Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Truth About Grace by John MacArthur

The Truth About Grace is short and yet incredibly dense with scriptural references. The book covers the concept of grace from all angles. While MacArthur has a reputation for being a hard hitting preacher this book is incredibly, well, gracious. The claims he makes are firmly rooted in the Bible and he provides the evidence right in the text. Because of this, the book takes on a more conversational style as the reader joins with the author to search the Bible for truth about grace.

Growing up I viewed God as a rather vindictive character. I had no trouble understanding God's wrath but I really did not get God's grace. I still do not fully comprehend it, but this book has really helped me to locate some key scriptures that have to do with grace. While the book does get repetitive at times, it is ultimately a very helpful tool. 

I began trying to understand grace more after reading the book Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. One of his essays in that book really challenged my ideas about God and his character. While I am a huge fan of Donald Miller, I have become somewhat disenchanted with the hype that seems to have arisen around the idea of Jesus as "my buddy." (I am not saying that Miller states this, I am simply trying to illustrate how some people have a more relaxed view of God and others have a more strict view). I think that might be why I had such a hard time accepting grace for so long; because it seemed like it was not viewing God with proper sincerity. It almost feels as if one is taking advantage of him and thus it just can't be right. 

Anyway, all that to say, that on the spectrum of viewing God's grace I see books like Blue Like Jazz to be on one side and more conservative individuals like MacArthur to be on the other. If you have that mindset in approaching this book you may be equally surprised with me to see the way in which MacArthur deals with the topic of grace. I think MacArthur does a great job of speaking grace, truth and love in this book that will be beneficial for anyone.

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Trouble With Paris by Mark Sayers

Until I read this book, the best analysis of our culture's obsession with materialism that I had ever heard went something like "buy less stuff" and "watch less tv." While this is not bad advice per se it fails to get to the heart of what drives the modern day materialist mindset. Sayers really gets to the heart of the issue in this book without getting caught up in the idea that to solve our problems we just need a list of rules and some accountability so we don't spend too much.

He begins by addressing the fact that Christians tend to be less than satisfied with their faith. They often feel they are missing something and that life needs to be more exciting. Sayers says:

"If you want to blame someone or something for your life not ending up as wonderfully as you were led to believe it would, a good place to start is the cultural phenomenon called hyperreality...meaning that we could now have things that were even better than the real thing. The media-drenched world in which we live has overextended our expectations of life" pg 5.

This is interesting since this is remarkably similar to the lie that was told to Adam and Eve in the garden. They were tempted into believing that they could be "like God." Since we have this idea of what our life should look like, we are upset and even depressed when our life doesn't look the way our culture says it should. Sayer's points out that this inevitably leads to widespread "comparison anxiety." 

Social networking pages are like advertisements for how our life is matching up with the requirements of the hyperreal culture. We compare ourselves to our friends who have traveled extensively or speak many languages and have been on multiple missions trips. Why don't our lives look like theirs? Soon "experiences" become a commodity much like any tangible product. We seek to be the most "cultured" and "experienced" individual with as much fervor and obsession as someone collecting beanie babies (I once saw a fight in a McDonalds over beanie babies!). Life becomes a competition.

Most of The Trouble With Paris discusses the issues that are presented by this subverted version of reality called hyperreality. Towards the end, Sayers engages in a discussion of what God's reality is for us as well as some helpful ideas for combating the influence of hyperreality in one's life.

I have noticed that these types of books often have an "anti-material" message. As if you should not own tv, radio, or a magazine subscription because the material world is evil. Sayer's says however, that

"The Bible does speak positively of things that are material-wine, food, clothing, houses, and land are seen as blessings. But in God's reality these things are given their proper place in the order of creation" pg. 167

Sayers ends with a discussion of what it means to live redemptively in a world consumed with hyperreality. If you aren't convinced to borrow or buy this book I would at least ask that you find it at a bookstore and read the  final chapter. This idea of living a faith which seeks to restore creation rather than condemn it is something that needs to catch on in Christian circles.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Love Does by Bob Goff

I have heard Bob Goff speak twice at the annual Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh. When I received news that he was writing his stories into book form I was excited. In his book of stories about what it means to love sacrificially,  Goff attempts to capture the energy which normally characterizes his speaking engagements. While that is an almost impossible task, Love Does is still an energizing, moving, and compelling read. If you read this book you have not fully experienced the love of the man who is Bob Goff. You simply must meet him (and in the back of the book he does provide you with his phone number!).

There are 31 stories in Love Does. With each you learn a little about Bob and the crazy way in which he lives his life. The majority of what is learned, however, is just how much of an impact loving others can have. Some may have an issue with this book because it is not very preachy. Sometimes we enjoy books where we discuss love and then there is an "altar call" at the end of the chapter along with a prayer in italics to pray for instant transformation. Love Does is a refreshing break from this formula. The stories found in these pages point to Christ and His contagious love. I strongly encourage anyone, Christian or not, to read this book. The beautiful "whimsy"(as he calls it) of a life lived in submission to Christ's love is truly remarkable (and also hilarious at times).

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ruminating on Summer

With the end of the semester approaching quickly I have allowed myself to begin thinking just a little bit about summer. I will be taking some summer courses that I am pretty stoked about but what I am most excited about is the opportunity to do some summer reading. So here for my last post of the semester I will post a couple books that I am looking forward to reading this summer:

Searching For God Knows What by Donald Miller
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller
Omoo by Herman Melville
Love Does by Bob Goff
What's So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey
Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner
Mosquitoes by William Faulkner
Soldier's Pay by William Faulkner
Tess of d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Christianity and Literature by Jeffery and Maillet
Education for Human Flourishing by Spears and Loomis
Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by Moreland and Craig
A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass
Autobiography Of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers

.....I guess we will see how far I get in this list...

Ruminating on Classes

For my penultimate post of the semester I thought that I would talk about my thoughts on this semester. I enjoyed this semester greatly in spite of the 21 credits. I had a lot of papers due and a lot of books to read but it was worth it I think. I have a lot due this week and then the WPCTE presentation this weekend but after that it is all downhill. So here are some of my highlights from classes this semester:

Arabic 201: This went really well this semester. I know a considerable amount of complex grammatical constructs and I really have enjoyed expanding my vocabulary and understanding of the language. It is exciting to be able to read large quantities of Arabic script without needing a dictionary.

Shakespeare: This class was great. I really enjoyed being able to focus on Shakespeare for a whole class period on monday nights. It was really great to read some plays of his that I had never read before such as "Coriolanus" which is now one of my favorites.

Young Adult Literature: I really enjoyed this class although it seemed a bit unfocused at times. The main thing that I really enjoyed about this class was the practicality of it as well as the discussion. I feel that there were many good discussions and that students walked away with good ideas for use in the classroom.

Writing for Non-Print Media: This class was also good for similar reasons to YAL. I feel that I have several very practical things that I can use in the classroom whenever I begin teaching. It was also helpful just to become acquainted with and begin using some different digital tools. My favorite being googledocs (which i was familiar with but didn't use a whole lot) and googleReader because it is just a pheonmenal tool for keeping up with a lot of websites.

Intro to Professional Writing: I took this class because I was thinking about picking up a writing minor and I just never dropped it. In spite of the fact that it could be viewed as a waste of time and money, I am glad that I took it. It has given me a lot of practice in the area of revision especially. It was nice to have a class that focused on writing because the english ed track focuses so heavily on literature.

American Literature II: The best thing that came out of this class was having to read Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. I absolutely love this book and Faulkner. In my opinion it could be the best book I have ever read. While I did enjoy this class I inevitably found it to be frustrating at times. Because of the subject matter it often gives rise to topics that cause debate in the classroom. This can cause the classroom dynamic to be complicated. Solid literature selections though.

Traditional Grammar: I love this class and topic. I have been in my professor's office a few times to discuss the topics that the books in this class bring up. Linguistics and grammar are fascinating fields of study and I have often thought about pursuing a graduate degree in some related field. You can get an A in this class just by going through the motions, but you only really learn if you put a lot of effort and thought into the material.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Ruminating on Blogging

As the semester winds down I have begun to think about the experience of blogging and how beneficial it really is. I think it is a helpful tool for personal use. I am glad that I have some posts to go back and look at and refresh myself on some ideas that I had earlier in the year. I also enjoy the amount of peer collaboration that is possible. I recently read a study, however, that showed that since 2006 blogging has decreased in popularity drastically. This doesn't make the tool any less helpful but it does seem to show that it is not as "hip" as it once was (probably due to the amount of social networking options). This could pose problems in the classroom because perhaps blogging will be viewed with as much spite as th 5-paragraph essay, making it hard to get students involved with it.

Ruminating on Wristwatches

I have nothing important to say, hence the title. I still wear a wristwatch when I have class so I don't have to check the time on my phone in class. For some reason I always feel the need to check the time and I would much rather do it without risking getting in trouble for having a cell phone out. One of my professors recently went on a tangent about cell phones and if they should be allowed in classes or if it's that big of a deal that they are out at times during the class. For me I probably would not allow them to be used in the class at all even if the student were using it to access class material. I think it is distracting.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ruminating on "Deep Thoughts"

I need to post something so I will steal from Jack Handey since he is a pretty funny guy. Here are some of his "Deep Thoughts":

"Whenever I see an old lady slip and fall on a wet sidewalk, my first instinct is to laugh. But then I think what if I was an ant, and she fell on me. Then it wouldn't seem quite so funny."

"I bet a fun thing would be to go way back in time to where there was going to be an eclipse and tell the cave men, "If I have come to destroy you, may the sun be blotted out from the sky." Just then the eclipse would start, and they'd probably try to kill you or something, but then you could explain about the rotation of the moon and all, and everyone would get a good laugh."

"One thing kids like is to be tricked. For instance, I was going to take my little nephew to Disneyland, but instead I drove him to an old burned-out warehouse. "Oh no," I said, "Disneyland burned down." He cried and cried, but I thank that deep down, he thought it was a pretty good joke. I started to drive over to the real Disneyland, but it was getting pretty late."

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ruminating on Bob Goff

I have seen this guy speak live a couple times at the annual CCO Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh. He is pretty phenomenal and an encouraging speaker...It's worth the 10 minutes.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Ruminating on Literature as Exploration

I am starting to regret having so much coursework this semester. Although I am getting good grades, the amount of work I have has prevented any semblance of a routine from evolving this semester. There are stacks of books everywhere, dishes piled high in the sink, an overflowing basket of dirty clothes, and about a hundred half-finished papers in word documents open on my computer.

My cat is content to just sit at the window and wait for the bird to reappear that often taunts him by flying into the window repeatedly. While he is there I am just sitting her listening to jazz and reading Louise Rosenblatt's Literature as Exploration. It's nice to read this book because Rosenblatt states a lot of things that I have thought about the teaching of literature for a long time. I am reading this book in order to gain a small base of knowledge on transactional theory so I am able to piece together an adequate presentation at WPCTE in a few weeks.

The first chapter is somewhat of an overview but has some really good points that I think are important to discuss here. If you are at all familiar with Rosenblatt's theories then you realize that her statement, "The human element cannot be banished" essentially sums up her ideas (6). She spends a lot of time discussing how the idea that in the classroom students should be encouraged to seek the one correct interpretation is a harmful idea placing the focus, of the literature classroom and the literature itself, on the teacher as the one who has all the answers.

Another interesting point that she makes in the first chapter is that teaching literature inevitably leads to a need for at least a cursory knowledge of other subjects. Thankfully she does point out that it is almost impossible for us, with all our other coursework (and the responsibilities of teaching when we are teachers) to become extremely familiar with too many other areas of academia (22).

Lastly, Rosenblatt makes a good point about teachers wanting to be unbiased in their discussions. There is this idea that if we take away the importance of diversity of response and a student's transaction with the text in the classroom, then we will be able to impose a "correct" interpretation preventing conflict or the imposition of one student's worldview on another. Rosenblatt says:

"The teacher will do neither literature nor students a service if he tries to evade ethical issues. He will be exerting some kind of influence, positive or negative, through his success or failure in helping the student develop habits of thoughtful ethical judgement... He [the teacher] should not foist his own bias on students, but objectivity should not create the impression that value judgements are unimportant." (17)

As I understand this, the job of the teacher is not so much to eliminate bias, but allow everyones bias to have an equal say. Earlier in the chapter Rosenblatt discussed that there should be certain boundaries for student response even though they should be free to have their own interpretation. Student responses should obviously relate to the text, for instance. I presume that Rosenblatt will expound further on the criteria for assessing student responses.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Ruminating on Tense

You must understand that I see language as being almost synonymous with beauty. You may enjoy paintings, sculptures, music, dance and other forms of artistic expression. While it is not considered odd in our culture to be emotionally moved by these things it may seem odd to some that I find the study of languages to be an extremely moving experience. When I am learning a grammatical rule in any language it is difficult and yet so rewarding to master it. So although you may not see the following as much more than boring tripe about grammar stuff, I see it as an attempt at describing indescribable art and complexity.

How many main verb tenses are there in English? Most of us would answer that there are three, past, present, and future. In my grammar class, however, we were told that in reality there are technically only two tenses i.e. past and present. The reason for this being that in order to form the past and present the verb changes form. In order to form the future we simply add a modal to the present:

Present: I jump
Past: I jumped
Future: I [will or shall] jump

It is an interesting idea. Technically, we do not have a future tense. Now I was satisfied enough after hearing this. I thought it was interesting. Then in my Arabic class I was learning the future tense and I realized that in spite of all the differences between Arabic and English they had this principle in common. In both the past and present verb tenses the verb changes form. The present simply requires the addition of a modal to convert to future tense. Here is the verb "to study" (keep in mind arabic is read from right to left):

(I study)   Present:          انا ادرس 
(I studied)       Past:          انا درست
(I will study)    Future:  انا سوف ادرس

For the sake of not being misleading or incorrect, the past and future conjugations above are not complete sentences. In Arabic to be grammatically correct you need to specify when something happened. For example, "I studied yesterday" or "I will study tomorrow."

This realization made me happy because the similarities between Arabic and English are few and far between. So a grammatical rule that I understood from my first language was handy. But then I remembered another language that I studied a while back that has an even more intriguing system of verb conjugation. That language is, Haitian Creole. This language is interesting because when conjugating between the past, present, and future tenses, the verb does not change form. For example take the word "jwe" which means "to play" (jway; the j is pronounced as in the medial sound in meaSure).

Present: Mwen jwe.        (I play)
Past: Mwen te jwe.         (I played)
Future: Mwen va jwe.    (I will play)

Now it is also interesting to notice that there is a modal for both future and past in Haitian Creole. Another interesting thing is that in English the verb changes form depending on whom the verb is describing. This is not the case in Haitian Creole:

Mwen jwe.   (I play)
Ou jwe.        (You play)
Li jwe.         (It plays)

There is no difference in conjugation for the third person as there is in English. This unchanging verb form makes learning conjugation in Haitian Creole extremely easy compared to other languages that are much more complex.

Ruminating on Tebow

I am interested in what people think of this exchange between Smith and Bayless about Tim Tebow and his faith, temptation and distractions. Watch the discussion (if you aren't a sports person this talk has nothing to do with sports):

After watching the discussion I am just curious about what people think of Smith's criticism. Tebow is known for his convictions about abstinence, not getting drunk, or doing drugs. Smith argues that Tebow is making a mistake by being in a city like New York City where there will be temptations for Tebow to compromise on his beliefs. I am interested in what people think about this situation and about Tebow in general.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Ruminating on Blue Like Jazz

I have had to write so many academic papers that I think I will take it easy and post about Blue Like Jazz the movie. First, it comes out on April 13. Be sure that you get a chance to see it. It is based on the book Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. Although Miller is a Christian, the movie has been the focus of some attacks by mainstream Christians because this movie is, well, like a real movie. It doesn't fit into the typical "Christian Movie" genre at all.  It has good actors and not a super cheesy conclusion. I was fortunate enough to attend a prescreening in Pittsburgh earlier this year. Let me just say that the movie is worth it! Watch the trailer:

Friday, March 23, 2012

Ruminating on Positivity vs. Negativity

A fellow blogger recently posted about positivity and negativity and it caused me to think about the issue. This isn't really a response, merely musings that have transpired after reading her post. The main question that is in my mind is why read, watch, study negative things (such as dystopian literature)? Can't we just focus on things that are positive? My answer would be no.

Should we encourage students by saying "You can do anything!" or should we be really negative and tell them that most of them will work a dead-end job the rest of their lives. Most people would say the first, but they are both poor things to tell students.

I don't plan on telling my future students, or my future kids for that matter, that they can do anything they put their mind to because it isn't really true. No matter how hard I try I will never be able to play in the NFL. Ok...ok maybe if I want it so badly that I forsake other things that I am more naturally inclined to do (such as being an English major) and I focus all my time on football for the next ten years then I suppose I could maybe be a punter or a cheerleader or a waterboy. I think we should encourage students to do what they are good at/passionate about. It's not being negative, it's just being wise I think.

When it comes to negative things in the world should we just ignore such programs and books in the name of focusing on the positive? Positivity by ignorance of negativity is not really positivity at all. True positivity comes from an embrace of something negative. It's not hard for someone to be positive if they have completely shut themselves off to anything negative 

When it comes to dystopian literature some of my friends find it to be a hopeless and negative genre. Ironically, the ideology of only looking at things deemed positive and not experiencing the negative is a theme that drives dystopian literature. In The Giver by Lois Lowry the council wants to protect the people from the negative experiences of death and argument over differences, so they decided that they would control death so that it didn't have to be experienced in the community. They decided to make everything the same so there would be no arguments or wars over differences. It is this mindset that created the dystopia in the first place.

Also I think it would be a bit disingenuous not to include negative readings and films in school curriculum or in ones own personal library because the world we are in is negative at times. Like I said previously true optimism can only be present in the face of a negative reality (if all we focused on was positivity we would have nothing to be optimistic about except that other people would join us in our utopia).

Most positives are born from negatives anyway. To create a cure for a disease, the disease and death it causes must be recognized. To maintain a healthy relationship we have to confront negative occurrences. You may say, "well when bad things happen you can just choose to focus on the positives!" But I think we should focus on negatives and positives. For instance if you lose a game you can focus on the positives such as "the game was fun" and "i did my best." You can do that all you want and you will never get any better! To truly make progress one has to recognize "I am pretty terrible at this" and "i need to work harder." etc....I don't know....I feel like this post was scatterbrained...I suppose I'll post it anyway. let me know your thoughts.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ruminating on Rhetoric

If you had asked me in high school what the term "rhetoric" referred to I would probably have given you a definition that would be more fitting of the word "blather." That is to say that I would have used the word rhetoric as in the phrase "political rhetoric." My definition for the word would almost be synonymous with "deceit."I also would have mentioned that I knew what "rhetorical questions" were but that is about all. I would imagine that most students are in the same place today; although some may know more about its history and such.

It may be humorous how little I knew of rhetoric and my ignorance of the fact that it is defined as "the art of persuasion." But what may not be so humorous is how little attention rhetoric receives at the high school level, or really any level of education.

In my opinion "communication" is almost synonymous with "persuasion." Even the most basic of greetings contains an element of persuasion. As humans we always have a motive even if that motive is understood. For instance take the following interaction:

Jim: Hello
Steve: Hello
Jim: How are you?
Steve: I'm good. Thanks.

Lets interpret this one of two ways. First, Jim and Steve are friends and this interaction is a genuine one. Second, Jim is pretending to be a friend of Steves but he is trying to trick Steve into thinking that he is a cool guy. In which instance is Jim being persuasive? Most of us would say that in the second instance he is trying to persuade Steve. I would argue, however, that in both instances Jim is being persuasive. We often think of persuasion as a means of deceit but this is simply not the case. Although it may take more persuading when deceit is involved. However, persuasion is also increased when a teacher is trying to teach students a concept that is very abstract; as opposed to a discussion of something that can be verified easily.

I promise this will all tie in at the end but I must make one more digression before discussing what all this has to do with rhetoric and the classroom. In Response & Analysis (p.130-133), Probst discusses how we approach texts differently based on how they look. We expect a poem, for example, to have creative words, abstract concepts, a particular bouncy rhythm, etc. When we read a piece of prose we expect the information to be more straightforward and not really concealed in heavy poetic language. Imagine converting a Dr. Seuss poem into prose. It would be confusing and obnoxious. We simply expect prose to make more sense than that. But when we see a poetic work in its proper form we are prepared for  the type of language that might typify that particular genre.

So what does all of this have to do with rhetoric? Well if all of our communication is a form of persuasion to some degree rhetoric is immensely important. In my discussion of Probst I brought up the visual expectations of a text because so much of today's literacy is based off of visuals. Even the text itself is a visual which imposes on the reader an expectation of what they are about to read. With Web 2.0 and multi-modal instruction becoming more prevalent, the study of persuasion is of immense importance.

Color, font, font size, music, video, powerpoint, video chat and more are all persuasive elements. Social networking itself is one giant act of persuasion. We select the photos we want on our profile in order to persuade people and their view of us (whether true or not). We list groups, organizations, sports teams, celebrities, friends, movies, books, and just about everything else that we want to be identified with. In the employment section of everyone's social network profile it should say "Full-time Rhetorician."

It makes sense. If communication and persuasion are essentially synonymous then the increase of communication, which has occurred due to the innovation of Web 2.0 and the surplus of User Generated Content, necessitates that the study of rhetoric is of utmost importance. Students need to recognize that their audience is the world. They should recognize the permanence of things they post. Students need to understand the power that they have to persuade and act as rhetoricians. They should also be aware of how they themselves are being affected by the rhetoric of others.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Ruminating on Budget Cuts

Budget cuts to the PA state school system have taken up a lot of press the past few weeks. I was approached multiple times as I walked to class about writing letters to governor Corbett telling him how enraged I am that he would dare cut funding to higher education.

A woman handed me a postcard and a pen and asked to sign the card so that they could send it to Corbett in protest of the budget cuts. I told her I would think about it. As I walked away I could not help but laugh a little to myself because directly behind the table they had set up was a multi-million dollar construction project; that is the new Student Center. Other expensive renovations have taken place on my campus and there are questions raised about how necessary some of these projects are.

When I originally heard that our school was spending millions of dollars on renovations to several buildings such as a theater, student center, and dining hall, I was a little upset.
“Couldn’t we be spending that money elsewhere?” I had asked. The reply

Although my knowledge in this area is iffy at best, I will do my best to explain the allocation of funds as I understand it currently (corrections would be greatly appreciated). Evidently our university was offered a certain amount of funds, let’s say 50 million dollars, although I am fairly certain it was even more than that. Now whether we had to apply for this I do not know, but at any rate, we as a university had the ability to use that 50 million dollars on construction. That is what the money was allocated for. So this may be how I would converse with the system:
“You have 50 million dollars to spend on construction” they tell me.
“Well we actually could use that money to hire more professors and keep tuition low and class sizes at an optimum size.” I said.
“Oh no, I’m sorry you can use it for buildings, and things like that.” they reply.
“Yea that would be nice, but we need to improve the quality of education here. That’s why student’s are here. How about we use a few million to renovate some of our pre-existing buildings, and use the rest to improve the departments here.” I pleaded.
“ can’t do that. You either use the money for a building or you don’t get it at all.”

This is roughly how I understand the distribution of state funds. It is probably far too elementary an explanation, but I hope it shows my point. The issue is not a lack of funds. It is that there is this crazy way of allocating funds. When it comes to students what can we do about this? Fighting the budget cuts doesn’t really help the situation. And cutting the budget only harms us so much because of the way the system is set up.  That is what needs to change. How do we change the wasteful system that we have?

Ruminating on Undergraduateness

Being an undergrad can be frustrating. I recall in high school I had a similar sentiment about 9th grade. No one would take me seriously! I had so much wisdom (as I would have defined it) to impart to the world and yet no one would listen. I thought that by the time I reached college people would definitely want to hear what I have to say. Now that I am here, I don't want to say anything!

Writing at the undergrad level is mostly citing what people who already have a degree have said. This is mostly an issue for me in the field of literature. For the amount of text I am required to generate from week to week I really am lacking in brilliant ideas to impart to the world. I want to present at a conference. I think it would be a valuable experience. But I barely have time to become an expert in one area in order to give a presentation that would actually be interesting and not just spitting out what other critics have said already.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ruminating on Distractions

I have been reading through two separate texts on the topic of digital literacies (Adolescents and Digital Literacies by Kajder and The Digital Writing Workshop by Hicks). Both of these books cover relatively the same topics of integrating technology in the classroom. For another class of mine I have been reading Response and Analyisis by Probst, and it has greatly informed my ideas about teaching English. Last week I posted about the importance of distinguishing between using technology to entertain and using technology to instruct (here). This post will follow a similar line of reasoning under the much broader umbrella of “distractions.”

Standardized Testing
Certainly technology can be considered a distraction if not used correctly. What about other things that distract the English teacher? Well for starters, there is standardized testing. A typical high school teacher’s time is severely lessened due to the need to “teach the test.” I first saw this when I observed at a high school, and one of the teachers showed me the schedule for the few remaining months and over a third of it was marked for preparing students for standardized testing. Now perhaps this should not be called a distraction. This is something that, although it may be inconvenient, is mandated by the state. Teachers often complain about losing precious class time to standardized testing, and I do not blame them for that, but there may be other distractions that the teacher does have control over.

This is probably the biggest distraction in the English classroom. In order to teach literature a student must read a text, but the student must also interact with that text. That interaction can be a cognitive one or perhaps even an emotional interaction. It is the experience with the piece of literature that enables it to be something discussed, studied, and written about. Reading for information is not what defines the study of literature in the English classroom. At least I would argue that this is not the primary goal of studying literature.

The reason for studying literature is because it enables is to create something upon reading a text. A poem, short story, or novel is more than just a sequence of events recorded on paper. It is something, which is dynamic, but only by being acted upon by the student. Perhaps you disagree.

But how is that a distraction? Well there is a delicate balance between a student engaging in a discussion of an experience with a text, and simply discussing himself or herself. Discussing literature is not simply discussing what we think the author was saying, (although that is important) it is about discussing how our perceptions have changed based on that piece of literature. This can be distracting because many students (and teachers) will see this as a means of simply blathering about oneself.

Some teachers would consider any response from the students to be a good one. But the discussion should still be focused on the literature itself and how it has informed or changed the perceptions of the student. It is not simply an avenue for self-promotion. In this way, literature can become a distraction, because the literature is no longer the substance of the class. The students, rather than the academics, become the center.

English is dynamic. English is a discipline that permeates all the others. You can read a literature anthology without encountering any Chemistry or Algebra, however, you cannot read a Chemistry or Algebra textbook without encountering any English. It informs the other disciplines and for this reason is not easily taught. Because of this, English is greatly affected by the other disciplines as well.

Good luck teaching Emerson without a solid grasp of Philosophy (especially transcendentalism). I hope you paid attention when you took your liberal studies history course, because you need historical knowledge to teach literature. Modernist literature is greatly informed by the scientific and industrial advancement of the time period, and so in order to teach literature from that period it is good to have knowledge of those advancements even if it is a very basic understanding. All of these are distractions (albeit these are good and important) are what makes the teaching of English so difficult. There is a lot of knowledge needed in order to teach literature.

Overall I think that some distractions are good. It is nice to wander away from the main path every once in a while to explore something that is barely related to the subject at hand. I think all of the things detailed above are things that teachers should be aware of as possible distractions from course material.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ruminating on Two words. Use it. Although this is not a technology that is mentioned in the class textbook, I think it is worthy of my post. This site creates an easy to use class management system. You can add classes of students giving them points for good behavior or detracting points for negatives. This enables you to track how students are doing in your class, and it also enables them to see how they are doing, as well as their parents. It is online and so parents can see how their students are doing in real time. It is a very cool tool.

I was at a conference and a teacher who has taught in D.C. for the past few years highly recommended it. You should go on and create an account. I plan to use it in the classroom.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ruminating on Instruction vs. Amusement

There is an abundance of myths that have a deep impact on our perception of reality. We often hear things that are little more than superstition, and because of either the power of suggestion, or our want to accept that myth, it goes unchallenged into the recesses of our brain as "fact." One such myth is that learning needs to be fun.

I have heard many people judge the successfulness of a lesson plan based on the amount of fun that transpired because of it. Certainly it is easier to learn when you are having a good time and you are engaged but how important is it that students have "fun?" Certainly I do not want my students to be miserable, but how important is entertainment?

There seems to be an insatiable desire within many teachers to amuse their students, as if the goal of the class is for the teacher to feel appreciated. "Amuse" is actually a very interesting word because when broken down it becomes a - muse. "Muse" obviously means to think or ponder, while "a" is a prefix which negates. Thus making the word amuse to literally mean "to not think." This gives me a whole new appreciation for the words "amusement park."

But is it true that if students are having fun then they are not thinking? My answer: not always. However, I think that true learning is not always fun, and if it is, or if that is our constant goal as teachers, we are doing our students a terrible disservice. Learning to ride a bike (at least in my case) was not tremendous fun. The hard pavement made sure that the learning process was difficult. Similar to the training wheels on a bike, fun enables you to get going, but it ultimately prevents you from experiencing the real thing. That is not a perfect analogy, but I hope it makes some sense.

Staying up until 1am in order to read about the life and literary career of Herman Melville is difficult, not fun. Even though he is a favorite author of mine, the learning process is not always fun. True learning can also challenge our preconceptions of the world which is a very difficult thing. If you read a piece of literature which challenges your idea of what truth is, this is not always a fun realization, and takes a significant amount of internal conflict to resolve.

The distinction between amusement and instruction is especially important when discussing the use of technology in the classroom. In my opinion teachers need to use technology where it enhances pedagogy and engages students. Yes, fun can be apart of engaging students, but it should not take priority over all else. Learning is not always fun, and we as teachers should provide students with that truth. Students I have talked to often think that it is the responsibility of the teacher to make a lesson entertaining. This puts a lot of stress on the teacher but it is also a form of disingenuousness with the students because it misrepresents how difficult and "unfun" the learning process can be.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ruminating on Language

I am always amazed at how the quality of a friendship improves when someone takes an interest in the other person and how they communicate. A close friend of mine wrestles, and so I made an attempt to learn the sport and its terminology, so I am able to communicate about the things he enjoys. Similarly parents often take the time to learn the vocabulary associated with the various activities that their kids are apart of, so they can engage in conversation and connect.

This is one of the reasons that I think being up to date on technological information is important for teachers. Computers, gadgets, phones, apps, etc are what students are talking about and we should not be left behind. But that is a rather obvious fact. When teachers show that they can communicate with the students it helps the students become engaged. They are encouraged that you make the effort to understand where they are coming from, and are not going to teach based on outdated pedagogy.

Although it may be quite a leap, I think this same mentality can be applied to communicating with international students, not just in the future but also here amongst peers. It is always fun to learn a little bit of another language and try and fail at speaking it correctly. I have made many close friends by trying to learn bits and pieces of their language. Next time you meet an international student ask them how to say some things in their language.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ruminating on Nothing

Unfortunately, today, I have nothing of consequence to say. I am currently reading a book (very slowly) called How Language Works by David Crystal. If you are at all interested in linguistics you should read it. He does a great job of breaking down complex topics into an easier to read format, while still maintaining the quality of information. I wish I had read it as a companion to my undergraduate linguistics course in some ways it is even more helpful than the textbook.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ruminating on Literature Circles

In one of my classes this week we talked about literature circles. We discussed the positives and negatives of using literature circles in the high school classroom. Although this is a fairly typical and old pedagogical convention, I think it is a very useful tool when employed correctly, but I suppose this could be said for any activity. I would definitely use a literature circle in class assuming the group dynamic enabled it.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Ruminating on the Learning Experience

School buildings are almost built like prisons and are not always conducive to a learning environment. Certainly a building is practical, but it makes the experience of learning one that would never want to be repeated in most instances. Most of our learning and education comes from our experiences. Students should see that learning is something that takes place all the time, not just within the four walls of a school. Learning happens mostly through experiences, not through rote memorization, or someone lecturing about an experience.

Unfortunately it is difficult to give students an “experience” when you are confined to a classroom. It is possible, but much more difficult. For the record, I am not advocating that all classes should take place outside. But this I believe, is where technology comes in. I think the technology available to teachers now, gives us the ability to make learning a great experience, even within the confines of a classroom. I will not list all of the things that technology can do for a teacher who knows how to wield it, but I will say that I believe it is not just a “good idea” but it is becoming a necessity for reaching students, and getting them (especially uninterested students) involved in the learning experience.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Steak Fries Is Good"

While dining at a restaurant with some friends (who are particularly critical in nature but friends nonetheless) an interesting event transpired which sparked a mild controversy at the table. The waitress returned to the table with our beverages, ready to take our orders. I ordered my meal and she asked if I would like any sides. She proceeded to list all of my options.

"We have coleslaw, mashed potatoes, fried okra, steak fries, or apple sauce."

"Steak fries is good," I replied.

This comment elicited much laughter from the rest of the table.
They proceeded to explain that I had misspoken because I should have said "Steak Fries are good."
But I argued that I was selecting from a list of many different sides. I was choosing one from a list of many. Besides, if I had said "steak fries are good" I would have been commenting on the quality of the fries which does not even answer our server's question.

"Ostensibly all of the sides are good but only one of them is good for my meal," I explained. However, my explanations and justifications fell on deaf ears.

It is still a topic of debate.