I’m from sunshine fairies…

Thanks to my colleague, Dr. Gwen Jones, students in our EDUC 140: Introduction to Teaching class spend two weeks in self-analysis, in learning how to make a meaningful multi-modal product, in sharing with their peers, and in learning how to avoid “The Danger of a Single Story.” Most, but not all, students in this class are in their first year of college. Beginning with George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From,” we write our own poem using a template (as little or as much as we like for support). In tandem with our writing, we gather video, music, and photographs to support the poem. Our campus “Digital Gurus” show the basics of Adobe Spark, and we craft a digital photo story using text from our poem. On the day the project is due, we watch Chimamanda Adiche’s TedTalk, “The Danger of a Single Story” and then move to share digital photo stories in small groups. Following the sharing, students answer these reflection questions:

Digital Photostory Project Reflection:

  1. The introduction to the TED talk video you viewed states, “Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories.”  Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.”  From “The Danger of a Single Story” TED talk, identify two or three “critical misunderstandings”  the  author Chimamanda Adichie uses as examples in this presentation.  
  2.  Identify two specific new understandings you now have about a classmate or two that you did not have prior to sharing your “stories.”
  3. What part of the Digital Photo Story project was most meaningful  to you and why?

I share my digital photo story on the first day of class, to show the importance of teachers modeling expectations for students and that when teachers ask students to write and create, the classroom is a more dynamic learning environment if the teacher is also writing and crafting pieces.

I look forward to assessing the students’ poems, digital photo stories, and reflections. Each semester as I sit down to enjoy this grading, they unanimously write that they appreciate the unique things they learn about the people sitting in the room with them, and they appreciate the final product they have to share with their friends and family. Coupling “The Danger of a Single Story” with the sharing of their peers’ digital photo stories and followed by reflection helps to form our learning community.

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The Dossier and the Run-away Horse and Buggy

Two true stories here. These two stories relate to my job as a teacher educator. You see, writing a promotion and tenure package “aka dossier” is expected when you reach your fifth or sixth year at a higher education insitution. It’s basically a reflection on your time spent at the college, and this mulitmodal composition is focused on persuading your division chair, the committee on promotion and tenure, the provost, and the president of your value to the college in three areas: teaching, scholarship, and service. After all of these people review the dossier, letters are written to the president regarding their review of your tenure and promotion package.

In public education, my tenure came after my third year teaching. Basically, if you were breathing, you received tenure…that was my experience. In higher education, that is not the case. If you are not promoted, you find out in December and then you begin looking for another job. You can stay until spring, but you will not return to the college in the fall. During this time of working on the dossier, I found the other “true story,” a personal narrative that I wrote during SVWA@BC, a writing academy for teachers that we used to host at Bridgewater College.

First, the dossier, which is due tomorrow. I have watched others go through this tenure and promotion process over the years, and many have ranted on social media about how much of their life they lost with hours and hours, days upon days, encumbered in promotion and tenure justifications. Others I have observed to be downright stressed. I will say that it has consumed me. Here are three instances to prove it:

  1. I was at a conference last month and when I walked by a closet that said “wiring closet,” I thought it said “writing closet.” I actually walked back into the building because it seemed odd that a college would have a writing closet. That’s when I saw my misread.
  2. One night, there was a man, a very tall man, in a black trenchcoat with a hat at the foot of my bed. I could not see his eyes; I even think his back was towards me. He would NOT leave. I threw my lamp at him and missed. My husband said something like, “Look, just leave.” He woul NOT leave. It was the most vivid dream.
  3. On my last bike ride, a car passed me with the license plate CPT BOSS. I read that as Committee of Promotion and Tenure Boss and thought of my provost.

That said, I forged ahead, and like anything that seems big and scary, good is in the midst. I think this process is healthy for these reasons:

  1. Reflection is good. We encourage reflection in teaching and learning, and I know that I will be a better teacher having gone through this process. I’ve read all my course evaluations, analyzed my teaching methods, and I know steps to take to become a better teacher. We can always do better.
  2. I found an article that I was published in 2017 that I never put on my curriculum vitae.
  3. It motivated me to update my websites (Academia, Linkin, ResearchGate, this one).
  4. Finally, I found a personal narrative I had polished for publication that was written during a writing academy with teachers that I have not found a home for yet, so I am going to put it here for now. True story.

Owned the Road

The horse barreled out of the gravel driveway ahead, kicking up the dust that lay underneath. He turned toward our minivan as we headed to church on Dry River Road, sleek coat glistening with dew in the morning sun. The stallion’s bulging leg muscles galloped as the gap between us narrowed, buggy rolling roughly behind his hind quarters. Nostrils flared as he pressed ahead, reminding me of Disney’s Spirit running free on the Plains. Seemingly without the confines of reins, he was capturing the freedom he longed for. Opaque, black blinders forced his eyes to focus on the road ahead, diverting him from honeysuckle lined fences, telephone poles, mailboxes, and front yards of country houses. He owned the road that we visited this Sunday morning, and as we met for the face to face passing I thought the owners must be late for church. The quick acceleration and intensity of this horse was not the norm. Looking inside the buggy to make the usual eye contact and greet the driver and passengers, I lifted my hand from the steering wheel and waved at no one. The horse and buggy clambered past us, hoofs clipping along on their own accord.

Disbelief danced in Grant’s eyes that briefly met mine. In our house, we did not teach our children that a horse goes “Neeeiiigghhhhhh.” Instead, in cadence to the beat of horses’ hooves, we made clip clop sounds between our tongue and the roof of our mouth, clip clop sounds that we hear daily on West Dry River Road, “Clip, Clop, Clip Clop, Clip Clop.” The clip clops were behind us now, making a sound as they passed that was faster than we ever mimicked, and I wondered if Grant was predicting the unforseen possibilities that could come of the runaway horse and buggy. What if it reaches the S turn? What if it makes it to 257? What if it collides with a car? When and why will it stop?

            After anxious chatter, we agreed we had to do something.  Our children, Katrina and Patrick sat buckled behind us in the built-in child seats of our 1997 Plymouth Voyager named “Plumpy,” an eponym for the Candy Land character.

“Where are we going?” Katrina asked as I turned our old van around in the same driveway from which the horse had barreled.

            Grant looked back at her, “We’re going to stop that horse!”  The magnitude of his answer filled the car with silence as I floored the gas pedal.  I thought if we could just get around it, then I could stay in front of it and slow the van gradually to stop the horse. This all played out nicely in my mind, but after several attempts to pass, I began to wonder. The horse consistently veered into our lane as I tried to pass, forcing me to drop back. Finally, there was an opening on the road, and I put my aggressive hat on. I passed it, and started the plan, keeping my eye on the rear view mirror and making the horse stay behind me. Within seconds the horse seized an opportunity of a window he found, and he became the aggressor, dashing around the side of the van as I tried to slow.

             Reaching the end of Family Farm Lane, our driveway, made this adventure feel even more bizarre. We were heading away from church, and Katrina and Patrick’s silence was not the norm. It is likely they were watching, as I was, another unusual sight. At the foot of our lane sits the Rhodes’ two-story brick house. In their yard, a neighbor dressed in his Sunday best was flagging us down.  This man was a horse trainer in the community, but I did not know this as his eyes met Grant’s as he signaled us to stop. His black fedora and crisp white shirt told me he was from the old-order Mennonite community, and I had a hunch that he had somehow caught word of the horse’s flight. I slowed and he pulled open the dented sliding door and hopped into a squatting position, grasping firmly to the inside handle near the roof. He left the door open. His swift mount into the car revealed his fitness, and I guessed he was in his late 30’s, not too much older than Grant and me.  “Catch that horse,” he said.

I floored it and noticed that when I turned my head to see him, Katrina and Patrick were sitting wide eyed, soaking it all in. We tried our best to chase the horse down fearing the large S turn that was soon ahead. Our mission was to stop that horse before we got there. If the horse reached the S turn first, it was surely not going to stay in his lane, and that could mean tragedy.  As the gap narrowed between us and the horse and buggy, I heeded the horse trainer’s terse words, “Drive up beside it.”

“Okay,” I said. Pressing down on the gas, I positioned us beside the horse. Its blinders kept us out of his vision, but I knew he had to hear and feel our presence. His brown hair, black mane, and undeterred rhythmic hindquarters paralleled our van.

“Closer… closer,” he said. First, I fixated my eyes on the road ahead and then, with a fleeting glance that showed asphalt, hooves, spindled wheels, and a runner, I inched closer and closer. My hands clutched the wheel, and I focused every bit of energy I had on control. The hooves on the pavement matched my heartbeat. Double yellow lines contrasting the black pavement whizzed by, and the horse’s stark, black mane bounced on and off of his strong neck.   I sensed my position was right, and like a skillfully skipped rock on a still pond, the horse trainer deftly leapt over and into the buggy. With my hands on the wheel, I drove speechless, as I saw him take the reins and take control of the horse.

What came next was as surreal as the takeover. I turned the van around, and within seconds I began shaking.

“You want me to drive?” Grant said with a grin.

“I’m good,” I answered, as I turned into a nearby driveway. That was that. We drove to church, business as usual.

That Sunday morning strangers worked together with adrenaline rushing. There were no stunt doubles, just neighbors compelled to solve a problem together. As I entered our Sunday school class, still shaky from the release of nerves, we shared our morning adventure. “What ifs…” were bounced around. What if the horse trainer would have fallen? “What ifs” can mean little or everything, I thought. No “what ifs” kept us from acting in the moment of need. That Sunday morning, I experienced what it was to just Be, to just Do.

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The Privilege of Mentors

I worked as an adjunct instructor at Eastern Mennonite University for 13 years, and as an adjunct faculty member at Bridgewater College for five years. Prior to this employment, I attended graduate school at a small, liberal arts institution, while teaching high school English and Photojournalism. Now, in my third year as an assistant professor of education at Bridgewater College, in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, I am going on my 21st year of being steeped in the culture of two different independent liberal arts colleges.

Over this time, I grew to privilege nurturing a sense of community on the campus where I serve, by focusing on the individuals in my midst at any given time. I strive to lift up the teachers in communities connected with Bridgewater College, by collaborating in an effort to advance teacher education. I care for individuals and the community and shoulder the responsibilities that come with participating in a democratic society that fiercely protects the “equity of access to knowledge,” because I have been mentored at these liberal arts institutions by some of the finest people I know.

In the last two paragraphs, I used the pronoun “I” 9 times, but to be candid, it’s not all about me. Dr. Mark Hogan mentored me through my graduate program at Eastern Mennonite University, and his mentoring went far beyond being my advisor. Following graduation from the masters in education program, he mentored me by writing with me to submit an article for publication, and he nominated me to serve as an alumni on the Committee for Teacher Education at EMU. Later, when he moved to Bridgewater College, he invited me to employment opportunities there, he suggested I pursue my Ph.D, he served on my dissertation committee, and both encouraged me and challenged me from the start to the finish of my defense. I’ll always remember how he drove from Nashville, TN to Blacksburg, VA for the sole purpose of  hooding me at graduation. Dr. Hogan hired me as co-director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Academy at Bridgewater College, and he poised me to be in the position that I am in now. As I sit in his former office, typing at his former computer, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the time he spent mentoring me.

Other fine folks have mentored me through the years, and I aspire to mimic their work ethic. Dr. Don Steiner at EMU invited me to serve as an adjunct, invited me to be inducted into Phi Delta Kappa, a local board on which I now serve, and challenged me with rigorous projects like taking a random sample of EMU’s Action Research Projects and reviewing them for writing quality based on the university’s rubric for writing standards. Dr. Cathy Smeltzer Erb trained me to serve as a university supervisor for student teaching by observing side by side with me in high school classrooms. She took the time to talk with me as my adjunct responsibilities increased to over half time, and I learned through her how to guide graduate students through action research, by attending to details, and providing feedback collaboratively with Cathy as I served as a teaching assistant in her Action Research class. Finally, Dr. Jean Hawk, who now serves as my department chair was once my graduate professor for multicultural literature. She shows me through her leadership how to work hard, think critically, and be aware of and sensitive to power differentials.

Parker Palmer (2007) echoed my feelings when he wrote in The Courage to Teach,

Looking back, I realize that I was blessed with mentors at every crucial stage of my young life, at every point where my identity needed to grow: in adolescence, in college, in graduate school, and early in my professional career. But a funny thing happened on the way to full adulthood: the mentors stopped coming. For several years I waited for the next one in vain, and for several years my own growth was on hold. Then I realized what was happening. I was no longer an apprentice, so I no longer needed mentors. It was my turn to become a mentor to someone else. I needed to turn around and look for the new life emerging behind me, to offer to younger people the gift that had been given to me when I was young. (pp. 25 – 26)

While these words resonate with me, what he says next is where I aspire to be each day,

Mentors and apprentices are partners in an ancient human dance, and one of teaching’s great rewards is the daily chance it gives us to get back on the dance floor. It is the dance of the spiraling generations, in which the old empower the young with their experience and the young empower the old with new life, reweaving the fabric of the human community as they touch and turn. (p. 26)

It is in this spirit that I strive to nurture future educators.


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