education, teaching

The first day of the semester

I recently added a Teaching page to my website, and in the coming months I’ll be populating it with links to blog posts related to teaching. I figured, where better to start than the first day of class? Here is how I handle it:

The First Day of Class

Opening class

The first day of class can be boring, so I try to open in an unexpected way to get them paying attention. I begin by asking, “What do you think we’re going to do today?”  Usually someone says, “Go over the syllabus?” I say, “Yep!” and then write “Syllabus” on the board. Then I ask, “What else?” Usually someone else says, “Introductions?” I say something about how great they’re doing already, then write “Introductions” on the board.

I tell them that every day, I’ll write an agenda on the board like this one that lists what we’re going to do in class. I say that I like to consider their input on things when I can, and ask “Which of these do you want to do first–syllabus or introductions?” Usually they pick introductions (but not always!). If the room allows it, I then ask them to move their desks into a big circle, where we stay for the remainder of the class.

What’s on the board will look more or less like this:

  1. Introductions
  2. Syllabus

Introductions

I write a numbered list on the board from 1-5. Next to number one, I write “preferred name + pronouns.” Next to number two, I write “year + major.” I turn back to the class and say, what else do you want to know about each other?

Students will often name things they’ve probably had to share in other courses, saying “where they’re from?,” “why they took this class?,” or “what their hobbies are?” (Yes, most of what students say at this early point sounds like questions–I don’t think they’re used to having a say in the class from the first moment.)

I write what they say on the board. Usually, by number five, we’ve gotten a less common one in there, often a “favorite” of some type. I know doing introductions this way takes more time, but students tend to seem more engaged when I do it like this, and there’s usually a playful, comfortable air in the room by this point.

What’s on the board will look something like this:

  1. preferred name + pronouns
  2. year + major
  3. where you’re from
  4. hobbies
  5. favorite food

I clarify what I mean by preferred name: “I’ve noticed that every semester, a few weeks in, after students get to know me and feel more comfortable, a few in every class will mention that they actually go by a name that’s different than what’s in Canvas. Whether it’s a nickname or a middle name or they plan on legally changing their name, they do not want to be called what’s listed, but they didn’t feel comfortable saying it on the first day. Well, I want you to share the name you prefer on the first day! We are going to have group discussions and interactive class exercises regularly. I want to learn all of your names, and I want all of you to learn each other’s names, and it’s important that we learn the names you actually like and use.”

Off to the side of the list on the board, I write “she/her/hers,” “he/him/his,” “they/them/theirs.” I say something along the lines of, “Most people use one of these three sets of pronouns, but some people use other pronouns I haven’t listed. We might be tempted to think that we can tell if someone uses ‘he’ or ‘she’ just by looking at them, but if our guess is wrong, they might find it hurtful or offensive. When we do introductions, I’d like you to share which pronouns you want us to use for you in class, if you feel comfortable doing so. This will allow us to treat each other respectfully, and our class is welcoming to everyone.”

(I’ve had students share their pronouns three semesters in a row now, and I’ve tweaked the way I introduce it a little bit every time. Recently, I came across this site about pronouns, which could be useful if you’re deciding if/why/how to broach the subject in your course.)

In my professional communication courses, I usually add a little more about pronouns in the workplace. I reiterate that the purpose of the course is to prepare them to communicate effectively in a professional setting, and that they don’t want to get off on the wrong foot by accidentally offending someone after starting a new job by incorrectly assuming their pronouns.

After explaining what I mean by preferred name and pronouns, I sit down and say, “I’ll go first. I’m Jay Summer, and I like for my students to call me Jay. If that feels too casual for you, call me Ms. Summer. I use she/her pronouns. This is my fifth year teaching at USF. I am a Visiting Instructor. Before that, I was a graduate student here. I hold a BS in psychology, and masters degrees in urban planning and creative writing. I’m from Chicagoland. My hobbies are reading and writing. I like food too much to choose a favorite, but I especially love Thai and Indian food.”

Then, we go around the circle, with each person introducing themselves. I try to give introductions a conversational feel by occasionally interrupting to ask questions (“You’re from Brazil? What made you decide to come here? What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed between home and the US?”) and to draw connections among students (“Well, three people have named tacos as their favorite food, so maybe you should start a study group where you go out to eat together”). I know it’s sort of hokey, but I think it helps make the overall atmosphere more comfortable instead of stilted. After a few introductions with me asking questions, other students will usually begin chiming in here and there as they recognize commonalities (“I’m from Orlando, too–what high school did you go to?”), and I will smile with glee because organic conversations are happening on the first day.

Syllabus: Policies

I pass out hard copies of the syllabus and note that the syllabus is also in Canvas. I begin by saying, “I know going over a syllabus can be boring, but we have to do it. Hopefully this is the most boring our class will be all semester. We’ll skim most of the syllabus instead of reading it word-for-word, but I encourage you to read all of it on your own.”

I go through the syllabus section by section, spending only a few seconds on some sections, and minutes on others. I try to speak conversationally rather than just read in a dry manner. I emphasize policies and school resources, and only briefly overview course content. The students will encounter the course content week after week, but the policies are what might slip by them, and what they’re most likely to argue about later.

There are two policies that I think are extremely important to emphasize on the first day and repeat in subsequent classes: the attendance/tardiness policy and the late work policy. I’ve changed these policies over time, and don’t use the same policies for each course I teach, but I’m sure to repeat whatever the policy is, multiple times, on day one. I always do so with a smile and a friendly tone, rather than one that sounds strict.

For example, I might say, “10% is deducted each day work is late,” then pause for an unusually long time, until all the students are looking at me, wondering why I’m not talking anymore. Then I’ll repeat, “10% is deducted each day work is late.” I might ask questions, too, such as, “So, what happens if you don’t realize an assignment is due, then you turn it in a week late?,” or “If an assignment is due Monday by midnight, what will happen if you turn it in at 1 AM?”

Sometimes I repeat a policy so many times that the students are laughing, and I say something like, “Can you tell students have tried to argue with me about this policy in the past? What do you think will happen if you try to argue about it?” That seems to drive the point home.

I am transparent about my policies, and tell students why I have chosen the policies I have chosen. If attendance counts for 10% of the grade, for example, I might say something like, “This might feel like a drag to you, but it actually helps you quite a bit. You can get 10% just by showing up, which could bump you up from a B to an A without much effort. I tried teaching this class with no attendance policy one semester, and students’ grades dropped. When attendance doesn’t count, students miss more classes, and the less you attend class, the less well you understand the material, and the more likely you are to forget due dates. That’s why I reinstituted an attendance policy. It’s not to irritate you; it’s to help prepare you for the working world where you have to show up every day, on-time, and to help you earn a higher grade.”

I also discuss how I want students to message me, which is with a greeting and closing, always, and correct capitalization and punctuation, always. I make sure they understand that I don’t always check messages on nights and weekends, and that it might take me a day or two to reply when I’m very busy, which means last minute questions the day an assignment is due should be asked in person. (Almost all of my due dates are class dates.)

I say that I don’t have a phone/device policy, because they are adults and need to learn to manage their smartphone use. But, I remind them that I can see them when they pull out their phones and I find it disrespectful, and depending on my mood, I might ask what they’re using a device for if they have one out for more than a few seconds at a time that device usage is unnecessary.

Sometimes I ask, “How have your other professors handled smartphones in the classroom?,” partially because I’m curious, and partially because I want the students to talk and feel engaged, because by this point I have just said a lot and they’re probably getting tired.

When I’m done going over the policies, I usually ask if there are any questions, if everything makes sense, and if everything sounds fair.

Syllabus: Student Resources

Surprisingly, talking about the university’s resources has become one of my favorite parts of the first day. I begin by saying, “You were all intelligent and hardworking enough to be accepted to this university, which means you are all intelligent and hardworking enough to succeed at this university.”

That usually gets their attention.

I continue, saying, “In my years of teaching, I’ve noticed that when students do not get As in my courses, it almost always has nothing to do with their ability to understand the course material. It has to do with something else: physical illness, depression or anxiety, family problems, death or grieving, romantic or relationship issues, addiction or drinking problems, etc. Sometimes students are tempted to think their grades reflect their intelligence, when often grades actually reflect other things–how much you sleep each night, how well you’re getting along with your family, how solid your financial situation is, etc.”

I tell the students about free resources available on campus to help them deal with issues they might face. I then go over the Counseling Center, Students with Disabilities Services, the Center for Victim Advocacy & Violence Prevention, Title IX, the Writing Studio, the Office for Multicultural Affairs, and the Center for Student Leadership and Engagement. I also briefly mention Student Health Services, the gym, and student groups. For each resource, I ask if there’s anyone particularly knowledgeable about the resource–sometimes I find there are students who feel comfortable explaining the resource to the class.

Of all of those resources, I spend the most time on the Counseling Center and Students with Disability Services. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly comfortable with the students, I openly tell them that when I was a graduate student I went to the Counseling Center regularly to help manage anxiety, and there is no shame in it. I often make a joke about how, after they graduate, they might seek therapy one day and realize what it costs and kick themselves for not taking advantage of it when it was free. Ever since I began saying this, I’ve had at least one or two students every semester come to me at some point and thank me, saying that they now go to the Counseling Center because of my comments and they find it helpful.

When explaining Students with Disability Services, I emphasize that students may get accommodations for any mental or physical health issue that might affect their coursework or their ability to attend class, even if they don’t consider themselves “disabled.” I usually give two examples. I say, “If you’re thinking ‘I don’t have a disability,’ but you have a severe food allergy that could make you miss a week of class if you accidentally ingest the wrong thing, then it might be worth it to have an accommodation, just in case. If you sometimes have panic attacks during times of stress that could make you miss class, having an accommodation in place might result in your professor excusing your absences rather than not.” I emphasize that most professors, including myself, feel more comfortable being lenient with students when they have an official accommodation from SDS for their illness.

(I’ve gone back and forth about how to discuss SDS over time, and this is what I’ve settled on for now. I don’t know if it’s the best way. I do think it might encourage students who don’t need a true “accommodation,” such as extended test times or assistive technology in the classroom, to go to SDS for paperwork. That said, I do genuinely believe that most professors are more lenient about things like attendance and due dates when students have official accommodation paperwork, even though the paperwork can’t dictate anything related to attendance or due dates. I know I feel more comfortable being flexible when SDS is involved, and my students have anecdotally shared that other professors do as well. I could probably write a whole post on this alone, and maybe, eventually, I will.)

Finally, I ask if there any questions about our school’s resources. I tell them that I leave time for questions every class, and that I do not stay after class to answer one-on-one questions. They can ask questions during the designated class time, or, if they have a question that truly needs to remain confidential, they can come to my office hours or send me a message to ask their question. Then I wish them a good first week of school.

Thoughts? What do you on your first day of school?

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money

Ways I Can Save Money

There are two main ways to improve one’s financial situation: 1) spend less, and 2) earn more. Dave Ramsey recommends doing both, aggressively, until debt is paid off. I am beginning my debt payoff journey by figuring out where/how I can spend less.

Postponing large purchases
Before beginning this debt payoff effort, I had some plans that now seem pretty grand and borderline delusional. After being a broke grad student from 2014-2017, I thought once I had a full-time job again, I would be able to afford to spend more money. Now I’m realizing, nope! Not a good idea. So, I’m going to postpone the following things I’d been planning on buying, by at least a year:

  • getting braces
  • getting trigger point massage therapy monthly
  • buying a new bed frame and mattress
  • traveling to attend the AWP conference in Portland
  • buying a car
  • buying a laptop
  • starting a record collection

Deciding to postpone these things is difficult because I see value in them. Both braces and trigger point massage therapy have been recommended to me by medical professionals, and would likely help reduce my headaches, muscle tension, and pain. My bed frame is broken and the mattress is uncomfortable–replacing those would surely improve my sleep and possibly reduce pain. Attending AWP could benefit my career. Owning a car would help me feel less isolated and alone, improve my social and romantic lives, and maybe even increase my earning potential. My laptop is showing signs of being on its way out, and I’d prefer to get a new one before it completely crashes. I used to have a record collection, but at one point got rid of it because my record player broke and it was a drag moving the heavy records every year. I know I would enjoy having a record collection again, and in some weird way, I feel less “myself” not having one.

Still. All of these things are big-ticket items that would cost hundreds (or thousands) either upfront or over time. They all will still be available in one year. I’ll revisit my financial situation then, analyze these potential purchases one-by-one, and either decide to move forward, or postpone them for another year.

Cutting regular costs
At first I thought there was very little I could cut, since I’m not a compulsive spender, I don’t go out much, and I feel like I don’t usually buy frivolous things. Then, I looked over past credit and debit card statements, looked around my apartment, thought more deeply about it, and found the following areas in which I can cut costs:

  • Amazon
  • food
  • gifts
  • donations
  • magazines
  • books
  • clothes
  • makeup and personal items

Amazon
I looked through my past Amazon orders and found that in 2018, I placed 97 of them. I should say, 97 so far–I will surely place a few more in the coming weeks. Wow!

Since I stopped owning a car about a year and a half ago, I’ve come to rely on Amazon. Most of my orders were for arguably practical items–dog food, moisturizer, hemp seeds, peanut butter, toilet paper, wart remover, deodorant, books, pens, cleaning supplies, clothes hangers, paper towels. Still, I am sure I buy more of these items more often than if I were to, say, have to write them on a list and wait a few days to purchase them at a store.

I also realized I had no idea how much Amazon Prime costs, which is sad, since I pay for it yearly. It is $119/year. I went through the (very scary!) multiple screens required to tell them I want to end my membership and not be charged again. I look forward to saving the $119, plus however much else I save by not having that convenient free shipping at my fingertips.

Honestly, I’m a bit ashamed to face how much I’ve been using Amazon. I consider myself an environmentalist, yet I was having cardboard boxes sent to me unnecessarily about twice a week! Plus, I know Amazon’s labor practices are likely not in line with my values (I’ve seen the headlines and avoided clicking). So taking a year off of Amazon (or, maybe quitting it forever?) is a good choice for me for many reasons, not just financial.

Food
Oof. I cannot deny that food is likely the number one source of overspending in my life. I have mixed feelings about this, and will probably write more about it later, in a separate post. It’s a difficult category to face, because it’s a necessity. I’m also trying to be health-conscious, and sometimes that means buying more expensive food items. At times that I’ve had severe fatigue, buying fast food on lunch breaks instead of bringing a packed lunch, or ordering delivery instead of making dinner, has felt more like a necessity than a luxury, so I don’t want to shame myself or feel guilt over choices I made in the name of health and survival rather than laziness or selfishness. Still, I do not clip coupons, watch sales, seek out generic brands, or even try to pretend I have a food budget. That has to change.

Gifts
I love giving gifts! It’s so fun. I like trying to find something thoughtful that a person will be surprised by and really enjoy, rather than something generic. As I scrolled through recent Amazon purchases, I saw that at least one order each month in July, August, September, October, and November was a gift. Some months, I placed two gift orders. I didn’t scroll past July, but I wouldn’t be surprise if I’ve ordered at least one gift a month all year. These gifts are usually $20 or more.

This Christmas, and for all of 2019, I’ve decided I will only give gifts to my parents and my brother. That is my immediate family, and it wouldn’t feel right to not give them gifts. But as far as friends (and their children) are concerned, I’m taking at least a year off of gifts. I have a wonderfully kind and thoughtful social circle, so I’m sure they’ll understand. Plus I have a ton of cards, and I will still celebrate and show affection that way. I bet this change will save me hundreds of dollars.

Donations
Last year I donated to the ACLU, PEN America, Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, and maybe more. I honestly forget. I also donated to some GoFundMe campaigns, and other smaller funds I came across online. I care about social justice and want to contribute in any way I can. In a sense, I feel like donating is my duty. No more! I am reminding myself of the airplane oxygen mask analogy–I should help myself before I help others. I’m being charged a couple hundred a month in interest fees, likely by people who contribute to the problems I donate in hopes of alleviating. It doesn’t make sense to keep donating while I’m giving so much money to creditors. I know I will donate again some day, but for now, I will be saying no when asked or, more likely, clicking away.

Magazines
Oops. I have 6 magazine subscriptions. (For those who are curious: Yes! Magazine, The Sun, Bust, Bitch, Ms., and Oprah). I won’t be renewing any of them. I love these subscriptions, but honestly, I think 6 is too many. I feel compelled to read every magazine that comes to me (and it’s really hard for me not to read every article), so sometimes they pile up and begin to feel like work waiting for me. I think whenever I eventually begin subscribing to magazines again, I’ll limit myself to 2 or 3, so they don’t become overwhelming.

Books
Amazon makes it really easy to buy books. I counted and I have 53 unread books on my shelves. Hmm…sounds like I shouldn’t buy any books in 2019, but should instead try to read one a week of those I already own.  I love supporting authors, but I shouldn’t buy new books when it’s hurting me and keeping me in debt.

Clothes
I’ve been working on having a more intentional wardrobe (post or essay coming soon), and have a list of items I want to buy to make my wardrobe complete. I’ve been shopping with the long-term in mind, and trying to only purchase things that I expect to last me at least 5-10 years. I’ve also been trying to avoid items made in sweatshops. That means, the clothes I buy are more expensive than clothes I used to buy. Anyway, all of this is to say that it’s time for me to make due with what I have for a while, and come back to completing my wardrobe when I’m not paying so much in interest every month.

Makeup and Personal Items
Before taking this financial inventory, I had a list of makeup and toiletries I wanted to try out soon–natural foundation, natural blush, natural mascaras, natural moisturizers for sensitive skin. I looked through all of my makeup and decided that while I don’t absolutely love many of the products I have–the mascaras seem to get all over too easily, the two face products I own are one shade too light and one shade too dark for my skin, and the only blush I have is a red lip color that claims it can be used for both–they are good enough. I can make due with them for at least 6 months, if not a year. Moving forward, I’m not going to buy a makeup item of any type unless I am fully 100% out of that makeup. Time to use up the messy mascara! & I apologize in advance if I look slightly tanner or paler than I actually am.

Conclusion
I’m glad I went through this process. It’s so easy to spend without being fully aware of how much I’m spending and what I’m spending it on. I remember at one point, over ten years ago, I wrote down every single thing I bought for a year and published it on my blog. While I’m not going to go to that extreme in 2019, I do plan on giving updates on my budget, where my money goes, and how well I am able to stick to spending in the way I want to spend.

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organization, productivity

Pomodoro Timer App Review

Features of Pomodoro Timer Apps

Lately, I’ve been really into the idea of open source sharing, and of creating an external memory of things I do. I figure, if I put a lot of effort into something, whether that’s submitting to lit magspaying down debt, developing healthy habits, or creating lesson plans for my students, why not put in a tiny bit more effort to share my work and findings? That way all the energy I expended will benefit more people than just me.

Anyway, that’s why I am reviewing Pomodoro Timer apps and in the near future will review Habit apps. Sometimes, I have a lot of trouble concentrating. I have anxiety, and my anxiety can lead to overwhelm and procrastination. I have fibromyalgia, and that sometimes includes dyscognition or fibro fog that makes it difficult for me to focus or figure out the best way to spend my time. But from what I’ve found talking to peers and students, everyone has trouble concentrating at times, even people without anxiety and periods of dyscognition. That’s why I’ve become a bit of a Pomodoro evangelist. Essentially, you just have to learn to concentrate on a single task for 25 minutes at a time and your productivity will skyrocket. ( This video explains it all.) I’ve found using this techniques help reduce procrastination, which means I do more writing, grading, and submitting in shorter periods of time.

You don’t need an app to use the Pomodoro technique.  For years, I used kitchen timers or the default timer on my phone. I thought an app might be able to streamline things, and provide me more with more structure. I thought with an app I might be able to more easily track how many Pomodoros I’d done, and better estimate how many Pomodoros certain tasks require. I also thought I’d be less likely to take longer breaks or stray from my goals with an app. I was right on all accounts, and 100% recommend using an app to track your Pomodoros if you’re using the Pomodoro technique.

I tried out seven free Pomodoro timer apps. I have settled on one: Focus To-Do. Keep reading to find out what these free Pomodoro timer apps have to offer.

Focus Keeper (iOS, Android)

Focus Keeper app

Focus Keeper is simple and straightforward. It’s perfect for people who want to use the Pomodoro technique and keep track of how many Pomodoros they complete, but don’t need to track how they spent those sessions.

The main screen is a large timer. The default times are set to what is recommended in the Pomodoro technique: 25-minute focus sessions followed by 5-minute breaks, with a 15-minute long break after every four focus sessions. There’s a default goal of 12 sessions per day. You can only change these numbers with the Pro version. The app tracks statistics on your number of sessions, but you can only view the last three days of data in the free version.

I would only recommend this app if you want a free, simple app. If you want the ability to change the times of your session, or need to view more detailed usage stats, you could use another app instead of upgrading this one to Pro.

Focus (iOS)

Focus app

At the free level, Focus operates almost identically to Focus Keeper, although it has a different look. The main screen is a timer. The default times are in line with the standard Pomodoro technique, except the long break is 20 minutes. You can adjust all times in the free version, which is an advantage over Focus Keeper.

The Pro version opens up the ability to tie your Pomodoros to Tasks, and will show you usage statistics. These are cool features, but the price tag is high at $4.99/month. If there’s something that justifies this price tag, I couldn’t find it.

My recommendation with this app is similar to that of Focus Keeper: if you want a free, simple Pomodoro app and like the look of this one, it will do the job. If you’re wanting to pay for more features, keep looking. It’s over-priced and there are better options out there.

MultiTimer (iOS, website)

MultiTimer app

MultiTimer is a really cool, and dare I say, beautiful app. As soon as I opened it, I wanted it to be “the one.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t meet my needs. While it allows complete flexibility in terms of timer time-lengths, it doesn’t allow organization of timers by Task or Project (though the Pro version does offer different “Boards,” which I think would be most useful if you use a different set of timers in different contexts or locations).

MultiTimer wasn’t specifically created for use with the Pomodoro technique. It is essentially a timer app for people who appreciate minimalist design and want more than their iPhone’s default timer provides. Honestly, I won’t be surprised if Apple rips this off and we see multiple timers in a future iOS update. It’s just that cool.

The default background is dark, but I switched that immediately. I know they save battery, but dark backgrounds are so hard on my eyes. Even though I won’t use the MultiTimer for Pomodoro stuff, I kept it on my phone because I suspect I’ll think of a good use soon. It’d be a good way to track how I spend time (stats require Pro version, though), and to navigate general time management throughout the day. It’d also be useful whenever I want different timers at once, for example, when cooking. I’m curious to see how creative people are using this app. It’s so simple and customizable that I bet many are using it for interesting purposes that I haven’t thought of yet.

FlowTimer (iOS)

FlowTimer app

When I first opened FlowTimer, I was excited. It has an intuitive, minimalist design I enjoy. Activities can be organized by Projects and Tasks, which I’ve decided is a must for me. At first glance I thought I had found “the one.” Unfortunately, I was wrong.

The FlowTimer timer lengths are the Pomodoro basic times. In the free version, you can control the length of work sessions, short breaks, and long breaks, but you cannot change the number of sessions until a long break without upgrading to Pro. The default daily goal is eight work sessions, which also cannot be adjusted without upgrading.

There are two color options in the free version–a seafoam green and taupe (bleh). You cannot change sound types in the free version. And–the kicker for me–you cannot change the timer face. The default timer does not contain numbers, just an image of a timer that moves as the time counts down. This is a good app with many features, but I want to be able to glance over and see exactly how many minutes and seconds I have remaining. I’m not willing to pay $3.99 just to see that number. 

Flat Tomato (iOSwebsite)

Flat Tomato app

Flat Tomato came really close to being the app for me, but ultimately, it had too much going on and was a little too confusing to navigate. What stood out immediately was the timer itself–it is the only one I’ve seen that is superimposed on the face of a clock with the actual time, so as the 25 minutes count down, you also see what time it is. Pretty cool feature. The app also has Projects and Tasks, which I want. It even has Plans, which appear to be the equivalent of Sub-Tasks.

The interface for Projects is very similar to the interface in ToDoist. Flat Tomato integrates with ToDoist, which could be a draw to many people, myself included. The app also integrates with iPhone calendar, iPhone reminders, and Evernote, but those aren’t tools I regularly use.

You can select a goal number of Pomodoros for each task–something FlowTimer doesn’t offer–and also color-code Tasks and assign them an identifying letter. There’s a detailed journal available for recording notes and rating the work quality of each day. The free version of this app has so many features the other free versions of Pomodoro timers do not have, I hesitate to write anything bad about it. Yet, I must explain why I didn’t go with this app.

There are some weird things going on. There’s a free version, a paid version, and POMOs. It took me a while to understand POMOs, and I still don’t know if I fully grasp them. Basically they are a form of credit that you can buy with money and/or earn by using the app. When you get certain amounts, you can cash them in for customization features such as different color schemes, sounds, and timer faces. I thought the gear icon in the lower left corner would naturally take me to the main app settings, but it leads to a POMO shop of sorts, which became irritating each time I mistakenly tapped it. I would never buy POMOs, nor would earning them incentivize me to complete more Pomodoros, so I found them a nuisance.

There was a trailing shadow on the screen whenever I tapped it, which seems to be for aesthetics only. I found it irritating, and it took me a while to find where to turn it off. There were also sounds I found irritating and turned off. Turning the timer on and off to engage in a Pomodoro session wasn’t intuitive, nor was finding the instructions to do so. Once I started a timer, I had trouble stopping it. For those reasons, I wouldn’t recommend this app to someone who wants to download a simple Pomodoro timer app and get to work instantly.

This app is best for people who want a variety of features in a free app, and don’t mind spending a bit of time up front becoming accustomed to the interface and setting things up to fit their preferences. Note that while there are many options here, you must buy Pro if you want to set up reminders or use the “state” option, which I think is akin to “labels” in Todoist.

Flat Tomato could very well be the best Pomodoro app of this bunch in terms of features, but I just didn’t like aspects of the design, and design is important to me.

Be Focused (iOS)

Be Focused app

Be Focused is the Pomodoro app I was using prior to this search for the best Pomodoro app. I’ve been using it a few months, and can’t remember how I chose it; it was probably the first decent-looking app that came up in the app store when I searched. After conducting my research, I was happy to realize that it was a good choice, and is one of the most fleshed out free Pomodoro apps available.

Be Focused looks like simpler apps such as Focus and Focus Keeper at first, and it operates similarly. The advantage with Be Focused is the addition of Tasks, for free, putting it on the level of FlowTimer and Flat Tomato. You can view usage stats in the free version, and if you do decide to upgrade, it’s only $1.99, making this a good option.

It’s a good app, and I am glad I had it, but our time together had to end. There’s an ad at the bottom of the screen, which bothers me, and focus sessions regularly end with pop ups urging you to buy the Pro version. I understand that app developers deserve to make money, but if the free version of your app is irritating to me, guess what? I’m not going to pay for Pro. I prefer to be guided to the Pro version with a carrot of delight, not with a stick of irritation. Also, I want a Pomodoro app that has not only Tasks, but also Projects, which this does not.

Focus To-Do (iOS, Androidwebsite)

Focus To Do app Ah, my sweet friend, Focus To-Do. The free version has more features than any other free Pomodoro timer app I could find in the app store. Not only that, the interface is clean and attractive.

The main screen of Focus To-Do is a simple timer, like many of the other apps. The free version allows access to a few color schemes–the screen changes to a different color during breaks, which is unique. When you exit out of the timer screen, you have access to Projects and Tasks. You can add due dates to Tasks and view them by due date rather than by Project, if you prefer. The interface for Projects and Tasks looks very similar to the ToDoist interface. (Because of this I emailed them asking if they think they’ll ever integrate with ToDoist. Response: “Nope.”) 

The individual Task screens also look similar to Task screens in ToDoist. In addition to due date and Project, you may assign a priority (out of four priority levels). If you pay for Pro, you may also assign reminders to Tasks, and set Tasks to be repeating. There is a free Sub-Task option, too, which made me excited at first, but after a while, I realized I probably won’t use it. Finally, you may add notes to each Task, for free. 

Focus To-Do offers detailed stats that you can view in terms of how many Pomodoros you’ve completed, and which Tasks you’ve worked on.

Conclusion

How happy I am to have found the Focus To-Do app! Since I’m using ToDoist to manage my to-do list, there is still part of me feeling tempted by Flat Tomato and it’s enviable ToDoist integration. Still, I’ve decided to jump in and embrace Focus To-Do. I prefer the design, interface, and features, and I don’t think the Flat Tomato/ToDoist integration is as deep as I’m wanting (I believe toggl would allow the deep integration I want, but it’s $9/month paid annually and that’s just not worth it to me at this point). Also, the purpose of this whole endeavor is for me to better focus and get work done, and writing about timer apps is not the work I’m trying to get done, so I had to just make a choice. I’ve decided to stick to Focus To-Do for one year, and then reevaluate.

I considered moving all of my to-do list to Focus To-Do and giving up ToDoist entirely, which would be another way to keep everything in one place, but am not quite ready to take that leap. It would require buying the Pro version (to be able to set tasks as recurring–a major reason I use ToDoist in the first place). That isn’t a huge deal, but since Focus To-Do doesn’t allow me to import or export Projects and Tasks, I wouldn’t want to manually input everything unless I knew for certain I was going to stick with it for the very long term. Another reason I don’t want to give up ToDoist entirely is Focus To-Do doesn’t have a web-based interface. You can download a desktop app if you want to use it from a laptop, but I want to be able to view all of my to-do list online, from any device or browser. So, I will continue using ToDoist to manage my to-do list, and Focus To-Do to manage the time I spend working on those items.

Side note: This process did push me to think more about how I manage my to-do list, and I realized I was really putting to-do list items in five (!) places: ToDoist, Google Tasks, Trello, Passion Planner (paper), and on blank sheets of paper. I decided to consolidate; I moved everything in Google Tasks and Trello over to ToDoist, and vowed to stop writing regular ole to-do lists on paper. So now, I will use ToDoist as the exhaustive list of all my tasks. My Passion Planner will be where I block out my time, and list what Project or Task is the main priority of each day/week/month, but I will no longer use it for listing detailed tasks and sub-tasks. Focus To-Do will contain only the Projects and Tasks I will do using the Pomodoro technique, and I won’t list exhaustive sub-tasks or attach due dates to items there–that’s what ToDoist is for.

I know this might sound complicated, but I think it will be much simpler than the messy, slapdash approach I’ve been using. I’m excited to try it, and I will report back later. If you try out any of these apps, or have already tried them, please comment with your thoughts!

 

 

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money

My Credit Score

After posting about my debts, I looked into my FICO credit score. My Citi card account used to always display my FICO score when I signed in, but I noticed it doesn’t anymore. I contacted them, and they said it stopped because my score changed, but would begin posting again in 1-2 billing cycles. Hm.

I created a Mint account (just sharing; this post is not sponsored in any way) to begin better budgeting, and was pleased to find that they will give you your credit score for free. Mine is only 642! I felt shame as soon as I saw it. When I used to see it every month via my Citi card, it would usually fluctuate from 680 to 710.

Mint tells you why you have the credit score that you do, which I think is really awesome. Citi didn’t break it down into the same level of detail. Here are the 6 factors affecting credit scores, and where I stand on each:

  1. On-time payments: EXCELLENT, 100%. I might be deeply in debt, but I always make at least the minimum payments on time. I guess that’s one thing I have going for me.
  2. Credit usage: POOR, 99%. Both of my credit cards are near their limit. Thankfully, this situation will change soon. I’m curious to see how it affects my credit score in the coming months.
  3. Average age of credit: POOR, 1.9 years. I took out a loan a few months ago, which really threw off the average on this. Also, I was forced to re-consolidate my student loans a little over a year ago because one company bought another. That threw off my average age of credit too, which feels unfair, but oh well. It’s comforting to know that this factor will only improve over time, and I don’t even have to do anything except not take out new lines of credit.
  4. Total accounts: POOR, 4. Hmm…I didn’t know total accounts factored into your credit score, and I really didn’t know that 4 accounts was considered “poor” because it’s not enough. I hope not to take out any more lines of credit in the next 2-3 years, so my credit score will have to improve because of the other factors, not this one.
  5. Credit inquiries: EXCELLENT, 0. This makes sense because I haven’t been trying to take out any more lines of credit. I don’t plan to in the near future either, so this one should remain the same.
  6. Derogatory marks: EXCELLENT, 0. My bills don’t go to collections because I pay them.

It’s pretty cool that Mint offers credit scores for free. I will be checking mine every three months. Of course, my purpose in lowering my debt is just to lower my debt, but an improved credit score will be a nice side effect.

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money, personal growth

Radical Financial Transparency

Confession: I’ve been in debt nearly 20 years. I went into debt the week of my 18th birthday, and next year I turn 38.

I have spent more of my life in debt than not in debt.

My net worth has never been positive.

Yikes. I’m not going to get into why or how this happened now (essay coming soon, I hope). Instead, I want to focus on how I’m going to deal with it. I’m motivated to pay it off quickly. But first, why am I posting about this, making personal information that I feel ashamed of public?

  1. To get rid of shame and change our culture of silence around money. For years, I’ve used credit instead of saying, “I can’t afford to go out to eat with you this month,” “I can’t afford to exchange Christmas gifts this year,” “I can’t afford to make a donation,” etc. because I didn’t want to feel the shame that would’ve come with saying those things. Also, looking back over my career, I can clearly see specific instances in which I was underpaid. If I and others had talked openly about salary, I would’ve recognized a need to negotiate a higher salary or move to a job that paid better. Moving forward, I want to be as open about money as possible, for the benefit of me and the people around me.
  2. To hold myself accountable. I plan on posting a “debt update” every three months, on January 1st, April 1st, July 1st, and October 1st. I am extremely internally motivated to pay down my debt, but I’ve also been motivated in the past, and failed. My hope is that regularly posting about my debt will add another layer of motivation. I will likely also post about various financial and savings strategies I come across and try out. Please feel welcome to comment about your own experiences.

Okay, so, what am I going to do about this debt? Essentially, follow the Dave Ramsey snowball technique. I made the above table with his debt payoff method in mind, which is why my debts are listed from smallest to largest. Basically, the technique is to pay the minimum payment on all debts except for the smallest debt, then pay as much as possible each month toward that debt until it’s gone. Once it’s gone, you then add the amount you were paying that creditor toward the new smallest debt, and the snowball of debt payoff grows.

The Ramsey technique is simple and straight-forward. I heard of it at least ten years ago, and used it for a short while in my 20s. I remember it being helpful, and I don’t know why I stopped using it. This time, I’m going to stick with it. I’ve already started–the debt to my parents used to be $1,800.

I will make one modification, however–I won’t pay in the exact order of smallest to largest debt amounts. Once I pay off my Spirit credit card, I will jump to my Citi credit card. The interest is so high, and the shame I feel over credit debt is so high that it’s worth it for me to pay off my credit cards before moving on to loans or the IRS. Plus, the IRS figure will jump down each year when my tax refund is applied, so I don’t feel concerned about being trapped with that debt in perpetuity. The Citi loan will be paid off mid-2020 if I pay the minimum payment only, so I don’t feel too concerned about that one, either. It’s the credit debt that doesn’t have accountability and a payoff system built in.

In the meantime, I plan on calling my credit cards and trying to negotiate lower interest rates. Creating this table was an eye-opening exercise! Those credit cards must’ve had promotional interest rates when I opened them because these interest rate numbers were a shock. I might not be a money whiz, but I know not to open a card with 24.99% interest.

Dave Ramsey strongly recommends bringing in extra income during this process and taking drastic measures to cut costs. Much of my money has gone to medical bills, and there are more medical tests awaiting me. I know that is one area where I could easily cut costs. I feel like the results of these upcoming tests will likely be negative, but I don’t know that I should skip the tests to save money, just in case they do find something.

Also, I’d love to bring in extra income, but I wouldn’t want to take on a “regular” part-time job because of the fluctuations in my current workload (grading changes from week to week) and fluctuations in my health and energy levels. Also, I’m trying to build a career and don’t want to sacrifice my writing and submitting time in pursuit of money. I will have to think creatively about how to cut costs and bring in additional income without sacrificing my health or career.

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visuals

I made a career timeline infographic

JSummer Career TimelineI regularly encourage my students to use Canva to create images for various assignments. Today I was playing around with it, thinking of things I could show them, and I found a template for a “career timeline.”

I’d never really seen or thought of anything like this, but I decided to make my own. I changed the fonts and design to mimic that of this website.

I don’t know that a career timeline is a terribly useful thing to have, but I like how it looks, and it is an easy-to-read breakdown of my background. I usually feel like my past experience is all over the place, but this makes it seem a bit more coherent.

I’m adding it to the home page of this site, and will share it in future courses I teach. Do any of you use Canva? If so, what for? I’ve become a big fan.

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writing

Did you know I write an email newsletter?

Well, sort of. I don’t know if I’d call it a “newsletter.” I used to call it a “weekly email,” but then writing every week became too difficult, so it’s an “occasional email.”

But, I wanted you, dear blog readers, to know that I’m sort of blogging in this email form, so you may sign up if you’re interested. It’s the email list for Chronically Lit, but the emails themselves are in a casual, conversational style that I usually use when blogging, and although Chronically Lit focuses on chronic illness, most of these emails would appeal to a more general audience.

Today I wrote about gratitude and I thought hey, that’d be a good blog post, too! But instead of blogging the whole thing, I’d rather encourage you to read the email I sent today and sign up for future emails.

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creative nonfiction, writing

New short essay up on Brevity blog

Brevity is known as the go-to site for flash creative non-fiction. I haven’t been published there (yet!), but they also have a blog that’s pretty awesome, and I’m happy to announce my writing was published on it a few days ago.

My post is titled, “#ShareYourRejection: I Received 330 Writing Rejections in One Year, and I’m So Happy About It,” and I’d be honored if you read it. I found out the Brevity blog has 45,000 email subscribers, so this is probably my most widely-read piece of writing so far.

I don’t think I’ll consider myself a “successful” writer until I have a book published, but I’ve made a lot of progress in my writing career in recent years, and I wrote this post to help encourage people who are interested in a similar path. It still feels surreal to call myself a “writer” or to talk about my “writing career” at all–I’ve spent more years of life viewing a writing career as a pipe dream unavailable to me in any real sense than I have pursuing it in earnest.

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lit mags, updates, writing

Introducing Chronically Lit

chronically lit jay summer

Today is the official launch of a major project I founded and have been working on for hours a day–Chronically Lit. You can support the project by following it on twitter or instagram, and by signing up for the weekly email list (I’ll be sending out the first email today).

I’ve been doing so much writing for the site, I think I’ll just let it speak for itself rather than explain here. Consider checking out the following:

  • In an “In Conversation,” I and the site’s other editor, Annalise, discuss our vision for the site
  • For the past three weeks, I’ve written “Link Roundups” on Friday, which are collections of links related to chronic illness in literature and culture
  • Today, my first “official” piece of writing went live, the first part of a multi-part book review of Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System

I’ve also been working with several writers on essay edits, and those essays will go live over the next two weeks. Exciting stuff!

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