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!

Woefully, Thoroughly, Embarrassingly Spaced: A Case for Adverbs (and Swears)

If you stopped by on Friday, or Saturday, you may have wondered what happened to me this past week. Is she still alive? Is everything okay? Has she collapsed into postpartum depression?

Everything’s fine except my brain.

(Thursday was rough with the babe, but that’s because he was almost six weeks old. This is my third kid, and with all three I thought to myself right before six weeks hit, “Damn it! I can’t do this anymore. I can’t hold a baby this many hours a day. I can’t feed him this often. I can’t handle this much crying and fussing.” And then six weeks hit and they magically became good babies. So really on Friday I didn’t have an excuse anymore, other than recovering from Thursday, which I’ve dubbed Day of Massive Tears. Anyway.)

On Saturday, I began typing a tweet about spacing the post so thoroughly that “spaced” needed extra adverbs, but then my brain must still have been out to lunch because I couldn’t think of any clever adverbs to add to the tweet, so I deleted it.

But it made me think about adverbs in general, which IMHO have gotten a bad rep. Writing teachers love to rant about them and circle them with red pens: “No -ly words!” And really, what have the adverbs done to deserve this?

Now, granted, I do understand the point. I am a writing teacher, and I have cringed at plenty of “-ly words” myself. But maybe just because I love adding a new perspective to debates, I’m going to throw out the idea that it’s not the adverb itself that is bad; it’s the usage.

For example, think of the words we label as “bad” words. Go ahead. Think of a few of them. It’s sort of fun to let them roll through your head. They have a pleasingly rough sound to them, a hard consonant ending that stomps down to help us feel a little better just by slipping them out. I mean, when you’re upset, it’s natural to feel like you want to punch something, and an expletive is the verbal equivalent of that punch.

(My favorite is the mild-but-still-explosive “damn,” which I justify by only damning the pronoun “it,” never “you” or “him” or any other undeserving pronoun; somehow “it” just seems to ruin my life often enough to merit the curse.)

Anyhow, now I want you to think of a scenario where one of those bad words is really the only word that could possibly fit.

Maybe it’s because that word sums up a load of misery the size of a landfill; maybe it’s because that word perfectly fits the person/character saying it; maybe it’s because that word is just ironic enough in the context to shock everyone present into much-needed laughter.

(We named our baby after his great-great grandfather, and asked my husband’s grandparents to tell us about the namesake, and one of the first things Grandma Mantyla told us about her dad was that he loved to swear. I asked her if it was in anger or in jest, and she laughed and said it was always to be funny, because he was that kind of a character.)

See where I’m going with this?

I think there could potentially be a place for adverbs.

We try to avoid them on the principle that if your verb needs an adverb, you’re not using a strong enough verb — and therefore the issue is word choice. A writer’s job is to choose the best word possible for every situation, and that’s a challenge.

So maybe that’s why I bristle a little at the idea of being limited in my choices. I want to have every word at my disposal without being limited by ones that are supposedly “bad.”

Today I want to celebrate adverbs and give them the credit they are so often denied.

To the words “magically,” “thoroughly,” “pleasingly,” “perfectly,” “potentially,” and “supposedly” that slipped unintentionally into this post, thank you for adding that touch of emphasis I wanted in each place. (Note: There are more adverbs than that in this post, but these are the most obvious culprits that would offend certain past teachers of mine the most.) Sure, there might be a better verb that could eliminate the need for you, but since this post is already two days late and is written in your honor, I’m going to let you stay.

And perhaps we’ll make a game of it.

I’d love to hear your ideas. What words could I use to ditch the above-mentioned adverbs, or which of them do you think fit best and don’t need ditching? What are adverbs you’ve groaned over upon encountering and how would you have replaced them? What are your favorite adverbs and when could you justify using them? And best of all, what are some funny situations that just beg for a great swear word?

Leave a comment!

UPDATE 8pm: Okay, Hubby and I were chatting and suddenly realized that this movie clip below absoluteLY had to be part of this post. You might not understand at first, but you’ll hear it when you get to 1:37 and 2:56, and it’s awesome (IMHO). The movie is 1776 (the musical), and this is Ben Franklin and John Adams sending Richard Henry Lee off to convince Virginia to initiate the vote for independence. Enjoy!

UPDATE 5/2011: Sadly, the clip is gone and I can’t find another one from the movie, but you can find stage play versions on YouTube if you search for “1776 Lees of Old Virginia.” 😥

He Said; She Said

Every couple of semesters I get an idea in my head of some new way to “make grammar stick.”

This term, the word “stick” is more literal than ever. I’m having them use paper strips and glue sticks, like a cut-and-paste version of Mad Libs, to get a firmer grasp on semicolons, colons, em dashes — all of it.

Tuesday night was the trial round. I passed out two strips to each student: one blue strip and one red. And when I asked if anybody’d ever played or even heard of the game He Said; She Said, I got blank looks.

What? Did nobody else play M.A.S.H. and T.R.U.E. L.O.V.E. and He Said; She Said and all those other crazy paper games in middle school? That was like our number one entertainment at slumber parties. Okay, except Yoshi games on the Super NES (I just dated myself, I know).

Anyhow, He Said; She Said, as we used to play it, goes like this:

Everyone has a sheet of paper and a pen/pencil. The idea is to write the line of the story indicated, fold over the paper so no one can see what you wrote, and then pass the papers clockwise so that a different person contributes each line as follows: 

1.   A boy’s name
2.   A girl’s name
3.   Where they met
4.   What he said
5.   What she said
6.   What happened in the end

Take turns reading the stories by filling in the blanks like Mad Libs: “Once upon a time ___1___ met _____2___ at ______3________. He said, ‘_____4_____.’ She said, ‘_____5_____.’ And in the end _________6________.”

In my mini-grammar-lesson version, I only used lines 4 and 5 and opened it up to not just “said” but anything they wanted him and her to do. It could be that “he hot-air ballooned to work” and “she pretended to be a horse.”

Then I had them swap all around so that they had a red strip and a blue strip that didn’t originally go together. These they glued in their notebooks and drew a semicolon (;) in between. I had them share some funny ones, and we got things like, “She nagged at him about never listening; he dove into the lake.” Pretty good, as Mad Libs go!

But the point was that I needed them to realize that (a) semicolons are used in places where you want to make some kind of comparison and (b) each side has to be able to stand alone. Only time will tell if that sunk in.

For colons, I’m hoping it worked even better. This time, they had to write a sentence — a complete sentence, one that you could plunk a period onto — that suggested a list to follow. Then, on a different-colored strip, they created a list. Same as before, they swapped around and got funny stuff like, “There are several things you need when you go camping: a manicure, a high-speed internet connection, a course catalog, etc.”

And this time I think the strips really stuck. In the past, I’ve noticed students’ tendency to use words like “including” right before the colon, no matter how much I rail against it. But when the sentence was literally broken into two strips, they saw that it had to stand alone because they dealt with each piece separately.

Tonight I’m going to use paper strips and glue sticks to try and adhere em dashes and parentheses to their brains. If it continues to work and show results (though I should note that this is in conjunction with the assignments they do on Real Grammar, not an alternative to those), I’ll post the mini-lessons in my Teaching section for other teachers to try out as well.

And even if you’re not a teacher, try the He Said; She Said group game with your roommates or your kids or something. If you get a funny story, please share it!

Leave a comment!

Rate My Professors

You can tell the semester is winding down when some of my 2010 students spent our lab time last week surfing for fall classes. I overheard two nearest me discussing how to know which classes to take by consulting

I’d heard of it, of course, but I’d never gotten around to checking out the site. Naturally I took the opportunity to look myself up . . . and find out I’m not on there.

We all know most ratings come from people who either hate or love someone/something, so I felt a mixture of relief and disappointment. None of my students hate me enough, but none adore me enough, either. Then one student told me he wanted to add me a while ago, but you have to fill in too much info and it got too tedious. I guess I can be glad my students are smart enough not to waste time on tediousness! Or something.

I can relate. How often did I tell my professors how much I appreciated their class? Yeah, not often enough. And that got me started thinking about teachers to whom I’d love to give a shout-out for the highest rating possible.

Like Mr. Moore, our high school choir teacher at Palo Verde H.S. in Tucson, AZ, whom we affectionately called Old Man. He was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G and could draw not only incredible sound from us, but feeling, too. And when you’re a teenager, I’m pretty convinced that having a positive outlet for all those turbulent emotions is a dang good thing. Plus, having one of the best choirs in the city felt awesome, made us proud of the work we put into it, and gave us a reason to want to show up for high school every day.

Also there were so many fantastic professors I had at BYU, like Phil Snyder, John Bennion, Elizabeth Wahlquist, Sirpa Grierson, Trent Hickman, Lance Larsen, Steve Walker, Jackie Thursby, Chris Crowe, Louise Plummer.

Sometimes I feel like I was raised by them — by the English Department — because they shaped who I am in so many important ways during those first unstable adult years where I was trying to figure out myself and the world. They helped me appreciate multiple perspectives and learn to question/analyze everything to see both the complications and possibilities. Those skills have become invaluable.

Then there are dozens of teachers whose names I’ve forgotten but who nevertheless impacted my life.

Like the high school English teacher who gave me the first D I’d ever gotten on a paper. I needed that D as a wake-up call to try harder.

Like my fifth grade teacher in Portland, OR (was her name Carol Mitchell?), who let me write a novel instead of a short story and even typed it for me, quietly encouraging my budding writing career.

Or my fourth grade teacher who let me organize our class into producing a (horrible) play I’d written myself.

Or a lit professor in college who treated my questions and concerns with such respect and deference that I left his office feeling like I’d just met the embodiment of “graciousness.”

Or my social studies teachers in middle school, one of whom had a poster of sentence structures for us to learn to use. I never learned the names of the structures (“starting with a past participle”? “interrupting with an -ing phrase”?), but I’ve been using them successfully since eighth grade, and more than fifteen years later that has become my model for teaching grammar to my college students (it’s the usage, not the terminology, that’s important).

I only ever dropped one course because of a teacher: in college after sitting through the first class period, and it was mainly because his voice was so soporific I was afraid of falling asleep in class and offending him. 😉

How would I rate my professors? Maybe I’ve got rose-colored glasses looking at the past, but I’m grateful for all of them. They shaped me into both the person and the teacher I am today.

So today in the comments I’d love it if you’d give a shout-out to the teachers you’re grateful for and tell us why.

Leave a comment!