Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Change What Can Be Changed

This post serves as a double update for class last week and this week since I failed to blog last week.

In preparation for last Tuesday, I decided to change the things I could change. So, I scrapped the nine-page reading assignment for the week and revised the syllabus. I felt a lot of relief simply from making those two minor changes. I pulled some examples from another book that I wish was the chosen text and created a grammar and punctuation exercise that opened their eyes more than they had expected. I also gave the students a survey to find out what topics they want more emphasis on and what ways they best learn. And thankfully, we made it the full two hours.

After last week's class, I felt burned out. I wanted a break. None was in sight, so I created one. I didn't begin to work on school work until late Friday night. It made for a bit of a jam-packed prep weekend, but this was the week I was most "excited" about because there seemed to be plenty of material to cover. And though it took a long time to put all the notes and exercises together, it paid off because it was more than enough for this week's class.

So, I'm very grateful to have seven classes under my belt and to have only five more teaching classes left for which to plan. Then, I'm done. This is a one-semester gig. So the teaching updates won't go on forever!

The one thing that I still need to change is my attitude. I dread Tuesdays. Not all of Tuesday, just the part until 5:20 p.m. So, I'm working on adjusting my attitude. It's a work in progress.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Still Learning, Part 2

In response to my last post, so many of you have sent me words of encouragement. I greatly appreciate each and every comment and e-mail. Because I know that many people have faced times of feeling like a failure, I thought I'd post what one of my friends e-mailed me:

I totally resonate with what you said about expecting it to be easier b/c God led you there. I have been there/go there often. In fact, he's led me to places where I (in my eyes) fail, even though I was depending on him for strength. An imperfect "performance" or even a failure does not automatically imply that he was not with you or was displeased with you. As always, he is concerned with our process. And unfortunately for me, that sometimes includes less than stellar results. But I am learning to trust him to only give me the success and/or failure that I can handle. This verse comes to mind: "So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor." I Corinthians 3:7-8

In context, this verse is talking about the sharing of the gospel, but I think the principle would also apply to the use of our gifts and abilities. We exercise them; God makes them grow and rewards our faithfulness.

I hope this encourages you as much as it did me.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Still Learning

Throughout last week as I stressed about preparing for this week's hour-and-fifty-minute class, I had a little epiphany. I remembered that all time is in God's hands. He is infinite. The Alpha and Omega. The Beginning and The End. So I realized that it makes little sense for me to stress about whether I can fill the time. It's a good thing I had this little personal lesson engrained in my brain as I went into class tonight with about fifteen pages of notes and four exercises.

At the conclusion of my printed notes, I handwrote, "Let the students work on their assignment for next week if there is extra time." A co-worker gave me that advice a few weeks ago, and he assured me that the students would appreciate that opportunity.

I guess my approval rating should be off the charts because I had thirty minutes left after going through all of my prepared materials. "How could all of that material only have taken an hour and twenty minutes?" you ask. Class participation was at an all-time low. Any of those four exercises could have taken fifteen minutes each had the students been willing to participate. Being the nice professor that I am, I refrained from calling on them by name. I figure that they are upper level students and shouldn't be abused in that way. (But there's always next week to implement that new technique.)

Although I was bothered by the timing issue, I didn't dwell on it. I figure there's not much more I could have done. I covered all of the assigned material for the week and prepared to the best of my ability. But I still feel like I'm battling a dragon week after week.

Simply put, thus far, the task of teaching hasn't been what I imagined it to be. I've written about each class's ups and downs and have tried to put these experiences into perspective. I think that my thinker and feeler got a bit confused: I hoped (maybe even assumed) that because I felt that God led me to this unexpected opportunity, it would be easy. That it wouldn't interfere with MY life and MY plans. Instead, it has been extremely challenging to balance two jobs. To feel forced to say "no" to "yes" events. To feel like I'm not very good at this teaching thing.

That's why I think Cec's keynote address about significance spoke to me. I am wrestling with feelings of insignificance because I don't feel like I'm good at this gig. A gig that I had hoped to do back at my college alma mater in my retirement years. Yet, deep down, I feel like I still might enjoy teaching, maybe just not at this level or for this class length. So I am going to forge ahead in obedience and hope that the students are getting more out of what I'm lecturing on than their class participation has revealed. And I'll be grateful that at the end of each month, I'll still get paid. No matter what.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Meeting Mr. Murphey

On The Christian Writers' View 2, he signs his posts as "The Curmudgeon." But to those who know him well, he's known as "Cec." He's Cecil Murphey, "the man behind the words." The one who has helped tell the stories of Dr. Ben Carson in Gifted Hands and Don Piper in 90 Minutes in Heaven. And I had the opportunity to meet him on Friday at the North Texas Christian Writers' Conference.

Cec kicked off the conference with a keynote address that spoke directly to my heart. He talked about how people struggle with significance and how some people write to become significant. He reminded us that our names may never be remembered, but our stories might. He told stories about the people with whom he has worked and gave illustrations from his own life. He spoke of the Sunday school teacher who took him by the shoulders at age eleven and told him that God had a plan for his life. He left that Sunday school class, partly because of how often his teacher kept repeating those words to him, and eventually accepted Christ in his twenties. After a few years in the ministry, he went back to see his Sunday school teacher, and she told him that not only did she remember him but also that she had prayed for him every day.

Every day.

Those words speak of such commitment, a commitment that Cec has demonstrated to the One who called him all those years ago and to his craft. He comes across as authentic, often to a fault. He's not afraid to speak truth into a writer's manuscript. And he's also not willing to give up on those who work hard at the craft. To sit under his tutelage on Friday was a blessing. To spar with him at his table at lunch was priceless.

Some of my favorite quotes from Cec include the following:

On being transparent - "I'd rather be disliked for who I am than admired for who I'm not."

On praying while writing - "God, help me do the best I can today with the ability you've given me."

On when to stop work on a piece - "This is the best I can do at this stage of my development."

I hope I have the opportunity to attend one of his mentoring clinics or one-day intensives at some point in my writing career because he brings out the best in his students by challenging them. (I accused him of having taught law school due to some of his lecturing techniques.)

Like last year, TJ joined me on this adventure, and we convinced Tina to come with us as well. We reconnected with Renae and met a new friend named Ashley. The saddest part was that I didn't feel I could prepare for Tuesday's lecture if I went to both days of the conference, so I skipped the Saturday sessions. That loss whets my appetite for next year's conference.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Unexpected Blessings

Today, class (or dive) #4 went about the same as last week. My throat was hurting beforehand, but it didn't cause me any trouble. My material covered the allotted time. I caught myself saying "um" about a dozen times, but other than that nothing negative to report.

The best part about today was that when I returned their papers, which I had laboriously poured over, they actually thanked me. I don't think I've once thanked a teacher, professor, or my boss for marking up my work. Have I looked at the markings? Absolutely. I study them to see how I can improve. But for two students to come up and thank me after class for my comments on their papers, I was speechless. Unexpected blessing #1 from teaching = being thanked for marking up their hard work.

Rewind to Sunday evening.

I caught myself staring at the green-eyed monster a/k/a envy. I had just scanned the devotional that our church put together for our study of Romans. Many of my friends wrote the devotionals that appear in the spiral-bound daily devotional study guide. I had the opportunity to submit a devotional but had to turn it down due to class prep. That same night, the deadline passed for me to submit a devotional or article for the writing contest being held in conjunction with the North Texas Christian Writers' Conference that I'm headed to this weekend. Again, class prep made me forego that opportunity. As I pondered why I felt the way I did, I realized that I don't like the fact that teaching has limited the time I have available to write. Sure, I could try to forego sleep in order to write, but that wouldn't last very long in this sleep-powered body. So unexpected blessing #2 = figuring out how much I enjoy writing and how much I can't wait to get back to it when class is over.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Can Great Writing Be Taught?

I wish I had some deep insight to share about life, but about the only thing on my mind lately has been this one question: Can great writing be taught?

At my request, my students turned in copies of the papers that they wrote last year so that I could see where I need to focus my lectures. Over the past two weeks, I've struggled through reading their papers and have averaged almost an hour on each paper. The results have been disheartening. Only one student "gets it." The others have major grammar, sequencing, and citation problems. I don't expect their analyses to be stellar (yet), but not having the facts in a logical order is not acceptable. Elementary students are asked to put sentences in the proper order to make a logical paragraph, and they can do it. So, I can't expect less of my students who are much older.

After marking one problem after another in their assignments, I began to wonder if good writing is truly a gift. A talent that can be developed, rather than taught. For instance, I took piano lessons for eight years and learned how to play the instrument. After all those years of lessons can I play the piano well? Unfortunately, no. Playing the piano did not come natural to me, and I had to practice quite a bit to learn how to play the songs at a competitive level. But no matter how much I practiced, I was never going to be a contestant in the Van Cliburn competition.

Good writing seems like it might fit in that same category. These students have been taught the basics for many years now. But there's still something missing in their writing. I'm not sure whether it is a lack of practice because they spend their time preparing for their other classes or whether they don't "get it." Either way, I've got my work cut out for me over the next few months. I want their writing to improve tremendously.

So, all you fellow writers, can great writing be taught or is it a gift? If you believe it can be taught, what pointers do you have for teaching it?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


All my time spent watching the Olympics in August has paid off. I now have a metaphor to convey what teaching has been like. It's a lot like the diving competition.

Each round or class has its own degree of difficulty. And, I walk to the platform, wearing my designated suit (that thankfully does not start with an "S" and end with an "O"), and attempt to complete the dive in spite of the degree of difficulty.

In round 1, the degree of difficulty was enhanced by numerous factors. For one, the 21 pages from the text had to be spread over almost two hours or fillers had to be found for the remaining time. Additionally, it was the first class, which came with all sorts of unknowns, including whether my voice would last. So, I'd rate this a 9.8 on a 10-point scale. I survived; I did not, however, add much stylistic finesse to the text. So I'm quite sure that the judges would have deducted numerous points for the latter.

In round 2, the degree of difficulty dropped tremendously (possibly as low as a 4 or a 5) because there were 21 pages of text for a fifty-minute class. Problems arose during the execution as nerves from the wait preceding the class and a malfunctioning memory caused me to trip up during the lecture. Not a pretty score.

In round 3, the degree of difficulty started to increase (possibly to a 6 or a 7) because although there were over 70 pages of text for the students to read, not much was left to discuss due to all the margin notes printed in their version of the text, which pointed out the positive and negative things about each of the writings. Thankfully, I found some points to make and filled the remaining class time by going over a persuasive exercise that they wrote during the first class. And though it probably could have been a bit more stylistic, the form felt good and hopefully came off without much splash.

The third time must be a charm because this week I felt more at ease than I have the past two weeks. I realized after last week that I didn't pray very much, and the results reflected that lack of dependence and flawed assumption that I could do the "easy" class on my own. Bad idea.

That's when I began to recognize that each class will hold its own set of challenges (a/k/a degree of difficulty), whether they be timing issues, communication issues, health issues, or any number of things that I can't control. So if I continue to teach in my own power, the results are going to continue to reflect the poor execution exhibited in round 2. I don't want that for me or my students. So I chose to go back to what worked in round 1--a total recognition that I am very incapable of doing this on my own and very dependent on God to help me.

Round 4 promises to look a bit like round 1 with 11 pages of text for a fifty-minute class, and Round 5 will return to the hour and fifty minute class length and will have a shortened prep time. I'm hoping that looking ahead a little at a time will allow me to see these differing degrees of difficulty and will keep me on the dependent path.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Bringing Order to Chaos

It's interesting to me how some things tend to get worse before they get better.

Canker sores.



I had hoped to blog more over the past week while I've been off. Instead, I've been creating new messes in my attempts to bring order to chaos. I now have 2 bags of shredding and 2 bags of things to donate to the women's shelter, and I'm not even halfway through.

Every project I started seemed to spawn at least two, if not three, sub-projects. I had anticipated this. Just not the time it takes to complete them.

In spite of the disposable clutter I've grouped together, I feel like my time off was both productive and restorative. Enough so that I'm actually feeling ready to go back to work tomorrow to start the new fiscal year and greet the new employees. Oh, and teach a little, too. Tune in tomorrow evening to see how class 3 goes.