Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Parenting Awards

I'm sure I'm eligible for several parenting awards.

Laziest Parent Ever Award, for instance. A FB friend posted about how she and her 10 year old daughter had just battled about dinner --as usual, her daughter didn't want to eat what she'd made for dinner. Every parent has been there, and several chimed in with comments. I found a solution to this problem years ago --gosh, quite a few years ago, as I think on it. Most of the time Emma makes her own dinner. Yes, I'm THAT lazy. It has to include a few healthy things (I make sure to keep these on the grocery list so they're always available) --lately that will be apple slices, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella cheese sticks, bananas, etc. She puts together a plate, and yes, it will include chips and cookies, but I'm fine with that. She's healthy and at a perfectly normal weight, and she's been eating this way for years. She eats when she's hungry, and stops when she's full.

I gave up cooking regular meals quite a few years ago now. I got tired of it. Why should this be my job, anyway? I still do it sometimes (and of course they have to be minus any nuts, bell peppers, or anything in the onion family because I'm blessed to live with two people with food allergies), and Rob is wonderfully grateful when I do. I make dinner so rarely nowadays that he can't possibly take it for granted :-)

Irresponsible Parent Award. Just the thought of this one made me laugh out loud this morning, as I was driving Emma to school. She wanted to get breakfast at Panera this morning --she does this one or twice a month. It's kind of on the way to school, but it takes extra time. She's still not very good at getting ready on time, so when we got in the car and she looked at the clock, she said "We'll be late for school, won't we?" Meh --it was going to be close. So what do I do? Get her to school on time? No! Of course not. I head to Panera. It was 25 degrees with snow on the ground in April --I think the whole world deserves to have hot chocolate for breakfast when we have snow in April! So, we were about 10 minutes late for school.

An administration with a relaxed attitude is one of the advantages of having her attend a small private school. Boy, when she starts at the public high school in another year, I'm going to have to seriously shape up!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


I'm starting this blog post while I'm teaching lab. Bad, huh? :-) 

But sometimes my students just really make me laugh. This semester, my traditional class (the one class I teach that isn't partially or totally online) is very small. Maybe it's because it's so small that the range of personalities seems so great.

I have one student who showed up 15 to 20 minutes late each day for the first three weeks (the class meets twice a week for 2 hours 40 minutes each time). Finally she stayed after class to let me know she'd just found out she was pregnant. She was late every day because she was so tired that she couldn't drag herself out of bed. She was a bit teary as she told me. I have so been there --I was a terrible pregnant lady, which was another good reason to only do it once. Some days I could barely lift my arms high enough to write on the chalkboard. Anyway, turns out this is her last semester at the college. She works a full-time job as manager at a fast food restaurant and is taking three classes. She lives with her boyfriend, and the pregnancy came as a surprise to both of them. She's a great student. I've made accommodations: to let her get an hour more sleep on the days we have class, she attends for the second half of the session which is the lab portion of class, and I email her the same written lectures that I use for my hybrid class. Since then, she's never missed a class or been late for the lab portion. She's going to get through this semester and have her Associates degree before the baby comes along. 

I have a boyfriend/girlfriend duo who do nothing but fight with each other during class. He's very smart, she's very emotional. He can sit in lecture, never look at the material again, and ace the exam. She doesn't take very much in during lecture, so he's always trying to explain it to her when they're working on lab. She gets upset both because she has trouble understanding the material and because she feels he's talking down to her. They are actually both nice people (she's going into music therapy and is very passionate about working with autistic children), but he's in a lose-lose situation during class. Because it's a small (quiet) class, we all get to enjoy each and every argument.

There's a table of three boys --and although they may be 20 years old, they are definitely boys-- who pretend to pay attention but then fail exams. After the third exam, I heard the goofy one say, when they were working on a lab exercise, "I need these points, so I have to be sure we're right on this." I don't know what their story is, but they're working hard in lab now, and the goofy one makes me laugh during lecture --he's so blond his hair is almost white, and he's very tall with a face only his mother could love. He's always nodding his head elaborately when he dredges up a correct answer to a question, shrugging his shoulders dramatically when he doesn't. The gestures aren't meant for show --you can tell his body just does this as he processes things. He's just totally goofy, although in a quiet way.

Another female student refuses to work with anyone, and is offended when I can't read her hand writing on the labs. She's very quiet, but obviously just dreads having to sit through my class. Big, dramatic, sighs ensue. 

I just love teaching these kids. It's weird, but I just like them, even the one who hates being there.

Now in one of my online classes I have a student who must constantly challenge my scientific judgement about what the correct answer is to a question. He's incredibly annoying, and I don't like him at all. For some reason, he seems to think that no one other than him has ever thought about the geology of the planets. He presents hypotheses that have been considered and rejected by scientists as if he's presenting me with astonishing information. I want to tell him this, but instead I just calmly explain how he's incorrect. Luckily, most of the students in the online classes are more honestly seeking information, but I cringe when I see his name in my inbox. 

So, it's not all roses and fairies, but I sure wouldn't want to have any other career. I get a new batch each semester, and there always seem to be a few gems :-) 

And, just so you know, I only wrote a few sentences of this post while I was teaching lab -I just didn't want to forget what I wanted to share with you all.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Day Of Spring

I don't know when the next one will be, but we had a day of spring today.

Emma was gone most of the day, so Rob and I (and the cat) wandered out into the yard and did a few things. Nothing too strenuous. I sprayed Liquid Fence on all the emerging bulb leaves, admired a few tiny yellow crocus (and sprayed them too), and cleared some old winter leaves. Last fall I purchased a garden seat that doubles as a kneeler, so I brought that around with me and managed to cut back some of last years iris leaves, and prune the heather. The heather did not like this winter, that's for certain --even though it was encased in snow from December forward, it needs a better pruning than I can really do with the garden scissors I was using. 

It was very pleasant to be outside for a while. When I left to pick Emma up from her Kempo class, Rob took this lovely photo of some light purple crocus with a honeybee gathering some pollen. (He took this with his iPhone --I don't know how he gets such great focus with his macro photos on his phone.)

We haven't had a hive for the last couple of years (and will probably wait till Rob retires to get back into bee-keeping) and it made me wonder how the local hives managed through this incredibly cold winter.

I hope wherever you are, it was nice :-)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

There's a book review in there somewhere . . .

Emma has been home for spring break this week. That used to be such a hectic week, but thank goodness kids grow up (and we only had one), so she's just been home, while Rob and I have gone off to work. Well, except for yesterday, when I drove in and out of Rockford three times --once to go to teach, then to take Emma to her guitar lesson (normally held at school, but the teacher missed last week), then for her Kempo class in the evening.  It's a 15 mile trip one way, so just yesterday I put 90 miles on my car without going anywhere. (Amazing fact: My car has more miles on it than Rob's: we bought them six months apart, and we drove his to California and back.)

Today, however, she had two friends over and I didn't have to drive for either of them! 

I have, however, spent literally (literally!) all day grading. I was interrupted twice: First, Emma asked me if chloroform was at all similar to the chlorine we put in the pool, so I quickly opened another browser tab and googled it. I can't help it. Then later this afternoon I had to remind her how to play the card game War. Oh, and I did take a few minutes to tell Rob how awesome it was that I figured out the trigonometric relationship (so I could explain it to a student) that allowed early astronomers to find out that Venus (at a certain position along it's orbit) was 0.3 times as close to Earth as Earth is to the Sun. Since trig is one of the math classes he enjoys teaching, I had to share how I actually remembered how trig worked, even though I took my trig class about 30 years ago. Important interruptions, all.

But, the reason I wanted to write a blog post was for this: a book review!

 I finished reading Anna Quindlen's latest novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs. Wow I loved reading it. I've read all of her novels, and some of them I could never read again --not because they aren't great, but because they are too heart-breaking. I cried through the last three-quarters of Every Last One --I don't think I could take that again. 

But this novel was one of reflection, a gentle journey with the main character, a soul I felt an affection for and a connection to. I love the way it was written, with periodic asides, never boring, where the reader is caught up on events that happened in the past or would happen in the future, that the protagonist doesn't know about and might never learn. Reading this book felt a bit like taking a gentle ride down a stream --there was a fluidity to the experience that was soothing, while I'd still describe the book as a page-turner. Maybe it has something to do with a protagonist who is sixty years old, and my own age, but I just really enjoyed the journey. I certainly didn't want it to end, and I've been reflecting on it for the last two days, and wanting to share it with you all. You should all read it :-)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Evolution of a Teacher

Warning: long rambling thoughts on teaching ahead :-)
When I finished my PhD, I disappointed my faculty mentors because I did not apply for any post-doc research positions, and in fact I only applied for positions where teaching was the top priority. Faculty at big research universities get noticed in two ways: publishing journal articles, and producing students who then go on to publish more journal articles. These things feed their egos, and of course also continue to push forward our general knowledge in all areas of academics. If you opt out, you're not of much use to them.

I was excited when I began my graduate work in geology, but by the time I got to the last couple of years, I realized that I enjoyed the teaching parts of grad school most of all. I found that I just didn't have the interest in geology that is necessary to formulate the big questions that will get grants funded. By the time I defended my dissertation, I knew I wanted to focus on teaching, not research. I got lucky: I only applied for two positions and I was hired right away, at the community college where I still teach, 18 years later. 

When I first started teaching, I taught my classes the same way I'd been taught.  I expected my students to learn every detail in the textbook, to memorize mineral formulas, be able to identify obscure rock samples on lab practicals, as if they were all going to become geologists. In the 18 years I've taught here, I've had two students that I know of who went on to pursue a Bachelor's degree in geology. That's out of 120 students each semester.

I've learned a lot about teaching over the years, both from my time spent in the classroom and from a series of online courses I took when I started teaching online. Those courses focused on the pedagogy of teaching online, but in many ways that's simply good pedagogy in general. How to teach isn't something that you learn in grad school unless you're getting a degree in education, so these were great classes for me.

At a community college we have a student population that is quite different from the body of students at a four-year university. Community colleges don't have admission standards; instead we have "open enrollment". In-coming students are required to take placement exams in math and composition, and many of our students "place" into a repeat of high school. Those classes are called developmental classes. When I first arrived at the college, we had developmental math and composition courses. Now we also have a developmental chemistry course, for students who want to enter nursing school but learned no chemistry in high school. We are slowly becoming the high-school-you-pay-for when you've passed through the public high school without learning anything. (It used to be that developmental classes were full of non-traditional, older, students. Not so today: most of the students are straight out of high school.) 

I've come to realize that I'm not here to form future geologists. For the most part I'm not here to form future scientists of any kind. As faculty at a community college, we're here to help these kids learn to be responsible adults, and give them just enough reading/writing/thinking skills that they can succeed in working their way up from server or cook to manager of a fast-food restaurant, or of a retail store. Most of our students are planning to get business degrees. I'm not sure what the heck that actually means in terms of a 4-year degree, but I know it doesn't give you the skills, background, or critical thinking ability to become the CEO of a successful corporation. Some of them choose this degree path because they think it will lead to a six-figure salary, but many choose it because that's how they think of the world of jobs: they are all in businesses. 

I used to think that was such a shame --that they were so focused on getting a business degree that they didn't take the time to explore other fields, and perhaps missed finding a true calling. But I don't think that's so true anymore --I don't think many of these kids would really find that kind of interest in an academic field. Many of my female students, 18 or maybe 20 years old, already have at least one child. Sometimes a spouse as well. They see this education as a way to create a slightly better life for themselves and their children. An Associates or Bachelor's degree will give them an advantage when it comes to applying for jobs. They are often quite motivated, although some of them are terribly under-prepared for understanding the textbook or knowing how to study content so they'll remember it. 

The young male students are a different story --most of them just completely lack direction --I long to ask them WHY they are sitting in my class. I think they'd shrug and say they don't really know.

So, while I used to cram as much geology content as possible into my classes, I now focus more on connecting with each student. Where I've curbed lecture content, I've increased hands-on work that must be done in class, while I'm around to coach them through it. I worry less about helping students get As, and more about helping failing students learn to think through an exercise, hoping that it will help them change their trajectory, since being a single mom is basically a recipe for living in poverty. 

I now let my students bring a crib-sheet to exams: they can write anything they want on one side of an 8.5x11 sheet of paper, as long as everything is handwritten. I know that for some of them, writing out the crib sheet is the most studying they will do for an exam. It doesn't hurt that using a crib sheet lessens anxiety and stops students from complaining so much about what is actually on the exam --if they can write anything down, I think they see it more as their own fault if they aren't prepared. (Interestingly, it hasn't really changed the range of exam scores. The good students would have done well without it, and the poor students don't have a clue what to write down.)

My views on education in general have changed a lot --both from the experience of my own education, teaching for these years, and watching Emma progress through school. Why do we insist that all high school students learn the same things? They have disparate interests and career goals, but they're all herded through the same basic classes, where they receive an education that completely lacks depth in anything. Because they're not interested in most of the classes they're required to take, they don't learn to really attack a problem that they want to solve. They don't learn to research it, write about it articulately, solve it mathematically --instead they do the bare minimum to get by. I really think home-schooling in an un-schooling way may be a much more sane way to educate a teen. 

I've been thinking more and more about this as I contemplate the year after next, and Emma choosing to attend a public high school. She has a firm foundation, and she'll be fine whatever she chooses to do, but I wish we had a better answer for public education in general.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Goings On

I attempted to make a Swiss-Dill bread. Except that I forgot to add the dill (it was right there on the counter, I'm not sure what happened), and I didn't add enough Swiss cheese. It was just the first attempt though.
Emma took her first bike ride of the season, although I didn't get any pictures. It's 50 degrees out, and it feels like 70s to those of us used to negative numbers. 

I took Gwen out for a bit. She loves going out, but you have to babysit her. Without being able to see or hear, it's quite likely she'd just wander and never find her way back.

Emma was on her swing.

In that last picture you can see how gaunt she is --her hip bones stick up, and her back legs are very unreliable. Outside is the only place she doesn't meow incessantly. It's rough getting old.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Gentle, Rocking, Waves.

Last night as I was settling in to bed, I started thinking about what it might feel like to settle in on a water bed. I have never even sat on a water bed, so I'm only using my imagination here. But . . .  in my imagination it was a really nice experience: A gentle rocking motion, as I lay back on my pillow, that rocked me to sleep as it eventually slowed. 
Of course, then I started thinking of all the reasons I'd never buy a water bed --I just can't even imagine living with a water bed on the second floor of my house. I'd never be able to walk in the kitchen without an anxious glance at the ceiling. And I have this vision of my elbow poking through the mattress every time I turned over, and me slowly sinking down to the hard platform as the water drains out over our bedroom floor. Or me being sucked in to that enormous elbow-created hole and drowning before the water can drain away.

Really, who could sleep with that kind of fear in the background all the time? :-)

Have any of you guys ever had a water bed?