posted by Amy on Apr 28

Unbelievably, my last semester at Palmer ends May 14 (plus a take-home final due May 20). When school is over I’ll have 2 more weeks to catch up on some paperwork, pack my stuff, do some sight seeing, and then move to Northern Virginia, where I’ll be staying with friends for the summer and commuting to Washington, D.C. for an internship at the Children’s Defense Fund. Then I’m moving to Boston to attend the Boston University School of Theology. I’ll finish my M.Div. there, and then enroll in a PhD program–somewhere–studying something. I tell people this whole going-to-seminary bit was not my idea in the first place, so I will await further instructions.

I will miss my Philly church, Arch Street UMC. It deserves a whole blog entry of its own, and I plan to do that, but it is an amazing, diverse, quirky, wonderful community. I did my internship there this year, and that was a great blessing. My church in Denver is wonderful too, and it does a lot of great things, but it is awash in physical and human resources. Because that was my frame of reference, I assumed that a church needs lots of people and money in order to do effective ministry. Thankfully, Arch Street has proven me wrong. The main thing a church needs is love. If it loves God and loves its neighbors, then, in mysterious ways, God provides.

One of my projects this week was a group paper on ecclesiology (the theology of church). Three of us were supposed to design a church, describe it, and then explain the theology behind the decisions we made regarding sacraments, ordination, worship, preaching, teaching and interaction with the world. Although I was the only Methodist in our group, we ended up deciding to propose an “emerging church” with Wesleyan roots. I wish the church we designed actually existed. I’m going to post the description on this blog (minus most of the theology) and see what you think.

I will miss my students. I’m down to four now. The one who was last to start working with me this semester arrived five minutes before her lesson time this week to announce that she no longer needs a tutor. I agree that she doesn’t need me, because she and I never formed an effective working alliance, and we both found it frustrating and disappointing. Even though I was able to help her make substantial improvements on two of her papers, she didn’t take away any lasting skills from those exercises. She just did what I told her to do in each specific instance, without generalizing the advice to other contexts. With the exception of correcting her footnote and bibliography forms, which she did finally do, she kept making the same mistakes over and over again.

I can usually connect with a student, inspiring enough trust and confidence so we can work together as a team, but she and I never did connect. I realize that happens, but the reason she gave for firing me is that she knows everything she needs to know about writing. She claimed she had gotten an “A” on a total train wreck of a paper, and that is just not credible. She had already handed it in by the time I got a chance to see it, but she said she planned to rewrite it, and wanted “feedback.” In what proved to be our last lesson, after a lot of thrashing about, I finally got her to look at one paragraph, find the topic sentence, and then tell me how each other sentence in the paragraph advanced the argument of the topic sentence. The topic sentence was weak, but she did have one, and she was able to identify it. The next sentence did relate to that one, and it did advance the argument. The remaining sentences in the paragraph had nothing to do with the topic sentence, so of course she couldn’t tell me what they were doing in that paragraph. Every paragraph in the paper was like that. She said, “Oh, now I see what you mean.” A week later she fired me. I will reflect on how I handled my end of it and see what there is to be learned from it.

By contrast, my other students are doing very well. The student who comes on Wednesdays was telling me last week that she kept thinking of things to add to a paper she was working on, and she could just hear me saying, “Now what does this have to do with your subject matter?” so she didn’t. She will have my voice in her head from now on, every time she goes to write something. (One of my Greek students from last summer told me recently that he made a mistake in a translation for his Greek Exegesis class, then recalled a rule I had taught him that would have prevented him from making that mistake. Teachers need to be aware of the programming that they download into their students’ brains.) Oh-the Wednesday student got 100% on her paper.

After one of my classes this week three classmates and I went out to lunch at an Irish pub. We all find that particular class frustrating, and after complaining about it for awhile we started talking about what makes a good teacher, and a good theology discussion. There are several teachers at Palmer who we all agree are excellent, so we used them to construct a model. Since I want to be a teacher, I paid particularly close attention. Maybe I’ll blog about it separately.

I’ve been doing some experimenting with homemade meat substitutes. After trying store bought seitan, which is a fake meat made with wheat gluten, I decided to see if I could make it myself. I found a video on the internet demonstrating how to make spicy Italian sausage. I tried it, and it was amazingly good, easy, and inexpensive, and much better than anything I’ve found at the store. Next I tried to make barbecued “brisket.” It came out OK, and I ate it all, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted. I’m going to keep refining the technique.

At church we’ve been having potluck dinner gatherings once a month. We alternate between Mondays and Wednesdays, to try to accommodate people’s schedules, but I can’t come on Mondays because I have class. Potlucks at Arch Street are a little different. We don’t turn anyone away, and some of our folks don’t have cooking facilities (or homes, for that matter), so I’ve been providing food every time, whether I can be there or not. I love feeding people, so it’s not an imposition. I have a policy of cooking for almost everyone for potlucks, regardless of dietary restrictions, and of making something delicious. This week I made a black bean casserole with a cornmeal crust. It was based on a recipe from Diet for a Small Planet. I didn’t bring my old, tattered copy of the book with me to Philadelphia, so I did an internet search and found something close enough to give me a jumping-off point. I was told it was a “big hit.” (Later I remembered a trick I recently learned. Amazon.com allows you to search inside books, so I looked at the actual recipe in the original book, and further refreshed my recollection.)

This week I pulled an all-nighter writing a paper. I can hardly believe I did that. I sat at my computer from 9 Monday night until 8 Tuesday morning. Then I slept for an hour, got up, showered, dressed, and went to class. I really have no idea if the paper is any good. I did my best, under the circumstances, but that was unwise. It’s a good thing I live at school, and didn’t have to drive to class. It would not have been safe for me to be driving in that condition.

You see, it’s like this: My life is run by a “committee” in my head. There are adults on the committee, but there’s at least one small child, and one teenager. The teenager took control of the paper project, and she just didn’t want to write it at all. The problem was that the criteria for the paper were impossible to meet. The instructions for what to do were inconsistent: Answer several questions about what you think, but don’t say “I.” Cite at least 15 sources other than the Bible, but do a thorough, personal review of the New Testament to find examples of the theme you’ve chosen, and base half the paper on that work. Don’t use long quotes, but talk about the scholarship on your theme, and interact with other scholars. Explain how what you learned fits with your faith tradition’s teaching, and say whether your preconceptions about it have changed. And keep it between 12 and 13 pages.

It is what it is. Time to move on to the next project.

posted by Amy on Feb 25

The six essays I wrote for seminary transfer applications took me forever to do, and I was disappointed in them. I thought they were over-written, and lacking in vitality. I worked on them diligently, and for a very long time, but I didn’t feel particularly inspired. Despite efforts to be original, to avoid cliches, to be clear, and to convey a sense of how important this calling is to me, I didn’t know if admissions committees would see me as I hoped to be seen. I sent them all in anyway, hoping for the best.

I’m more satisfied with some other writing I’ve done lately. As part of an independent study of Methodist history I read and then reviewed two books, one about the development of the world Methodist movement, and one about the life of Francis Asbury. I found it easy to write the reviews, and I did a good job. Maybe I was just happy to have something to write about besides myself.

Right now concern for my writing students is keeping me awake nights. I have a whole new group this semester. Of the three people from last semester, two did well enough that they are no longer required to work with me. The third student was close to that point, and might have gotten there after one more semester, but decided to suspend seminary studies.

I have four new students, and will soon add a fifth. As before, I like and respect all of them. We have great conversations, and I love hearing their stories. But I can’t figure out how to help them.

I keep buying books about teaching writing. I also collect articles. I have found some excellent university web sites, and I’ve copied many of their articles and worksheets. I give my students handouts to read and study, hoping they will learn from them. But it’s not working out very well. To me, it’s obvious that if I want to learn something new, first I read about how to do it, then I practice it, and I master it. To someone who doesn’t operate that way, it’s not an effective teaching strategy.

I wish I could get them to love the written word. If they loved words, then they would love reading and writing. If they loved words, then they’d relish the process of saying just the right thing. They’d connect their hearts and minds and spirits with each written assignment. They’d see that writing can be a way to pray, and to deepen faith by reinforcing understanding and insight.

Many of my students are already pastors. They preach and exhort and teach and pray, but for the most part it is extemporaneous, and oral. They say the Holy Spirit gives them the words that the people need to hear. I do not doubt that, but, regrettably, they don’t seem to think their written work is or can be Spirit-led or Spirit-inspired.

I wish I could teach a writing class patterned on “The Karate Kid.” I imagine myself getting the students doing things that seem completely beside the point, like Mr. Miagi’s “wax on, wax off” exercise, then, somehow, tricking them into writing in their own voices, with their own passion and creativity. Then they would quit worrying about word counts and mechanics and trying to impress the teacher, and they would pour out something heartfelt and profound. Right now, they are imprisoned by fear and loathing, by thinking it’s too hard, or too dull. I would give anything for the keys to unlock those cells.

Writing can provoke, transport, uplift, admonish, chasten, and inspire. It can give life. It can destroy. The written word is the foundation of civilization, and an instrument of social and spiritual transformation. It is sacred. It is magical. It is powerful. The Bible tells us that the law is written on our hearts. Our Hebrew forbears wrote the Shema on scrolls fastened to their doorways, and touched them when going out or coming in, praying “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” We are People of the Book. Yet I don’t know how to convey a proper sense of awe about writing, or desire to do it.

I wish I could infect my students with a burning desire to write as beautifully, persuasively, powerfully and convincingly as possible. I’ll keep buying books. I’ll keep reading. I’ll keep praying and thinking and analyzing. I will find the keys.

posted by Amy on Sep 12

As a precondition to obtaining a divorce, my husband and I were both required to take a class in “parenting after divorce.” I remember thinking how great it would be to have a business where the clients were under court order to do business with me. I now have four clients who pay me to help them with their writing because the seminary told them to do it.

I like my students, and I respect their calls to ministry, their many spiritual gifts, and their compelling stories.  And, despite having no choice in the matter, they all have great attitudes, and want to improve their writing. I look forward to our tutoring sessions, and I have been working hard to learn how to be an effective writing tutor.

I want to write about the experience of being a writing tutor without violating my clients’ privacy. I also wouldn’t want anyone to read my blog and think I’m arrogant or judgmental. For those reasons, I will be vague about my students’ identities. That goes against advice that I give them (“Be specific! Give details! Add some life!”), but I want to protect them, and show them the respect they deserve.

Teaching helps me learn. Being the teaching assistant for the summer New Testament Greek class in July and August gave me a perfect opportunity to review the material and reinforce my own comprehension. That was my main reason for taking the job. Having to explain Greek to other people sharpened my skills. Unexpectedly, I also really loved doing it. I was genuinely fond of all of my students, and I wanted them all to succeed. It was a joy to see understanding dawn on a student’s face when I came up with an explanation that finally connected. Some students were struggling at first, and doubted their own abilities. The ones who trusted the instructor and me (and the author of the text), and who persevered, all did well in the class.

One particular student made a huge gain in understanding in the last few days of class. Regardless of their scores on homework, quizzes, attendance, and a group translation project, in order to pass the class they had to come in and translate a passage from the Gospel of John, using any materials they wanted other than a Bible written in English, and get a passing grade on that. This student had done poorly in practice tests, and she asked to meet with me one-on-one. We worked together on a section from John’s Gospel, and luckily we chose a passage that had some good examples of common issues that come up for beginning translators. All I did was give her a few pointers, cheer her on, and tell her I respected and admired her tenacity and hard work. Her grade on the final was significantly higher than the grades on her practice tests. I was so happy for her.

Because of that experience, I am confident that I can be a good coach for my writing clients, and can help them gain confidence, find their own voices, and get the most out of their seminary educations, but I am on a steep learning curve. They are looking to me to help them, and in some cases I do not see a way just yet.

Most of what I know about grammar and composition comes from my own reading and writing. I have been a bookworm since I first learned how to read. I am always reading, and I do a lot of writing. I have always kept journals and written letters. As a transactional lawyer, I’m paid to think, speak, and write. To me, grammar and usage rules seem obvious and intuitive. I’m sure I studied grammar in what they used to call grammar school, but I don’t remember how it was taught. It is so ingrained that I “just know” how things should be, and I “just know” when they look wrong. This is useless to my students. I do think their writing would improve if they read more, and wrote more, but right now they want concrete, specific help with diagnosing and curing their particular writing problems, and I have to figure out how to give them that.

With the exception of the one student who is from another country, they were all surprised and shocked when the seminary told them their writing is inadequate for graduate school. They have bachelors degrees, and they got good grades. One student gave me an undergraduate term paper as a writing sample, and I found it unbelievable that her college professor thought it was A work.

I have been searching for resources. I have collected many articles and books on teaching composition. I have found several excellent university websites with worksheets, short articles on grammar and composition, and even PowerPoint presentations. There is a lot of advice for writing tutors. Most of it is for people who work in university writing centers. That is different from the ongoing relationship that I have with my clients, but much of the advice is still valid, and I’m glad to have it.

One of my students speaks good English, has a great sense of humor, and is fun to talk to, so I know there is innate comprehension of grammar and syntax, but this student is very uncertain about parts of speech, comma use, clauses, and the like. I am trying to figure out how to make up for the fact that in 16 or more years of school the basic building blocks of language were not effectively taught. This student trusts me and likes me, and has said I have already made writing less onerous than it used to be. The first thing I did was assign some free writing, and talk a bit about voice, economy of words, and matters of style and process. At this point, the student needs an understanding of basic grammar concepts and terms,  so I will start including giving short grammar lessons and drills.

I have been looking for worksheets that are suitable for an adult learner. I found an internet site directed at home schoolers that has a lot of free worksheets, including several on comma usage, a weak spot for several of my students. The exercises look pretty good, but some of the answers are wrong! Now that I’ve been studying all the rules for comma usage, I can even explain what’s wrong with them in terms that go beyond, “It just doesn’t look right to me.” But, Oh, the internet; the mother of all buyer-beware situations! (As I understand it, in order to home school children, the parent/teacher has to use a standard, recognized curriculum. I hope that’s true. And I hope the folks who wrote these worksheets don’t also write home school curricula.)

The main thing is for me to be positive and encouraging. I am a coach, not a taskmaster. That comes naturally to me. The best parenting advice I ever got was, “You can’t build on weakness, only on strength.” This is as true for teaching as it is for parenting. All of my students, including the foreign student, speak good English. If they can talk, they can write, but only if they don’t get too freaked out to try, and if they don’t give up in frustration. My job is to work my way out of a job. To do this, I have to let them do the thinking, and the work.

Many students think that to get a good grade on a paper they have find out how the teacher expects them to sound, and parrot that. They also think a paper should use a lot of big words and long sentences. This can cause some big problems. One student was relieved to learn that academic writing should be simple, direct, and clear. This helped her relax, and find her own voice. Another student was relieved to learn that I have a hard time keeping up with all the reading and writing for my courses. Since I am convinced that the main difference between a good paper and an inadequate one is time on task, I’ve told them all how long it takes me to write a paper. (About two hours per page, after I’ve done all the research and note-taking.) I could do it in less, but it wouldn’t be as good.

There’s a lot of discussion in the English composition world about whether writing is a “product” or a “process.” I think it’s both, but another bit of advice for my students is that we rarely know where we’re going to end up, or exactly what we’re going to say, when we start writing. Writing is a way to learn what we know and what we think. Sometimes I start off with one thesis, but the paper that emerges is based on an entirely different idea. For example, last spring I wrote a paper about the Woman at the Well, and to my great surprise I found a strong message about the Holy Trinity. If I had not done the research, and written that paper, I don’t know if I ever would have seen that.

Some students have trouble reaching the required number of words for an assignment. I always have the opposite problem. There was one professor last year whose word limits were extremely spartan. My first draft of the final paper for her class was a full 50% longer than she allowed. Having to cut that many words was a great experience for me. The paper that finally emerged was lean, taut, and pointed. It’s among the best things I’ve ever written (although she did say, correctly, that it needed more of a conclusion. After slashing that much text, through several rounds of cutting, I decided to let the main body of the paper carry the weight of what I had to say.) Someone famous, I forget who, said that to write well you have to “murder your darlings.” We have to be ruthless with our pet phrases, our cliches, and our little words that take up space without adding any weight. I don’t do much of that on this blog, but if I ever write a book I know I’ll have to get out the red pen.

posted by Amy on May 24

I handed in my last take-home final on Thursday, May 14 at 5 p.m. As expected, the last three weeks of school were extremely intense. Yet, once it was finally over, I felt let down. It seemed strange not to have any externally-imposed deadlines. I should have been happy, but instead I felt disoriented and disconnected, and I was depressed for a few days. Of course, I was exhausted, mentally and physically. In the last 10 days I’ve been sleeping a lot, and reading novels, and watching movies. I’m starting to get re-oriented.

My strategy for handling the work for six classes had been to keep plugging relentlessly, all semester. I was always behind on reading, and I tended to use a “just in time” strategy for tests and papers. I didn’t even have assignments “docketed” until after Easter. Then I sat down with the syllabus for each course, and wrote a list of what was due, and when. Or so I thought. On May 4, at 5:15 p.m., I was almost done with the reading for the second half of the Holistic Ministry class when I got online to check the point value for the “reading log” that was due at 6:30. There were “sample book reviews” posted on Blackboard. I wondered why. Then I checked the syllabus, and saw that a two-page review of any one of the books for the class was also due that day at 6:30. That was not on my “master list,” and it had completely slipped my mind. I grabbed a book from the stack, wrote up a review, and got to class on time.

The good thing about that is it didn’t take much time. I’m not sure it was the best possible book review. (It probably wasn’t), but it came and went without disrupting my schedule very much. In another class, Greek Exegesis, I had not left enough writing time for the first paper, and had resolved to put in more time and be more organized for the second one. About a month before the due date I got books from the library and started reading and taking notes. But I got stuck in research mode, and could not get myself to start writing. Finally, on Saturday night, three days before the paper was due, I put down all the books and notes, made myself sit at the computer, and started free writing, without footnoting, just so I’d have a starting place. I had another paper due one day after the Greek paper, and, apart from checking out some library books, I had not even started that one. That had me worried.

The “free writing” strategy worked to get me to stop researching and start writing. It also helped me uncover what I thought of the subject, rather than simply reporting what the published commentators thought. It helped me find a personal point of view. The teacher had said to translate the passage first, read closely, then write what I thought it meant. It was OK to read background sources, but I was not to consult any commentaries before forming my own opinion. I used that preliminary written “thesis” as the basis for the free writing.

That was interesting, and it was a good learning experience (which, as my daughter Lily has pointed out to me, should be my main reason for being in school.) But the paper took forever to finish, and the specter of the Old Testament Historical Books paper that was due next haunted me. I started to worry about running out of time, especially since I also had to finish a take-home final that was due the same day as the Greek paper.  The Greek paper was supposed to have a May 12 postmark. I mailed it at about 2:00 on May 11, after first handing in the take-home test that was due by 9:15 that night. Then I cleared the decks for the OT paper, due the next day.

I had done about 8 hours of reading and research for the OT paper over the weekend, but most of the work  was still ahead of me Monday afternoon. I decided to finish taking notes (and running to the library to copy journal articles) before going to bed Monday night. I think I spent about 8 hours at it. The next day I got up early, after four hours of sleep, and started writing. First I wrote the bibliography, and then I made a separate Word document with the footnote form for each reference. I had attempted to follow the advice to come up with my own thesis before reading commentaries, but I don’t think I had one written down.  It had been cumbersome and inefficient to add footnotes later to the first draft of the Greek paper. I did not have the luxury of time for this paper, so I put them in as I went. Having the footnote form ready to cut and paste (right font size, right format) was very helpful.

The paper was due by 9:15 Tuesday night. I got a first draft written by about 4:00 (in 11 hours), and it was in pretty good shape. I knew it wouldn’t take long to finalize it.  I took a shower, had something to eat, printed out the draft and edited it. Part of that process was to check footnotes against the first draft of the bibliography, and cross off any references that I didn’t end up using. I had it finished by 6:30. Ten pages–almost twice as long as the Greek paper (though both papers were within their respective prescribed page limits)–in much less than half the time.

After that I still had to write a spiritual autobiography for Spritual Formation class by 6:30 Wednesday night, and a take-home final for Introduction to Pastoral care, due at 5:00 on Thursday. During the last lecture time, on May 7,  I had drawn up a calendar of the next seven days, mapping out when I would be doing what. I based it on an estimate of how many hours I needed to complete the five things that were due during finals week. The next morning I made a color-coded chart, and taped it to the wall next to my computer monitor.  I had to revise it a bit as the week went on, but it ended up being a pretty accurate road map.

Sometime towards the end of the week, I got an email from my writing and Greek teacher, Debbie Watson. She asked me if I’d like to be a writing tutor in the fall. I said yes. A week or so later, the Admissions Director called me, and asked me to start working with a new student who will be starting at Palmer in the fall. I had expected to have all summer to consider a strategy for being a writing coach, but I didn’t mind. It’s great to have something new to learn, and to think about.

I know I write well. I have spent almost 30 years in a profession that requires clear, precise thinking and writing. That has come in quite handy in seminary. The main difference between legal research and writing, and seminary research and writing, is that in seminary they want to know what I think. In fact, there is a unique type of writing in seminary called the “reflection paper.” The paper is supposed to show that the writer actually read the assigned text, but, more importantly, it is supposed to demonstrate how the writer interacted with the text and responded to it personally. After the objective and dispassionate world of legal writing, this took a bit of adjustment. It’s not that lawyers don’t feel strongly about their subject matter. Passion is essential to any pursuit. But the primary purpose of legal writing is to persuade, and in order to persuade, there must be evidence, and, in the law, the evidence is prior legal decisions. My personal opinion, and my feelings, were never relevant.

The fact that I’m a good writer doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be able to teach it. As I think about how to teach, I have been going back over the texts from the seminary writing class, and I’ve been reading articles about teaching composition. After one very intensive year in seminary, I understand what students need to be able to do in order to succeed, and I have started thinking about how to get them there. With this first client, I will have the luxury of time. Before all the confusion and newness and busyness of fall semester, we will have some time to get to know each other, and I will be able to personalize a program for that particular writer.

The Admissions Director, Steve Hutchison, told me my client was never advised of any problems with writing before now. Steve said he’s seeing more and more applicants with good grades whose “personal statements” demonstrate writing skills that do not come up to graduate level standards. I’m sure that writing can be taught, and I’m wondering why no one ever bothered to work with this student (and others) before. However, I also believe it is never too late.

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