and have been scheming how to uproot my family while I go through a PhD program sometime soon, after which I plan to be a full-time professor for the rest of my life, never retiring.

Other signs and symptoms?

  • feeling green with envy when my sister describes the cool lectures and forums and other fascinating college gigs she’s participating in and saying to her, “No way! I want to go hear about how Inception relates to Jungian philosophy!”
  • considering my access to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) through the college library’s subscription one of the best benefits of being faculty
  • loving those continuing ed catalogs and wishing I could take every class from Architecture to Zoology (excited to someday have all kids in school so that I can take advantage of the other greatest faculty benefit: free courses!)
  • hating that I’m an ignorant American who only speaks one language (and wanting to rectify that by running off to some country — any country — that primarily speaks a language other than English)
  • wanting to know enough Spanish to read Don Quixote or enough French to read Les Mis, etc; willing to learn dead languages like Latin just to better understand other things 
  • itching to write research papers, even eager to get started on a dissertation someday (and staring at my students in disbelief when they tell me they can’t think of anything they want to research — seriously? they aren’t freakin’ excited to go learn something they’ve always wanted to know about and then challenge themselves to frame a new perspective on it in writing? does that mean I’m weird?)
  • being addicted to the library hold system; having my library card number memorized; having a quick-click button for the library’s website on my internet browser; having a tendency to check out more books than I can read at once but not being able to stop myself because I’m excited about all of them
  • disliking predictable movies and other simplistic entertainment because I want intellectual stimulation even when I’m relaxing (see this post from March)
  • inheriting the gene for Perpetual Student Itis from both sides of the family (for example, having a dad who left his family of five kids for a few months so he could go on “study abroad” to Alaska for a semester, sleeping in a tent and bathing in freezing cold streams with a class full of environmentalists; also, my maternal grandparents both having master’s degrees long before it was even the norm to get any college degree)

So, as you can see, this is definitely something to be taken seriously. No known cure exists, so all you can do is keep the cravings at bay. Which is why I’m probably due for a trip to the library today to pick up the herbal remedy books I have on hold.

My poor kids are also very susceptible to catching it from me. Hubby sometimes threatens them with “no college” just to see at what age they’ll start reacting in horror at the very thought. I’m predicting that’ll happen sooner than we think.

Can anybody relate to any of this? (Well, besides my sister, who is already depressed about her upcoming graduation.) Am I off-the-radar weird?

Leave a comment!

Help! My Ambitions Have Been Hijacked!

The third trimester is officially here and I officially don’t recognize myself. It’s like natural instincts become more powerful than my own ambitions; in fact, it’s like nature replaces my regular ambitions with baby-related ones.

Like nesting.

I mean, check out this photo. It’s a sand nest large enough to hold both my five- and two-year-old! Sure, we were really going for a volcano, but I couldn’t help noticing its nest-like structure once we finished. And I wish I could say it was my kids’ idea and they talked me into helping. But no. I instigated the whole project.

And then there’s the nursery. Granted, it’s my first time having one (since we lived in a one-bedroom apartment with our first baby and the second one shared a room with the first), but still this is nuts. Hours cleaning, hours setting up the crib (two-and-a-half months in advance), hours clearing out the closet of all office-related boxes that will be moving to the basement, and hours looking at new crib bedding online.

Worse, despite my normal, rational self insisting that buying bedding is way easier than making it, this new, crazy, nesting Nikki has gotten it into her head that she wants to make the crib bedding and all the decor for the room, starting with these 12″x12″ wall hangings I put together last Saturday:

Yikes! If I could put that much energy into writing right now, I swear my novel would be finished and sent off to agents already. But somehow the nesting instinct has hijacked my priorities.

Here’s one more example: cloth diapers. Why is it that I can read and read and read all the options and features and reviews, etc, for every brand of cloth diapers available, spending an entire day at a time doing so, but I start to fall asleep after working on my manuscript for half an hour?

Maybe it’s because cloth diapers are much more fun and colorful than my black-and-white, 300-page novel at the moment. I mean, check out these names: FuzziBunz, Happy Heiny, Bum Genius. And all the choices: velcro, snaps, all-in-ones, pocket, one-size. Who wouldn’t be entranced? Okay, probably anybody whose biology hasn’t been taken over by nurture hormones.

But yesterday I recaptured some of my focus and managed to salvage some of the wasted hours by putting my new-found cloth-diaper expertise to practical, non-nesting use.

I needed a lesson plan that would help my students really understand about tactful rhetoric as opposed to demonizing the opposite viewpoint. I talked to them about how we aren’t “preaching to the choir” — or in other words, we aren’t trying to convince people who already agree with us; we’re trying to win over the other side, and a good first step is to try not to offend them!

So I wrote a role play. I’d never actually done that before and I had no idea if they would actually find it funny or helpful or what, but it turned out to be hilarious, maybe just because the two students who volunteered did such a great job with it.

Since my intermediate students create websites about an issue of their choice, I told them to imagine that these two students represent a website and a visitor and to notice everything the website does wrong in the first scenario and how it revises and mends its way in the second.

Scenario 1

Cloth Diapering Website: What? You use DISPOSABLE diapers?? Do you realize that those things take 500 YEARS to decompose in a landfill? Do you have no CONSCIENCE?

Visitor: (covering ears through entire conversation) There is no way you are talking me into using safety pins and plastic pants and all that. Plus it’s not like I have time to do extra laundry or money to hire a diaper service. Stop telling me how to parent!

Website: I’m telling you how to parent because you are obviously incapable of making informed decisions. Haven’t you even considered your baby’s HEALTH? Do you have any idea what kinds of CHEMICALS they use to make disposable diapers? What kind of parent are you??

Visitor: You are a totally insensitive human being! Haven’t YOU ever considered other people’s hectic lives? I’m a single parent! I’m just trying to make ends meet and do the best I can. Not all of us have the luxury of time to contemplate environmental impact or every ingredient on every baby product.

Website: You have to MAKE time! This is IMPORTANT! What kind of legacy are you leaving for your children? You want them to grow up in a world where landfills spill into the cities and poopy disposable diapers roll down the streets?

Visitor: I don’t have to listen to this. I don’t know why I even clicked on this website, but I’ll be sure not to come back.


Scenario 2

Website: Did you know that cloth diapering is becoming a big trend? More and more parents are switching to it every year.

Visitor: Are you serious? Why would they do that? Disposables are so much EASIER.

Website: That’s definitely the common perception. Lots of parents are afraid to even consider cloth because they have that image of safety pins and complex folds and white plastic covers, but there’s been lots of innovation going on in the last few years to make cloth diapers just as easy as disposables.

Visitor: Okay, but easy for one person isn’t necessarily easy for another. I’m a single parent. I don’t have a lot of time.

Website: Actually, there are far more options with cloth diapers than there are with disposables. You can choose cheaper ones that make sense for your budget (and, by the way, save you HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS A YEAR versus disposables) or you can go all out and buy fancy ones that have every convenient feature imaginable. Look at the chart I’ve got here on the left to see five totally different cloth diapers along with picture, price, and features.

Visitor: Okay, that’s actually pretty helpful. And I like how you’ve got links I can check out, like this one about the company offering 30-day free trials. I’ll bookmark this site and keep reading more when I get the chance. 

Anyhow, trying to conquer the nesting instinct is an uphill battle, but I’m determined to win . . . somehow. Somehow I will get my novel sent off before this baby is born, even if I have to do it by writing cloth-diaper scenes. Or not.

Anybody else suffering from hijacked ambitions, like maybe because of summer weather or some other enticing trap? 

Leave a comment! 

How to Make It Matter

Even though I teach college composition, not creative writing, it surprises me how often the two overlap — how often the principles of good writing pertain to both.

For example, this week my beginning class has been choosing topics for their researched argument papers, so we’ve talked a lot about what makes a good topic. It’s an important first step, after all, because their grades are at stake. A “bad” topic might make an A impossible.

Meanwhile, I read some of the report drafts of my intermediate class and realized that we needed to have an immediate discussion about how to avoid “dry, yeastless factuality” (borrowing Yann Martel’s description from Life of Pi). Several of the reports gave one fact after another, either putting me to sleep or making my head spin from too many stats in a row. Because they “publish” their reports online for a real audience (besides me), we needed to remedy that problem ASAP.

The intermediate class’s reports needed some life, and the beginning class needed to know how to start breathing life into a topic.

I can’t take credit for this breakdown, because it comes from the textbook my beginning class uses, called From Inquiry to Academic Writing, but here it is. Having a good topic isn’t enough. You also need to decide on a situation that illustrates the topic and shows what’s at stake. Then you need to show the issues involved, or in other words what conflicts are preventing the situation from being easily resolved. Finally, you need to ask a question that sets the direction of the writing — the possibilities for resolution that you’re going to explore.

  • Topic

  • Situation

  • Issues

  • Question

I showed them an article from a year ago in The New Yorker about healthcare reform (Atul Gawande’s “Getting There from Here” in the Jan. 26, 2009 issue) that began by describing situations that had led to healthcare reform in other countries, followed by describing the current situation in America, with 57 million Americans owing medical debt, illustrated by one particular example of a woman having an emergency C-section and owing $17,000 for it. Then it described the obstacles to reform, how most everyone agrees it’s necessary but can’t agree on how to do it because of various conflicting opinions and perspectives. Then it posed the question, “What can we learn from the path other countries have taken to healthcare reform?” The remainder of the article explored those comparisons.

We discussed how this is the key to make your writing “not boring”! This is how you create tension and make your reader want to keep reading. This is how you avoid being dry.

One student in the back raised his hand and said, “Doesn’t this apply to creative writing, too? I mean, isn’t this what makes a good story as well?”

Yes! He’s absolutely right.

My current WIP borrows the topic of growing up from Peter Pan and asks the question, “What does it mean to grow up?” But in my first draft or two, I’d skipped too much of the situation and issues, so I was posing the question and exploring it without real tension behind it. I had to back up and really focus on the situation and the issues, really bring in the tension — what’s at stake? what are the conflicts? — so that the question mattered.

In fact, as an intermediate class, that’s what we ended up titling the breakdown: How to Make Your Writing Matter. If it doesn’t matter, why would anyone bother to read it?

What do you think? What have you read that’s done this particularly well? How have you noticed that these four pieces impact writing?

Leave a comment!