Monday, August 16, 2010

Not a Post About Teaching

This is not a post about teaching. What it is about is what I haven't been writing about all summer: my husband and I are expecting twins in February. We're surprised—we had no reason to think we'd have twins. We're happy—we want two children anyway. We're terrified—the risks are greater with twin pregnancies, and the costs (pediatricians, car seats, baby bjorns) are double and all at once.

But what I'm reflecting on at the moment is how lucky I have been to have this summer to get used to being pregnant: I've had a lot of nausea, and a lot of aversions, and a lot of exhaustion. But because I haven't had to show up for work every day, I've been able to manage all that. It's an incredibly privileged position to be in. I get to sleep late, go to yoga mid-day instead of when I'm tired, and indulge my nerdy habit of reading everything I possibly can about whatever I'm most interested in. Unsurprisingly, I've been devouring too many books on pregnancy and childbirth and twins.

But the best part of spending the summer reacquainting myself with slowing down has been rediscovering the neighborhood pool. The pool is outdoors and open regularly for lap swimming. For a while a couple of years ago, I practiced with the masters' swim team at this pool. But those facts alone don't quite convey the joy the pool has brought me this summer: I jump in and start swimming, and I forget everything except the feeling of the sun on my back, the weightlessness of being in the water, the regularity of my breathing. I don't think about the people who tell me to be careful about the cat litter (duh). Or the people who say they could never handle twins. I don't worry about the bazillion complications and risks that I've read about in the five pregnancy books I've digested this summer.

In the pool, it's almost as if I'm not pregnant at all. Except that I would never have thought of this were I not pregnant. I kick, breathe, pull. Flip turn. Bask. I could stay in for hours. But I set limits for myself by showing up when there's only a half hour of lap swim time left. Can't overdo it, you know.

Swimming was my first deep love. I learned to swim before I learned to walk. I prefer beach vacations to mountains—unless there's a pool or lake in the mountains. I grew up spending a week at the beach every summer, and spent most of that time in the water. I started swimming competitively when I was sixish. My childhood was spent in pools, on decks, at meets. I was never the fastest kid on the team. But something about those 12 years of swim practice most days and meets on the weekends stuck. I worry about irrational things when I swim in the sea: sharks, rays, barracudas. But I never worry that I won't be able to hold my own in the water.

I'm trying to adopt a similar attitude toward having a healthy twin pregnancy: I trust my body to do this right as long as I support the process by cultivating healthy practices. Every time I jump (or rather, ease myself) into the pool, I am practicing. And I'm doing the same when I snack on protein-rich foods, when I take a nap, when I drink plenty of water, and when I step onto my yoga mat. There could be some tough currents in the next six months. My husband and I will definitely run into some rough water once the twins arrive. But making a strong practice of taking care of myself (and thus the little buns on my oven) has its own reward: a hope that I will swim safely over the waves, however calm or choppy they may be.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Back to the Salt Mines

That's one phrase I'm going to try to eliminate from my thinking about teaching this year. And any other similar phrases. As this Profhacker post reminds me, the words we use affect our attitudes:
Each time you say something like “back to the salt mines” (which is usually accompanied by a shrug, or slumped shoulders) you reinforce your own attitudes about your workplace as being somehow like a dangerous mine where prisoners labor.  Sure, maybe you didn’t mean it, or not at a conscious level.  But if you think or say “salt mines,” “salt mines,” “salt mines,” several times a day, you’re probably not going to be feeling lively, energized, or creative.
Attitude makes a difference. I should know better than to adopt a negative attitude toward the work I'm doing (yes, this is another thing I've learned from yoga). Teaching is often hard work, but so is much of life. So, the next time I talk about the misery of grading, or being buried under course reports, I will try to be more conscious about my attitude: the grading is there to serve my students' learning, not to torture me. Interims and course reports serve the same purpose; in fact, they liberate me from the tyranny of letter grades. So I should be grateful, or at the very least, accepting, of the parts of teaching that aren't necessarily fun. And then I should keep trying to find ways to be more efficient and effective at those things, so I can spend more time on the fun stuff.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Iris, garden, April 2010
My yoga teacher posed this question at the end of class the other day: Where or when in your life have you allowed the details to become more important than the thing they were serving, AND when have you not paid enough attention to the details sacrificing that bigger picture?

My short answer: Um, all the time. For both options. Let's start with the first question.

Where or when in your life have you allowed the details to become more important than the thing they were serving? When I'm grading papers. All those comma splices and run-on sentences and misused words drive me nuts. And I sometimes lose track of my students' ideas (the big picture) when I focus on those details. But then again, if I don't focus on those details, my students won't become coherent writers. Right? Don't they need me to circle and point out their errors? When my teacher points out that I'm not pressing with the base of my index finger, she's not telling me I'm a bad yogi. She's asking me to be mindful of a detail that is essential to a strong foundation in all poses that require my hands to be on the mat. When I ask my students to pay attention to their syntax, I'm helping them build strong foundations for all the writing they'll do in their future lives. The details matter. But maybe they don't matter as much as I think they do—when a student's grammar is so atrocious that it takes me 30 minutes to get through a page, am I really serving that student by noting every single error? Probably not. A practice I'll try this year is to note repeated errors and have 5 minute conferences about those specific errors. Then I'll check the next paper for those same errors and see if there's improvement.

But what about the second question? Do I skip the details sometimes in search of the big picture (even at the expense of the big picture)? Maybe. I wonder if this isn't my major weakness as a teacher: I love to talk about the big, juicy stuff—the meaning of life stuff, the stuff that reading books is all about. I love to ponder the difficult questions with my students, and I love to see them drawing connections between themselves and the (often strange) folks in the texts we read. But, especially in upper level electives, do I err on this side too often? Would my upper level students benefit from the more direct explication that I ask for in lower level courses? Probably. Maybe I should start discussions more often with the plot, the themes, the characters, the setting, instead of asking students to extrapolate from what I assume they understand. In yoga, even the most basic poses can be incredibly challenging for an advanced practitioner, if you pay enough attention to the details. In fact, I've been through many excruciating adho mukha svanasanas (down dogs) and tadasanas (mountain poses)—thanks, Abby!

So, what do I do, now that I've acknowledged some of places where my teaching practice could be more refined?

1. Keep thinking about how I do assessment. (I've been poking around this guy's blog, wondering if there are insights I might glean—how can I adapt some of the methods he discusses to the kind of no-grades policy we have at Urban? Are there more efficient and more effective ways to give students feedback on their writing?)

2. Remember the details, particularly with older students. They may be faster at it, and they may need less coaching, but—especially considering the sheer length of the readings we often assign in electives—sometimes slowing down and going back to basics is a wise thing to do.