Nate Maertens thinks there’s a problem with the way we often teach literacy narratives. We try to be diverse. We use Malcolm X, Amy Tan, Rodriguez, Rose, and on and on, and do our best to give students the incredible words written by people who resemble them, people who reflect on the way language and learning altered the course of their human life. But in our collation of literacy narratives, we haven’t quite found that one text that actually looks like all our students: a literacy narrative written by a community college student.

I was a community college student. I attended Las Positas. And I think it changed life. My motive for going to the school, which was as present to me then as it is now, was that I believed community college was an exit strategy. It was an escape from the inevitable life that lay out before me.

I didn’t come from money. If you’ve read my previous posts, you would know my family had, for a few years of my childhood, lived in a school bus in the woods, homeless. I never envisioned myself as having a new car, or owning a home, or having children dressed in their own new clothes and playing happily in the family album photographs – I only have three or four such Polaroids myself. As early as middle school I remember assuming that I would live an anxious life. I would toil, struggle, and play precarious games with debt. I thought that the American dream was someone else’s dream. And no guidance counselor could have convinced me otherwise with talk of scholarships, or grants, or low-interest loans. I always believed these things were meant for other people, even though they had been designed precisely for someone like me.

My grades were mediocre to bad. Mostly because I always had a ruthless impatience for anything that seemed like a waste of time; if I couldn’t afford a university, then it didn’t seem worthwhile to apply myself as much as my peers had in English, and history, and math (I failed geometry twice and had to be signed out of it by my mom just to take trig my senior year).

When I finally did appear in a community college classroom, I didn’t know what to do with myself. The professor had given us E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” and asked us to write an imitation of the premise, to recall a location from childhood and reflect on the experience of returning later in life. I fancied myself an amateur writer and was so taken by the idea of a professorial audience that I ignored the prompt entirely and instead submitted the first chapter of a memoir I was writing at the time about my own delusional adolescent romances, titled, “How to get a girl (only it didn’t work for me).” The teacher wasn’t pleased. So I got back my first college essay with scathing marginal notes and a grade of “Inc. 0/100”. It wasn’t even an F.

If we ever do this reflective writing challenge again, I might pick up from there and write all seven posts as a literacy narrative on my own journey as a community college student, tracing in my memories the ways an outsider became an insider. I could say it was all grit, but I think it had as much (or more) to do with the teachers who believed I was smarter than I thought I was.



I have commitment issues.

It sometimes takes me years to settle on a single textbook.

But I teach in a series of classes that require students (for reasons of Title V and articulation gobbledygook) to read at least one or two or more book-length nonfiction texts. There is important value here; students read a long form argument, carried by a professional writer from page 1 all the way to 317. Ideally, this means students will see and appreciate the careful, nuanced moves that an author makes while crafting context and tangents and evidence, all this preparing the reader for that final grand vista of a thoroughly articulated argument (that may or may not ever appear).

I like it. I get it.

But a part of me wonders if the students in these classes might be better served by reading samples of professional writing closer to the length the written products they themselves will have to produce. I will never be asking them to write a single 300 page argument on anything. My longest assignments tend to tap out around 14 pages, the rest are more like 6. Would it behoove my students to see the moves writers make to articulate arguments in a more limited amount of space? How can we be both thorough and concise?

And it gets more complicated. I’m also trying to provide students with texts that “represent a broad spectrum of opinions and ideas, writing styles, and cultural experiences.” As diverse and critically thoughtful as any one author may be, assigning and primarily reading from a single book doesn’t quite give the same spectrum of opinions, ideas, writing styles, and cultural experiences that one encounters when reading twenty different essays and articles from writers who are all different, who all have their own stylistic prose, and who all articulate conflicting and opposing opinions. I want students to see how writers construct points and counterpoints, and then counterpoints to those counterpoints. Most book-length texts from a single author don’t lend themselves to this so easily.

[And before someone suggests an anthology as a solution to all of this (as the course outline does), let’s not forget that whenever we assign an $80 anthology, we use maybe 10% of the readings. I know, I’m exaggerating, but only by 5%. So will indexanyone protest if I forego the book requirements and make my own digital anthology of the 30 articles and essays I know my students need to read?]

All ranting aside, I’m writing to announce that I have settled on something new for my classes, The Cosmpolites, by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian.

Here’s a book with which it is as easy to agree as it is to disagree. Totally provocative and controversial with the questions it raises regarding global citizenship and the meaning of patriotism and national identity in a world where countries now buy and sell passports. Even better, it’s not so prohibitively long that I won’t be able to supplement with ten or so articles and essays for all the juicy side arguments.




To be said on the first day of classes: “Whether you like it or not, or believe it or not, when you walk through those doors, you are scholars. Whatever we’re talking about, in whatever field, your ideas are at the cutting edge. I expect nothing less from you and ask that you do the same.”

I stole this move from Erasmus, an early enlightenment thinker in the western middle ages (I think he might have even been a pen pal of Holbein-erasmusMartin Luther). He mostly taught philosophy and theology, and on the first day of classes, when new  students entered the room, he told them they were scholars.

It’s tricky to do this as teachers. Our perceptions reveal much about how we will teach our students and even have implications for how we will let them learn – especially in basic skills courses. Do we believe our students are scholars, thinkers, intellectuals? Do we believe they even belong here?

In one of her essays, Diving In, Mina Shaughnessy writes this tongue-in-cheek colonial metaphor on teacher perceptions towards basic skills students. She says the basic skills teacher tends to go through a series of stages:

When he is assigned a remedial class for the first time, he is GUARDING THE TOWER, protecting the academy from outsiders who don’t belong. Shocked when each new class seems less prepared than the last, he avoids these lower level classes because the unteachable students give him thoughts like, “Would it kill you to write a compound sentence!?” and “What will happen to me if I fail the whole class?”

This teacher, if he sticks at it, might move on to CONVERTING THE NATIVES, when he discovers a few students who show promise, who could make it if they only learned. It is to them that he then directs his brilliantly elegant lectures (i.e. sermons).

But maybe things that seem obvious, and brilliant, and elegant to him, only appear this way because he’s already so familiar with the material. Maybe it’s more opaque to his students. This is when he might start SOUNDING THE DEPTHS, might start creating hypotheses and tracking patterns for how students, despite or because of his lessons, have arrived at a particular error.

In this self reflection, the teacher might even start to consider the possibility that teaching basic skills is not a matter of making the basics simpler but more profound – to both his students and to himself. Here he is now DIVING IN, realizing that he is in fact the student of his students, learning to see their difficulties and brilliance at the same time.

He’s learning how they learn.

For me, every class is different. If I used Shaughnessy’s scale, I think I drift between sounding the depths and actually diving in. Sometimes I only tinker with my curriculum, alter it to pace with my students. But other times I really actually ask, “How do the 30 people in this room learn?” and then I make a whole new class with them. It’s uncomfortable, but wish I did this more often.





Student’s panic every time I give them an “open ended” prompt; they’ve even written it in their reflections:

“In high school, it was always obvious what the teacher wanted. Maybe there were a few options, but you always knew what the teacher wanted you to say, research some sources that say X and then fill-in-the-blank. That’s why I think this open ended prompt was so uncomfortable. We’re not expected to be that independent as students. I usually just want the teacher to tell me what to write and I’ll write it.”

When we don’t require students to learn how to select and rigorously investigate their own interests, then I think we might be depriving them of one of the most satisfying experiences of the scholar’s life: inquiry.

The prompt for the Literature Review essay I use in English 1A begins, “In this assignment you will write about something that genuinely interests you. The more personally intrigued you are with your topic, the better this project will turn out. If you’re bored – that’s your own fault.”

Every quarter, though, I still have one or two students who need some guidance in finding out what actually interests them. Even when the question is open-ended, some students still remain obsequious to what they believe the teacher wants. In two different classes I had two students writing from a nearly identical question, something like, “What’s the most current research (2013-2015) on new cancer therapies?” When I asked one of these students why he was writing about this, he just shrugged his shoulders, I don’t know, it seemed like it would be easy. Turns out he was super bored and couldn’t even begin to pretend he was interested in the dense medical jargon of the prose. When I asked the other student, she said, “I have breast cancer, so even though these science papers are really hard to read, I really want to know what they’re saying.” Her interest was palpable. And, after just a little prodding, it turns out the former student was actually really interested in “The most current psychology and neurology research looking at flow state experiences in extreme sports athletes.”

I understand why we, as teachers, avoid these prompts. Who knows what the students might come up with. A colleague of mine who also uses an open-ended prompt tries to restrict anything too ridiculous, “You may not write about aliens, ghosts, or conspiracy theories.”But I have a sneaky way of allowing even the most bizarre. Instead of limiting the topics a student can write about, I limit the kinds of sources they can include. The lion’s share of the citations (8 out of the 10 required) the student uses in the literature review must be peer-reviewed, academic articles from the Foothill library database. This ensures that no matter the topic, the resources will, for the most part, be responsible. (It turns out that even with aliens, ghosts, and conspiracy theories, thousands of academics have widely published fascinating papers).

What I don’t leave open ended, though, is the way they will end up writing this paper. First, they have to book a meeting with one of our librarians on campus. Secondly, I don’t only require students to read peer-reviewed, academic articles, they also have to imitate them. They perform rhetorical analyses of their favorite articles, explain how they tick, and then plan how they will incorporate similar features into their own essays.

I’ve only been doing this for a few years, and as scary as it might seem, hundreds of my former students have performed the task admirably. When they come back to see me in my office, now they even feel a little disappointed when a teacher gives them a “fill-in-the-blank” research paper.



I went to a conference a few weeks ago. Every time I decide to attend one these things, I feel as if I do so at my own peril. It may be inspiring… or it might just be an unfortunate misuse of a perfectly good weekend. I have a strategy if I think things might be turning for the worse – I’m an English teacher, so if it gets really bad I pick a workshop that has absolutely nothing to do with English. In the case of this conference, the workshop was titled: “Making Across the Curriculum:  The Modern Maker Movement & Interdisciplinary Innovation”

It certainly delivered. I learned about a field of fabricators, makers, and 3D printers that I knew almost nothing about. More importantly, it sparked an idea for an “Interdisciplinary Innovation” project that I’d like to run by the rest of you to see if anyone’s interested.

manipulatives.jpgZack Dowell, the presenter, passed around a 3D printed manipulative model of an element off the periodic table. You can see it here. (Can’t remember which one this was. Kathy, can you tell what it is?) The electrons, embossed along the rotating rings, are designed to give blind students (and really ANY student) a tactile representation of what they’re studying in their Chemistry classes. What’s brilliant in this particular case is that the Chemistry teachers didn’t just buy these in bulk off the internet; these models were created by students in 3D printing classes on the other side of campus. So students in one class were producing projects that had a direct impact on students in another.

Zack went on to show how students in electronics classes designed and built a series of simple aerial devices (kites, balloons, small drones) with 3D printed cell-phonedolookdown_balloon.jpg mounts so each student could float their own phone in the air and take high resolution images with greater detail than they could get from google maps. He then described how these images could then be shared with students in other classes who could use them for any number of reasons (e.g. a zoology class analyzing coyote trails).

And this is what got me thinking about the learning communities we could create here at Foothill. What if we had our 3D printing lab create similar devices to map the entire school on a Foothill College webpage. And then, what if we shared these images with Gillian Schultz‘s students who regularly collect data on season creep (plants blooming earlier and earlier or later and later in the year)balloon_walk. All of these data points, along with close up photographs, could be mapped over the high resolution images. Then, we could have Patrick Morriss‘ math students render the data into compelling statistical arguments. Then, we could have students in an English class collaborate on a 50 page report (loaded with graphs, photographs, data, and analysis) and then share this with California State Assembly Member, Rich Gordon. Whatever ends up being the thesis of the report would be the choice of the students.

Something like this gets at what I believe is the core project of the university – the universe of knowledge. In theory, a student is supposed to come here, gather material from multiple discrete disciplines, and then, ideally, connect these knowledge sets in some innovative way.

As teachers in different departments, when we intentionally interlink projects between our classrooms, our students can then vividly recognize how their learning is a constellation of knowledge that is as interconnected as it is directly applicable to the world outside of the classroom.

So here’s where I’d like to poll all of you. What do you all think? Are there other interdisciplinary projects we can put together at our campus?





This blog will be boring. Don’t read it.

I say something like this at the start of many of my classes. I’m being facetious, obviously, but I say, “I wouldn’t be surprised if half of what you do in your classes doesn’t even begin to spark your interest. You’re probably bored already, right now, wondering when I’ll stop talking and let you leave early since it’s the first day. Sorry. I won’t. So here you are. You have to do it and you have to do it well.”

Boredom may be the most crippling difficulty our students face when they’re sitting in our classes. Their eyes are open and we think they can hear us, but their minds drift off as if our words themselves were wearing elbow patches and tweed.

Sometimes, if I get enough students saying, “I didn’t do the reading because it was boring,” I’ll steal a page from the Sugie Goen-Salter playbook and toss out my lesson for the day. I write the word on the board, BOREDOM, and ask, “What is this?” Soon we start populating the wall with other words – too long, I don’t relate, hard vocab, can’t understand, and so on until it turns out the word boring actually starts to mean “difficult.” Which is important because difficulty, unlike boredom, can inspire us with opportunities to learn; we can locate the exact challenge and then apply the necessary reading and writing strategies to overcome.

I do this plenty in my own life. I’ve sometimes wondered why others can find something fascinating that I find tedious (and vice-versa). At the risk of angering everyone, let’s take spectator sports. Total boredom for me, mostly because I don’t relate; I never played them. But I have so many friends and family who will froth at the mouth with enthusiasm over football this weekend, that starting somewhere on Friday evening I’ll actually begin a process for getting myself interested just so I’m not completely antisocial at the superbowl party. And it’s not impossible – it turns out that after only a little effort I can find features of the game and culture that can fascinate me. (I’ve even done this with golf… yeah. Pretty wild).

And I suspect this may be the case with all things. Someone, somewhere finds even the most monotonous to be thrilling and I wonder what it is that intrigues them. Is there a way to strategically recreate that interest for ourselves so that we can also appreciate the wonder in what we once found dull. As educators you all know what I’m talking about – it’s the way we learn how to learn, and this is often what our most disinterested students need in our classes. They need an access point to figure out why all of this knowledge and information can be so fascinating for the learner. Then studying is less of a chore and more a delight.

“If you could trick yourself into finding everything interesting, you’d never have to be bored again.”



Astronomy was so bad, really, seriously, probably one of the worst experiences that I had as a student in college. I know there’s a kind of collegial professionalism that’s supposed to happen here (never critique another teacher in the trenches when you’re one of them), so ‘ll just give you one detail: on the day that we wrote our student evals, he collected them himself and waited in the room to read what each student had written before handing off the envelope to a volunteer.

So when a sub showed up to teach one of the classes, we were ecstatic.

While my only memories of the actual instructor of record usually involve him berating a student in front of the whole class, I remember the sub’s lesson vividly. At 10:05 sharp, she came out from behind the lectern, arms waving, and said, “Professor _____ asked me to cover binary star systems with you all today, but instead I think,” her eyes widened, “we will discover them.”

Yeah, total super nerd. And we loved it. Her enthusiasm was infectious. To this day, on most nights of the year, I can still point out Sirius, a set of two stars spinning around one another at nearly 60,000 km an hour. And get this, the smaller of the two, the white Sirius_A_and_B_artworkdwarf, is comprised of highly compressed carbon, which is, technically, a diamond… the size of the earth.

While I’m not sure I would ever say the same thing in my class, “Discover” would probably come out cheesy and inauthentic, the attitude has stuck with me.

Whatever the content might be in our classes, learning can feel like discovery. Thesis statements, PIE paragraphs, quote sandwiches – these are the elements of our written composition courses and if we’re not paying attention, we might forget their profound implications for rhetoric and the way human beings understand one another. One might be the billionth person reading centuries old math theorems, the Bechdel Test, or Newton’s Laws, but in the mind of the learner the feeling of coming upon these things can be as thrilling as if being the first to see them.

The two attitudes mark a different approach in both the teacher and the student. To see our course content as something which must be covered is to suggest that each lesson only functions as a means to the next, a gatekeeper – “Prove you memorized this thing, put it on a test, move on and repeat.” To discover is to be fascinated with the content for it’s own sake.

Victor Weissfopk supposedly said in his physics courses: “It doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what you discover.”