Thursday, April 16, 2009

Too Awesome Not to Share

I have two amazing videos to share with you this evening. The first, is compliments of my dear friend David Lorch. David is finishing his PhD in Biomedical Engineering at The University of Michigan. Eastern Michigan University (where I teach) and The University of Michigan are right down the street from each other. David teaches an Engineering 101 class at U of M and his students made the following video about their experiences with MatLab. SO funny. 

The second video is compliments of my new roommate in NYC. For those of you who don't know, I'm moving from Michigan to New York City on May 1. Marisol, my new roommate, was recently in a music video for an up and coming band called Ten Feet Deep. She is in the entire video but the first time you see her is in the beginning wearing a white shirt and lip syncing in place of the lead singer. Awesome. 

Too cool for school if you ask me.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Inspiration by Force? Students Choosing Topics of Interest

Much of my curriculum development focuses around letting students choose topics THEY want to write about. Once I explain this the image on the right will make much more sense. Letting students choose their own research topics is done for two main reasons:

1. The more invested they are in their own interests, the more that dedication can transfer into their research. Thus, the more they learn about both the writing process and their own interests. 
2. I don't have to read 100 essays about the same topic. 

Many times this is difficult for students because they've never had the freedom to write about and research their own interests. Students are also encouraged (and required by the end of the semester) to translate their interest into a publishable format. There tends to be a universal school of thinking that publishing belongs to authors and writers and Professors. But publishing belongs to students who SHOULD think of themselves as writers. 

I constantly ask my students what they think about previous writing and English classes and their experiences with creativity. Their response is consistently one of the following options:

1. I hate English classes, they make me feel stupid
2. I've never been good at writing
3. I don't consider myself a creative person

To me, this is devastating. During the time I've been teaching I've had the opportunity to work with incredibly talented and creative students. Currently, I have student I'll call 'T', who expressed his hatred of English classes the first day of class. T is a science guy. He's science minded, sees everything logically and offers amazing perspective to other students. Over the course of the semester we've worked together to focus his writing on his science interests. On three separate occasions he's sat in my office and said, 

"I've never been told I'm good at writing. I'm bad at writing." 

Yet, this is one of the most talented students in my class. This begs the question of 
just what is being taught in K-12 English and Creative Writing classes? Where did the confidence of our students go? 

I'm curious to hear about your experiences and how you feel about writing. What is/was it like for you in your English classes? 

My students have come up with some of the most interesting and complex communities to research. Some of their topics have included:

1. "Gaming Culture" and its impact on learning development. 
2. Small Business startups: what's effective?
3. Plastic Surgery Advertising/Television Programming and its Effect on Adolescent Girls. 
4. How Fast Food Restaurants Effect Family Development
5. Lolita Fashion Culture and its Origins
6. Academic LGBT Culture: Common Misconceptions
7. Homeschooling: Why?

The end of every semester we have The Celebration of Student Writing where students from almost all of Eastern Michigan University's design and develop an interactive presentation based on their collective research. My class is always on a bit of the wild side. I blame myself (ha!). 

In a previous semester, one of my classes chose to create a life-size interactive Monopoly Board. Each square was renamed after their research topic. For example, instead of 'Park Place' it was 'Homeschooling Place'. Every time a participant rolled the dice and landed on their square, that student would come forward and talk about their research. THEN, the participant got lots of candy. One of my tallest and shyest students dressed up as the Monopoly guy. By the end of the evening, he was standing on a chair screaming, "COME PLAY MONOPOLY" and shaking his plastic monocle at passerby's. See image below:

Last semester my students decided to make a full blown interactive Nintendo game board. They also chose to dress up like their chosen communities of interest. See picture of Rockstar, "Mike Huckabee", and the guy that didn't dress up and brought a tri-fold board (I am completely against tri-fold boards) who had to wear it. That's right, we made him wear and make the tri-fold board interactive. Every time someone would push the button he would make a Mario Brothers sound or phrase and then explain the classes project to innocent passerby's. See image above. 

In my classes, its important that students are able to maintain a level of independence. I want them to know that their interests are supported and that they are in fact, creative and brilliant writers. 

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Its all about Love...and Robots

Over the years I've noticed that there are two primary topics students rarely stray from. Those categories include Love and Robots.

Love: If students aren't writing about dating or their boyfriends/girlfriends they write about heartbreak and disappointment and expectations when it comes to love. I've had students come out as being gay for the first time in papers written for my class. I've had students talk about transgender issues in poetry. I've had students openly talk about abuse and neglect and a general sense of abandonment. Its about love for someone else, themselves, their futures, a lack of love from someone else--but always, love. 

As a teacher, what I love to see, is the sympathy and kindness my students show each other during workshops. They talk about real issues and it always leaves me to question why we simply can't create open forums to talk about issues and aspects of life in an honest way. 

Legally, I can only say so much. But there are always moments when I have a student show up in my office who wants and needs so desperately to talk about what it means to be gay and have no one to talk to. They want to talk about being heartbroken/pregnant/facing jail time. This semester alone I've had two students have their brother murdered. I have a total of 100 students. The challenges they face are extreme. I teach in a public mainstream University with roughly 28,000 students. 

When they come to my office I tell them that we largely have two senses of self: that which we display outwardly and that which is internal. When it comes to writing, we can see where these two aspects converge. We talk about what happens after the work is written, about how once the two aspects of the self have met formally in writing, that there are decisions to make. 

Those decisions include how to proceed. If there are major issues like talks of being suicidal or being abused, I tell them where and how they can get help. Every semester I've had a student write about or come to my office talking about struggles with suicide. I've been able to get them all the appropriate help they need but in regard to how I teach it has changed me. 

I start the beginning of the semester asking my students why we talk, why we write, what ultimate need both of these goals are fulfilling. We examine, through use of 'honest' examples of poetry and fiction, what it means to communicate and how and why we say things in the manner that we do in this culture. I'm completely fascinated with the nature of honest and intimate language and our culture's dualistic delivery of messages similar to that of the duality of ourselves. 

Which leads me to...Robots. There is a strange and interesting fascination with Robots in all of my classes. My theory is thus: if students feel that an emotion is not human or too difficult to express they show it through use of robot expression. Case and point:

The Terminator
Robo Cop
Marvin and the Paranoid Android
Power Rangers
Iron Man

So, there is either the full capacity of emotion in writing about love OR, killer robots. Its a rough world out noted by this video by The Flight of The Conchords. Always a treat. 

After having my students watch this video I have them write a poem from the point of view of a robot trying to express an emotion. Each group of roughly 4 students is given a sheet of paper. On that sheet of paper is a famous robot with a contextual backdrop as to what particular emotion that robot is trying to overcome. For example,

1. R2D2 and C3PO
Context: After a long and sordid affair, R2D2 and C3PO have committed their love to one another and are getting married. You are the DJ for their wedding. They have asked you, specifically, because of the success of your last song, "intergalactic love beats for the new millennium" to write them a collage poem that can be turned into a song. 

2. The Terminator
Context: After being programmed as a killing machine the Terminator has grown a heart. He is in love...with his garbage disposal. He comes to you, a team of robot-specializing therapists, to ask for your advice. You decide that your best course of action is to write him an instruction manual/poem about how the garbage disposal cannot love him back. 

3. Rosie, The Maid from the Jetsons
Rosie, the Maid from the Jetsons has just retired. She is looking for love after the passing of her late husband, Dr. Jacob Vacuum. However, before packing up her bags and leaving for the Florida Keys, Rosie finds a poem from her late husband in his sock drawer. She dusts off the piece of paper, opens it up and it reads...

This is largely a community building assignment I use to bring students together and to open up a forum of discussion into when and how we think about the context of emotions and expression in creative writing. It's incredibly entertaining. 

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Key to an Effective Powerpoint is Edward Cullen

As the end of the year approaches I've noticed a lag in my students attention span. They have a general look of disdain and are reluctant to participate with the vigor and enthusiasm they once had. The truth is, I'm exhausted too. I've spent my last three weekends cleaning and packing my apartment in preparation for my move to NYC and have worked tirelessly on the website. When I get tired, instead of lecturing off my notes, I start to make PowerPoint presentations. Generally, I avoid PowerPoint presentations because I believe people rely on them too much and that they often start to become stale and boring after the third slide.

However, I have created a revolutionary end-of-the-semester PowerPoint trick to get their attention. His name: Edward Cullen.

I am not a fan of the Twilight Series but my students are OBSESSED with everything vampire-like. They've even gone so far as writing collage poems from Twilight book jackets. My masterful PowerPoint trick is simple and yet extremely effective.

Every third slide, roughly every 8 minutes, I include a picture from the Twilight series, primarily highlighting Edward Cullen. This is paired with my exclamation of:

"Edward Cullen, how'd you get in there!?" in a highpitched adoring fan voice. They perk up like a Doberman that just spotted a squirrel.

This PowerPoint trick can be used with any number of the following images/themes:

  • Any picture involed in the movie Twilight
  • A picture of the Golden Girls followed by the statement, "Thank you for being a student."
  • A Facebook status update with the statement, "OMG I love this class," written in it.
  • A powerpoint slide completely filled with text message jargon: omg, brb, btw, and the like.
  • A facebook bumper sticker, typically something ridiculous like a picture of David Bowie with a statement under it that says, "David Bowie is severely disappointed in you." Or a 'Hello My Name Is' tag with the words "Edward Cullen's Girlfriend" photoshopped onto it.
  • Anything to do with ESPN. Typically, downloading the sound file and then making it play between every third slide helps keep the guys interested.

The best combo is the ESPN sound file and then a picture of Edward Cullen. Works like a charm.

Toots and Paperclips as Teaching Tools

The last few weeks of my Intro Creative Writing classes consist of Fiction Workshops. My students write and email the class a 4-5 page Fiction piece for everyone to read and digest. They write a letter to each author discussing what they love about the piece, what needs to change, where they see successful areas and how these areas are working to create a successful narrative. I've been so proud of their improvement and hard work as writers and additionally, their ability and confidence in discussing the work. They can acutely identify summary and scene, sensory detail, flashback, and a sense of developing tension with the precision of sharp-tongued 18-year-olds.

I had one fascinating teaching moment I want to share with you. These are moments where my experience as a teacher doesn't fit the normal profile of what people think I encounter everyday. According to my brother, I go to work everyday in a 'lady business suit' with a briefcase and quietly and thoughtfully lead with a quiet thunder. In reality, I'm in a pair of jeans, a nice shirt, and a pair of heels I keep under my desk that have never left the confines of my office. I also swear like a sailor, despite my best efforts to keep my tongue in check. Every once in a while a soulful and giggly 'SHIT' seems to break through the stagnant air and ignite case of the giggles.

This event involved a student I'll call K. K is a dedicated writer who cares deeply about how others perceive her work in the class. She is what I consider a quiet thunder. She is highly introspective and talks only when its a meaningful and well crafted statement. She came to my office about a half an hour before her workshop and stood in the doorway, heavy Jansport backpack still on her back, and looked terrified.

"What if they don't like it? Its really not good enough, I mean, I feel like I could have submitted something better, I should have submitted something better." She rubbed her hands together when she said this, her green Eastern Michigan University jacket making a small swish-woosh sound as she moved.

Moments like this are quite frequent and I've learned to approach them like a coach--as encouraging as I can be while giving them a practical application for improvement. So, I told her about my first workshop as an undergraduate and how terrified I was. I told her that I ended up crying in the ladies bathroom because I was a hardcore nerd that wanted to be the best.

"But to be a good writer," I told her, "you have to be accepting of your faults and willing to hear the criticism of others because they are your primary audience." I also explained how we'd worked all semester to create a sense of community in the classroom and that no one was going to Hemingway her.

Hemingway, def: The kid in the class that thinks he/she knows everything and isn't afraid to share it with everyone.

K still looked like she was going to cry so I told her about my paperclip trick. I told her that I get nervous everyday to teach and the way that I transferred the tension was to hold onto a paperclip. I hold it under my thumb against my index finger so that it looks like I'm making a very important point. When I feel stumped, I press more firmly on the paperclip and then press my thumbnail to my bottom lip to make it look like I'm deep in thought.

I showed K the ropes of holding the paperclip to look deep in thought and was immediately reminded of the 'sniff-the-fart-acting' scene as described by Joey on friends:

I can connect some of my best teaching moments to Friends, and remind my students of this often. I told K all about the beauty of the paperclip trick and sniff the fart acting then gave her not one but two brand new paperclips. My teaching breakdown was thus:

1. She'll be thinking more about how to use the paperclip then her workshop.
2.We broke the ice a bit by comparing and contrasting this method with sniff the fart acting.

During her workshop she sat right next to me and I noticed her holding the paperclip up and moving it around in her hands. She looked pensive and insightful. I pointed to my nose and then looked off in the distance as if I was holding onto a deep thought. It was a good moment. Nothing connects you to your students more then a fake toot and a paperclip.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

'It all starts here." -Sean Astin, The Goonies

My name is Amandine Abraham and I am an English & Creative Writing Professor, Professional Writer and all around nerdalicious (yeah, its a word) entrepreneur and humanitarian.

I recently started my own company, It's an online business designed to offer customers more then just straightforward online editing. Additionally, 10% of our profits are donated to the Human Rights Campaign. Though we offer 'basic' editing, we also offer comprehensive editing services to meet all your writing needs. We'll discuss assignments, professional documents, questions about scholarship essays--anything you can think of we have an expert for it. Uniquely, we also offer creative writing consultation and an editing service designed to evaluate and discuss your specific writing goals with you. Unsure of where to publish your poem? Let our expert staff help you find a journal that focuses on your specific tone of writing to encourage your chances of publication. Any type of writing request you have, we have an expert for it.

Our professional squad consists of myself, an experienced and published English & Creative Writing professor, and a team of writing experts that have no less then 3 years of collegiate teaching experience and no less then 1,000 hours of tutoring experience, specifically in writing.

Our approach is simple: We want to offer the benefits of having an English Professor edit your work while giving you the option to make our editing services an encouraging learning experience. We also want to give back to the global community and make our services affordable to people outside academia. Because of this, we designed our rates to be half that of the average of our competitors.

The site will be fully up and running in about two weeks. Between the Lines Magazine is also running a feature article on the site at the end of this month. Looking forward to working/chatting with all of you.