First Frost this Morning

I woke up to a hard frost this morning. It’s the latest I remember during my 17 years in Michigan. I even checked my recollection: The first frost in Lansing tends to happen early in October.

My pepper plants have finally died. I will need to pick any remaining peppers today and compost the plants. Still, it’s the middle of November, and I’ll be eating kale, right from my garden, tonight for dinner.

As I walked around the wetlands this week, flashes of purple continually caught my eye–especially on the south and west spans of the trails. I was amazed at how late some wild flowers were hanging on. I regret that I cannot attest as to whether or not this is normal. I wish I had paid more attention all of these years. Sadly, the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting climate change tells me that I will probably see more and more late-season wild flowers as the years go on.

Still, the minute flecks of unexpected summer color in the fall were incredibly beautiful.

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Climbing out of the Hole

It’s been almost 18 months since my last post. Hard to believe. Life just didn’t get in the way of my writing; life opened up an immense sinkhole, and I was unlucky enough to fall into it.

I teach writing. I completed graduate school so that I could teach writing. The problem is that I have a Master’s in Education, focused on college teaching and English. I started that degree because I knew I wanted to work with college writers, and my only other option in Bozeman, Montana in 1993 was to drive over 200 miles (one way) a couple days each week to complete a Master’s in literature. I like reading good books–don’t get me wrong–but I wanted to teach writing to college students, and my options in my hometown served me better for many reasons.

Sadly, times changed. My institution’s accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission,  now asked that I have a Master’s in English (literature or composition) or at least 18 graduate credit hours in the field that I teach. Upon reviewing my transcripts, my college administration decided that I needed 18 graduate credit hours of English: Not even the internship that I completed working with freshman composition students co-enrolled in a developmental reading course was considered “a course in writing pedagogy” simply because it had a EDLD course code and not and ENGL one. My college held firm, and I was off learning how to be a writing teacher yet again.

Kroger Birds

The Kroger store, located about two miles from my house, vainly attempted to keep birds off it’s illuminated sign by adding spikes to the letters.

And so, I’ve been taking online courses, such as “Advanced Argumentative Writing,” when I’ve taught my college’s argumentative writing course for 17 years. Heck, I even led the course for eight of those years. My plans of enrolling in Michigan State’s mineralogy course this year evaporated. My dreams of the Ph.D. in Earth Science have been deferred.

Then, this summer came foot surgery to repair an injury that never healed correctly. When I couldn’t walk or drive, I spent a great deal of time looking out over the Tollgate Wetlands, located across the street from my house. I watched deer and foxes and herons and muskrats and wondered why I had never thought to closely observe my own backyard. In short, I became mildly obsessed how nature has adapted to us in this Anthropocene Epoch.

Now, that I am once again mobile but still faced with taking course like “Teaching College Writing” rather than physics and chemistry, I have decided to fill my field notebook and blog with observations of my immediate world and how “nature” creeps into the city of Lansing, Michigan.

I refuse to let the sinkhole swallow me.


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When Science Ruins Everything

My 16-year-old Labrador-mastiff has cancer and renal failure. Probably because she feels her age and health merit such an indulgence, Macy has decided to no longer go off the trail then stop to poop when we are walking. She just keeps moving and lets it fall where it falls. And this is exactly what happened on our most recent walk.

DSC_0410But Macy, despite her age and senility, is still the dog I’ve always known and loved: She refuses to go back the way she came. Whenever we’ve hiked over the last 11 years, she absolutely will not retrace her steps. One must get her to turn around by either planning a loop or somehow pretending to take a loop. Therefore, two nights ago, I could not get her to back up so that I could collect her fecal matter from the trail. She struggled against my pull in the opposite direction, and I had to stretch to make the final scoop.

Knowing that Macy is slowly dying turned this into a special moment–one of those moments that is forever burned into the pleasure centers of our brains. I laughed. It got even better when we rounded the corner, came out from behind some trees, and saw the sunset.

Two tiny horizontal purple clouds hung in front of a big orange ball sitting nearly on the horizon. It could have been an illustration in a children’s book. I stared at the sun for a moment while Macy sniffed.

Then, something in the back of my brain said, “It’s only orange because the atmosphere near the horizon is scattering the blue light so that we only see the reds. Moreover, the sun is probably already below the horizon; the atmosphere is just bending the light you’re seeing so that the sun looks higher than it really is.”

And that was it. The spell was broken. The romance was gone. Science had ruined everything.

Luckily, as I momentarily cursed my astronomy class, I heard the trill of a red-winged blackbird–a prayer bell, reminding me of the heavenly order and the call to a higher self. I could again simply be and solely enjoy being with Macy.

So, I have decided to never study biology. I need some things–like dogs who want to keep going and birds that sing–to remain a mystery.

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Learning about Stars and My A-Type Personality

I recently posted on Facebook, “You might be an A-Type personality if your personal happy space is exercising and taking a course for college credit.”  That status stemmed from the realization that sitting in Astronomy class, learning, is my personal happy space. That fact that my grade slipping to 97% motivated me to sign up for extra credit confirmed that I am indeed an A-Type personality. Our extra credit assignment requires us to reflect on our experience, so here I go…

The focus of the extra credit assignment was to pick a learning objective that interested us and create a project or presentation around that learning objective. I chose,

Outline the life of a low mass star like the Sun. Specifically…Explain the transition from main sequence to red giant. Specifically, explain what happens in the core and in the outer layers and why these changes occur.

I selected this outcome because I consistently failed to understand the sequence of changes and kept incorrectly answering questions concerning the life of low-mass stars. I really just wanted the practice in “getting it right,” and I think completing the extra credit  helped. My original frustration stemmed from my inability to remember whether the core of the star shrank and then the outer layers swelled or vice versa. My project involved creating a Thinglink, essentially an interactive picture about my topic.

In addition to reviewing my textbook several times, the very nature of the project helped me to learn that the core shrinks and then the star swells because gravity can no longer tightly pull in the star’s outer layers. Because I was on the internet looking at Open Educational Resources and science-related websites for pictures and illustrations to add to my project, I finally understood why. I found a couple sites that included the equation for the force of gravity along with the explanation of red giant stars. That’s when it finally sunk in why the star “expels” its outer layers, leaving the core behind. Once I recognized that the distance between the two parts was increased while the mass of the core had decreased, weakening the pull of gravity between them, I could remember the sequence of events.

What’s really amazing to me about this is that math came to my rescue. I would never have figured that understanding the math behind a concept would help me understand the concept itself. Heck, until recently, I never would have said that I could even understand the math.

Also, I think looking at the concepts in terms of teaching them to an audience really helped. I took the technique of creating a Life Map–a prewriting exercise I sometimes use with my writing students–and turned it into a presentation about a star’s life and death. I did my typical crafty thing of searching for supplies and finally chose colored paper as well as my paper cutters and punches to create the map. Using glitter to create a planetary nebula was an easy choice, but it took me a long time to decide how to make a protoplanetary disk that would show up on black paper and “look right.” Finally, I decided to try fingernail polish. With two different shades and one tiny piece of yellow paper, I managed to create something I was happy with. (Yeah for problem-solving skills!)

After I posted an early draft on Facebook, I realized I should have said somewhere on the picture “Images not to scale.” That realization not only recognizes that poor planning led to my protoplanetary disk being much too small, it also indicates that I understand the relative sizes of the objects I am trying to describe and the difficulty in actually representing them. (Yeah for learning!)

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You’ll Never See the World the Same Way Again

On the first day of my very first geology class, my instructor told us, “Once you’re finished with this course, you’ll never see the world the same way again.” And he was right.

Now, I can look at mountains and envision the folding process that made them. I can look at beautiful red sandstones and discern the path the wind took as it deposited the sand  composing them. I can pick up a landscaping rock and tell you that it is limestone, made from the remains of sea creatures who lived in warm waters. I can point out their fossils in that rock and name their kinds. I know from its rounded edges that it has spent time in a stream. Perhaps, that stream ran beneath glaciers 3 kilometers thick.

I do indeed see the world differently because I took geology classes. And a calculus class. And now an astronomy class. This past week, I learned to mark the moon’s phases, and it has again changed the way I see the world.

I leave work and walk to my car. Headed due east, I mark the hour, knowing the moon rises from that direction. I recall the phase of the moon and calculate its place in the sky at this time of night. “It was a waning gibbous two nights ago,” I tell myself, “so it must mean it will be a third quarter this evening.” And then I know the moon is still below my horizon.

As I do this, I am also reminded of Morgaine in Marian Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon. To her, the goddess and the moon were synonymous. As a priestess of Avalon, she wore a crescent shape on her forehead and learned the moon phases as part of her education. I am learning science, but I make connections to books read long ago.

Because our instructor showed us how Stephen Spielberg got the moon phases wrong** in  ET, I now find myself critiquing the moon’s presence in all of the popular culture.

As I write this post,  I am sitting at home on my bed. I look at my framed Mutt’s comic strip from 21 Nov. 2006. The little girl Doozy is hugging the chained-up Guard Dog.  In the upper right corner hangs a waxing crescent moon. I think it through in my head: “Since moon is low in the sky, it need to be shortly after moon rise at 9 a.m. or moon set at 9 p.m. Assuming it is night and Doozy has her parents’ permission to wish Guard Dog a happy Thanksgiving because it’s still fairly early, it could very well be sometime between 6 and 9 p.m. when a waxing crescent would hang low in the western sky.” I conclude that artist Patrick McDonnell has drawn his moon phase correctly.

So lately, I have been thinking that all teachers–from all disciplines, not just science–should make a promise to their students at the beginning of the term: “Once you’re finished with this course, you’ll never see the world the same way again.”

**I have decided that botching the night sky in a movie  must really annoy astrophysicists.  Neil deGrass Tyson complained about the incorrect star field director James Cameron used in Titanic until Cameron changed the stars in an updated version of the movie.

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The Flipped College: Metaphors

I have to admit that I don’t know if I’ve heard any metaphors used on a regular basis. I KNOW of a metaphor, however, that I’ve found incredibly fitting for a while now: a certain WTF jar that resides in the Science Department. The object of the jar is that every time one experiences a WTF moment at the college, we’re supposed to add money to the jar.

When a biology professor started the jar, we thought we would take the money collected and have some kind of party after awhile. I think we were hoping to discover some redemption amidst all of the insanity that kept happening around us. Unfortunately, more senseless decisions and events kept happening than we could keep up with. I personally owe the jar more cash than is currently in my savings account. I lost track a long time ago.

And that’s what faculty, staff, and many administrators do at LCC: Try to figure out WTF happened because so little makes sense. Sadly, many of us gave up putting money in the jar since we also gave up trying to make sense of things.

When I finally sorted out the cause of what was happening around me, I did reach one clear conclusion that I expressed as a metaphor on Facebook: It is impossible to build bridges when you’re asked to work with people who want to build kingdoms.

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No Excuses for Me

When I decided to “do the school thing” like my students do it, I never expected the adventure to extend to my computer. Then I accidentally stuck my SD card into my DVD drive, where the Game of Thrones already resided.

I turned the Dell so that the DVD slot faced toward the ground. No luck. I tried to eject the DVD. The resulting noise attracted the attention of my corgi-beagle mix, but the no DVD or SD card was forthcoming.  Attempting to at least quiet the noise, I tried rebooting the computer, and the computer balked at the process.

This is when I panicked. I needed the pictures on the SD card for teaching; I take photos of my students each semester to help me learn their names, and I hadn’t yet downloaded the shots. Plus, Netflix wanted their DVD back and I wanted to know what nastiness Joffrey would next perpetrate. Most importantly, I needed the computer itself to complete my Mastering Astronomy homework. I was required to log in that night and complete two assignments in the textbook publisher’s online course supplement. It was Sunday night, so my options were limited.

My 5-year-old Dell laptop was already “a little worse for wear” as they say. The “volume up” key has been missing for awhile. The battery barely holds a charge. The extended warranty has long expired. With a brand-new loan to pay for my brand new and badly needed roof, I really don’t have funds for computer repairs or a new computer. Still, I did not want to be one of those students with the “my computer isn’t working” excuse. I hear that one a lot because I teach writing where a computer is a necessity for composing and research. I decided to take my chances and rummaged through my toolbox until I found my precision screwdriver kit.

Unfortunately, my attempt to take apart my computer failed. As the panic deepened, I resorted to extreme measures. I used needle-nose pliers to pull apart the plastic housing near the DVD slot. Using my eyebrow tweezers, I managed to pull out Game of Thrones and then the SD card. The DVD is now scarred, but luckily the SD card still works.

In the end, I couldn’t get three of the tiny screws back into place. I can also add the lack of a DVD player as well as operational touchpad to the missing “volume up” key and weary battery. I have to use my external mouse if I want to use the computer, but things are (more or less) staying together. The top cover and keyboard must regularly be popped back into place. And while I still need to find some snippers to complete some cosmetic work, I can connect to the internet and do homework.


Sadly, when I went to use the tweezers for my own cosmetic purposes, they no longer could do their job. Like many of my students in tough financial positions though, I’ll accept the $3.99 expense over the $200-plus expense any day.

However, while I relate to my students’ computer issues better now, I also better understand the adage, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

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The First Week of Class Is Always Interesting

Wednesday was the second day of Astronomy class. My instructor put us in pairs and gave us an envelope containing six slips of paper. On each little paper was a description of one cognitive skill level in Bloom’s Taxonomy. Our assigned task was to put them in order from easiest to hardest.

I have a Master’s in Adult and Higher Education and could easily put a name to each description: Knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation. I could also easily put them in order of easiest (memorization of facts and such) to the most difficult. My brain reviewed the debate about whether analysis, synthesis, or evaluation is more difficult and eventually considered the claim that each is equally difficult.

Still I played along. I was a good student and actually thought about the process of learning and critical thinking. And all of this led me to ask, carefully observe, and finally discern: What particular lesson was my instructor trying to teach when it came to learning?

When she explained Bloom’s taxonomy, she also explained her teaching philosophy–letting the students know why she wasn’t lecturing and why she was requiring us to read our books and gain the knowledge outside of class. In-class time is for confirming our comprehension and applying the knowledge–sometimes it might even be for evaluating viewpoints about that knowledge.

In short, we were being told that the instructional methods were for our own good. More importantly, we were being told that college students should take responsibility for the lowest level of learning. Knowledge, after all, is at our fingertips in in the 21st century; when we are adults, we should be responsible and capable enough to take on the hard facts for ourselves. For the rest, the cognitive skills that require increasing levels of critical thought, we must acknowledge the need for social interaction.

Later in class, we were put in groups and provided with markers and a two-meter strip of paper, which represented the cosmic timeline. The green tape sticking the paper’s left side to the wall represented the Big Bang; the orange tape on the right represented the present day. In groups, our job was to correctly mark the approximate dates for the formation of galaxies, the creation of our solar system, and the extinction of the dinosaurs.

And that’s why I like being a teacher and a student simultaneously. I love seeing how good teachers can combine learning theory with same simple tools–like strips of paper–to engage us with course content as well as to guide us to become lifelong learners.

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What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

I think most people would say that I’m having a mid-life crisis. Over the past two years, I divorced my husband who is also my colleague, landed in the trauma room at the local hospital, nearly burnt out professionally, and adopted a cat.

And I suppose that since all of this occurred around my fiftieth year, it may well deserve to be called a mid-life crisis.  After all, I’ve had to spend the last two years really exploring who I am and what I want to be—and I spent a lot of time in therapy trying to figure that out.

The odd thing is that I am already pretty much who I want to be. I love to write and to teach, and I get to teach writing at Lansing Community College. I also love to talk about writing and talk about teaching, which are both a big part of my job. I can’t think of anyway else I would rather earn a living.

But what I’ve learned for sure over the past two years is that I would never have been a writing teacher if the majority of my math teachers could have actually helped me learn math. I probably would be some kind of scientist. I’ve now watched every episode of PBS Nova that is available online at least twice. Since Cosmos hit Netflix, I’ve watched every episode at least three times. I’ve watched the first one alone seven times because I am absolutely fascinated by how the writers make the case for science itself. I always loved science classes; I just couldn’t do the math I needed to take them.

It probably has to do with my age. I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s when we were still actively shaming women away from math and science. In the 1990s though, I went to graduate school in Bozeman, MT and fell in love with geology of Yellowstone and geology in general. About four years ago, I finally got around to taking a real physical geology class. Then I took historical geology, and I began toying with the idea of a second bachelor’s in Earth Science just for the heck of it.

So, I bravely dove in where the worst math teacher in the world left me 32 years ago: Pre-Calculus.  I audited Pre-Calc I, survived, and figured I could go on. Based my own students’ recommendations, I took Pre-Calc II with the phenomenal Kay Barks and received my very first 4.0 in a math class.  I squeezed out a 2.0 on my first trip through Calculus but managed a 3.5 the second time.

Of course, all of that was before, I got divorced, sick, and burnt out. And the one thing that I want to do for myself after all of this time and soul searching? Learn. Slowly go back to school, one class at a time. Finish my math and science prerequisites at LCC and move on to my geology classes at Michigan State University. I figure when I’m ready to retire, I will have finished that bachelor’s degree in Earth Science.

Then I can spend my retirement getting a PhD in something to do with rocks. Hopefully volcanoes.

In the meantime though, if I really want to learn, I want to do it like my students have to do it. No shortcuts because I’m already a professor.  And that’s fine because I want to know who I am as a learner in order to better understand who I am as a teacher.

With all of that in mind, I’ve set rules down for myself: I need to work full time just like so many of my students do. I have to buy my own books. I have to set an educational plan for myself and follow it. And I have to reflect (right here) on this long, strange trip that I’ve started.

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