Author Archives: lauraborkpower

Week Three: Summer 2017 Online Writing Group

It’s week three of the Summer 2017 Online Writing Group and you guys are getting it done. Nice work!

giphy

Image via Giphy

Here are our third week goals.

Week Three Goals:

Anne:

I’m sure that we all know that this is a major asset. The perfect writing area, created:

Anne's Office.jpg

Anne’s newly organized writing space!

Are you asking: is that a active writing stool? Yes. Is that a giant 4G screen with the correct software installed although right now it shows a picture of a boat? Yes. Are those shelves full of writing books? Yes, and some family pictures. I think it’s perfect. The writing notebook is the next project, for when I can’t be in my writing space.

Bev:

This week, I got three chapters from the new textbook revised! Hooray! Also, I began researching agents and turned up two prospects. Sadly, I need to spend some time rethinking my query letter, which I will be doing this week in addition to researching more agents. And doing at least two more chapter notes and lectures.

Cynthia:

This week’s goal is as follows:

Collect research sources to supplement evaluation plan abstract for Library Research Methods course. Begin to collect resources for Law Librarianship annotated bibliography.

Laura:

I started a new story last week, so this week my goal is to keep working on it. I also need to write a couple more blog posts documenting my trip to the Netherlands, so I’m adding that in for this week as well.

Lisa:

Progress report: My trip interfered greatly with my progress this week. I wrote zero pages 🙂 (Yes, but Lisa, you spent quality time observing children in their natural vacation habitat, so you can count that as “research.”)

Next week: I hope to catch up and write five pages.

Mike:

Week Two Progress: Wrote about three more new pages of the book (against my goal of ten). I’m realizing my goals need to be a little more granular than “write x more pages.” I’m not having issues with what to write necessarily — since I’m working from a true story, I have the built-in crutch (if I’m not sure what to write next) to just tell what really happened. What has slowed me down so far is the impulse to focus on the individual scenes I’ve started and making sure they’re compelling. This week, I realized that the narrator’s voice wasn’t quite working. I switched what I’d written from third-person to first, and I realized quickly how easy it is to make a young Lithuanian woman in the 1930’s sound robotic, since the easy impulse is to take out all contractions and idiom from their language. I went back to a few books I love that have interesting narrative voices, whether it’s a non-English speaker or a contemporary of my narrator to make sure I absorbed what they did well. So Long See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell is going to be my constant companion throughout the next few weeks of drafting this out.

Week Three Goals: Complete drafts of two early scenes — one of which I’ve started, and one of which I have yet to start. Also, review some of the research materials I have on the story (a conversation I recorded with my dad a few months ago talking about his mother) as well as an online repository of info about the kind of Swedish ocean liner that brought my grandmother here (since the middle portion of the book will be on-board the ship).

Rachel:

Last week, I was supposed to learn more about the landscape of what’s already out there for my book idea. As I suspected, there are already some books out there around the topic that I’m thinking of, but none from the perspective of someone with my background. So this week I’ll start outlining the book chapters. I am also considering revising my big summer goal, but I think I need a week to think about it, so that will also be on my docket for this week.

Robert:

This week’s goal was 7,000 words. I wrote 6,815, so that’s good enough. My current total is 35,700 words.

Next week the goal is another 7,000 words.

Sarah:

Coming soon…

Ted:

Coming soon…

 

This week’s post is inspired by John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers.

In this book, Gardner argues that while “there are techniques — hundreds of them — that, like carpenter’s tricks, can be studied and taught” (8) there are no real rules of literary (non-genre) fiction. Writers must trust that they can tell the good from the bad, and this knowledge will come from two things: 1. practice; and 2. reading a lot. Like, a lot.

I have no doubt that everyone in this group is a good reader. We’re here, aren’t we? We’re here because we love to write and we love to read. But Gardner also talks about the benefits of a higher education for a writer, because it is in a college or university setting where a writer can encounter a literature course in which the professor leads the students through a close reading  of Macbeth, looking at each line, each word, and analyzing how and why Shakespeare made the choices he did, why he didn’t include stage direction, why he made the loss of the Macbeth’s child so subtle when making it clearer could have increased sympathy for Lady Macb. You don’t get that when you’re just reading it yourself.

Out Damn Spot

And why didn’t she just use this soap? I mean, it says there right on the label that it’s just what she needed.

Along with a great reading experience like that, though, might also come something else that Gardner argues is essential to a writer, and that’s the ability “fully understand the other side of one’s argument” (10). Because that same Shakespeare professor, or (more likely) another student in the class might argue that the three witches Macbeth encounters are really time traveling robots. Sure, okay. Let’s get into it.

It’s much more likely that in higher education, however, that you won’t engage in too many arguments about Shakespearean robots (though if you do, please, please give me a call and invite me to the conversation). But you will engage in robust debate about the contemporary relevance of the philosophical questions set forth in The Handmaid’s Tale; about the effectiveness of using multiple first person narrators in Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings; about whether it is better to use simple syntax (Salinger) or complex syntax (Woolf) for a slowly paced story; whether it’s a grotesque violation of the audience’s trust or a brilliant violation of genre when a writer does not reveal who the killer was at the end of a literary mystery novel (if you want to know who this writer is, let me know; otherwise, no spoilers).

And it is by examining and arguing about these things that will help you understand how other great writers write and how you, as a young writer, can mimic the greats — how you can set forth a philosophical question in a way that will transcend history; how you can frame a story within a story as a way of developing the character of the storyteller; how you can violate genres and expectations.

But because it may not be realistic for all of us to immediately enroll in a college level literature class, your homework this week is to read something and then discuss it with someone else.

I have two text options for you (though of course you can choose your own): one creative and one academic.

The creative text is a short story called “The Swim Team” from Miranda July’s 2007 collection No One Belongs Here More Than You.

No One Belongs Here More Than You

As you read the story, please think specifically about these three things:

  1. What is the story about? Why do you think that?
  2. Why doesn’t July use quotation marks for dialogue? Are there other writers you’re familiar with who use this style? Do you like it or not? Why?
  3. How does July tell the story? Does she use traditional first-person narration? Does she embed stories within stories? Why does she do the things she does? Do you like it or not? Why?

The academic text is a chapter from Michelle Fine’s 1991 book Framing Dropouts: Notes on the Politics of an Urban High School.

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Image via Goodreads

As you read Fine’s chapter, please think specifically about these three things:

  1. How does Fine incorporate creative writing into her work? Is it only in the passages she includes as references, or is it her style as well? Does she reference creative texts differently than she references scholarly texts?
  2. What kind of relationship does Fine seem to have with the subjects of her study? What about her writing makes you feel that way?
  3. What kind of relationship does Fine want to have with her audience? What about her writing makes you feel that way?

Anyone who wants to chat about the text they’ve read can do so in the comments on this post — have at it! What do you think? Why do you say that? And is there anything you can take from these writers and mimic in your own work?

Have a great writing and reading week!

 

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. Vintage Books, 1985.

 

 

Week Two: Summer 2017 Online Writing Group

It’s the second week of the Summer 2017 Online Writing Group!

We have a new member of the group this week: Ted. Ted is a colleague of mine in the English Department at MCC and someone I’ve exchanged work with over the years. He’s an excellent reader and has given me consistent and helpful feedback. He primarily writes poetry, but he can carve out some mean prose. Welcome, Ted!

Here are our second week goals.

Week Two Goals:

Anne:

I did review Save the Cat. I’m going to continue with organizing my writing space, organizing my writing notebook, reading the next Save the Cat book and taking notes, and generally psyching up.

Bev:

Last week I was working from 8 to 5 at a summer science institute for K-8 teachers. It was tons of fun, but the only writing I did was three lectures and a bunch of cut-down lab handouts.

Onward! This week I will make up for last week by finding two agents and sending out query letters. I mean it this time!

Cynthia:

This week, I am working with my group mates in my MLIS course to develop a library evaluation plan, and we are writing the abstract and outline this week.

Laura:

I failed to meet my week one goals; I kind of lollygagged and putzed around all week, getting over my jet-lag (bad excuse), reading a good book (slightly better excuse, but still not good), and watching television (nope, I just went backwards). My goal for week two is to write every day and to find somewhere to submit my new essay. Same as last week.

Lisa:

Coming soon…

Mike:

Week One update: my original goal had been to write 15 pages of the new book. However, I underestimated how long it had been since I’d tried writing from a completely blank screen with no outline, structure, etc. I wound up writing a little over two pages, which I’m happy with as a start. They also provide a clear path to breaking out into two longer opening scenes. I edited a few pages of an old short story (which had not been part of my original plan), and then interrupted that to write an outline and few key lines of a completely new story that came into my head. Someone posted on Twitter over the weekend: “Taking a break from not finishing one story to not finish a completely separate second story,” which for some reason seemed very fitting.

Week Two goal: write a full draft of each of the two scenes I started with from my work this week, ideally, winding up with about 10 total pages from them.

Rachel:

I definitely did not make any headway on my week one goal so consider my week two a copy-paste of week one. 😟 (I have a very similar update for this week: no shame, no shame!)

Robert:

My week one goal was 7,000 words, and I wrote 8,669. For week two: my goal is 7,000 words. Currently the novel is at 27,885 words.

Sarah:

Week Two Goal: I have to finish my week one goal, you take late work right? (YES I DO, SARAH.) So finish my article on STEAM initiatives and start an article I am currently calling “Postmodernism: what the hell is it.”

I am struggling to focus on work with all this sunshine and fun. So I am also starting to read a new Ross King book. Reading, even historical fiction, helps me focus.

Ted:

In an effort to be more pragmatic (odd, uncomfortable feeling) my eight week goals are to be thoroughly re-committed to three separate pieces of fiction, which I’ve begun and re-entered in erratic fashion. I don’t see myself completing any of them necessarily — to find them irresistible would be perfectly fine.

I also want to pull existing poetry into different configurations pf manuscript — again, with a notion of establishing momentum (and discipline).

Well: we shall see.

 

These sound like excellent goals — thanks, writers!

This week I wanted to write briefly about pace, which, as the dictionary defines most appropriately for our context, is “the speed or rate at which something happens, changes, or develops.”

Pace is important for all writing, academic and creative. It should be considered for scenes, chapters, and sections, and it should also be considered for the entirety of a piece, no matter how long. It’s essential to have a pace that matches the kind of story you’re telling, and it’s essential to know how to regulate your pace: how to slow it down when you need to spend more time on character development, and when to speed it up when you’re trying to convey something quick like action, or to summarize rather than detail exposition or main ideas.

Okay, so how do you figure it out? How do you determine if your story — holistically — is moving too quickly or too slowly, if you’re moving past important information without giving your reader enough time to think, or if you’re boring your reader with scenes that feel like they’ve got their feet stuck in puddles of cold syrup? My advice for this: know the scope of the piece you’re writing, and then ask yourself if it’s possible to write a well developed, thorough piece in that amount of time and space (developing your characters, ideas, and themes well enough to heighten conflict, get readers caring about your story, and to reach a believable resolution).

If you’re writing a novel or a series of books, then you’ve pretty much got all the time and space you could ever need. The book I’m reading right now (as part of my procrastination activities last week) is the second in a series and it picks up directly where the first book left off. The writer, Hugo Award-winner N.K. Jemisin, clearly had a big story to tell and an enormous world to describe, but she didn’t want to rush it or overwhelm the reader with a 1,200-page brick, so she gave us a 468-page first book that moved through this new world and all of its characters and plots with a pace allowing the reader time to absorb everything smoothly and evenly (like a really good makeup foundation [yep, I just did that]); and her second book, which is about the same length, is consistently paced to match the first.

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They’re good. Read them. (Image Credit: Amazon)

So if you have a big story, give yourself some room. If you’re trying to tell a big story in a short-story format, considering either narrowing your story to a single scene — something that can feel like a complete story with a conflict-crisis-resolution but that fits into the world of your larger story (J.D. Salinger did this with his Glass family stories; William Faulkner did this with the fifty or so stories he set in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi; and I’m sure there are a bunch of other writers [more contemporary, less male, less white…?] who have done and continue to do this as well). If you try to fit too much into too small of a space, your pace will suffer. It will be rushed; your characters will be underdeveloped; your resolution will read as unbelievable, or flat, or both.

Here’s an example from something else I was doing last week instead of writing: watching television. (Are you really surprised? You know me by now. Don’t be surprised.) I started watching the Netflix series Dear White People, which is based on a 2014 film by the same name. When the film came out, I was eager to see it. It sounded clever and timely, and it took place on a college campus, which is a setting I love for stories of all mediums. But I thought that Justin Simien’s debut feature didn’t live up to its potential, and I believe it’s because he was trying to tell too large of a story — the intersections of five (primary) young people navigating contemporary race relations at an Ivy League university — in too short of a time. The movie was rushed and the characters were kind of flat and I didn’t feel connected to them or to the story.

But the series is different, and it’s because Simien, still at the helm, now has space. He’s able to devote thirty-minute episodes to developing the same story from different characters’ points-of-view, giving background and perspective that a single 108-minute film just can’t do. The pace now fits the scope. Success!

Unfortunately, as far as figuring out the actual, technical pace of your story and each scene within that story, the ball is in your court. There is no magic formula, no matter what well-meaning listicles may say. You have to read a lot and ask yourself, “How is this writer giving me exposition? How is she balancing that exposition with action? With character development? With conflict development?” And then, if you like what the writer is doing with pacing, mimic it as best you can. And if you don’t like it, analyze what they’ve done and avoid that at all costs.

And watch t.v. and movies, too, because they’re great for figuring out pacing. If you’re ever confused about a plot point or a character, odds are that the story’s pace is too fast. Fix it, re-write it in your head, and then remember not to make that same mistake.

So your homework is to read and watch t.v. and movies and pay attention to pace. Apply it to your own writing and see how it goes.

Oh, and I guess you should write, too. Yes, please do some writing.

Good luck, all, and see you here next week!

Week One: Summer 2017 Online Writing Group

It’s the first week of the Summer 2017 Online Writing Group and I’m already behind schedule!

So, really, things are working as they usually do.

This is week one of our third summer online writing group (holy cannoli we’ve been doing this for three years!) and as usual, we have a great group of writers. So far (we may have a late addition or two since I neglected to send a reminder email [who’s not surprised? me.]…) they’re all returning members, which means they’re familiar with my shenanigans and are willing to deal with me for another summer! Ha-ha, suckers! (j.k. you’re not suckers; you’re all great and I’m really glad you’re in the group again!)

 

To give you a refresher of how the group will run, please notice that below you’ll see two lists of goals that each participant has submitted:

  1. A list of big picture goals–what everyone hopes to achieve by the end of our eight week session
  2. A list of first week goals–what everyone hopes to achieve by the end of our first week

As we continue on each week, I’ll only include everyone’s weekly goal, but please come back here for a refresher on each writer’s big project goals.

Big Picture Goals:

  • Anne: My goal is to continue with the study of Save the Cat, reading the next book, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies. I also want to make a notebook and a planning board for using that method for planning scripts.
  • BevMy goals for this summer will be modest because we are getting a new edition of the textbook we use for one of my classes. My life this summer will be completely ruined by course revisions, which are going very slowly so far. However, I am going to commit to finding at least one agent and sending out one query letter for my memoir each week.
  • Cynthia: My eight-week goals would be to research and write giant paper about the future of law librarianship giving the increased use of technology in both fields.
  • Laura: My eight-week objectives are to write every day (no word count or page goal, just writing every single day); to submit a short essay I wrote in December out for publication; and to start and finish a new short story.
  • LisaEight-week goal: First few chapters of elementary level chapter book.
  • Mike: I’m pretty sure about my overall goal — write a first draft and then do at least one round of revision on 100 pages of a fictionalized account of how my grandmother came to immigrate to America. (Mike is also taking an online workshop through the Southeast Review and has promised to share any good tidbits he learns!)
  • Rachel: I have a medium-term life dream to write and publish a nonfiction book before I turn 40 (seven years from now). For this summer, my 8-week goal is, broadly, to figure out how to do that, and specifically, the output will be an outline of the book by chapter plus a written draft of the first chapter or introduction.
  • Robert: My goals are to write a thousand words a day. I’ve been doing that for the past few weeks and I’ve written 20,000 words of Love and Numbers.
  • Sarah: Big Picture Objective: I am reworking my Humanities Through the Arts course to run without a textbook in the fall. To make this work I have a lot of writing to do. I have articles to write for topics within the course that I cannot cover with outside sources and lectures to script for some depth of content.

First Week Goals:

  • Anne: Start reading Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.
  • Bev: Finding the first new agent and sending out a query letter.
  • Cynthia: Start giant research paper
  • Laura: Write two new blog posts about my recent trip to the Netherlands, and start the new short story.
  • LisaFirst week goal: Get started! 3 – 5 pages.
  • Mike: Work on the draft and get something useful from the online workshop.
  • Rachel: For week 1: I should probably confirm that the book I want to write hasn’t already been written 🙂 I know of at least one book that is similar to what I want to write. So, I will do a thorough search of what’s already out there and then decide if I should move forward with this particular idea.
  • Robert: One thousand words a day.
  • Sarah: Week 1 Goal: I need to get in the groove of writing one article while editing previous ones. So this week I need to finish a draft of an article on the placement of the humanities in higher education from land-grant colleges to STEAM initiatives in the US, and edit the course outline.

As usual, we have a terrific mix work represented here, which I always love. I’m looking forward to hearing about everyone’s progress over the summer.

To get everyone motivated for the week, here is an interview with writer Susan Sontag from The Paris Review‘s “The Art of Fiction” series. Sontag is an interesting writer for us to consider, given the makeup of writers in our group. She has written about writing, about war, about photography (I saw a couple of her titles as I perused the book shop during a recent visit to the Foam Photography Museum; a little Sontag seed was planted and sprouted for this post!); she has written fiction and non-fiction. Her style is journalistic, personal, and creative.

So read the interview, get a little inspiration, and then write away!

Portrait Of Author Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag: Image Credit The Paris Review

Because this post is so late, I’ll be doing a quick turnaround next Monday. Until then, good writing, everyone!

 

Faculty Development 4,000 Miles From Home

On Friday, May 19, Noëmi and I went to a faculty development conference at Microsoft’s Dutch office in Amsterdam. The conference was organized specifically for teachers from the college networks. Each school got to send a handful of teachers — Noëmi’s colleague Paul was with us, as was one of the other guests from the U.S., Janel from California — and there were over one hundred educators and IT administrators in attendance.

Noëmi participates in these conferences often because she’s a Microsoft Innovative Educator. Summa College students have free access to Microsoft 365, and the teachers use it to share documents and provide feedback on assignments. And on the 19th, Noëmi was leading a hands-on workshop focused on using the One Note program in the classroom.

Janel and I were lucky to have Noëmi with us, because for the first half of the day, before Noëmi led her workshop, she sat with us in the back of the conference theater and translated every presenter’s Dutch into English. She basically gave us everyone’s word-for-word, which was fantastic for us and probably exhausting for her.

Noëmi ( who is probably very tired but doesn’t show it!), me, and Janel

The theme of the day was Empowering the Students of Today to Create the World of Tomorrow, and each speaker gave a thirty-minute presentation. Because of the intimacy of the space, everyone was able to ask questions, and because I am a huge gorp, I took many, many notes.

Don’t worry, there are six more pages just like this.

Noëmi eventually had to leave me and Janel, first to do a short introduction of the MIE program…

Noëmi!

…and then later on to lead her workshop:

Noëmi teaches the teachers

And without our translator, Janel and I were a bit lost in all of the Dutch, so we hung out for an hour in Microsoft’s employee lounge area. We were very professional and mature.

Professional…

…and mature.

There were a few breaks throughout the day: one for mid-morning coffee (I’ve told you that the Dutch love their coffee breaks, right? They love them, and I love them. We all love them!), one for lunch, one for early afternoon post-lunch treats…

Bros before bros.

Well don’t you look new and delicious.

…and a post-conference reception that easily topped any reception that followed any faculty development day I’ve ever attended at MCC. Ever.

Sorry, MCC, but Microsoft has you beat. Not pictured: a variety of fried snacks that I was too busy eating to photograph (many of them were stuffed with cheese; all of them were delicious).

It was a thought-provoking and useful day and I’m so happy we were able to tag along with Noëmi. The only thing that crumbed up our moods was the three hour commute back to Eindhoven. The highway we needed to use was shut down because of an accident in a tunnel, so we took a detour, along with what felt like every other commuter in the entire country.

But that’s gross, so let’s not end on that; instead, let’s end on this super gorpy picture of me!

I am smiling so big because my notebook is so full of notes, and my stomach is so full of fried cheese and beer.

Now, I know that I’m way behind on my posts, so I’ll try to get a few more done before the end of the week. My official exchange ended on Saturday, and Trevor has now joined me in the Netherlands (yay!!!). We’re staying with his uncle in Amsterdam, and I will have many more posts about that. But up next will be a post about me, Noëmi, and Dave, and a windmill in Borkel (Borkel!!) and an abbey in Belgium.

Blijf kijken!

Save

Dutch Students Have Stolen My Heart!

My last post was a bit number-y and kind of a downer. So this one will be fun and full of stories about the wonderful students I’ve met over the past two weeks!

I’ve met oodles of Summa College students during this trip: well over one hundred. I already wrote about my first days meeting wonderful students at Noëmi’s school and at School 23, so you can read about those adventures and see pictures of the students.

But I’ve met so many more students after last Tuesday, and I wanted to tell you a little bit about them. Last Thursday I observed five classes: three of Chiara’s classes (Chiara is a teacher-in-training and a former teaching intern); one of Noëmi’s classes; and one of Franka’s classes (Franka is a Dr. Who fan, so she is obviously top-notch).

First up at 10 a.m. was Chiara’s English class for 2nd year healthcare students. They were a good start to the day, although a little shy and quiet. They asked great questions (including the now infamous high school cheerleader question) and were the reason Chiara and I started to crunch the numbers about college tuition in the U.S. Unfortunately, I let them leave without getting a picture, so please imagine that they were smart looking, because they were.

Next up at 11:15 a.m. was a class of Chiara’s 3rd year nursing students, and they were on it. As soon as Chiara mentioned that I was from the U.S., one of her students said — in a pretty damn good rural-American accent — “America: Fuck yeah!” From that point forward, they were hilarious and engaged. They had questions about school and about nursing, about tuition, cheerleaders (of course), and about my thoughts on visiting the school and the Netherlands. I took a nice group picture of them with Chiara…

Chiara’s 3rd Year Nursing Students with Chiara (far right)

…but we also wanted one altogether. So I took these terrible selfies to try to get us all in:

You guys know how amazing I am at taking selfies, so you should be impressed that any part of my face is visible.

Next up was Noëmi’s class of 2nd year students at 12:15 p.m. I said goodbye to Chiara, knowing I would meet up with her later on that afternoon to visit one more of her classes. Noëmi’s 2nd year students had a hard act to follow with Chiara’s 3rd years, but they turned out to be pretty spectacular. These were a small group of students who’d “chosen” wrong. In my earlier post I explained that Dutch students make choices at age 12 about the type of high school they’ll attend (general vocation [hospitality, healthcare, teaching/education…], general, or college-prep), and then at age 16 they make a choice to focus on a specific area within the general area.

All of Noëmi’s students have chosen nursing, which puts them at her college, but the students in this class had made an early decision that they wanted to change, and then they switched to nursing a little later than most students started. This meant that they were older than her typical 2nd year students (19/20 instead of 17/18), and they were a little more mature and focused. This is saying a lot, since all of the students I encountered at Summa College gave me the impression that they were mature and focused.

These students asked some of the most interesting and thoughtful questions, and Noëmi showed them the requirements for a nursing degree at McHenry County College, which they appreciated seeing and had a lot of questions about. They were the only class that did not ask about cheerleading.

Noëmi’s 2nd Year Nursing Students

After this class, Noëmi and I had a thirty minute break so we ate some sandwiches and fruit in the teacher’s lounge, and then got a cup of coffee. (Have I mentioned how frequently the Dutch have coffee breaks throughout the day? Quite often. It’s one of the most civilized things about them and something I want to immediately import to the U.S.)

After lunch I met up with Franka, the Dr. Who fan and English teacher for students studying to be dental assistants. These were typical 2nd year students, about 18 years old. They were a little shy, but there was another teaching of English who asked questions to get them warmed up and who had excellent questions about paths of study in the U.S. They were the first group to whom I explained my own circuitous route to becoming a teacher.

Franka is kneeling in the front row left, wearing glasses

The last class I got to visit was back with Chiara, her 3rd year part-time nursing students. These students were similar to MCC’s returning adult students: students who’d been working at a job for ten or twenty years, and then decided they were up for a change so they went back to school to study nursing.

It was in this class that I felt most at home with the material, since she was giving a lesson on how to compose a business letter. She touched on a lot of the same things I touch on with my students: addressing an unfamiliar audience clearly and professionally; using a standard salutation and closing; and proofreading (!!!). She also talked about the “shit” rule for remembering subject-verb agreement, and I’m going to steal it. Here’s what it is:

If you have a subject that’s needed to make “shit”, then you need to add an “s” to the verb. What do you need to make shit? She, He, and It. So, “she sings,” and “he drives,” and “it produces.” SHIT!

I love it. Thanks, Chiara!

I didn’t get a picture of this final Thursday class, and I’m kind of bummed about it. But it did mark a time I made a dumb American blunder with a Dutch person. The desks were arranged in a two-layered U-shape, and before the class started I sat in the second layer on the end. The person in front of me had her things there, but she was getting coffee, and when she came back she asked me, in Dutch, if it was okay if she sat in front of me.

Now, I am such a goof that when someone is speaking to me in Dutch and I don’t immediately get the gist of what they’re saying, I just sort of stare dumbly and smile. So, that’s what I did and then, still smiling, I shook my head “No.” To me, I was trying to tell her that I didn’t understand; she thought I was telling her that she could not sit in front of me. She probably thought I was a major asshole. Luckily, someone in the class said that I was an American and then she asked in English, and I was so apologetic and said that of course she could sit in front of me! She laughed really hard and the whole class had a great sense of humor. That made me love them all very much.

I’d made another American tourist gaffe my first day on campus. I was doing simulations with the doctor’s assistant students: a student would sit at a reception desk behind me and I’d call with an ailment; the student had to identify whether I should come in to see the doctor if it was serious, or if I could take some aspirins and stay home. I first pretended to have a mild headache; I called the second student with a stomachache; and, since the first two had asked if I had a fever and I’d said “No,” I thought that I’d have a fever for the third student.

But when she asked what my temperature reading was, I thought to myself, “hmm, what’s a kind-of serious but not too high temperature?” And I answered, “101 degrees.” The room was silent for a couple of seconds before Noëmi burst out laughing and the rest of the class (who were listening in order to debrief after the calls) joined in as well. It took me a second to realize that I’d given them a Fahrenheit temperature and basically just told them that my blood was boiling. Noëmi gave me a quick calculation and I changed my answer to 38 degrees. Yikes.

On Monday I observed five more of Noëmi’s classes: two 2nd year classes, two 3rd year classes, and a 1st year class. One of the 3rd year classes I visited was the same class I’d met first last week Monday; I’d forgotten to get a picture of them, so we made sure to get one this time:

The only group I got to see twice!

The other groups were, as expected, great. They had similar types of questions as the groups I’d met last week, though Noëmi’s 11:45 a.m. 3rd year class also gave me some good ideas about things to do in Amsterdam once my time with Noëmi and Dave is over and Trevor comes to town (more about that later). They were the first to suggest that we visit the Anne Frank House Museum, which we’re doing on Tuesday; and they also mentioned that I might like to visit a “coffee” shop. We’ll see about that.

Noëmi’s 3rd year students

Noëmi’s 1st year students — very early in their studies, but their English was excellent!

Noëmi’s 2nd year students

As you can see, they are very smart looking and adorable. I told them that I’d tour them around Chicago if they ever came my way, and some of them were actually interested. But even if I never see them again, they helped make my time here meaningful. Thank you, students!

I’ll have more posts about the faculty development conference we attended at Microsoft’s Amsterdam offices last Friday, the visit we took to the hospitality school (and all of the wonderful food we ate [and helped cook!]) and the meetings I had with some of the Summa College administrators. Well, maybe I won’t do an entire post on the administrative meetings: I found them fascinating and I took tons of notes, but they might not be very interesting to you.

Today is my last day with Noëmi and Dave. Trevor flies into Amsterdam tomorrow (I AM SO EXCITED TO SEE HIM), so I’ll also have some posts documenting our adventures. Stay tuned for all of that.

Spreek je snel!

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Equitable Education: We Don’t Have It

Last week, in addition to visiting School 23, the Summa College school for hospitality training, and Efteling Theme Park, I got to see a lot of students and teachers in action, and I got a taste of Dutch faculty development. I was going to focus this post on those things — the amazing teachers and students, the excellent faculty development — but as I typed out an explanation of the Dutch education system’s tuition and compared it to ours in the U.S., I realized that I couldn’t focus on anything fun…yet. As a result, this post is a little dry, but I hope you read it. I think it’s important. Tomorrow I’ll give you a little brain candy and a lot of great pictures of smart, interesting Dutch students.

On Thursday, Noëmi and I headed back to the Summa Zorg campus. She’d arranged for me to observe five different English classes: three taught by her former intern and now a teacher-in-training, Chiara; one by her colleague Franka; and one of Noëmi’s own.

The first two classes were taught by Chiara, an energetic young woman of Irish and German descent who was born in Germany and moved to the Netherlands when she was four years old (her father’s work transferred him here). Her English is spectacular and her accent is a bit Irish/a bit Dutch, and all of it was a pleasure to listen to.

Chiara’s 3rd Year Nursing Students with Chiara (far right)

Her first class was made up of 2nd year healthcare students (who I am just realizing now I didn’t get a picture of — imagine them as great, because they were). They were fairly young and a little shy. I explained the U.S. education system to them and talked about some of the differences between it and the Dutch education system.

The first significant difference is choice: when Dutch students are 12 years old, they must decide which type of secondary education they will pursue: a vocational education (VMBO), a general liberal arts education (HVAO), or a more stringent university-preparatory education (VWO). The students who have selected the vocational education go through four years of the VMBO and then, at age 16, they must decide on a specific vocation. That choice determines which college (MBO) they will attend; the students who have chosen healthcare come to Noëmi’s school, Summa Zorg.

This means that at age 16, students decide on a career. If they change their minds, they can switch schools, but they may need to go backwards a bit to make up the curriculum they missed, and this could delay graduation. The system sounded stressful to me (I changed my mind about possible careers until I was about 26; and I think that’s actually pretty decisive). But when I questioned the students about this, they more or less seemed okay with their choices. A couple were a bit uncertain — what if they decide later that they want to do something else? — but many felt confident in their decisions. And I encountered students who had chosen a different vocation, but who’d then switched to healthcare, or were interested in switching from healthcare to something else. They said that yes, there was a bit of delay, but they were happy they’d made the change early and not once they’d gotten into a career they didn’t like and didn’t fit with.

The other significant difference is tuition. When Dutch students begin college at an MBO (or at an HBO, which is comparable to a four-year college or university in the U.S.), they’re only 16 and the government is still paying for their education. The following two years are entirely funded for them, and then, once they turn 18, their tuition is $1,037 per year — to any MBO in the country. And, as long as the student finishes her degree within a reasonable period of time, the tuition is reimbursed to them upon graduation. And, all students get a free public transportation pass after secondary school, as long as they’re continuing their schooling. The government doesn’t want student to have to pay for transportation to and from school, just in case their college is far away. These MBO students are, in large part, though not all, the kind of students who attend McHenry County College.

Now, if a Dutch student is on the track for an HBO or WO (college/university in the U.S. traditional sense) her tuition is $1,984 per year; and it’s not a gift like it is with the MBO students, but a loan that must be repaid. The interest on that loan is very low (maybe 1%?) and the monthly payments are calculated based on the type of job a student is able to get after graduation. If a student has been making monthly payments without default for a long time (about twenty years, I think?), then the remainder of the loan is forgiven.

So, in Chiara’s class, when I explained the cost of tuition at my college, which is still significantly less than most colleges, and the lowest in our area, the students were shocked. Like, there was an audible gasp when Chiara and I did the math (okay, Chiara did the math) and put the price of MCC’s tuition on the whiteboard.

For a student at MCC to be considered a full-time student, she must be enrolled in a minimum of 12 credit hours. My single-semester long class is 3 credit hours; each credit hour at MCC is $104. That means that a full-time student enrolled in 12 credit hours is paying $1248 per semester and $2,496 per year, not including books or other materials that may be required for a class (specific software; art materials; uniform for nursing and culinary students). So if a nursing student at MCC is doing her two-year associate’s degree, her tuition will be $4,992.

Now, in the U.S., for a two year degree that almost immediately gets you access to a career, that sounds like a good deal, right? But the Dutch students were floored at how much money that was. For education, which, for them, is a given, like bicycles and windmills. Then I told them that at the University of Illinois Chicago, where I’m doing my master’s degree, tuition is a lot more expensive than it is at MCC, even though UIC is still considered to be reasonably priced. UIC’s in-state tuition — for a 12 credit hour undergraduate student — is $4,763 per semester, and $9,526 per year (again, without books, other materials, or boarding). And out-of-state tuition per semester is $10,550, making the annual cost $21,100. So if my nursing students (or if any of the many students at MCC who are on the baccalaureate/transfer side of the house) want to get a bachelor’s degree, after they’ve paid $4,992 at MCC, they still need to spend a minimum of $19,052 for the remaining two years of their undergraduate education.

And then one of Chiara’s student mentioned Harvard, so we quickly looked that up and saw that tuition alone — without adding in the nearly twenty-thousand dollars worth of fees, room, and board — is $44,990 per year. Plus an estimated $4,000 for “personal expenses” per year (books, materials); and up to $4,000 for traveling between school and home each year for breaks and holidays; and $3,130 for required health insurance if you’re not covered on your family’s plan. Even if you’re a townie or you don’t ever travel home to see your family, and if you don’t need to buy health insurance, you’re still dropping about $70,000 per year and $278,400 for the entirety of your undergraduate education. That doesn’t account for an increase in tuition. And you can’t ever leave Cambridge.

And I know, I know — it’s Haaaaaaahvaahd. It’s the school of schools; Harvard graduates are almost definitely going to make more money out of school than your garden variety schlub like me. But more than a quarter of a million dollars? Holy shit, man.

There’s a gulf, an abyss, even, between the people in the United States who can afford somewhere like Harvard, or even somewhere like UIC, and the students who are barely able to attend MCC (many of my students). This gulf will continue to widen and affect these students’ lives, through the time it will take them to complete their degrees, the debt they accumulate (student loan interest is currently at 3.76% but is likely to go up soon), and the salary of the jobs they are able to get. I don’t think this is okay. I really don’t think this is okay.

I started drafting this post on Sunday evening and my intention when I started was to write about all of the great students I visited last Thursday, and about the professional development conference I attended with Noëmi on Friday. But it’s Tuesday afternoon now: I’ve looked at a lot of dollar signs and I’ve met even more students to whom I’ve had to explain our tuition. This didn’t turn out to be a fun post, and I got off track from Chiara, Noëmi, and Franka. But I’m glad I wrote it. I’m glad I’m thinking about it.

Let’s all think about it, and maybe we can figure out how the U.S. can adjust its culture to believe that a post-secondary education is just as much of a right for all citizens as is the right to own a firearm. How about that, huh? Let’s start there.

Want to read more about how the new president’s budget will affect education? Read this article by Emma Brown, Valerie Strauss, and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel of the Washington Post.

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