Design and Redesign

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I finish typing up a basic guide for MLA formatting and look at the clock on my phone. It’s 8:30. I’ve already put in a couple hours of work, so I close the document and give my short American coffee a tentative swirl. Almost empty. It looks like this morning will be a two-cup day, so I grab the nearly empty cup and ask the barista for a refill.

I’m already preparing for fall semester, even though I have the next three weeks off. I wasn’t happy with last semester’s English Literature Course. I had integrated the new Peer Lead Team Learning format into my course and things did not go as smoothly as I had hoped. I know the flaw was in my course design, not in the PLTL model itself. I have used PLTL in my English Composition course and found it was quite helpful.

At the end of last semester, I expressed my disappointment in the course structure and asked students for their honest feedback. Each student gave me five ways I could improve the course and their reasons why. Many of the students turned in thoughtful detailed feedback that I found extremely helpful in my course redesign.

Research into the reader-response approach to literature has also been helpful. Understanding how other instructors implemented the reader-response approach into their classrooms has given me a few ideas of my own. My goal is to help my students become experts rather than rely on experts. Although it is valuable to consult the expert opinions of others, it is even more important to be able to evaluate and integrate those opinions in a constructive way. This is a skill that will serve them beyond literature into their personal and professional lives. It is a technique I use every time I update my course, or make a major life decision.

I stop typing and pick up my coffee. As the liquid swirls in the cup, I realize that my coffee is half empty already. I look at the clock and almost 30 minutes have passed. Ten words a minute is certainly not a land speed record. Contemplative reflection is deliberate like that. It has a way of slowing down forward motion, but it can make the forward motion more meaningful, more focused, and more productive.

I take a deep breath and consider my next steps, weighing experience, feedback, and expert advice. I take out my planner, to review my goals for this week, and my journal, to record the random thoughts bouncing around in my head. This is my design and redesign process. I use it in my teaching, in my writing, in my art, and in my life, a slow spiral that both revisits the past and projects into the future, moving up from a wide base to a specific point.

This is what I want to teach my students, more than just writing or literature. I want them to learn persistence, resilience, and focus. I want them to be able to weigh experience, feedback, and expert advice. I want them to be able to spiral up from a wide base to a specific point. Most of all, I want them to be able to teach others to do the same.

Evolution is Exhausting

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I try to increase my energy level with a sheer force of will. I want to focus, be productive, but my brain is drained tonight. Not even an afternoon coffee could stimulate my intellectual faculties. It’s not just my mind that is worn out; my muscles ache from yesterday’s workout. My triceps, my biceps, my quads, each movement stretches a tight pain out of my body. I’m emotionally drained, too. Implementation of a new element into one of my course threw everything out of balance and I have been concerned about how it will affect my students.

This is the cost of evolution. When you push yourself to keep improving, eventually it takes its toll. That doesn’t mean it’s time to quit. It’s just time to rest. Since I can’t get any work done now, I decided to develop another plan. Instead of working tonight, I will set my alarm for early tomorrow and go to bed early tonight.

I grab a bottle of Diet Coke from the fridge and the Captain Morgan from the cupboard. I mix a drink and settle in. What will my writing reveal tonight? It has already revealed that I am not Wonder Woman, no matter how much I want to be. I have my limitation, but I am happy to have the opportunity to reach them.

We often forget to be grateful for our difficulties. Many of my students are first and second-generation college students who struggle to work and go to school. When they are stuck in the struggle, they forget it’s the very thing they came to America for, the opportunity to evolve. We forget that evolution isn’t easy. The evolution of a caterpillar into a butterfly is not painless. It is stressful.

We should each keep that in mind. Ease is not evolution. To wish for ease is to wish that things stay the same . . . forever. If you want more, to become better, stronger, wiser, richer, happier—whatever you want more of—you will need to struggle. You will need to evolve, and evolving is stressful. Evolution is not for the weak.

How we define the stress is the important part. If we view stress as a noun it is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances,” but if we use it as a verb it means “give particular emphasis or importance to (a point, statement, or idea).” So, stress could be a difficulty we must endure, or serve as an emphasis highlighting where we need to grow. Pointing out what we must overcome to evolve.

You’re not Superman or Wonder Woman. There will come a point when you might start to feel overwhelmed. When that time comes, rest, but don’t quit. Evolution is exhausting, but it’s worth it.

Core Values Part 1

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I sip my coffee in the cool of the air conditioning as I look out the window. The sunlight bounces off everything outside like a spot light in a house of mirrors. Today will be another hot Miami day. I take a few moments to enjoy a casual Sunday morning. I already completed two of the projects that I had on my to do list this weekend. Later, I will work on my academic article.

I pull out my Rituals for Living Planner and review the work I did, yesterday. In the section on discovering my core values, I identified 10 from the list that were most important to me. They align easily with my mission statement. Here are the first five:

Kindness: This is a trait I highly value in others as well as myself. It can also be one of the most challenging. Kindness flows easily when we feel generous or when we believe someone is worthy of kindness. Other times, kindness doesn’t flow quiet so easily. My resent post on tough love illustrates that I sometimes struggle with this concept. For me, kindness is an act of compassion that can meld with the idea of self-sacrifice. I have had to learn how to establish boundaries as well. Sometimes, kindness can also be “no.” There is no rule or formula for kindness. For me, kindness is simply taking a moment before I react and trying to decide what would be best for the other individual as well as myself.

Purpose: My bipolar disorder has taught me that this is probably the most important value for me. Without purpose, I fall into depression and lethargy. I need a reason to exist. The consumer cycle of going to work each day to make money so that I can turn around and spend the money on more things is not enough to get me out of bed in the morning. I need to be making a positive impact on the people around me in a way that supports my personal mission. That’s why I developed a personal mission statement and use it as a gauge for my actions.

Expression: As a writer and an artist expression has multiple purposes. It’s explorative, communicative, cathartic, and often helps me to connect with like minded individuals. That is why I have built a life around those core value, helping students and aspiring writers learn to express themselves through written communication.

Balance Between Individuality and Community: Although individuality and community are often represented as two separate value, I see them as intertwined like ying and yang. Asserting individuality often taxes our communal connections, and upholding community can sometimes stunt individuality. Since I feel strongly about both of these values, I simply try to keep them in balance.

Learning: This value is the core of my happiness. I have a deep need to learn new things, a drive to read and research, to take courses and acquire new skills. I am also drawn to people who like to learn. I love people who get excited by some new idea. That’s why I am involved in higher education. There is always something new to learn. Even teaching is a learning experience.

Those are the first five values on my list. I will share the other five in my evening post.

What are some of your key values? Have you actively designed your life around your key values? What stories do you tell yourself about the importance of those values in your life? I would love to hear from you in the comments below.