Embracing Exploration: AtoZ April Challenge


a-zchallengeThis post could have an alternate title: Eliminating Erasers. But the story would be the same.

I have been experimenting with ways to get my writing students to get away from writing for the sake of correct grammar and unusual vocabulary to first seeking ideas and opinions they want to express, and THEN using grammar as a tool for making their ideas more understandable to their audience. Audience? They look at me with blank stares when I suggest such a thing. I collaborated with my daughter last semester to give students an experience of audience.

But the point is that real writing involves prewriting–a form of exploration that helps the writer excavate the thoughts and ideas that are deep within the unconscious part of the brain. Prewriting is about discovery, about finding out what one really has to say, what the message is that he or she wants to convey. Trying to write something without doing that exploratory work first is like trying to build a piece of furniture without taking measurements and making a plan. It you just start cutting the wood and nailing pieces together, it’s not going to be very functional nor aesthetically pleasing.

The sad thing about most of my students is that they’re terrified of making a grammar mistake. Giant fear #2: They don’t have enough vocabulary. And these two fears immobilize any exploration of ideas. It’s not their fault. I understand that when learning English as a foreign language, it seems like it’s even more important to make sure you are mechanically correct.

That’s where the “eliminating erasers” title option comes from. In Taiwan, there isn’t a pencil case in a classroom that doesn’t contain an eraser and a correcting tape (or wite out), along with the requisite pens and pencils. It took me a while to understand how deeply being correct was culturally embedded. Particularly because I didn’t teach writing until my second year here. I tried teaching the writing process. It was like another foreign language, and then I realized that they were approaching each step as if it were a final draft. That they had no concept of a first draft. AND that most of them hated writing enough that all they wanted to do was get assignments done, not necessarily become better writers. Spending the first semester on the writing process helped, but only to a point–because they will do the assignments I give them because I give them, but they won’t buy into the spirit of the process. And when I ask them to go from their first draft to a new revision, I see many of them just give me another copy of what they gave me the first time. So frustrating.

I started by telling students that I would not take off points for grammar mistakes. That it was more important go get ideas than to worry about grammar, at least for most of the process. They weren’t sure they believed me. So the next step was to give them two bonus points on their final exam essays if they didn’t use erasers or wite-out. Gradually, I started including it in my opening day lectures, and I constantly reinforce it. NO erasers or wite-out in my classes–ever. You don’t need to worry about mistakes when writing. You can fix things later after you plan with ideas.

I mean it would be nice if I could give a demo on how to do free-writing. Oh wait! I did that. I set a timer for seven minutes (after demonstrating the process to them). I told them to write as quickly as they can without worrying about grammar, without even thinking. I went so far as to tell them that if they had a thought come to them in Chinese, they could write the Chinese, rather than try to think of an “easier” English word to substitute for the thought they were having.

They can’t do it. They want to believe me, they really do. But they are convinced that it is just a process that makes them spend more time with writing–something they want to avoid. Luckily, I recently had one student who totally got free-writing, and found herself making those discoveries that can happen when you just play with words and ideas. She had an experience of embracing exploration. Amy was so excited, she came to tell me about it. And she was excited enough that when I asked her to share her experience with her classmates, using Chinese, she animatedly spoke for several minutes. You could see light bulbs going on all over the room. (Another sadness is that they can’t always understand everything that is said in English, and they are too timid and embarrassed to admit they don’t understand.) Amy was even excited enough she visited another one of my classes to tell them of her experience. In the picture below, she is visiting one of my other writing classes to share her experience.

I’ll be honest. I had to really push the students to get up and get close enough to see her when she actually “wrote fast.” I also had to push them to ask her questions–even in Chinese. But the experience (and the prodding) was well worth it.

I am fortunate to have a few students who “get it” and are willing to share their experiences like Amy has done here. Other students have written to me, thanking me for helping them to change their ideas about writing.  It’s a slow process, but if I can help even a few students find their voices instead of practicing memorized grammar rules, I feel like I’ve made a difference. I’m willing to eliminate a few erasers on the way to leading students to embrace the process of exploration,



Audience and Purpose: Teaching ESL Students to Write

Image courtesy of nuttakit / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nuttakit / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As many of you know, I teach writing to English majors at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan. I am actually considered crazy by many of my colleagues because I teach a LOT of writing–by choice!

I have actually sought out writing courses because, in spite of the work, it is one of the ways I can make a difference. Most students enter my writing classes just wanting to pass. No one expects to like writing; or at least, very few do. So I love the opportunity to change their minds about it. I start by shaking up their ideas and beliefs about writing. If you want to see my first post about such things, you can visit 10 Things I Want My Students to Believe about Writing.

But now, we have a new challenge. Sadly, many most students see no purpose for writing an essay (or anything else), other than getting a grade and passing a course, preferably as simply and painlessly as possible. As someone who reads lots and lots of student papers, I can tell you what the results of this mindset are anything but interesting.

My daughter and I were discussing this situation a few months back, and she offered to give my students an audience in addition to me. From each of my four writing classes, 15 students could submit an essay. She read them, made notes, and acknowledged winners in three categories: Most Informative; Most Appealing; and Best Utilization of the Language (mechanics and grammar).

The winners were then announced in blog posts that she did in January, while my students were on semester break. As you can see in her posts (see links below), she gave examples of what she liked about the essays she chose for the honors.

Now that the second semester has started, the results will be announced in each class next week. Winners will receive a certificate and a small token of accomplishment.

This is only one step in the process of teaching my students about audience and purpose, but it has created an experience in which they can understood that their writing can go further than their teacher’s grading pile.


The Award Posts:

Monday 8:10 am Writing II class: http://sincerelykaterz.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/from-taiwan-and-back-part-i/

Monday 10:10 am Writing II class: http://sincerelykaterz.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/from-taiwan-and-back-part-ii/

Wednesday morning Writing I class: http://sincerelykaterz.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/from-taiwan-and-back-part-iii/

Thursday morning Writing II class:  http://sincerelykaterz.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/from-taiwan-and-back-part-iv/

Not Just Another Day (Trifecta Weekend Challenge)

It is the first day of November and so, today, someone must die.

It happens every year, but today I couldn’t touch my breakfast. Mitch sat across from me–coffee in hand, nose buried in the newspaper. Clearly, he wasn’t concerned. Why was he ignoring me?

This is my first time doing a Trifecta Challenge. I’ve thought about it for a while, but this time, I actually did it. The prompt for this weekend’s challenge is below.

In The Scorpio Races, author Maggie Stiefvater writes, “It is the first day of November and so, today,
someone will die.”  Give us the next thirty-three words of this story, as you imagine it.  Take it wherever you like, but make it original and make it 33 words exactly.

If you’d like to write your own entry for this prompt, click on the tricycle picture to view Trifecta’s website for the complete instructions.  Thanks for reading!

One Year and Counting

anniversary-1xAccording to WordPress, the first anniversary of my blog was September 14, but I didn’t publish my first post until a year ago today, November 2. So this is the day I’m celebrating as the one-year anniversary of my blog.

For the first five months of blogging, I posted twice a week on a pretty regular schedule–Tuesdays and Fridays. Occasionally, things would be adjusted a day or two from that, but in general, I was consistent. In April, I started falling off the schedule for reasons that don’t really matter. The fact is that after just four posts in April, I would not post again until September. For four months, the number of my posts stood at 49.

Many things changed for me over the summer–primarily the way I think about things, and I knew the blog would make a comeback. In September, I slowly started again, finishing the month with five posts. Then, late in September, I saw an invitation to participate in a 31-day blog challenge. I snapped it up. You can read about my actual experience and what I learned from that challenge in an upcoming post, but the bottom line is that I made it–31 posts in 31 days. And it has led to new discoveries about myself, about what I want, and about what intentions I will make for myself over the next year.

As I begin my second year of blogging, I have expanded my vision about what this blog can be–about what my life can be. I’m less concerned about figuring out a specific identity for it or limiting the ideas and themes that I explore. I want to be open and just see where it takes me. I want to dream big, so that when I look back on my second year of blogging, I may just discover that my life exceeds anything I could have imagined.

Challenge: Making My Life Less Crazy

Resolution - better time management

(Photo credit: vpickering)

As some of you may know, I did a blog challenge in October. For November and December, I’ve joined a quilt-along (cutting fabric later today–YAY!). Last week, I joined Curves for a two-month trial to see if it will work for me and my artificial knee. All of these things are about taking time for me, something which I haven’t been very good at in the past, something I want to change. My first post in October was all about Taking Time for Me, and I am moving well in that direction.

This is because I have a problem with taking on too much, especially at work. If a project interests me, and I have the skills or expertise to do something about it, I’m in, usually without thinking. It doesn’t take a big stretch of the imagination to realize that this tendency can lead to trouble, especially when several of those projects collide in terms of deadlines or the necessary focus and attention they need. Let me give you just a few examples.

      1. Most people at our university, if they teach writing at all, they only teach one section, maybe two because it is so work intensive. I teach both first year (1 section) and second year (3 sections) writing courses to English majors.  I also coordinate the first year program. (Yes, I’m insane, but I love writing, and I love helping people find their voice.)  This kind of work really feels like my niche. But of course, it’s only half of my course load. I also teach three sections of general English to students from other majors. Which leads to #2.
      2. Our University uses in-house textbooks for our general English program. Since students are required to take four years of English (focused on all four skills: reading, listening, speaking, writing), there are eight books in this series, one per semester. We are currently in the process of producing new books to replace the series that is nearly 15 years old. And when I say “we,” I mean that I am the coordinator of this project. I have completed one book so far, with two more in active production. Five to go! Insanity, but I brought it on myself.
      3. This year, I serve as the advisor on three senior research graduation projects for three groups of English majors. One group has four members, the other two have two members each. I’ll spare you the details, but it does eat up a chunk of time.
The teaching alone could keep me more than busy, in addition to the research that I am doing, but I’m committed to these other projects. I accept that, and I work somewhat consistently on moving forward on them without stressing too much. But it’s only been recently that I’ve managed to get that stress thing under control. As part of that effort, I made a series of intentions to take time for myself and to take care of myself. Sometimes, it feels like taking this time makes things more complicated, as when I sometimes put the blog challenge ahead of other things I could (in the past I would have said “should”) be doing. But the things I’m now doing for me are changing the way I feel about everything in my life. After the experience of the blog challenge and preparing for the quilt-along, I would never go back to the way things were a few months ago. I like this new direction, this new way of thinking, the way I can reimagine my life. It just takes time.
I can credit my work with Farther to Go! with this transformation in the way I think about things. I now view  my life (n general) and my over commitment to work (specifically) in a while new way. I can’t change everything all at once. But bit by bit, I’m taking my life back and making my decisions and activities more intentional. In the meantime, even while things are still crazy, I am less stressed, and I have hope for a calmer schedule in the not-too-distant future.

Ten Things I Want My Students to Believe About Writing

The Struggle


Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

I teach writing to university students in Taiwan. A common strategy is to watch for patterns of errors to help students improve their writing; however, sometimes the problem is more basic. Sometimes, students are so focused on grammar and mechanics that they have no idea how to generate ideas or how to support them. This leads to another pattern that keeps students from experiencing writing as a way to learn and to express themselves.

Many students tell me in their introductory letters that they dislike or even fear writing. They think they would be better writers if they had better grammar, or more vocabulary, or if they didn’t have so many rules to worry about. Unfortunately, that is the only side of the writing process. Many of them haven’t experienced the creative side of the writing process: what it’s like to make discoveries and connections they hadn’t thought of before or to get lost in writing because they’re excited about what they have to share.

If students thought differently about writing, they might approach it with more curiosity and less apprehension. I want students to know that if they change the way they think about writing, it can change the way they experience writing. Here are ten things that I want my students to believe about writing.

Ten Ways to Think About Writing Differently

1. Writing doesn’t have to be painful or scary. 

Part of the reason that writing seems unpleasant might be that you’re trying so hard to be perfect. We don’t expect basketball players to be perfect the first time they play. We don’t expect a painter to paint masterpieces the first time without a plan and some practice. The same is true with playing a musical instrument. All of these things involve learning and practicing skills. With writing, it is the same. You need ideas, and you need to practice the skills. Over time, you become better and better. But if you wait until you are perfect, you will never begin, or you will write pieces that you aren’t happy with.

2. The key to writing is to understand that it is a process.

Once you know the steps in the process, you just work at them one at a time. The rules are important, but not at the beginning! First, focus on finding ideas, make a plan, write a first draft, and THEN think above fixing mistakes and looking for other ways to make the writing stronger. Give yourself some time to go through the steps. It might seem like it takes longer to write, but your writing will be clearer and more interesting if you go through the steps, rather than taking shortcuts.

3. Good writing comes from good ideas.

The Writing process

(Photo credit: brainpop_uk)

Let your mind play and explore to find your best ideas. If you take the first ideas that come to mind, you will miss the treasures that lie buried within your subconscious. You have so many more ideas than you realize, but you have to give yourself time to let those ideas come out. The prewriting part of the writing process is important because all the grammar rules in the world can’t change a weak topic into something interesting. You have good ideas. Trust that fact, and you will work with the process long enough to uncover them.

4. Make sure you know these two things:  the purpose of your writing and who your audience will be.

Most students think that the only reason they are writing is because their teacher is going to read their work and grade it. That should never be the only reason you write. Make sure you understand the purpose of the assignment. Is it to persuade someone? It is to get someone to understand a process? Whatever your purpose, it is then important to know who your audience is, because then you can focus your writing toward that audience. For example, if you are writing a letter to a friend to tell them about a trip you are on, you can picture that person when you write, and it’s almost like speaking to them through writing. Having an audience in mind when doing your writing helps you express your ideas in a way that can be more clearly understood..

5. When you explore your ideas and different ways of organizing them, your rough draft (first draft) will be easier to write.

Once you discover what you really want to say, you can try arranging things in different ways. If you have a plan for how you will support your thesis, your paragraphs will be much easier to construct. Your reader will be able to follow the order and logic of your plan. Best of all, you can follow the plan when writing your first draft. Having an outline (or plan) to follow makes the drafting process less confusing.

6. A rough draft (first draft) should be part of every writing assignment.

This goes back to the basketball, piano, and art analogies from above. Make sure you warm-up. If you’ve done your prewriting exercises and you’ve made a plan, writing a draft to get the ideas on paper will be the first step in a writing project that you’re happy with. After the first draft, there will be plenty of time to revise and edit your paper to make a stronger paper. For the first draft, get the ideas down in an order that makes sense to you, based on your plan.

7. You can learn unexpected things while you are writing.

Once you have a draft with all of your ideas, you can make your writing stronger. If you write the draft without worrying about grammar and other mechanics, you may discover ideas you hadn’t realized were there. One way that you know you are really writing from the subconscious part of your brain is if you find new ideas in your writing, ideas that are a surprise. Once you start getting that kind of surprise while you’re writing, you will understand how the process of writing can be magical at times..

8. Mistakes are one way that we learn,

The more you practice, the fewer mistakes you make. But no matter how many mistakes you make, you can learn from them. Each mistake you make and correct takes you one step closer to a well-written final draft. But remember, there is more to making our writing better than fixing grammar mistakes. In fact, many of the ways to improve our writing aren’t based on mistakes at all, but on skills and ideas that can be practiced and developed over time. If you approach writing with a sense of adventure and a desire to express yourself, you can learn many techniques for making your writing stronger.

9. There are many ways to express the same idea.

There are other ways to improve our writing other than just asking someone to “fix our grammar.” I have students ask me to do this often, yet, I’ve never had a student ask me to help them brainstorm, or to see if they have a good organizational pattern, or if I could look at their structure. If I could convince you to believe one thing differently, it is this: Grammar is not the most important part of writing. It’s important, but it’s only a tool, not the whole project.

10. Write about things that interest you, things you are passionate about.

You don’t always get to choose your topics for writing, but whenever you can, choose a topic you are passionate about. It’s easier to generate ideas when you care about the topic and when you wait until you’ve generated those ideas before you worry about all of the rules. REMEMBER, if you’re bored, your reader will be bored.

A New Perspective

If you can start thinking about writing differently, you might just find yourself becoming more confident about your ability to become a better writer.

Invitations: My Path to Taiwan (Part 1)

Happy Chinese New Year!

New Year's items being sold at Dihua Market, T...

New Year’s items being sold at Dihua Market, Taipei, Taiwan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If someone had told me four years ago that I’d be seeing spectacular Chinese New Year’s fireworks from my 4th floor apartment in Taiwan, I wouldn’t have believed it. But here I am. I am often asked why I came to Taiwan to teach. The short answer is that I was invited, but in reality, it was the culmination of a series of invitations. Even though I didn’t always understand where the invitations would lead, I embarked on several extra adventures that eventually led me here. This post traces those invitations and the resulting events that brought me to Taiwan.

Invitation 1: New Job Position

In my previous life, I worked in church music. I planned the music for services, played the organ and piano, rehearsed and directed choirs, trained and scheduled people who were interested in serving in various liturgical ministries, and “other duties as requested.” In the late 90’s, after many years in liturgical music, I received an unusual invitation to try my hand at directing the religious education program for our parish. At first, I wasn’t sure about this unexpected opportunity, but with some encouragement from the retiring Director of Religious Education and the pastor, I decided to give it a go. Turns out I loved it, and it gave me my first experience in curriculum design for a multi-year program.

Invitation 2: Entering a Master’s Program

While I was exploring my new position at the parish level, I received a call from the director at the diocesan level, inviting me to participate in a master’s level theology program through Loyola University. Initially, I hesitated because I hadn’t finished my BA, but he assured me that I would receive funding for the program and a certificate upon completion. I took the plunge. I attended weekly meetings, requiring substantial reading and assignments in preparation for each session. Our group of ten completed the 30 credit hours over three years.

Consequence: Decision to Complete BA

By the time I completed the certificate program in theology, it was clear that I could handled the routine of going to class and completing assignments, while still working full-time. So although it had been 30 years since I started my BA, I returned in 2000 to complete it. At six hours a semester, it would take a while (I went in with 38 hours  completed during my freshman year back in the 70s), but it would add up in time. A happy coincidence during my first semester back led to my decision to major in sociology and minor in English.

Invitation 3: A Marriage Proposal

What is a marriage proposal if not an invitation to share your life with another? I had been married before, and it hadn’t been the best of experiences. This invitation took a lot more consideration, weighing pros and cons, and deciding whether I was willing to make such a risk again. In the end, I accepted his invitation, and our lives have been blessed in many ways because of it. More about the details as this list continues.

Invitations at College (#4, 5, 6, 7)

#4 Join the Honors Program:  It required taking honors courses or creating an honors version of a few courses and completing a research thesis, but an invitation to return to the Honors Program I had left 30 years ago seemed a worthwhile endeavor.

#5 Become a Writing Center Mentor: A friend invited me to apply to become a mentor in the Writing Center. I’d always loved writing, and even the application process led me through a process of assembling a writing portfolio and reflecting on my own writing process. The number of “mini-invitations” that resulted from joining the Writing Center was totally unexpected. Conference presentations, starting an English Corner for international students, and coordinating the Writing Center’s English 111 course presentations were just some of the experiences that resulted from accepting this invitation. Little did I know that it would be instrumental in my later certification in Taiwan, particularly my extensive work with international students.

#6 Take a Second Major: I enjoyed the classes I took for my English minor, but the only writing major at the time was Professional/Technical Writing. I didn’t think I was interested in it, but at one of my conferences about a writing project, the professor made a case for turning my minor into another major. At that point, it would only add one year to my time in school, and as will be seen later, there were lots of other things going on that made it hard to argue his point. When I asked whether the courses I needed would be offered in the following year, he offered to do an independent study with me if needed.

#7 Consider Graduate School: Another professor asked to see me as a result of some peer review activity we had done in class. A student I had worked with made significant progress in a rewrite. The professor asked about the techniques I had used and then asked if I was considering graduate school. She encouraged me to pursue teaching, particularly in writing. This suggestion, along with the other three “college invitations” resulted in an honors thesis that combined sociology, teaching, and writing, a trend that would follow me to Taiwan, even though I didn’t know it at the time.

to be continued . . .

English: Chinese dragons at LongyinTemple in C...

Chinese dragons at LongyinTemple in Chukou, Taiwan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who knew that invitations held so much possibility? I used to think about invitations as social obligations to be included in one’s calendar, but the question about how I’ve gotten to this part of my life got me thinking about all the choices we make when it comes to all kinds of invitations.

In Part 2, I will share the final invitations that brought me to Taiwan. It involves an invitation that led to admission to a fellowship program and a trip to Asia. Stay tuned for the details.

Also, if you have any specific questions about the journey to Taiwan, feel free to add them to the comments. 

Happy Chinese New Year!

Cocoons: Then and Now

On cold winter days, I like to curl up with a journal and a steaming cup of tea, to sort through the mental keepsakes I have collected over the years. Even though I can indulge in this pursuit anytime, there is something about an overcast sky that brings out my tendency to turn inward and begin the act I call cocoon building.

Like the caterpillar that spins his cocoon in a particular season, certain events and situations often precipitate my inner work. It could be something specific, like a job loss or leaving grad school; or it could be something more nebulous, like the feeling of losing direction or recovering from a period of depression. Sometimes, I thrash around–literally and figuratively–for quite a while before I begin the cocoon-building process. But it is when I take that step that the healing taking place. Within my cocoon, I can explore the ins and outs of my pain. I emerge stronger, willing to take risks that lead me in new directions, often beyond what I thought possible.

cacoon拷貝The first time I consciously explored the cocoon idea, as I wrote in Cocoons and Coffee Houses, the process moved me across the country from Seattle back to Michigan. Twenty years later, another cocoon experience would lead me halfway around the world. This time, I was exploring options after leaving graduate school. A ready-made cocoon came in the form of a three month house-sitting stint. With many of our things in storage, I focused my creative energy on cooking and crocheting as I explored job possibilities, while preparing applications, teaching demos, and lesson plans.

While lining up my references, one of them suggested I come to Taiwan to teach for a year or two. While I appreciated the idea, I was quick to discount it, at least in my own mind. It was too crazy. It was too far away. I was too old to live in a foreign country. I had lots of reasons why it couldn’t work. I thanked him and told him I’d think about it.

I had been to Taiwan before, so it wasn’t totally unknown to me, but the idea of leaving my family, my friends, my country–seemed to be overwhelming. Eventually, the moment came when the only thing keeping me from this opportunity was my desire–a STRONG desire–for certainty. I agreed to a phone interview. And then a second one with several committee members. I talked to my family. I updated my passport. My husband and I made plans for me to go for a year to test the waters. I prepared for my new adventure.

Well, this is year four for me, and it’s the second year for my husband. Now it’s time to build a new cocoon. My time here has been filled with projects and activities that I never could have imagined. And while I love many of them, I now fly from one thing to another, with little time to think or create or just be. I need to slow down and think about what I really want; how I want to live my life in the next few years. Become intentional about what I’d like to have happen next in my life, rather than getting up each day and going from one deadline to the next.

This time, my cocoon holds new ideas about how to organize my time, ideas, and space. I feel a pull to move inside, an invitation to stay indoors, think about a way to channel my creative energy into my quilting, and work on a new cocoon. And fix myself a cup of tea.

The drawings in this post are done by Rena Chen. She has a BA in Applied English from Ming Chuan University in Taiwan. She enjoys arts, crafts, movies, and surfing the Internet. She is currently preparing for the government exam for cultural administration and hopes to one day work either in a museum or in a county cultural affairs bureau.