The Truth about Community College




I have been teaching at a community college since the mid-1980’s, and I have watched a lot of students come and go, graduate and drop out; however, community colleges have become a major focus of education discussions since the advent of the “Complete College America” campaign. While I certainly agree that students are better off if they finish college rather than starting and not finishing, but it’s critical to think about why students come to college and why they should.

Community colleges are, generally, hybrid institutions, providing both the first two years of a four-year education and skill -based, technical certificates and degrees, including but not limited to welding, nursing, dental hygiene or culinary arts. This dual role often creates a certain kind of tension in these colleges, a tension that is often healthy, but also sometimes difficult.

Many of the students coming to community college are first generation college students. They come from families where their parents have encouraged them to go to college, but who have little idea what that means except that their children will get better jobs with a degree, and it is statistically true that those with degrees do better than those that do not .

However, the picture is more complicated than that and we are doing our students a disservice if we do not squarely face the truth that for many fields a two-year degree is worthless. A two-year degree in English, Psychology, History or Economics, for example, will not get someone a job in those fields. These fields require not only a BA but more than likely a Ph.D. Our students, in general, are naïve about how much education they will need to succeed in these fields. In general, this kind of education is out of reach for our students because of cost, but also because they have no experience making long term plans that this kind of education requires. I talked with a student recently who wanted to complete a two-year degree in English. She works as a cake decorator at Wal-Mart. A two-year degree in English will insure that she continues to be a cake decorator. If she wants the two year degree because she enjoys English classes, that is fine, but she should be under no illusion that she will get an English job. Her degree will be for her own pleasure, but that really is all.

On the other hand, if a student thinks that she will get a useful degree in two years, she needs to think about a technical degree. Even here, however, it may well take more than two years. For example, an Associate Degree in Nursing usually requires two years of prerequisites before beginning the two-year nursing degree.

A few days ago, I asked some of my students why they were in college. One of them said that her parents had told her and her sister to go to college because the parents had not done so. I asked her if she had a goal for her education. She told me she did not. I told her that she might as well be working at McDonalds if she had no idea why she was in school. (This is a student who has missed more than two weeks of class. She is clearly not invested in education.) Coming to college without any sense of why one is there is a waste of the student’s time and money and a waste of teachers’ time.

Community college is not a magic ticket to success. All degrees are not created equal. We need to stop pushing college to all students. We need to demonstrate to prospective college students that they need to plan beyond the abstraction of “I am going to college”. Parents with no college education need to be helped to understand that their children will not do well in college unless they have some understanding of what college means and doesn’t mean.   There may well be students for whom working at McDonalds is a better choice.




A Commute



bike to school

Maybe Alone on My Bike

I listen, and the mountain lakes
hear snowflakes come on those winter wings
only the owls are awake to see,
their radar gaze and furred ears
alert. In that stillness a meaning shakes;

And I have thought (maybe alone
on my bike, quaintly on a cold
evening pedaling home) think! –
the splendor of our life, its current known
as those mountains, the scene no one sees.

Oh citizens of our great amnesty:
we might have died. We lived. Marvels
coast by, great veers and swoops of air
so bright the lamps waver in tears,
and I hear in the chain a chuckle I like to hear.

- William Stafford, 1964

Most mornings I phone my brother on my way to work. He lives near Bellingham, Washington and works in British Columbia. His commute is crowded and long. For an hour he winds along the cold waters of the Northwest’s rocky coastline on the way to the giant bridge he is building. I drive just three short miles to campus following the snowy peaks of the Bighorns through town. Our conversations are brief, even perfunctory: we check in with each other, sip coffee, and prepare for our work day. It’s a ritual that right now is as important to me as my morning caffeine.

But this week my commute changed: I phoned Mathers from my bicycle. Spring weather in Wyoming is by definition variable; yesterday it was nearly seventy degrees – today my son’s soccer games were canceled because of snow. But my favorite spring transition is when the bikes come out of the garage. My brother had all kinds of questions about my spring commute: How far is it? Three miles – I can make it in 15 minutes if I hustle. What about the traffic? Our little town has big trail aspirations; I can ride nearly all the way to campus on the community pathway system. What’s the trail like? Quiet, I tell him. I see Canadian Geese and pronghorn and cattle and urban chickens. I pass my neighbors and their dogs. I see my running friends and the same sweet couple on their walk every morning. When can I move there, he asks.

Yesterday I got my boys up early and biked them to school. We rode through alleys to avoid the busy street that is the most direct route to their neighborhood elementary school. Luca flashed his toothy devil grin – he loved going to school the “secret way.” Frank jabbered and peddled circles around both of us. Most mornings we are the picture of modern busyness, shouting at each other and rushing out the door at the last minute. But this was a magical twenty minutes; we had so much fun just getting to school.

Our daily commutes are a necessary evil. My brother tolerates the miles between his home and his beloved job. The drive is made bearable by technology – he has guaranteed time to connect with family. I don’t think much about my commute; when I’m in my car it’s too short. But sometimes the best part of my day is my bike ride to and from school. In the morning it’s cold. I wear gloves and my down jacket. By evening I need to stow my puffy in the panniers next to my computer and textbooks. Sometimes I push earbuds under my helmet and listen to the news or loud, nostalgic music. Other days I listen to the silence and the woosh of the creek as I cruise by. It is twenty minutes of concentrated effort with a clear result. I don’t feel tired or taxed, but I do feel strong, energized, and somehow clearer. I do not feel like there is something else I should be doing. I don’t worry about the papers I need to grade or the laundry. I feel like I’ve found stolen time.

- Sarah


Teaching…. It’s so much more than the classroom



Several years ago our college began an enormous renovation project that included creating new offices for the English teachers and new space for the Writing Center. The English faculty contributed ideas for these renovations. We asked that the Writing Center be the center of the English department. Our offices open onto the Center, which is, itself, a comfortable place with tables, couches, and lots of light. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I get to school sometime between 9:30 and 10:00 and invariably I find that one of student tutors, T., is engaged in a serious conversation with another student, Z, who likes to hang out in the Center. They often turn to me as I walk in with a kind of “what do you think?” question. These conversations range from politics to religion to social conundrums. T. is insatiably curious and asks me things like “Can you explain the situation in Crimea?” or “What is NATO?” or “What do you think about Gloria Steinem?” These questions invariably lead to rich and dense conversations before I have even had time to open my own office door. Because I know T. will ask some question that will test me, I have to make sure that I keep up with what is happening in Crimea, for example. I love it.

Not all our students are as engaged and as thoughtful as T. In fact, many of our students are apathetic or unengaged. Others are driven only by grades so that they will need to enter the nursing or dental hygiene program. However, T. struggles with the bigger questions. He is deeply serious about being a musician. T. is nineteen, and I see him engaging in the kind of thought that makes our live rich and deep. His questions are the questions that I think help make us human.

Z. usually hangs out in the Center as well, and he, too, is part of these conversations. I am not the only faculty member who is part of this engagement. When I finally make to my office, and am spending time preparing for a class, I hear conversations about Libertarian thought. These young men can’t figure out why anyone cares about who one marries, or why anyone would want to restrict access to birth control. They are passionate and caring. We recently had a conversation about Christopher McCandless ( of Into the Wild fame) in which T. expressed admiration for someone who could throw off the constraints of his culture, while Z said he could not abandon in family in the way that McCandless did, but we talked about the romance of McCandless’ journey, and what this journey says about the opportunities (or lack of opportunities) for young people, especially young men to challenge themselves physically and mentally.

What I see in these young men is an unwillingness to settle for the easy life, or to settle for the conventional ideas about success. They both are readers. They each always have a book that is not required for a class in their hands or on the table, and they are both always happy to talk about these books.

I love being part of these conversations. I cherish this time with these guys, knowing that they will both be moving on to a four-year school in not too long. I hope that they continue to question, continue to weigh ideas the way they have in our Writing Center moments.



Spring Fever


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2014-03-08 12.11.07

Melting snow in the Big Horns

It’s spring, and despite the snow and cold wind, I can taste summer. I can hear the birds’ arrival, and I can see signs of spring in the baby bunnies outside my office window, fawns grazing at the side of the road, and green-tinged tree buds scratching at the glass as the wind blows. I feel a deep restlessness in me as well. I don’t want to wear my jacket or long sleeve shirts. I’m tired of wearing tights and thick pants. I want to go play. I want to be outside hiking, biking, breathing the mountain air. I don’t want to grade papers or discussion posts. I don’t want to answer student emails. I want to be done with the semester already. But despite these feelings, a sense of duty drags me out of bed, gets me to work, and helps me complete my to do list.

On top of having spring fever, next semester I will be on sabbatical working on a writing project, so I’m having an extra hard time getting anything done. I describe it to my colleagues as having senoritis: that feeling of new adventures beginning and old ones ending and the feeling that “now” doesn’t matter much. My fingers itch to write, and my brain is consumed by other projects unrelated to grading and teaching English.

I know I’m not alone in this feeling. It’s this time in the semester when my students stop turning in work, or they turn in sloppy work. It’s also that time of year when we’re all weary…weary of winter and weary of routine. Often, some students will disappear. They may resurface at the end of April suddenly aware that they have to pass the class. Hopefully it won’t be too many, and hopefully it won’t be too late. I remember having these feelings as a college student. I would resist them when I could, but sometimes I skipped class to spend time outside or to simply sleep.

As an instructor, it’s more difficult to skip class. I could take a personal day here and there, but often, they’re accompanied with guilt, and there are still emails to answer and grading nagging in the back of my mind. That carefree irresponsibility I felt as a student no longer exists. Perhaps I’ll experience some of that on sabbatical, but I really don’t know.

I’m not sure what to expect on sabbatical. I’ll have a project to complete, so I’ll keep a schedule, but there won’t be anyone around to make sure I’m producing my self-assigned number of pages. It will be a different type of work…a different focus for me, and I’m excited. I’m also a little bit worried–especially with how I feel right now. What if I just don’t do it? What if I can’t do it? What if all this time I have been working hard to convince others to pay me to write, and then I just can’t produce?

Are these fears that my students experience? Is this perhaps why they don’t do the work or the reason they procrastinate? I suspect this is part of it. I also suspect there are other mitigating circumstances that I’ll never know or perhaps understand. This is why I get so upset with Complete College America. I want my students to succeed, but I also want them to work hard at it. A degree should be earned, not given. I want students to complete college, and I believe our society is better off if our citizens have an education. But what bothers me most is that legislators wants to tie our funding to how many students finish a degree. This puts the responsibility of learning squarely on teachers’ shoulders, not on the students’. This is the problem.

I can give my students every opportunity to learn: provide them resources, spend hours responding to their essays, spend time talking them through the assignments, and provide feedback on every missed quiz question or misleading discussion post. However, if the students do not do the reading, don’t show up for class, don’t access the resources, or don’t do the work, they will never learn. And this is what the completion agenda does not address.

I can only do so much to motivate my students. In the end, they have to drag themselves out of bed when they have spring fever. They have to talk themselves into doing the work even when they don’t feel like it. They have to decide to make education a priority in their lives, and they have to decide to stick to it and to do everything they can to learn. I can’t do it for them.

So, dear students, I know how you feel, but together, we need to hang on and get it done because come summer, we can either have a sense of accomplishment or disappointment. The choice is yours.

~ K

Re-reading: Back Into the Wild


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The Stampede Trail circa 1993
Photo: Diana Saverin, Outside Magazine

Recommended reading: The Chris McCandless Obsession Problem

Like Jane, I spent much of my Spring Break with my nose buried in a book.  I was lucky: my reading was interrupted by Costa Rican waves and cappuccino monkeys.  By March, my students and I always need some sunshine and some time away from the classroom, so I rarely assign significant course work over Spring Break.  But this year, I asked my Outdoor Lit students to read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.

I was surprised that more of my students hadn’t already read Krakauer’s 1996 non-fiction account of 24 year-old Chris McCandless’ Alaskan odyssey.  I read Into the Wild for the first time while I was working for an outfitting company in Florida in the late 90s.  My twenty-something male colleagues were rock climbers and beach bums obsessed with the free spirited and careless character portrayed by Krakauer as a sort of latter day beatnik.  I shrugged off work and hunkered down in the back of the store to read about McCandless’ mysterious life and eventual death.  The story haunted me.  The rock-wall boys welcomed me to their speculative discussions fueled by Krakauer’s masterful storytelling.  We talked about McCandless incessantly.

Outside Magazine calls McCandless “Alaska’s most famous adventure casualty.” Chris’ story is compelling: after earning a degree at Emory University in 1990, Chris McCandless donated his life savings to OXFAM and set out to tramp around the US.  In April of 1992, McCandless, now calling himself Alexander Supertramp, walked into the Alaska backcountry via the Stampede Trail.  After 113 days of living on squirrels, porcupine, and edible plants, Chris climbed into the hollow city bus that was his basecamp and succumbed to starvation.  His misadventure quickly became misunderstood legend.  The New York Times and People magazine reported the story and then Outside published Krakauer’s lengthy investigation.  In letters to Krakauer, Alaskans castigated McCandless immediately: many had “no sympathy for him. Such willful ignorance . . . amounts to disrespect for the land…just another case of [an] underprepared, overconfident [man] bumbling around out there and screwing up because [he] lacked the requisite humility.” But disenchanted, young people the world over found a hero in Chris McCandless.

Many are still obsessed.  Bus 142, the retired city bus that McCandless died in, still sits along the Stampede Trail.  It still contains some of Chris’ belongings and countless “McCandless pilgrims” contribute items to the growing shrine.  And people are still dying along the Stampede Trail.  Alaska troopers report rescuing pilgrims on regular basis.  Over the years since Chris’ death, they have also recovered the bodies of many pilgrims.  Some are experienced mountaineers; others want to emulate McCandless’ purposeful under-preparedness.

And I am again talking incessantly about Chris McCandless.  My students seem to have visceral and immediate reactions to the book.  They either hate Chris for his recklessness or are inspired by his ability make life happen.  But in both cases they are compelled by his story.  They began our discussion yesterday with the same verve I remember from the back of the outdoor store 15 years ago.  I wonder what makes McCandless so hard to forget.  Do we identify with his need to throw off all convention and live by chance?  Did he do what scares us most?  Are we struck by the mystery of his death (Krakauer is still writing about the actual cause some twenty years later)?  Or do we take strange comfort in knowing we’d never take such risks, be so unprepared?

Something is stilling driving people in to the wild near Fairbanks.  Something is still driving Karkauer’s need for understanding.  And something keeps driving me back to this book.  It seems possible that it is the conversation that the McCandless story demands.  Krakauer says that book forced him to tackle bigger issues: the American obsession with wilderness, the seemingly inherent risk-taking behavior of young men, and even the volatile relationships present in many families.  I think it is these big ideas that keep bringing me back to this wild story.


Beach Reading?


It’s spring break, and once again, I am in Florida. Today I am sitting inside allowing the sunburn I got yesterday to cool down a bit. It rained earlier this afternoon and now the air is damp, but because it’s not too hot, the dampness is a pleasant change from cold and snow. So, you’d think that I would be enjoying beach books, right? While I have my share of those, which for me means mystery stories, I find that I am most absorbed in a book recommended by a colleague, Germania, by the British author, Simon Winder. He writes in a chatty and personable way about the history of the part of Europe that eventually became Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, and other countries.  I am learning more about the history of that area than I ever knew before. We all have, I think, a kind of rudimentary knowledge of Germany uniting under Bismarck, of the disaster of WWI, and Hitler’s rise, but I suspect that most Americans have little understanding of what happened in that part of Europe before that.

If my experience is anything to go by, school children in the United States tend to get history as it pertains to the American continents.  We get a little, not much, about the pre-Columbian period, but then the narrative picks up with Columbus, and we get a pretty straight trajectory from him to George Washington and the founding of the Republic. If my students are anything to go by, most high school students barely make it to WWII, leaving large chunks of significant modern history waiting for some college class or simply just blank spots on the time line, unless, of course one had a grandfather who fought in Vietnam. In general, we don’t get much detailed history of Europe, unless it connects to some event in our own history, the Louisiana, Purchase, for example, or buying Alaska from Russia. Since what would become Germany and those other inland countries of Europe do not impinge greatly on the story of the development of the United States, their history is neglected by our schools.  However, Simon Winder remedies this deficiency well.

Winder’s approach is personal. He takes readers to his favorite towns, and his favorite little local museums. He describes displays of Ottoman armor and, in the process, helps readers understand the importance of the Ottoman Empire, and its power and dominance over certain parts of Europe. This, for me, anyway, helps me understand more clearly the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s.  Without the historical context, it all seems pretty inexplicable. I had also no  idea that Catherine the Great of Russia began her life as a minor German princess named Sophie Augusta Frederica of Anholt-Zerbst. While this doesn’t do me any practical good, I suppose, it makes that terrifying monarch more human, and someone who, although her marriage was just one of many used to cement political alliances, used her own intelligence to gain power.

There are times when reading this book feels like a wonderful little trip to someone’s extraordinary attic, where in one box we find one of Napoleon’s hats and in another, we find a collection of songbirds’ eggs, but Winder gives us the equivalent of useful and educational labels for each item.  I downloaded this book to my Kindle on a whim, not thinking it would be “beach reading,” but it is fascinating and great fun to read. It’s taken me to places I wouldn’t have ordinarily have gone, and isn’t that what vacation is supposed to be about?



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ViolinThe Olympics are over, and true to form, they were surrounded by controversy: stray dogs, hotel issues, judging bias, and more. But there were still plenty of Olympic moments that can teach us life lessons.

One Olympic moment that resonated with me was Jason Brown‘s figure skating performances. The skating world wanted him to repeat his amazing U.S. Championship performance, and they hoped he would win a medal. But that wasn’t his goal. He simply wanted to skate well and to have fun. The look on his face when he placed 9th was priceless: he smiled and his coach hugged him. He was so happy–not to win a medal, but to PLACE in the top 10! Some critics in the skating community were disappointed. He wasn’t; nor was I. No, his performances were not the performances of a lifetime, and that’s what resonated with me. He made mistakes, but he was still happy with how he skated and he sill skated beautifully. He went out there and had fun!

We tell children to have fun when they’re playing sports. My mother told me that all the time. Somewhere along the line, I forgot that lesson. Instead, I worry about making mistakes and looking stupid. This is especially true playing a musical instrument.

I have been playing violin since I was four years old…well, until I switched to viola when I was 17. From there, viola became my go-to instrument for classical music. My violin became my “fiddle” and came out when I showed off my Swedish folk music. On viola, I have played in several symphony orchestras: amateur and professional. On violin, my symphony playing ended in college in Tucson, AZ when college work got to be too busy to continue playing. I picked it up again in Cheyenne several years ago, but I continued to play viola through graduate school and beyond.

Last fall I got a surprising call from Powder River Symphony. They were in desperate need for a violinist, not a violist. The repertoire included songs I had played, so I said yes. I soon realized I was a bit over my head. I had played those pieces, but that was in high school and some of them I had played on viola. But I was committed to playing the concert.

I practiced. I was ready.

The concert came, I walked on stage, saw that large audience and froze. My fingers were stiff. I could barely play one note.

Somehow I managed to get through, and amazingly enough, the director asked me to come back!

I did.

The same thing happened. I froze.

I thought I had put those demons to rest. The demons that continually repeated, “You suck! You can’t play this! Those people are watching you and wondering why they’re paying you to play!” They were loud and clear, and those voices affected my fingers.

Again, after the concert, the conductor asked me to return.

As I smiled and nodded, my mind screamed, “Seriously!? Didn’t you see how much I sucked!?”

The next concert was Feb. 23rd. I practiced more and more…my fingers were black from practicing.

My black fingers from practicing.

My black fingers from practicing.

I was scared to death. That fear drove me to practice, so it was a good thing. But something else happened.

The Olympics.

And this appeared on Facebook from Sarah:

Suddenly, I saw these two mindsets everywhere: my students, my co-workers, athletes, and especially, the Olympians. In particular, I recognized that Jason Brown was coming from a “growth mindset.”

I recognized that I was behaving in a “fixed mindset” rather than a “growth mindset.” That little diagram changed everything. I realized that I had a choice: I could approach this concert with continued fear or I could learn from it. I decided to learn from it.

I went to rehearsals with the idea to learn from my mistakes–not to worry about making them. It amazed me at how quickly I learned.

The concert date arrived and I breathed, thinking of Jason Brown. My mind settled in and instead of the demons, I heard the music in my mind as I played. The audience disappeared. My fingers relaxed. I played, and I played well. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good, and it was better than the rehearsals.

All in all, I have learned to quiet those demons again.


On Snow


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spring snowIt’s snowing again in Sheridan.  We’ve entered that crazy time of year when the sun shines for a few hours and the pavement heats up enough to drain our driveways.  And then the wind shifts and the skies open again.  It’s not the snow that gets old – it’s the constant need to temper our expectations.  We won’t be clear of winter weather until April, maybe even May.  We know this, but we grumble. Maybe we forget how much fun we can have in the snow.

A million years ago I went to a college costume party dressed as snow. We made our outfits from recyclables and Salvation Army castoffs: I glued tinfoil snowflakes to a dress made from old sheets, weaved tinsel in my hair, and teetered around on white platform sandals.  But the best part of the costume was explaining it to the other party goers: nothing is more popular in a college ski town than snow.  I’d tell people about my get-up and they’d holler and laugh and bow down.  “Pray for snow” they yelled, “bring it on!”

student snow boardFast forward a few years and I’m still spending my days with college kids.  The view is pretty different from the other side of the podium.  I’m sure my students are more interested in planning their weekends and their costume parties than they are in composition class.  As an instructor, I may take myself too seriously on occasion.  I get pretty excited about obscure short stories.  So I was a little skeptical when I climbed on board a college bus at 5:30 a.m. last Saturday.

Our new Outdoor Adventure Club organized a trip to a nearby ski area.  They filled the bus with eager skiers – I was one of two ‘grown-ups’ along for the ride.  I helped my colleague count heads and load equipment before sunrise.  The three hour trek to Montana was quiet – somehow all the students slept through the grown-ups’ chatter.students ski

I’m not sure what I expected out of this trip, but it was a surprising Saturday.  I agreed to go because I love to ski and right now my ski days are mostly slow and parental.  I jumped at this opportunity to ski like a college kid again.  But the chance to spend the day with my students and play in the snow was unexpectedly refreshing.  Students with whom I’ve struggled in the classroom were comfortable and confident on the ski hill.  We traded war stories and planned runs together on the lift.  In more than one case, they became the experts, teaching me about faster runs and ski racing drills.  It’s impossible to take yourself too seriously when there is the potential to be head down in the snow.  I had fun, and I gained valuable insight about the student-teacher dynamic.  One of the privileges of teaching at a community college is that our students are adults.  Faculty can cultivate adult relationships and make connections.  Sometimes that happens in the classroom or in the Writing Center, but it might be easier outside.  And at least in this case, a whole lot more fun in the snow.  Bring it on!

Of Wolves and Students




It seems to me that some students come to community colleges because they can get a solid two years of college work before they transfer to a four-year school. These are not the students we have to worry about. These students will go on. They will complete four-year degrees and in many cases, they will go on for further education. The students that community colleges need to worry about are the students who come to us with poor skills and poor motivation. Someone has told them repeatedly that going to college will mean a huge difference in the amount of money they will make in their lifetimes, but those people have not connected “going to college” with specific skills or degrees, and so many of these students have only the vaguest idea of what to expect in college and what will be expected of them.

About 50% of students entering community colleges place below college level on tests in reading, writing and math, and conventionally this means that they have to take classes that do not have college credit in order to improve those skills.  What this often means is that students look at the English or the math class and think it is just “another English class,” or “just another math class” and remember that they weren’t very good at these in high school, and it begins to feel like a bit of nightmare. They have been there before, and it wasn’t fun the first time, so why will it be different this time?  Once that attitude sets in, students start missing class and forgetting homework and falling back on all their bad habits, and failure is guaranteed.

However, it seems to me that interdisciplinary classes that engage students in an interesting and compelling subject, where the English (writing) is all connected to the subject have a better chance of creating engagement than something that seems like “the same old, same old. Wolves are a great topic for this because everyone in the West has an opinion about wolves ranging from the hyper-Romantic to the exterminators.  I figured it was worth a try, and with the help of my co-teacher, a wild-life biologist, I set about to create a course that would give students credit in English and credit in political science, but do it in an unconventional way.

We have been meeting for three weeks. We have eleven students in the class. We meet for three hours a day, two days a week. We have had not absentees in three weeks. This alone tells me we are on to something. Because it is an experimental class, my co-teacher and I are constantly revising the course outline, but we are developing some consistent moments in the class. For example, we begin with “the image of the day” that can be everything from a Disney “big, bad wolf” to a Romanticized wolf. The students write for fifteen minutes on this image and then we move on to whatever we are doing for the rest of the class.  We have taught them how to read a scientific paper, we have looked at maps, and we have seen videos by wolf biologists from Slovenia. We have discussed evolution and ecological niches.

For writing assignments, our students have had to write a story in which the wolf was either a bad guy or a good guy, they will write book reviews and do a big research project. Students are already giving me ideas that they would like to research. They will write evaluations of guest speakers and they will write evaluations of the course itself.

While we have only been at this for one fifth of the semester, I have rarely seen a more engaged group of students in our community college. They come from all different backgrounds, and yet, they come to class, they listen to each other and they have things to say.

I think that the potential for other interdisciplinary courses in enormous. I suspect that the more college is not “the same ole, same ole,” the more students will engage and learn. Once we hook them on learning, then they are on their way.


Speed Bumps and Road Blocks


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speedBumpYesterday I was filling out a medical form for a massage through the Massage Therapy Program, and I had to list past surgeries. Quickly, I listed two knee surgeries and bariatric surgery, and continued with the form.

The student therapist led me to her space and proceeded with the massage. We were half way through when she asked me about a scar I have near my shoulder: “Does that hurt if I rub on your scar?” It didn’t, but I was suddenly reminded of the lumpectomy, the removal of six lymph nodes, and the placement of a port for chemotherapy administration—all surgeries I had forgotten to mention on the form.

As I lay there, I wondered how I had forgotten—cancer was a major event in my life. During chemo, I tried to see it as a hiccup in my life—a speed bump, but it felt like a total disruption. It felt more like a road block. It took strength to get through the days, and there were some difficult days, and I remember the difficult days: the pain, the fatigue, the bad dreams, the terror of having cancer return. These were days when I wanted to give up.

Now, as I think back, it was a speed bump, and it did exactly what a speed bump is designed for: it slowed me down. It forced me to look at my health and make some changes. In the end, the experience impacted me more positively than negatively, and it’s those positive experiences I remember most.

I remember the people who rallied around me at work and helped me get through the tough days by letting me cry on their shoulder.

I remember my husband who held my hand during every treatment and held me close when I needed comfort.

I remember my family who called regularly to check on me and encourage me to keep fighting.

billboardI remember the community that rallied around me, helping with fundraising and wanting my image for the Sheridan Memorial billboard.

I remember the support group that listened when all I could feel was self-pity.

I remember the nurses and the support staff at the Welch Cancer Center who saw me at my worst and still smiled, welcomed me, and treated me not as a patient, but as a human being.

Jennifer helped me get through chemo

Jennifer helped me get through chemo

All of these people, and those I have met since, are the real heroes, not me. I might have survived without those people, but not with grace, and certainly not with the positive experiences I have left in my heart after that little speed bump.

Incidentally, today is World Cancer Day. The purpose of World Cancer Day is to raise awareness of the facts of cancer and to dispel the myths. On a personal note, I would also like to encourage you to hug a survivor today. You make the difference in a cancer survivor’s life.

~ Keri


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