Posts tagged composition

Bay Window Sun

This university spring semester is almost done, we have graduation this Saturday. I have to get my grades in before May 9th. I had my last class with my composition students last Thursday.  Since no more students will be on campus, the Greenhouse was selling plants that I need for my vegetable garden. I bought 32 tomato plants and then broccoli and cauliflower too.  I also bought many wave petunias, different colors, I must have gotten 36 of them and I have planted in pots half of that.


I also have coleus that I snipped off the tallest sprig and put them in water so that they root.  Overall, I have a LOT of work to do to get the gardens prepared for these plants. I dare not put them in for another month because it could still freeze by end of May. Supposedly the first week of June is the time to REALLY plant.


I went to an Arts Expo and I met the young woman who is Miss MN right now. She got her piano instruction from another woman who had another Miss MN get in about five years ago.  Talent on piano counts for something.  She asked people to find her in the crowds as she was the one wearing a sparkly hat.  Cute.  She is friends with my violin playing niece and knows my sister who is INTO creating music through technology.


How great to see all the talent that came together from seven counties for this Arts Expo event. I am now inspired to do more creative things with the broken glass I have found. First I have to grade my students research papers and THEN I’ll have a bit more free time. Ha!


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Amazing November, Semester soon ending!


Sunrise on the plains, this was a murky morning. We are down to Week 12 out of 16 weeks and essentially, after our Thanksgiving in the end of November, then it is a downhill slide to the end of the semester. I’ll have my 35 composition students give their powerpoint presentations on their last research paper and then it is grading time and we are out of here!  The weather yesterday was 75 degrees which is unusual for November but it goes along with our remarkable summer and fall we experienced.  Technically we could be getting snow at any time and it would stay until March or April.  For now the grass is green and the sunsets have been magnificent.


The above is a sunset that I caught about 3-4 days ago. I got a LOT of responses on it from my FB friends. I guess I don’t realize how fortunate I am to capture these scenes in the sky that last almost a half hour. This one did and when I thought I was done taking pictures, I turned around and there were MORE photos to take.  The comments that I get from others is that they wish they could see these sunsets like I do or other “magnificent” or “spectacular” kinds of comments.  One would think people would get tired of these colorful sky photos but that is NOT the case, people seem to soak it up.


So, one thing I learned today was that the heavenlies are looking down to see what we do with the talents that we have been given.  I’m hoping that I can encourage my students tomorrow and let them know they are making great progress in learning how to format APA type research papers.  I just graded 17 of these papers and they are all over the board, not conforming to the rules of APA but I will get them there in about four weeks.

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Started teaching again, scheduler was way ahead of me


Last day of my summer vacation

I had taught two classes in the two of the days of this week. I teach on MWF mornings. I have 40 students total in my two composition classes, they are good kids. Lots of football players from all over the U.S. and some baseball players and then the girl soccer players.  Oh yes, there are volleyball players too.  What was funny the first day of class on Wednesday was that I had asked the registrar on Monday to have one of my classes moved, since they are back to back, together in one classroom. I was hoping for the same room, even the same building would be better than walking across campus in the 10 minute interlude between classes. This is what happens when you let computers take over the master schedule for the whole campus.

As it turned out I got the floor above (in the same building). I thought that I would go to the original classroom on Wednesday, during our first class,  to tell them where our NEW classroom was for Friday’s class.  I realized quickly that something wasn’t right when less than half were in the original room with my missing about 12 students.  So, I went to the NEW location while I gave the first group an assignment to write down for me what their semester schedule looked like.

When I got to the newly assigned classroom, I asked if it was Comp I class to the filled up classroom (well about 13 students were there).  I asked who their comp teacher was and they said my name.  I told them *I* was their teacher and that I had to figure out what to do.  I thought quickly. I saw there were MORE people in the second room even though I had my ppt presentation all set up in the other building.  I told THEM to work on their schedule for the semester while I went back to the first room to retrieve the 8 students.

After this 15 minute snafu, things were normalized and the students were NOT ready to leave because we had had such a short time together.  Today, I had my own problems with technology where I had a hard time with the projector to work with my laptop.  I got through it but that is the advantage of being in the same classroom when they are back to back…no need to fix all the technology again.

Anyway, I am glad we are off to a good start.  I have some very respectful students, most of them are. They e-mail me and call me Dr. or Professor. I told them they could call me by my first name, the one I sign off on when I e-mail the whole class.  In any case, I hope that we all have a good time together because I realize some do NOT like to write long, formal papers.  I told them today that this is NOT high school anymore, we are in university now.

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Spring weeding, weeding and planting

Mid April and we are already planting in northern Minnesota, at least the farmers are. It is also very dry and we could use some rain. I need to get out to my 13-14 perennial flower gardens and restore them back to health.  I have tulips that are up six inches so they will be blooming soon.  About four days ago I repotted about 15 elephant ear bulbs.  Left them in their big containers outside and hopefully they didn’t get zapped in our 22 degrees one night, the other night it was 25 degrees.  I’m hoping that since they are close to the house on the south side that they didn’t feel the shock and will survive. I want to put these big eared plants out in front of the Carnegie building when it is warmer weather.

For now, it could still snow and be nasty up to the end of May, we have 1 1/2 months left of weather that could be winter like again. Today, it is a sunny beautiful day with promises of getting up to 70 degrees again.  So, I need to beat the wood ticks and get out to do all the necessary weeding that needs to be done to get ready for summer. My husband tilled up one of our vegetable gardens so that is looking good and ready for planting. I’ll leave that for my mom and hubby to do.

I’m glad I can finally look forward to my summer plans. This week I had TWO  lengthy talks with the same student about his grade. He is averaging a C for the first 13 weeks of the semester, he is really struggling at 72% and he expects to get a B.  Turns out he got a D in Comp I before and then he took Comp II from the same teacher and got a B!!!  I had to go talk to her and find out if this information he gave me was true.  It was.  So, I believe that his receiving a C grade is appropriate and that there is NO amount of negotiating to get that grade up.

The light bulb went off for him when he found out that it is necessary to revise. He was telling me that there are no perfect writers. I agreed with him but the ones who do write well also know how to revise well.  I think he must not get that and when he is doing is APA formatting which meant the last three required assignments, you have to alphabetize your sources in the References page. He cannot do that.  Maybe he doesn’t know his alphabet? I’m bewildered by that.  Anyway, I do not want to have this student come to my office again to talk for 45 minutes to an hour about why he should get a better grade.  Yesterday I handed out to each student the part in the syllabus that shows what an A paper looks like compared to a B paper all the way down to F.  It also said in my syllabus that if there is a grade dispute that the student needs to put it in writing within 24 hours of when they received the grade to try and improve it.  What this student did was complain about the third required paper 3-4 weeks after the fact.

I told him that I would throw those 150 points out and that he would only have 1,150 points to deal with instead of the 1,300 points.  He agreed with that but then he came back to my office to say that he was okay with keeping in that paper in the grade total.  I think this is a control issue.  He is majoring in communication but moving to another school after this semester is over. He is unhappy here.  I’m thinking this student is NOT ready for academia.

I believe weeding my overrun gardens will be easier than convincing this student that he is an AVERAGE student and does NOT deserve a B!  Yes, I’ll go out now to do that and think about other things.

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Interviewed an 83 year old Old Timer

Yesterday I had the opportunity to interview a man who knows a LOT about my hometown.  He had many memories of people and places even though he has lived away from his boyhood stomping grounds for over 50 years.  He attributes the fact that he knows so much because he was a good numbers guy and also was a telegrapher in the Korean war.  With his jobs doing parts, he was a detail guy too, for 43 years.  This is all from a man who had to make the decision to quit school to help with the family. His dad died when he was 9 years old so he was forced to get jobs around town to help support the family. He had a sister and brother.

Marv was an upbeat kind of guy, didn’t say a bad thing about anyone.  He only told jokes or stories that made you laugh or forced you to think.  He claimed he knew 95% of the people in his beautiful living complex because he was on the welcoming committee.  Perhaps that is true but I also think that he had a love for people.  Perhaps he would have made a good politician had he furthered his education.  He thought aloud with saying, “My life would have been so different if only…” and then he trailed off on that sentence. I knew that was probably the one regret he had but still he did well with what he accomplished in his life.  One of the 100 people I featured in my last history book titled “Legendary Locals” about my hometown was a good math teacher.  He really admired her and he said she had wanted him to join in the theater’s plays that they produced.  I was glad to hear him say he had a good relationship with her.  I had heard from other people that she was a task master or at least a tough teacher.

That reminds me of my current situation. I had a young student e-mail me about how he was NOT happy with his final grade.  What perplexes me is that he did not show up for the last month of classes and did NOT do his last two required papers that had significant points attached to them.  He wanted to do the extra work, NOW!  That would amount to MY having to do the extra work so that he could get a better grade. I sent my e-mail exchange with this student, name blocked out of course, to a teaching colleague friend of mine. She backed me up 100% because she said that if she allowed one student to improve their grade, that would set a precedent where all other students would have a chance to do that as well.

Perhaps this student who is still a high school student didn’t have enough advice about how he was in university now, it is a different ballgame. I had 85 other students I taught this past semester, it is not my job to chase after students to find out why they are not attending class.  His father has an office just down the hall from me.  He never asked about his son and I didn’t offer any information to him either.  Now this young lad can’t play in his favorite sport of hockey because he has failed this one course.  He claimed that he got Bs in his other two university courses.  What is a high school kid doing taking THREE college level courses and then playing on the high school hockey team…plus his high school load?  Well, he gets all these courses FREE and what better way to get a college degree than using the system like that, right?

Anyway, I hope I have the support of my boss on this because the father is also under the same boss I am.  Makes for a strange vacation to have things from last semester follow you.  I will have to talk to my boss and the father and perhaps this son when I return from being away for two weeks.  I’m actually glad that I WAS away after all my students got their grades. I haven’t had any of them e-mail me to THANK me for their grade.  It feels like a thankless job to be a composition teacher.  We are in the trenches with kids who come to our classes ill-equipped from high school but then when we get high school kids too who expect GRACE to improve their grades…well that is not an institution of higher learning anymore. You simply have millineals calling the shots.  Not a good trend.

This is my last post of the year of 2014.  I wish I had better news to report but I was glad to talk to an old timer who went through a LOT in his life, worked hard and had good times along the way.  That should balance out the negative review I got from a 16 year old boy who made some bad decisions to NOT do the work and NOT attend my classes.

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Versus vs. Verses: Teacher Centered vs. Student Centered

Yesterday’s meeting revealed an “aha” moment for me in our institution of higher learning in Kazakhstan.  Long have I dealt with the cross-cultural aspects of teaching in an environment which is strongly teacher-centered vs. learner-centered.  No way to get around shifting paradigms without having head transplants for each and every teacher whose strong and foreboding presence looms large in their classrooms.  Supposedly the Kazakhstani teacher is to KNOW all and the students are to follow like docile, stupid sheep.  Refer to my blog about “Iron Rice Bowl” policy vs. “Naglyi” students.  The tide is turning where the teacher does NOT know all and some of the students are learning despite the teacher’s pretense of erudition.


American teachers are handy to have around at our supposedly “western” university, we can be blamed for things once we leave.  I’m not leaving any time soon but at our big meeting of the English teaching faculty yesterday I asked what I thought was a legitimate question of our director. He gave a respectful and measured answer. I wanted to know, in preparation for spring semester, how soon we would need to get a syllabus change for some critical issues that were changed from last spring semester.  My example was easily recognized by the 80 or so teachers who heard my question because half of them will be teaching this same reading and writing course next spring semester of 2009.  Two changes that I knew of that impacted our teaching this semester compared to last was requiring four essays down to only two essays (discursive and problem/solution) and three academic articles for the final portfolio augmented to FIVE journal articles!!!


Finally, I asked in front of the big group, what I thought was another legitimate question, why have a 10% reading “exam” that is spaced out 1 ½ weeks AFTER classes are finished when it could be a “test” administered during class time. Exam vs. test. If our students are successfully reading many articles they find of interest instead of the worn out topics set down by their teachers, then they will be reading and not knowing how much they have been reading.  I know, I know, we would have to come up with at least four different test versions because of the problem of leakage of tests and cheating from class to class.  Botheration, cheating and plagiarism is the bane of our existence and it hits us particularly hard at the first year level because we are supposedly the net to catch those cheaters from plagiarizing their way through the rest of their university years.


Last spring semester it was clearly stated in the Academic Reading and Writing syllabus that the students were to know how to write discursive, compare/contrast, cause/effect essays finally culminating with the problem/solution essay as the final portfolio project.  This portfolio is 30% of the final grade for this course and as I wrote in an earlier blog “Mr. Controlling Idea Meet Ms. In-text Citation” many of our students are not capable of writing an academic paper yet.  Some don’t even have the basic, rudimentary skills of writing a cohesive sentence in English let alone using proper APA citations and knowing all the intricate formatting rules.  We are expecting them to write a type of research paper.  Preposterous, you may say.  Wait, I just got started!


I had earlier recommended to the team leader that more of an emphasis should be put on students learning how to LOOK up information by going to the electronic research databases rather than being driven by a fixed outline. Outline-driven vs. Source-driven. This penchant for wanting to have every sentence in its place so it is easier to grade is, I believe, counter productive.  The only sentence I want to see in a particular place in any given essay is the thesis statement.  Typically it is the last sentence in the introductory paragraph, even that seems rigid to me. 


However, the students were handed an example of how to write a problem and solution essay and they are supposed to show the problem in the first paragraph and then have two solutions in subsequent paragraphs.  Each solution is to show that they have advantages and disadvantages, however, the second solution is to have MORE advantages than disadvantages.  I looked up in my friend, Joy Reid’s book on the Process of Composition, and there are many different outlines that can satisfy a problem and solution essay.  It does NOT have to be the cookie cutter outline that has been accepted as the norm by all our teachers in the last several years.  The teachers themselves would NOT want to write an essay which they require their students to write. 


Criminy, on top of that these poor students are required to have FIVE sources from the electronic database rather than the prescribed three articles from last semester.  The only reason I had recommended a change to five sources listed in the References page was to make the final project more Source-driven rather than Outline-driven.  I refused to have my students use this restrictive outline as it is like tethering a overly tight bridle on a high spirited horse with accompanying whips and blinders on it and expect it to move forward.  It won’t, the horse will come to a standstill.  The students with those kinds of restrictions will HATE writing. I know I would hate to have such a prescriptive outline that dictates in 1,000 words what I am supposed to write.  I also am well aware that many of the teachers are required to teach writing and they HATE it as well.  I’m saddened by this fact since I love to teach writing because I can see into my students’ hearts with what they write.  Some of mine have written quite eloquently if you get past the occasional grammar errors or strange word choices.  See an example of my students reviews


Stay tuned for Part II of Versus vs. Verses







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My “Soap Box” about Teaching Research Papers!


The mournful wail of a Kazakh student living in England grabbed my heart the other day.  I was talking on the phone to this student, (let’s call him Zed) who was under great pressure to accomplish a major economics paper of 48 pages for his “dissertation” for a bachelors degree.  He wailed, “But I don’t know HOW to write a research paper!”  I’m not sure which university Zed was attending in London, it doesn’t matter, the important thing is that Zed was sent abroad ill equipped to accomplish what was expected in his economics department. 

Obviously, Zed hadn’t plagiarized much after looking over the text where all the articles were missing.  Zed also kept mixing up the irregular verbs of “lead” when he meant “led” in the past tense or writing “felt” when he meant “fell.”  Zed also used personal pronouns of “I” or “we” and used contractions such as “can’t” and “let’s.”  All considered errors if writing a major research paper for his British profs, especially if this is to be considered his “dissertation.”  I still can’t get over that phrase but that is what Zed kept calling it.  The title of his paper was: “Discuss the factors behind the 1992-1996 recession in Russia.”  An interesting enough topic to me since it could have parallels to what happened in Kazakhstan once the former Soviet Union fell apart.  The following is his 98 word abstract which I helped clean up:

“Currently the world community has met yet again the problem of crisis when some countries of the former Soviet Union started to experience the first steps of recession. This paper will specifically consider the past experience of Russia. When the post-Soviet republic was dismantled from the Soviet Union, it implemented reforms to move from planned economy to market economy.  However, that implementation brought the country to deep recession during a period of  6-7 years (from 1992-1996). Reasons and consequences of Russia’s recession are discussed in the paper along with the vision of political and economic processes being analyzed.”

The main problem with Zed’s text was that he did not use any in-text citations but footnotes instead.  I asked Zed over our crackling cell phones what formatting style he was using, he claimed he didn’t know.  I tried to see if his footnotes of sources matched what was in his bibliography, in some cases they did not.  The Bibliography often did not have authors’ names or if it did, they were not even alphabetized properly.  Zed had numbers next to each source up to 70 citations.  Remarkable and the bibliography had the appearance of being thorough research.  However, out of curiosity, I asked my teaching colleagues the next day about this numbering and they said in the Soviet period it was considered correct to number your sources and if you had at least 50 of them, then you were fulfilling the research requirements.  Back in those Soviet days, that meant books and not just short journal articles or Internet sources.

Another thing that was notable about Zed’s references was that he was using many Internet sources without showing authors names, where it was retrieved from and when he retrieved it.  When teaching my own composition students, I work around that problem by not allowing the use of ANY Internet sources especially since there is not usually an author’s name attached to it.  Too much junk science is on the Internet.  That is why I insist my composition students learn how to access the electronic research databases. 

If only our dear students knew that all the work has already been done for them to access the thousands of journal articles that their university has paid for through research databases such as EBSCOhost, ProQuest and J-Stor.  In some cases, someone has taken the time to scan every page, just the way it looks in the actual journal that was published on a specific date, in a particular place.  True scholarship acknowledges author, time, name of article, name of journal and page numbers.  Internet sources at the bottom of the page, such as , just doesn’t quite do it for me.  I didn’t check to see if the nine or so URL links of Zed’s were accessible to me since I had the electronic version of it.  I was too busy straightening out his grammar problems of articles, personal pronouns and irregular verbs.  To Zed’s credit, he had used his spell checker, because there were very few spelling errors until the last several pages of his paper.

One last thing that was discouraging about Zed’s economics research paper was the use of graphs and tables, he did not make reference to them in his text except to say “the table below.”  I cautioned Zed that he must be specific by writing in the text “Table 6” or “Figure 4.”  Besides that, I’m not sure where he got his material except cutting and pasting from the Internet.  These graphs and tables were obviously not his own work but he did not “fess up” where he got this material that was supposed to buttress his points he was making throughout his paper.

I felt sorry for Zed and the fact that he probably had several teachers in London who had marked up with red ink his earlier shorter, written assignments until they bled.  His English teachers have probably already written him off as “unteachable” when it comes to writing.  Admittedly, for this Kazakh student, English is his second or third language besides knowing Russian (he used about seven Russian sources in his paper but did not translate them in his footnotes).  I would strongly differ with Zed’s teachers that he is not able to learn the proper way to write a research paper, it just takes time and patience.  Zed and other Kazakh students like him, should not be beaten down for not knowing how to write in English, they should be encouraged.

I believe strongly that if the composition students are taken through the myriad of steps on how to access information and if they have an insatiable curiosity about their subject, it will seem like a wonderful and exciting project to them.  Just going through the motions and trying to fulfill the superficial “regulations” of having a thesis statement or topic sentences throughout the paper with proper citation format will make the students HATE writing a research paper.  I will not forget for a long time the sad voice in England who claimed “But I don’t know HOW to write a research paper!”  It seems my life mission is to change students’ voices into a happy “I’m so excited with what I found, I want to SHARE it with you!!”

As a composition teacher, I want to read good papers instead of seeing it as a task of drudgery.  I always maintain that if you are bored at teaching something, the students are bored at listening to you. If you are not enjoying teaching research papers, the students will not enjoy it either.  As teachers, we need to find out what painful steps we are expecting of our students by doing the assignment first ourselves, rather than making them do all the work.  However, if we allow plagiarized papers to come at us as the end result, we have also not done our job as teachers.  The students will go into their other classes at university or study abroad and not able to do the papers expected of them in their other course work.  Okay, I’ll get off my soap box now.






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