One Last Rodeo

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My view for the last two years. Backdrop changes. Coffee always included.

Tonight, I’m sitting in my house, trying to get words on the page for what is very likely to be my last ever seminar paper, but they don’t want to come. Two years ago, I didn’t think this program would go fast enough. I’d just been turned down for jobs I wanted, sure I was ready for the real world, whatever that means, but I had two options: 1) Take the grad school offer that was only supposed to be a backup plan OR 2) Wait and hope for a job. And so I settled in for another two years at Auburn, confident that it wouldn’t be the same and sad to watch my friends leave to do other things.

And it wasn’t the same. It’s been more terrible and more gratifying than I could ever have imagined. I’ve gotten to study with professors I missed in undergrad and continued to study with professors I adored in undergrad. I’ve come into my own as a teacher. I’ve gotten to work as a student editor, writing coach, camp counselor and more. I’ve been the region coordinator for a national ARTS program, something very close to my heart. I’ve written more than a hundred pages of seminar papers and close to two-hundred pages of creative work, none of that counting drafts, weekly responses or feedback letters. We ALL have. Which is still a little bit nuts to me.

But that’s not the stuff I’ll miss. I’ll miss these people that I did this thing with. There’s Taylor cracking up in class, Nichole wanting desperately to punch someone, Mary creeping outside our windows, Russell rambling whenever he gets the chance, Jess being awesome at everything, Molly abbreviating words that should NEVER be abbreviated, Jill scaring the unsuspecting, Kellie’s teaching tweets, Christina’s and her lack of effs, Sam’s commentary, and then Chloe and I looking at each other, acknowledging our (my?) failure of the moment and laughing because it’s all so ridiculous.

And when I think about these people, and the first years, and my Ph.D. buddies, and professors that have all made this weird space in my life full of so many good times, I’m grateful. And it makes me sad to leave (if leaving is in fact where the job search takes me) and it makes me sad to think that finishing this LAST paper means that goodbye is on the horizon. And that’s why the words just don’t want to come.

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Good thing my cat prefers typing.

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Why Poetry Out Loud?

I’ve been involved with the program Poetry Out Loud for almost a year. I’ve done recruiting and organized regional events for my corner of Alabama. It’s been one of the most rewarding parts of my masters’ education. In my travels, both personal and for the program, people ask me, “Why Poetry Out Loud? Why poetry at all?” I would say all sorts of things: literature helps you figure out who you are, a poem can help you find a voice, the program provides unexpected success in the classroom, particularly in regards to individuals. I believe all of these things, but I had not seen the depth of them until I watched Alabama students get up and recite their poems, first at the school competition in Loachapoka, Alabama, then at the region workshop, and later at the region competitions.

Today, however, I had the privilege of attending the state competitions, held at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. I say competitions, because there are two: One for students to recite their original poetry and a national competition in which students recite poems from an extensive anthology (www.poetryoutloud.org). The original competition started the day off and it blew my mind. The students read poems about over-reliance on technology, parents that weren’t there, being bullied and forced to change schools, what’s going on in the Middle East, 9/11, race, gender, creed. These students, all under 18, not yet old enough to vote, made one thing very clear: We hear you and we see you. Students in our high schools hear the jokes that are made about guns, gender roles, violence against women, cruelty to those who don’t share your religion. They hear you say something ugly and then laugh it off (of course you don’t mean it, you’re not a racist) and they know the truth. So these students got on stage and they showed me a part of their world and they said it’s not okay and they said do something. Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, well that was original poetry. The students in the anthology competition had voices that were just as strong. They read poems by others, yes, but poems that they felt. Poems that resonated. Poems that said, “we’re here. We see you. We see this.”

So now, when I’m asked, “Why Poetry Out Loud?,” I’ll still say because students find a voice, but it will have a new meaning, one that I’ll explain. This program, both the original competition and the national competition, gives students an opportunity to raise their voice for the peers and their teachers, eventually their region and state. One even gets a voice in our nation’s capital. Allowing students to discover poetry is a truly beautiful thing. The students do find a voice and it is deep and it is complex and he or she comes to that stage with something to say. I’m listening.

1st, 2nd and honorable mention in the original competition went to students from my region!

1st, 2nd and honorable mention in the original competition went to students from my region!

If you want to hear a few poems, please check out the link above to the national program website, or click here to see some poems’ from the last year’s region competition.

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Many Acronyms: SWWC, AWC, and POL

This semester has been the craziest of them all for me. I got to do so many cool things and learned so much about teaching and writing and the community and what sort of direction I want to take when I finish my MA degree. All of these events deserve their own post, but I know I’ll never do it, so here’s a semester in pictures.

First up: SWWC, or The Southern Women’s Writers Conference. This lovely little conference was held in Rome, Georgia and hosted by Berry College. Unfortunately, this was it’s last year. This was the first conference I’ve had creative work accepted to.

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Look, there I am! This is also my first experience with the academic/creative panel. It was nice. This group was a bunch of Flannery fanatics, which was fun. I learned a lot. This is also where someone asked me if I was working on a collection, which means it’s the first time I really maybe felt like a writer.

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I don’t know how I didn’t know about Dorothy Allison before now. She gave the final speech at the conference and it basically changed my life. Can’t wait to read more of her work. I recommend you do the same.

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Someone complimented my skirt and then told me that they felt conferences really demanded things like suits, which I’m sure had no connection. But then, Dorothy Allison remembered who I was because of my beautiful skirt. Win.

The next event was AWC, or the Auburn Writers Conference. It started during my last year of undergrad and in the three years it’s been running, it just keeps getting better. This year I discovered several new authors: R.A. Nelson, Robin O’Bryant, Suzanne Johnson, and Cecilia Rodriguez Milanes. I got to meet Myra McEntire and talk briefly about our love for Jay-Z. I had the honor of introducing Keetje Kuipers, a new member of Auburn’s creative writing faculty (a poet), and hear a beautiful piece about fear. Then there’s Nick Taylor, Mary Donnarumma Sharnick, Skip Horack, Wendy Reed, and Marshall Chapman (who you must look up immediately). I did so good reading this summer trying to get to know these authors, only to discover there’s more to read and more to love. I would be remiss if I did not mention the wonderful, wisdom-filled hair of one Patricia Foster, a visiting scholar who I got to know this semester. And of course, the conference wouldn’t be the conference without the always awesome Maiben, Nancy, Jay and Chantel. Chantel said it’s like Christmas in October and she’s right. Because I haven’t mentioned the best part: I GOT TO MEET JUDITH ORTIZ COFER WHO I ADORE. And she remembered my name and I talked to her multiple times. Okay, sorry. You get that it was magical? Pictures.

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Chantel Acevedo welcomes us to the 3rd Annual Auburn Writers Conference. This year’s theme is The Winding Road.

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JUDITH ORTIZ COFER

Judith told me to go on adventure. I hope I find one.

Judith told me to go on adventure. I hope I find one. – Also, fun fact- SHR published Judith and because of it, she didn’t give up writing. If you don’t know what SHR is, please look Southern Humanities Review. 

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Seeing this was one of my top five most encouraging moments from the conference (and there’s 50 moments because this conference is that good).

And finally, I had the pleasure of serving as the region coordinator for a program called Poetry Out Loud, which I’ve posted about before (so I won’t go into details). The workshop for the students and the competition itself have now happened, and happened successfully. I belong to an English Department who stepped up and helped me and the competition ran smoothly and easily. The students were wonderful and I can’t wait to go support our region winners at the state competition in February. Congratulations to all of the students!

Scott Fenton served as host in the morning (Ashley Edwards in the afternoon). Both were fantastic.

Scott Fenton served as host in the morning (Ashley Edwards in the afternoon). Both were fantastic.

Nervous contestants. St. Dunstan's was a perfect place for this to happen.

Nervous contestants. St. Dunstan’s was a perfect place for this to happen.

I got their autographs, don't you worry.

I got their autographs, don’t you worry.

So, as you can see, this has been a busy semester! And this really isn’t even the half of it. More soon, I hope!

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English Comp Workshop, or How One Attempts Get Students to Quit Saying “Peer Review”

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I’m a teacher. This is not a drill.

It’s official. We’re three weeks in and that means my students are about to turn in their first essays. We did our first workshop and I wanted to post before I got the papers in because there’s some chance my ideas about how workshop went will change (for better or worse) when I get the papers in.

I’ve attempted to create a classroom that is a studio for writing. My hope for my students and for our class is that we’ll develop a metalinguistic awareness. I want them to be able to write and to talk about language and writing in a meaningful way. Of course, we’re not using terms like metalinguistic awareness, but we are talking about writing, reading about writing, reading each other’s writing, and talking about the ways we use language to make meaning and how. 

Their first assignment is to analyze an ad from this archive: http://www.livingroomcandidate.org. It is an archive of campaign ads, but they are not able to use anything from the 2008 campaign. I encouraged them all to examine ads from before they were born and most of them did. I tell you this, just so you have an idea of the type of essay my students are workshopping. 

My workshop setting is somewhat different. Every day has some sort of workshop with specific goals. They are constantly writing and constantly bring that writing to class to look at and work with. The different things we do have a lot to do with reading from our textbook (Writing Analytically). For all of our mini-workshops, the students read each others work when they actually come to class. For our complete draft workshop, this changes. I might despise the term “peer review.” I might think it suggests something easy and low stakes to the students in a composition classroom. I’ve also noticed from my own experience as a student in first year writing and as a grad student observing first year writing that students think “peer review day” is a laid back day in which you “proofread” your group or your partner’s essay and they’ll do the same for you. Then you go home and correct those errors and that means that you have a final draft. I’ve even see teachers give students a list of questions to answer, and students mostly don’t fill out the form because the teacher doesn’t take it up. Maybe you do this and this works for you. I just can’t seem to make this work for me in a class. So I did something different. I took my creative writing background and decided we’d do workshop instead. 

To me, and to my class, this is what workshop looks like: We have a class blog (one blog, 26 authors). Two days prior to workshop, all of my students post a complete draft of their essay to said blog. They write an author’s note to go with it and here they say what they think works and what they think needs help. Each student is a member of a five person writing group. After they’ve posted their completed drafts, they read every member of their groups work. Then, they comment on the essay post. They address the concerns the author raised and anything else they noticed. They point out what works well and why and what isn’t quite working in the essay. All of this happens outside of our class meetings. They come to class, having read and commented on each others work. Then, they get into their groups and they pull up the blog and they have a ten minute conversation about each person’s essay. 

I prefer this structure for several reasons. On a blog, they cannot proofread. They can’t mark every little thing that is not grammatically correct. This means that they have to pay attention to the content of the essay. Students can still talk and point out those things (like “you capitalize everything” or “you boycott commas and that’s not good”), but they can’t go through and correct those mistakes and think they’ve done their job. I also find that the nature of this type of workshop is useful because you can learn so much about your own writing by giving others constructive feedback on their writing. It makes you put into words on paper and in conversation what you think writing/analysis/argument/language is/does/how it works. You also get thoughtful feedback from four different people. If four people say “I don’t think this paragraph works because you are leaping to a conclusion,” than you can be confident that you need to work on that paragraph.

SO, we did this. The first workshop happened. It was more on the awkward side than anything, but I think it was a successful first workshop. The students are still very much developing a language to talk about writing/analysis/argument/language and that was clear. I sat on one essay conversation for each of the ten groups. There was a fair amount of awkward silence, which I think has to do with it being a new class and the fact that we are still getting to know each other. I think it also has to do with the developing language/vocabulary to talk about writing. I was encouraged, however, because I heard several productive moves going on in most of the conversations. For example, a student would say, “I could see that you’re using evidence you gathered from ‘The Method’ (one of our heuristics) here…” and “I think you’re overgeneralizing in this essay because…” and “these details are nice, but I can’t see how they add to your conclusion because you don’t say why they matter.” 

The things that did go wrong were interesting. Most of my students were prepared in that they had read each others’ essays and commented. I had a fair few, however, that “didn’t get the memo,” which is just frustrating as a teacher. Those students had to read the essays in class and didn’t really add to the conversation because of it. I communicated my expectations clearly to most of the students, but the ones that didn’t understand aren’t asking questions and I can’t figure out how to make myself any more clear. I think the workshop was useful for the students who did properly prepare, but it was sort of a nightmare for groups that had a student who didn’t come prepared. I should have anticipated this, but I didn’t and I didn’t come up with a successful way to deal with that in class. I hope I won’t have this problem next time, but if I do, I think I may have the students who haven’t prepared go to a different part of the classroom and not participate in the conversation. I’m not quite sure. 

That’s where we’re at so far. I’ll report back soon. Thoughts and ideas are welcome and greatly appreciated! 

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Public Poetry by Alabama Teenagers

Last year, right about now, I was panicked about starting a graduate program. It was never really something I meant to do. I meant to start teaching high school students, but the jobs just weren’t there for me. I’ve been blessed beyond belief, however, by the graduate program. In fact, a professor recommended me for an internship with a program for high school students. The kind people at the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the generous spirits at the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanities took me on introduced me to a program called Poetry Out Loud. It is essentially a national recitation competition for grades 9-12. Students recite poems of their choosing from a rather extensive anthology and have the opportunity to compete starting at the classroom level.

Alabama also has an original recitation competition. As I’m sure you guessed, students write their own poems and that’s what they recite. This competition culminates at the state level. The thing that I like about the program, as a teacher and general fan of the arts, is that it gives students a voice. Whether they are reciting Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” or one they’ve written on their own, you learn something about that student from the recitation. There are so many different ways to read an understand poetry. Students embrace that and they share the meaning they’ve found in a three minute recitation. Can you beat that?

So, without further adieu, I want to share with you four poems written by Alabama students for the original competition. Check them out. Listen to their voices. Thanks to Olivia Pugh for the beautiful designs, to the Arts Council and Pebble Hill, and most importantly, to the teens who are sharing their work.

If you’d like to learn more about Poetry Out Loud, please visit http://www.poetryoutloud.org. You can find information out about your state representatives there as well.

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A Not So Creative Approach to Teaching Composition

My cat got tired of the late nights toward the end of semester one of graduate school and protested by laying on my journal.

From the short year that I’ve been in an English department, I’ve come to discover that saying creative writing in relation to teaching composition is somewhat forbidden. We all, of course, acknowledge that our disciplines are not mutually exclusive, but secretly, maybe we wish it was? Like I said, I haven’t really been around long enough to know.

I do know that I’ll be flying solo as a teacher for the first time this fall and I do have a creative writing background and that scares composition people on occasion, but do not fear! I have no intention of teaching anyone how to write a short story this fall. If they want that, I’ll be happy to recommend some great classes they can look forward to later in their career and some good books they can read now.

In my class, however, I’m interested in analysis. I want to give my students practical tools and methods that they can use to analyze the things going on around them. I’m using a great text that offers several. The book emphasizes withholding judgement, of course, which- wait? Don’t storytellers do that? Anyway- It also emphasizes noticing things. In fact, one tool the book outlines for students is called notice and focus. Didn’t John Gardner give advice to writers that said “be someone on whom nothing is lost? These are the things I want to get my students into. Even Stephen King offers fantastic advice to writers of any genre (ex- The road to hell is paved with adverbs).

Basically, what I’m saying is I’m a beginner who is going to experiment with a creative writing model of teaching in the composition classroom. We’re not going to write short stories, creative nonfiction essays, or even poems, but we are going to write. We’re going to analyze the world around us, which honestly is what fiction does in a way? Right?

The biggest, practical change I’m going to try out is a full-fledged workshop, complete with author’s notes and beta notes prepared by workshop partners prior to the workshop. I think this could work, and I hope to report on progress, lessons that worked/failed, and the overall success or failure of this plan. I think my creative writing background has taught me how to talk about writing and I hope that as I move forward, I can use that background to re-energize my composition students. Here’s hoping!

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What Is Writing?

My professor told me to think about this question this semester: What is writing? 

Is it a facebook status? Is it a lab report? Is it a quick write in class? Is it the novel I’m reading or the short story I’m working on? Is it all of these things? 

I just read a lot of Post-structuralism theory and they call into question everything, including “what is an author?” The main question seems to be what authority does an author maintain on their text? I’m writing this blog post and sending it out into the internet and it does become something of it’s own in a lot of ways. You dear reader, can agree or disagree or question or praise or destroy anything I put on this blog. I can respond to you. So what? 

I don’t know how to answer the questions raised.

What is writing? Right now, I see writing as thinking. Thinking is intimately linked to rhetoric. Rhetoric is in everything. Everything you do or say makes an argument. Writing is the same. Whether you’re telling a story, writing a poem, drafting a criticism, or doing this week’s lab report, you are making a choice that says something about how you see the world. The clothes you wear and the books you carry around say something about who you are. While I don’t have a definition for what writing is necessarily, I think I can speak to what writing does: it gives the writer a voice in the discourse of their choosing. Even if you write for yourself and say you do not care what others think, you are making a choice that reflects how you see writing. Writing gives voice. Every piece of writing is in a way, claiming a spot in a conversation. 

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