Tag Archives: Students

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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It’s Friday! (Here’s What I Did Three Days Ago)

I have 1,000 things to write about in regards to my trip to the Netherlands (I’ve been here for one week), and tonight I’m going to write about the first two days I had visiting schools and meeting students.

On Monday I went to Summa College with Noëmi to see her college campus, get a sense of what her work day looked like, and meet her excellent students.

First, let’s talk about the teachers’ lounge at Summa College Zorg & Welzijn (healthcare and wellness), where Noëmi teaches. This is what it looks like.

I love this lounge

There are two coffee machines that make espresso, cappuccino, and regular coffee; they also have hot water and a variety of tea, and cold filtered water. And it’s all free for teachers. And I have been using it a lot this week. I’ve upped my daily caffeine intake by 80%, and I’m pretty happy about that.

Next, let’s talk about Noëmi’s students, who are great. All of the students I’ve met so far have been great, and I’ll get to that a lot more later. Here’s one of Noëmi’s classes:

Adorable.

I told her students why I was visiting and a little bit about the type of college I teach at, and my students, and they had great questions. They also, through giggles, asked me if high school in the U.S. was like high school in the movies: specifically, are there cheerleaders?

Yes, students. Yes, there are. And they look something like this:

Picture stolen from Sara Zambreno’s Facebook page; she’s that super cute stringbean in the far right front row.

Between Noëmi’s classes, we hung out in the teacher team’s office, and I saw a book near her desk. It looked like fun, so I picked it up.

Fun, right? And the author’s name is Buffi, so…it’s obviously the best book ever.

And it was so much more fun than I could have ever imagined. So.  Much.   More.    Fun.

WHAT IS HAPPENING? I LOVE ALL OF IT!

And then…I found this:

I’ll just leave that there for you to enjoy.

Noëmi drove me over to another school, School 23, where I met up with the three other American visitors and their hosts. There is a visitor from Morton College in Cicero, IL; a visitor from Casper College in Casper, Wyoming; and a visitor from Fresno City College in Fresno, California. As you might imagine, I think they’re all great and I can’t wait to tell you more about them.

Now, the school itself, while also great, kind of blew my mind. School 23 is a school for Dutch language learners to become acclimated to the Netherlands, to learn Dutch, and to learn skills that will allow them to not only function in Dutch society, but to thrive. But many of the students at School 23 are refugees who have fled from countries like Somalia, Syria, and Eritrea. These students have been traumatized; many have lost family members; some are now living in a foreign country all by themselves; and while some have excellent educational backgrounds (Syria had a robust school system until the war, and reported a 95% literacy rate), some of the students at School 23 are illiterate. These students brought an entirely new context to my understanding of “at risk” students.

Not only is School 23 serving this important population, they seem to be doing a wonderful job. The students we saw during our tour of the school were friendly and happy; they practiced their English with us (adorably and nervously), and showed tremendous pride in the work we saw them doing.

Noëmi with the culinary arts instructor and one of his students (who helped cook all of the food for our after-meeting tea!)

We saw students working on art projects, students learning about evolution (um, yeah, a group of smarties from Syria were learning about evolution and I was really jealous and wanted to hang out with their class), and students hanging out in the reading nook (reading nook!). And everywhere in between they were just being happy teenagers, and that made me so proud of them and so thankful for the work that School 23 does.

A masonry studio for students to practice job-specific skills; they also learn carpentry and electrical work


A shop simulation stocked with donated goods where students can practice front of house skills like customer service and back-of-house skills like inventory and book-keeping

We left School 23 happy and feeling great, and we went into our Tuesday with high expectations for the next school we were visiting: the Summa College school for hospitality training at the Eindhoven Aiport. And guess what? Our high expectations were met.

Airport!

We were so excited to go to a new airport — it’s always fun to go to the airport when you don’t have the stress of dragging bags around and worrying about catching your flight.

We met up with the rest of the visitors and their hosts, and were greeted by some of the students in the lobby. They brought us up to their school facilities, located on the second floor of the actual airport. The students are required to wear flight attendant-like uniforms each day to classes, and they looked official and wonderful and made me envious of their teacher for getting to teach them (their teacher is a lovely woman named Rose — hello, Rose!).

The students had prepared presentations for us about their school and their training, and we had time to ask them questions before they took us on a tour through the facilities (and guess what? they also asked us about high school cheerleaders).

Waiting in the school’s airplane simulation


Student presentation!


The. Cutest.

Two students gave a tour to me, Noëmi, and Charles, the visitor from Wyoming. Because they were in their uniforms, they frequently got asked for help by actual patrons of the airport, and Nadia here had to help a couple of guys who were on their way to the Canary Islands load their surfboards and kayaks into the oversized luggage belt.

That’s a kayak, not a dead body! (or is it????? [no, it’s totally a kayak])

There’s an outdoor terrace at the airport!


Our tour guide is literally the poster boy for the school!


Charles, Noëmi, and our wonderful tour guides!

We hated to leave because it was all so cool and the students kept asking us excellent questions, but we needed to get back to Noëmi’s school for lunch. So we took a quick group picture…

They’re ridiculously cute!

…and then we headed back to this:

YES.

So, if you don’t know me that well then you might not know that I love sandwiches. Like, I love sandwiches. I’ve written about them before. And I will likely write about them again.

We ate sandwiches and soup (perfect combination, obviously) and then Noëmi took us all on a tour of her school. I’d seen her office, her classroom, the teachers’ lounge, and the restroom, but that’s about it. So I loved getting to see all of the nooks and crannies. And one of the most important nooks is this nook:

Summa College Zorg Library!

And this was a pretty amazing cranny:

The door for this dental assistant lab class was locked; otherwise, I’d have been all up in that dummy-head’s business.

When the tour was over and the visitors and their hosts left, Noëmi took me to her team meeting (I understood one word: Noëmi) and then I hung out in her office while she did some work. We were both tired from an excellent first couple of days at work, but looking forward to Wednesday, which was our day out at Efteling Theme Park.

I have many things to say about Efteling Theme Park, and they are all good things. But you’re going to have to wait until my next post for that. So for now, I’ll leave you with this:

Yeah, this sure as hell was as good as it looks.

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The Great and Powerful Shaz

I’ve been a teacher since 2006 and have had, in that time, about 1,800 students in my classrooms. And yes, they’ve all been wonderful people and I’ve loved them all. But…well, you know…I might have had some favorites over the years.

I know that I’m not supposed to have favorites, but it’s hard not to, especially with the high quality of students that come through my door. And especially when one of those students is the super cute, super smart, super wonderful Shahrazad Sheikhali.

me-and-shaz-in-hallway

How cute and smart and wonderful is she?!

Shaz first became my student in August of 2011 when she enrolled in my Composition 2 class; and I immediately liked her. She was quiet but smart, and she always went the extra mile with her work, her discussions, and with the way she treated her classmates. She was one of my favorites that semester, and it could have ended there.

Shaz, far right -- her first appearance in one of my class photos!

English 152, Fall 2011: Shaz is far right — her first appearance in one of my class photos!

But then — but then! — I learned that she was loved to write! Favorite status imminent! Shaz enrolled in my creative writing class for the next semester…

One damn fine creative writing class!

One damn fine creative writing class!

…and then the next semester she joined Writer’s Block, our campus creative writing club. She quickly became a leader for the group, helping to organize author readings and our Bi-Annual Bad Poetry Contest.

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Writer’s Block hosts its first reading with author Sasha Dawn

Shaz emcees a Bad Poetry contest

Shaz emcees a Bad Poetry contest

Because of her work in our creative writing class and with the student club, I enlisted her to be one of my student editors for the 2013 issue of Voices, MCC’s literary arts magazine. She did a wonderful job on the issue, and even had one of her own poems published.

Writer's Block celebrates the end of the year and the Voices 2013 issue

Writer’s Block celebrates the end of the year and the Voices 2013 issue

Although Shaz didn’t need to take any more of my classes, we didn’t stop working together. She came to me with an idea for a project we could work on together as part of MCC’s then brand-new Undergraduate Research Scholar Program. She wanted to do some research on the impact of the teacher-student relationship on student success. We collaborated to design objectives and a plan for the semester, and then she set to work. Shaz did a literature review, observed classrooms all over campus, surveyed and interviewed students and professors, and wrote up her report at the end of her project (FYI: a supportive and structured student-teacher relationship has a positive impact on student performance). I was proud to be her mentor throughout the process, and I was even prouder when she told me that she’d be graduating MCC, transferring to Northern Illinois University, and studying to be a teacher. An English teacher! OMG, dream come true. Favorite status achieved!

She invited me to go to with her to NIU’s new student orientation the summer before she enrolled. I hadn’t been to a new student orientation like that since I was starting as an undergraduate myself, and I loved going with Shaz for a tour of the residence halls, the classrooms, the dining hall…everything! We also nerded out in the book store and I came out of it with a number of NIU pens. (I know, surprise, surprise, I bought pens.)

NIU's new student orientation!

NIU’s new student orientation!

I took a lot fewer pictures of Shaz during her time at NIU, primarily because it would have been weird for me to lurk around her classrooms and newspaper meetings and dining hall, snapping photos. (Although, to be honest, I was tempted.) But we kept in touch, got together for coffees and lunches in DeKalb and in Crystal Lake, and she caught me up on all of her cool studenty stuff.

Last year she did an observation at a middle school near her campus, and this semester she was a student teacher in the same school and with the same teacher. It was the last piece of her bachelor’s degree, and I got to see her in action. For my Adolescence in the Schools class at UIC this semester, I needed to observe adolescents in their natural habitat and the write up an ethnography; so I asked Shaz if I could observe her 7th grade class for a couple of hours one afternoon. She and her lead teacher were gracious enough to allow me to observe, and it was so much fun, not only because 7th graders are hilarious and weird and awesome, but because Shaz was great and I loved seeing her teach.

Shaz waits for her students to come back from lunch

Shaz waits for her students to come back from lunch

Shaz the teacher!

Shaz the teacher!

And then she was finished with her NIU coursework, was all set for her endorsements and her degree, and the only thing left for her to do was to graduate. To graduate, omg!

She graduated this past Sunday, and she invited me to the ceremony to sit with her family, which was an honor in itself. Her parents, sisters, and brother had gotten to NIU’s convention center as soon as the doors opened to get some good seats, and they were successful: we were front row, only yards away from where Shaz was seated.

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niu-program

And the ceremony was lovely. NIU’s steel band played “Pomp and Circumstance,” (yes, they have an award-winning steel band and they played all the music and it was surreal because there was a snowstorm outside but tropical music all morning long). The president, during his keynote address, asked the families of the graduates to stand up and be recognized for their support, so the Sheikhalis took a much-deserved bow:

sheikhali-family-stands-up

Oh, just the cutest family ever.

And we watched Shaz walk up to receive her diploma, and we were all smiling so hard our faces almost fell off of our heads.

After the ceremony, we gathered with the other few hundred graduates and their accompanying thousands of family members in the convention center’s lobby to take some photos.

the-sheikhali-women

Shaz, her sisters, and her mother

sheikhali-family

Shaz, her sisters, and her cousin

Me and my favorite Shaz!

Me and my favorite Shaz!

All of it made me so happy and proud and bursting with smiles and hugs. Shaz has already gotten a job at a high school in the district where she did her student teaching, and she’ll start next fall. I’m so proud of how hard she’s worked and I’m honored to have been a part of her academic career.

I’m sure Shaz will be a part of my life for many years to come, and I know that although I’ll still have favorite students, I won’t have another one like her. Good luck, Shaz! You’re going to go so far!

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Journaling Past Writer’s Block

Group member Anne, a former student of mine, is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree at Columbia College Chicago. I worked with her on an Undergraduate Research Scholar Program project about the popularity and tropes of genre fiction, and I even invited her into my class to give a mini-workshop on her findings (I do not invite just anyone to take over my class; in fact, it’s only happened twice in nine years).

Anne 3

Anne talks genre fiction mash-ups to my creative writing students

Anne is a great writer and talented young woman. Here, she talks about tapping into her own emotions to serve her writing process. Enjoy Anne’s post!

This is a guest post from Anne Donald, a member of this summer’s Online Writing Group:

Writing has saved me hours of emotional turmoil, because for me that is a huge emotional release. It’s where nothing matters beyond the story I need to tell. When I’m feeling extreme emotions lately I’ve been reaching out to my manuscripts and journal. These raw emotions are the driving force behind my writing. I’m creating my own world, a world where the feeling of writer’s block is drowned out by the message I want to send. When I started at the fiction writing program at Columbia, I found myself in a massive writer’s block; but then when I would scroll through the Internet and came upon posts that evoked extreme emotions from me, I would turn to Microsoft Word or my journal and just write.

The students get to work with Anne's writing exerise

The students get to work with Anne’s writing exercise

Using my emotions and experiences, I am able to get in the zone until the story I need to tell is completed. Another thing that helps me is posing questions to myself, asking myself the what would I do if I were in that situation type of questions. Usually I have a long list of questions I ask myself. Sometimes I even write a letter to my characters. And when I feel passionate about that or am able to completely get into my character’s mind, the writer’s block is cleared up.

I am an avid lover of history, so for me looking up historical facts, reading history textbooks or historical fiction, and finding things no one has written about fuel me and induce me into writing a story that I feel needs to be told or there is a message that I need the world to hear. Lately I have been branching outside historical fiction and dipping my toe in the waters of other genres and I have found that my emotions and experiences allow me to let the story tell me what it wants, no matter the genre.

If I can’t really think of anything to write, I purposely turn to things that I know will evoke an extreme emotional reaction from me; then my mind clears from its writer’s block and I’m able to tell what I need to tell. Also, I love reading and asking questions about the novels. I’m excited because lately I have been branching into unknown territory for me, where I put my characters in situations I wouldn’t normally find myself in. That goes back to the what would I/my characters do in certain situations that are new to me/them? I find my writing process easier when I am doing something that I enjoy as well, but more often than not this distracts me and I need to feel that raw emotion put to paper to clear up any remaining traces of that pesky writer’s block.

Anne’s method of getting into her characters’ heads and using her own emotions and hypothetical responses to situations is a great way to write believable actions and reactions. What else do you do to realize your characters?

Young Women Power

I was just about to title this post “Girl Power” but thought otherwise, because the students I’m about to write about aren’t girls. They are smart, capable young women.

They are sass dragons.

I gave some of them this title after a few of them in my creative writing class…

Sass Dragons

These five…

…started to get…well…sassy.

Every day when I walk into that class, I greet everyone by calling them some silly name: “good morning, my little dew drops!” (or “pea pods” or “noodle necks”). I don’t know why I do this. It’s likely because I enjoy this class–my creative writing class this semester–so much and am excited to see them. Although, thinking through it now, I do this with all of my classes. If I’m being honest with myself, I am a geeky teacher and really like my job.

Anyway. One day, I’d greeted the creative writing students with some silliness or other, but the above-pictured five were being particularly…energetic, and I called them sass dragons.

This is a nickname I came up with in 2009 at my friend Sarah’s barbecue; Sarah, her friend Mika, and I were being silly and cheeky, and sass dragons just seemed to fit us. And when it came out of my mouth in class this semester, the students adopted it to describe themselves. And it’s pretty perfect.

My other class this semester–a cohort of students who have gone through the same series of classes together all year long–is also full of excellent young women. And although “full of” implies that there are a lot of them, there are really just two:

Me, my co-teacher, and our two amazing students

Me, my co-teacher, and our two amazing students

Because this year-long cohort is a pilot program, the enrollment was small to begin with–only about a dozen students. Now, after two semesters–eight classes and twenty-five credits–we’re down to a couple of students. The others have drifted away for any number of reasons, and what initially seemed stressful to me and my co-teacher–tailoring our classes for two students instead of twenty or thirty–was a real win.

With just two students, we’ve been able to get specific with our instruction and feedback. We can give them all of our attention and answer every question. The two young women have also become each others support and have gotten close, which is great to see. Plus, they’re pretty solid students and total sass dragons.

You might notice the odd little cupcakes we’re all holding in the picture. I teach students to analyze their rhetorical situation for each piece of writing by using the acronym POGAC (purpose, occasion, genre, audience, and context); and a POGAC is a little monster who loves to pogo-stick. Because…well, it just is, okay? Go with it.

For last year’s cohort, I made a POGAC cake:

Last year’s POGAC cake (just the monster head: no pogo-stick)

But this time, because we have such a small group, I did cupcakes:

One POGAC

My trial POGAC

A Blue Base

A Blue Base

POGAC

Add some fangs

Add some fangs

Finished POGACs!

Finished POGACs!

And, really, the POGAC could also be a sass dragon; so it all fits nicely.

This is the last week of classes, and I will miss all of the sass dragons I’ve met this semester. I’ll see some of them in my Fall classes or around campus, and I know the rest of them will be out in the world, being fantastic, and that alone is enough.

Writer’s Block: It’s a Good Thing

I had a crummy day yesterday. I don’t know quite what it was about the day, just a regular Tuesday, but it seemed to be going around. The colleagues I have joint office hours with in the morning also complained of feeling that it was a crummy day; the meeting I went to in the afternoon felt sucked of energy (and my own 2 minute report wasn’t any kind of stand-out, so I know that I, too, was responsible). Even Trevor, when he got home from work, told me that his day–independent of my own–was crummy in its own right.

But I have this magic thing that makes any crummy Tuesday better than it was, and I forgot about it until 3:59 p.m., at which time I walked into the student club I advise, and everything about the crummy day was put on hold.

Writer’s Block is the creative writing club on campus, and it was started in 2009 by some of my creative writing students who’d bonded so much over our class that they wanted to keep it going. They asked me to advise, and the next year I brought on my friend and colleague, Lisa, as co-advisor. The students have come in and out as they’ve matriculated in and through the school; sometimes they take just a semester, sometimes years, as is often the case at a two-year college. But regardless of who’s sitting in our meeting room on any given Tuesday afternoon, they always seem to make me feel better about the crumminess.

Writer's Block, MCC FA2014

The gang, circa November 2014

Yesterday they cheered me up with a love haiku; a poem featuring a potato (a running theme in the club [don’t ask me why; I don’t really know]); a short story about a mystical Druid army; a short story that read like the toddler of Vonnegut and D. Foster Wallace; discussions about speculative fiction, “magi-tech,” and why both Blade Runner and Phillip K. Dick’s inspirational novel (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) are fantastic; and, the cherry on top, a half-dozen young writers who are just plain fucking cool.

Pardon my language. I feel strongly about them.

So next Tuesday, I will remember that at 3:59 p.m., no matter what, I’m about to feel a whole lot better.

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