Friday, December 12, 2008

I am a consumer in my head.

Here is a short blog to make up for yesterday's long one.

Lately, I think a lot about stuff. And by stuff, I mean goods for sale. Soapy and I like to go on walks, but because it is so cold, we often go walking in stores.
We also have internet access in our home, so as I'm feeding Soapy or feeling lazy I am often online looking at stuff. I don't often buy or even want to own the stuff, but I like looking. Here are some things I look at.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Intelligence - what does it mean to you?

This is a super long post. Be prepared.

I recently gave my English composition students their final.

Here's how the final works for first year writing at the community college I teach at: The final is worth 5% of a students grade. All the students in all the classes are given the same prompt, and they have thirty to forty-five minutes to write a good essay. The essays are then graded by a different teacher than the one that teaches the class. The reasoning behind the switch is that that this will allow the students to be graded fairly.

In my opinion, this is an unfortunate system. First because perhaps the most important thing a student can learn in his or her composition class is that good writing entails planning and rewriting. Giving them such a short period to write a good essay doesn't allow them adequate time to do either and basically undermines the whole class. Plus, having a final worth only 5% of the grade is problematic as well. It's important because it's the final...but it's not important because it's only 5%....weird.

The second reason I don't like the system is the grading switch off. I will be the first to admit that it is easy to be biased when grading. It is hard to give a bad grade to a nice student who tries really hard (also, one time I had to grade a paper three times because I really couldn't stand the student and I kept taking it out on his paper). However, exchanging finals that are only worth 5% doesn't change that! All it does is, once again, send mixed messages. We should either exchange all our papers or none.

I could talk more about this, but since I have not arrived at what I want to talk about yet, I will move ahead.

To help my students prepare for their final I took a prompt that was used a few years ago and had them do a practice final. Here was the prompt:

Write an essay that defines what the word “intelligence” means to you.

Okay, so, not the greatest prompt. I think the powers that be selected this prompt because they wanted something open-ended that would elicit a lot of different responses.

Unfortunately it didn't work. About 80% of the essays were exactly the same. They even used the same two buzz phrases. Take a second to think to yourself what you would write about if you were a freshman comp student (Nathan you are a freshman comp student so you should tell me if you would have written something like this). When you are done thinking, scroll down.

Here is the typical thesis I received: "I personally believe that there are two intelligences; there are street smarts and book smarts."

Seriously, those two phrases "book smarts" and "street smarts" were in almost every essay.(And yes, there were also a lot of semicolons. I give many lectures on the semicolon. All my students use them like crazy. In my class, the semicolon is the new period.)

It is not uncommon for a group of students to be given a writing prompt that could be interpreted many different ways and still end up writing very similar papers. I give my students warm up prompts almost every class period and while there are always outliers there is usually a subject or train of thought that comes up over and over again. For example, once a prompt was "remember something burning" and the theme was fire crackers. Another time it was "write about someone leaving" and most wrote about a childhood friend who moved away. Sometimes these group-writes are predictable (my students are mostly eighteen year old boys---no surprise they wrote about fireworks) but sometimes they come out of left field. I remember sitting on the couch holding all these sad stories of fourth grade best friends who moved to Minnesota or Omaha and being totally baffled. I would have thought they would write about break ups or divorce. Who are these students?

But back to intelligence. I was still surprised by these essays. I would never have guessed they would be so similar--and part of that I think is due to the lameness of the prompt itself. Still, it's still weird. (Note: despite my slamming of the final, I actually have a lot of respect for the English Department here. There are a lot of weird governmental politics that attack this department and the administrators spend a lot of time keeping funding and freedom for the instructors.)

Some of the students continued their essays suggesting that true intelligence must include both street smarts and book smarts, but a greater portion of them stated something that I found alarming.

According to maybe half my class, you can either have book smarts or street smarts. Street smarts are better. Book smarts make teachers like you and get you good grades. However, book smart people (and this is out of my students’ essays) can’t take care of themselves. They get lost easily and are terrible drivers. I had one student go on for about three paragraphs about how book smart people are careless and dangerous on the road. The student said book smart people even know they are bad drivers (maybe they learned that from the books?) but they drive anyway. Book smart people have no social skills and rarely get married. No one likes people with book smarts and they are totally useless outside of school.

Street smart people don’t do so great in school, but they are good with their hands. They are funny, reliable, hardworking and good. My students usually slipped a line in their paper about how they are street smart guys and not book smart guys.



The craziest thing to me is that they look down on book smart people even though they are the ones in college. They ARE book smart people! I didn’t really know how to address it in class so I gave them a little speech on how maybe these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but I felt like they were thinking “Sure, of course that is what the book smart teacher would say. I bet her wedding ring is fake. Who says 'mutually exclusive' anyway?”

(Fair point. It was probably not the best situation to use the phrase 'mutually exclusive.')

Before you jump to conclusions about my students, it is true that they go to a community college. However, the work that these students turn is remarkably similar in quality to my BYU students' work. In fact, my community college students are much more likely to turn in their essays on time, and to have fully developed rough drafts. They are better at rewriting. They are less likely to skip class. These are smart kids. The big difference is that most of them are the first in their families to go to college. Perhaps that's the explanation right there.

Still, it threw me. In the end, I just found a way to work a whole episode of West Wing into a class period in the hopes that they will become addicted to it and that it will convert them to believing that it is okay to be academically brilliant, it may even be something they should be proud of.

Personal notes:

Becky - This post is dedicated to you in the hope that one day you will try to excel academically. Try going to the library sometime, sheesh.

Bridget - Did you ever watch West Wing? If not, you should. You would be addicted too.

Katie Q-Tip - That particular West Wing clip was for you.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Nebraskans For Peace

This is a post about how I love Nebraska. You wouldn't think I would love Nebraska. Except for my time in Utah going to school, I have spent most of my life living in various nations' capitals: Tegucigalpa, Buenos Aires, Athens, Nicosia, Amman and Washington, D.C. (I count my time in Virginia as Washington D.C.). Now I am living it up in wild and crazy Lincoln (for the record, it is the state's capital. . . although way smaller than Omaha.

And I love it here. This is definitely one of my favorite places to live ever. Here is why I love Nebraska.

1. I have more satisfying and significant conversations with strangers than I have ever had before. It's really easy to make friends. I am friends with my local teen age grocery store cashiers, the meat department guys, the gaggle of old women in my apartment complex, the lady at Kinkos, and (most satisfyingly) my librarian who recommends books for me. It's completely natural to have conversations with strangers.

2. Nothing is far away in Nebraska.
That's a lie. It's a big state with a lot of open space. However, nothing is far away from me in Nebraska. Soapy and I can walk to the mall, two major grocery stores, church, the post office, Target, and Joseph's Beauty school in about five minutes (though we have as of yet never entered Joseph's Beauty School). In warm weather, we don't need a car at all except for special trips.

3. Very few telemarketers have our phone number.

4. Nebraskans for Peace

I was so delighted when I first saw this bumper sticker. Don't you like the idea of a bunch of Nebraskans getting together and saying, "Hey, things are getting a little out of control in this world. It's about time we Nebraskans took matters into our own hands. Let's have some peace! Nebraskan's for peace! Go Huskers!"

I really wanted a bumper sticker of my own, but when I went online to try to get one, I found their website and it turns out they support stuff I don't, namely: cats. There appear to be an inordinate amount of cat lovers in the group, and that is a red warning light to me.

5. Corn
It's just pretty. I think I like the order of it. So many tall, green, straight rows of corn.

Also, this is one of my favorite pictures in the world. I saw it when they had a Van Gogh exhibit in DC. It changed my life. I am not even kidding.

6. That this song is played on the radio at Christmas. To get to the highlight of the song fast-forward to 00:57.

This song cracks me up. One of the lines praising Nebraska states that it is "not something to see but something to feel." This is awesome. There is nothing to see here...but corn. Nebraskans celebrate this.

7. Nebraskans love Nebraska. They think it's the USA's best kept secret. They call living here "the good life." I think they may be right.

For more fun Nebraska facts click here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ten things to do before I die...

Despite its title this is blog is not a list of the ten things I want to do before I die. I made a list like that my freshman year. I put it on my wall and was pretty proud of it. I don't remember all the things on that list but the few I remember make me reflect on what a dramatic kid I was.

Here are four I remember:

1. Dance in a fountain

When I googled searching for pictures of "dancing in a fountain" I could only find pictures of teenage girls doing it. I think this tells you something about that goal.

2. Punch someone in the face

I drew this picture myself. I don't know why the person I decided to draw as being punched is a biker. It is just random.

3. Learn to drive stick

This is the most boring of my goals and one I still want to achieve. I am kind of embarrassed that I can't drive stick.

4. Write a book

Now we have come to the real subject of my blog.
I think a lot of people have this goal. Today I have finally decided to do achieve it. I was inspired by Nanowrimo. I won't be working next semester (there were no teaching positions available during the hours when Chris could watch Sophie) so I should have time to write ten pages a day. I plan to start January fifth.

There is just one problem.

I am really bad at fiction. Seriously bad. Mostly, I am just bad at imagining plots. I have taken fiction classes, but I could never think of stuff to write about so I always wrote true things and then tried to pass them off as fiction. I changed the names or the seasons so they were not so real.

But I really really really want to write a novel. So, here's my question: um, do you guys have any plot ideas that you wouldn't mind me stealing? Or even just good characters? Or maybe just a little scene that you have always thought would be good in a book? Anything? If you give me anything I can use I will definitely name a major character after you and/or write an acknowledgment to you. That's cool, no?

There are lists and lists of ideas online, but that seems kind of distant--besides, having a character named after you is pretty cool. Anyway, the book will probably be published and make super big money and you will be so famous and maybe be an extra in the movie adaptation.

Also, feel free to jot down your own ten things to do before you die lists. In fact, I think that should be Alison's next post on her own blog.