writing

New articles in Tenderly and SYFY

Oops, I moved across the country and almost forgot I had a blog. Well, I’ve been publishing a lot lately because I’m now a full-time freelance writer. You might’ve noticed I revamped my website to reflect this career shift. Most of what I write is content for businesses, but I’ve also been getting into more journalistic writing. Check out my two latest pieces:

“Should Vegans Eat Honey?” is an article I wrote for Tenderly in July. Tenderly is a new online magazine dedicated to all things vegan and I absolutely love it. I conducted several interviews for this article, which was fun and interesting. I was excited for the opportunity to challenge myself as a writer.

“Geek Road Trip: Have a Close Encounter at South Carolina’s UFO Welcome Center” is an article I wrote for SYFY.com, the website counterpart to the SYFY channel. When I drove from Florida to the Midwest with an SUV full of my dog and belongings, I came upon something wonderful called the UFO Welcome Center. Please read about it.

I hope everyone is well! :) I realize most people who read this blog still likely follow me from years past, when I lived in a different place, had a different job, and even a different name. I thank you all.

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writing

New poetry publication!

poetry south cover

Okay, so my poetry publication isn’t that new, but I’m excited to announce I have a poem in the 2018 issue of Poetry South! The issue came out at the end of last year, and I’m so happy to have work in it.

I’ve noticed something funny. Because I feel confident about my prose, I sometimes become frustrated that I don’t get more or better publications. But because I’m still insecure about my poetry writing ability, each poetry acceptance feels like a shock. A pleasant shock, but still a shock.

poetry south poem

I am beginning to write more poetry. The experience feels odd. Poetry was my favorite form of creative writing in middle school, high school, and college. Somewhere along the way I realized the poetry I was writing was “bad,” and then for years I associated poetry (or at least mine) with adolescence and immaturity.

I’m returning to poetry because I enjoy it as a creative outlet. There’s a feeling I can’t quite pinpoint that I have when I write poetry that I do not have when I write prose. BUT, a nasty editorial voice saying “what you’re writing is no good” keeps popping into mind as I write poetry, much more often and much more loudly than when I write prose.

That voice is just going to have to deal with it. I’m still gonna write poems. :)

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education, teaching

Creating Inclusivity: An Approach to Sensitive Subjects in the Classroom

Last month, I had the honor of leading a workshop at my university’s Academy for Teaching and Learning Excellence First Friday’s event. My presentation wasn’t recorded, so I’m sharing a PDF of my slideshow. It contains many resources fellow professors might find useful. There are some University of South Florida-specific slides, but feel free to scroll past those.

Click here or on the image below to download the PDF.

Here’s the description of my presentation:

Broaching controversial or difficult subjects such as race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliation, bias, discrimination, and more in the classroom is increasingly common, if not necessary, as student bodies become more diverse and universities place more emphasis on inclusivity. This workshop will focus on how to tie diversity-related issues to course material and student learning outcomes, and how to manage productive, engaging classroom conversations on sensitive subjects. It will also include a discussion on best practices in learning students’ pronouns.

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education, teaching

Lecture: The Writing Process

The Writing Process diagram: prewriting, drafting, revising, peer review, editing, publishing
Source: bcourses.berkeley.edu

I teach about the writing process in all of my writing courses: creative writing, composition, professional writing, and communication for engineers. My belief is that a deeper understanding of the writing process helps students develop an identity as a writer, build confidence in their writing ability, and better manage the anxiety/procrastination that often comes with writing.

Beginning with free writing

I usually teach about the writing process early on (this semester, I taught it on the second day of class). The day I teach about the writing process, I begin class with either a free write or a “survey.” This semester, I began with an anonymous survey in which I asked the following:

  1. What kind of writer are you?
  2. What makes writing “good?”
  3. What do you want to learn in this class?
  4. Is there anything else you want to tell me?

(Side note: I LOVE having #4, the catch-all question. I tell students they don’t have to fill it out, and most leave it blank, but the responses I do receive are usually delightful. I skimmed answers for this semester and saw one student wrote that their “thirst for knowledge is at a peak.” Another student wrote: “I should let you know, I have had an issue with using too many commas in the past.” Students are just great.)

In the past, I’ve asked other, similar questions: What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer? What is your history with writing? What are your thoughts and feelings about writing? What role has writing played in your life? For now, I like “What kind of writer are you?” because of its concision. It’s also an intentionally vague question.

I summarize the students’ answers to the survey and share them in our next meeting. Many students think of themselves as “bad writers,” and I think it’s good for them to realize they aren’t alone. Also, I address what they wrote they want to learn in the course, either describing how/when I will teach it, or explaining why it falls outside of what we’ll discuss, and pointing them to other resources. This process allows me to be transparent in my teaching and student-centered from week one (sometimes I build lesson plans and exercises based on what students want to learn).

The lecture

When I begin my lecture about the writing process, I usually ask if any students have been formally taught the writing process before. There are usually a couple who say they have, but the majority say they haven’t. I don’t quiz the ones who raise their hands, but I do encourage them to chime in if they have any thoughts or knowledge to share as I speak.

Source: k12.thoughtfullearning.com

I ask if they’ve heard of Anne Lamott. Usually they haven’t, but sometimes 1-2 students raise their hands. I tell them to excuse my language, and then explain her concept of “shitty first drafts.” Essentially, not only does everyone write shitty first drafts, but when you first begin writing something, a shitty first draft should be your only goal.

I tell them that many students who are unfamiliar with the writing process think they are “bad writers,” when in reality, they’re comparing their “shitty first draft” to published work, or work that has gone through the entire process. I like this because the swearing definitely gets their attention, but since I’m quoting someone else, it doesn’t make our classroom environment feel unprofessional or like a free-for-all.

(Side note: I generally do not swear in the classroom. I know it can be an effective attention-getting tool, but I think it’s risky. In the past, when I’ve used swear words, I’ve noticed some students appear uncomfortable, while others get a little too excited and start using more swear words themselves, neither of which is my goal.)

Next, I pull up one or both of the images in this post and project them. I then go through the stages of the writing process one-by-one.

Prewriting

I explain that prewriting is anything you do before you begin writing that helps you prepare to write. I’m a writer through-and-through, so for me, prewriting usually is writing. But, it’s messy writing that I’m going to delete. I might need to write for 30 minutes before I understand my thoughts and know what points I want to make, then I can begin “real” writing.

I tell them that I have a friend whose main prewriting activity is running. She mulls over what she wants to say while running 5 or 7 miles, then by the time she sits down to type, the sentences come out pretty well-formed. I have another friend who likes to draw for prewriting. That sparks their creativity, and helps them visualize their ideas.

More detail-oriented people might not feel comfortable writing until they have a full outline and know exactly what they’re setting out to do–these people would probably find my process unbearably sloppy. More social people might not want to write until they sit down and talk out their ideas with someone else.

At this point, I’ll generally ask, “Does anyone recognize what their prewriting habits are?” This semester, one student shared that he likes thinking ideas over while listening to music, then he begins writing once he feels inspired. Another student shared that he likes listening to podcasts, and jots down phrasing they use that impresses him and he thinks he could apply to his own concepts.

I explain that knowing what types of prewriting work for you might help you when you feel stuck. I emphasize that there are no “right” or “wrong” ways to prewrite, and I encourage students to experiment with different methods to see what helps them.

Drafting/Writing

Drafting, writing, and revising are a recursive process, which the first image illustrates well. In the old days, writing and revising were clearly distinguishable steps. Someone would feed a paper into a typewriter, type out an entire draft, read over it with a red pen in hand, mark it up, and then retype the next draft. It was too labor-intense to revise before an entire draft was complete.

Now, with contemporary technology, it’s easy to type three paragraphs then decide the first paragraph has two unnecessary sentences, and delete them, then realize the order of paragraphs two and three should be switched, and flip them. Most writers write, revise, and even edit continually as they go. This can be efficient, or it can hold someone back, especially if they’re feeling stuck or anxious or bad about the writing in any way.

In my creative writing courses, I urge students to try separating writing from revision. I mention Jennifer Egan as an example. When I saw her speak, she said that if she rereads what she is writing while she is writing, it brings her down. She begins to think she’s a horrible writer and that the project is garbage. That’s why she writes by hand, sloppily, in a dark room. Not until she gets out an entire draft does she go back and read over it.

Writing and revising can be two distinct modes. Personally, I find that when I am in the “generative” phase of creative writing and still figuring out my ideas, it’s best if I don’t reread what I’m writing until later. Then I can come back with my revision glasses on and look for what isn’t working well. If I view my work with a critical eye while I’m still writing it, I’m at risk of giving up. I, and my students, feel better knowing that a bestselling author such as Jennifer Egan experiences the same thing.

I don’t always go into as much detail about this writing/revising dichotomy in my professional writing courses, unless students seem particularly stuck or are struggling to get words on the page. I think writing and revising at the same time can be useful when writing an email, letter, memo, or short professional document, unless for some reason the document has the writer paralyzed with anxiety.

I do emphasize to professional writing students that they should expect to reread their documents and make changes multiple times, even if they’re doing so quickly, and that they never want to share something or even send an email without rereading.

I note that they can bring someone else in to give advice at this stage of the process, and that in some workplaces, sharing a draft of documents with their superior would be required. I tell them to prepare themselves to have to alter their writing process slightly depending on the company they work for. Some bosses won’t want an employee to write anything until they’ve discussed it thoroughly; others won’t want to see anything but a finished product.

Editing

I explain the differences between editing, revising, and proofreading, and let them know that many people use the words interchangeably or incorrectly. I say that revising is the hard work; it can involve major cuts, reorganization, or rewriting. Revision involves looking at the big picture.

Editing, while still sometimes difficult, is a look at the surface. It might involve rewording a sentence, or reordering sentences within a paragraph, but beyond that, it doesn’t involve deep changes. Editing includes correcting spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, and rephrasing for clarity.

Proofreading is the final, last-minute look-over you give something when it’s ready to go but you want to be super sure there aren’t any lingering typos you missed.

I tell students that we will do workshopping (in creative writing) or peer review (in composition and professional writing) in class, and that I want them to feel comfortable gently telling their peers when they need to make revisions. I say that most students feel much more comfortable pointing out spelling errors, or missing commas or apostrophes than they do saying that one of the main threads is illogical, or that multiple paragraphs feel redundant and extraneous.

Publishing

I tell them that I want to expand their definition of “publishing.” I ask what publishing might look like in the context of a class. Generally, a student answers (correctly), “Turning something in to you?”

I ask what “publishing” might look like in the workplace. I keep asking for responses until someone comes up with “hitting send on an email.” I say yes!, that is it, also: mailing a letter, printing out an announcement and hanging it on the wall, sending the employee manual off to the printer, etc.

Questions/Comments

Finally, I ask if there are any questions or comments. We don’t usually have a big discussion about the writing process, but sometimes students speak up to either ask for advice or share what works for them.

Oftentimes, procrastination comes up at this point. I tell students that procrastination is often the result of anxiety–we put writing off because we fear we will do a bad job, or we fear the writing will feel painful. I bring up Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft” idea again, and remind them that there’s no way to fail at the goal of writing a shitty first draft, and setting out to write a shitty first draft can actually be really fun.

I tell them that if they think they write better under pressure, hours before something is due, they are mistaken. (Usually a few students laugh, or nod, or raise their hand to comment here.) I tell them I was an undergrad once too, and I also thought I wrote better under pressure, but then I learned the reality is that I write better when I’m focused on my writing instead of my fear. Waiting until the last minute is one way to force yourself to focus on the writing; embracing the “shitty first draft” concept is another, more productive way.

I usually end by saying, think of what you come up with in an hour when you’re working under pressure. Image how much happier you’d feel if you could come up with that in an hour one week before the due date, then have time to gain some distance and perspective and do more revising and editing before turning that work in.

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creative nonfiction, fibromyalgia, health, writing

New article on Inside Higher Ed

I have a new article on the Inside Higher Ed site. It’s called “Navigating Graduate School While Managing a Chronic Illness.”

This publication excites me for three reasons: 1) I got paid for writing it, 2) it has to do with health/illness, which is an area I want to write and speak more about, and 3) it draws on my recent experiences and I’m trying to find more ways to meld my non-creative career experiences with my writing.

I’d be honored if you gave it a read, and positively pleased if you shared the link with someone who you think might be interested in it.

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Uncategorized

Habits Apps Review

I am both highly ambitious and easily overwhelmed. If I’m not careful, I become wrapped up in goals in an unhealthy way. I often set large goals in a burst of confidence, then crumble into procrastination once they overwhelm me. I also have a tendency to set more goals than are humanly possible to achieve, then feel like I’m always behind or not measuring up.

Years ago, after reading the zen habits blog, I realized that focusing on habits rather than goals is a much healthier and easier way for me to manage my time and gauge my success. I view a habits focus as a bottom-up rather than top-down approach, and an emphasis on process over outcome. Habits are a way for me to be productive and engage in personal development without becoming attached to ideas of accomplishment or busyness.

Recently, I’ve been reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. Reading this book is forcing me to realize that over time, I’ve shifted from focusing on habits to focusing on goals. The book is reminding me that goals don’t work well for me, and reinvigorating me with enthusiasm for habits. In 2019, I plan on focusing on one habit per month.


A check mark means the app has the feature, an X means it doesn’t, and a dollar sign means the feature costs money

What better way to kick off a renewed focus on habits than with a habits app? In the past, habits apps have helped me immensely. I thought a review of habits apps would be a nice follow-up to my review of Pomodoro timer apps. In combination, a habits app, timer app, and to-do app help me stay organized and on top of things.

This review is focused on free habits apps found in the Apple app store. Note that I didn’t review the very popular Productive, because it only offers a free 7-day trial, not a free version. I didn’t review Habits Wizard or HabitShare because they required a login. I didn’t review Fabulous because it was too weird and I quickly knew it wasn’t what I wanted.

I listed Done and Tally first, because I was instantly drawn to these two apps due to their aesthetically-pleasing, simple design. Unsurprisingly, they are made by the same development company: treebetty. Habit List is another app with a minimalist design and simple, straight-forward features.

I’ve been using Done for over a month now, and expect I’ll be using it for a long time. At first, I almost opted against using it, because my original intention was to use a free app–Done costs money if you want to track more than 3 habits. After about a week of using Done, I decided it’s worth paying for.

I chose Done over Tally because it seems slightly more robust, and more appropriate for habits. Tally seems to be more fitting for anything you want to count, while Done is better for developing streaks. I’m not sure why someone would choose Tally over Done to measure their habits.

Although Tally says it allows you to track bad habits (habits you want to do less often, rather than more), it doesn’t really function any differently for bad habits. I’m not tracking bad habits, however, so this didn’t matter to me much.

In an effort to honor my time, I’ve decided against taking screen captures and writing full details of all the other apps I looked into. Still, I will write a few notes about the various apps, in addition to the information provided in the table earlier in this post.

I like the Good Habits app and felt nostalgic using it, as it was the first habits app I ever used, years ago. I eliminated it, however, because it doesn’t allow for tracking habits that you want to do more than once per day. Also, for habits that you want to do less than once per day, you must specify which day(s) you want to do the habits on, which doesn’t work for me either.

Way of Life and Momentum operate almost identically. I’m sure someone copied someone’s idea. They have an interface that shows habits as red when you don’t do them, and green when you do, which makes it very easy to notice when you’ve broken a streak. It’s also an ugly interface, and as I wrote when I reviewed timer apps, design interface matters to me. I don’t want to look at something unattractive every single day. Another thing I didn’t like about Way of Life and Momentum is that you must “skip” a habit if there’s a day you don’t want to do it. That means, if there’s a habit you only want to do once a week, you’d have to “skip” it the other six days. That doesn’t work for me. These apps are better for daily habits.

Today confused me. It had a lot going on. You can pick “covers” for each habit, which I guess might motivate some people, but felt clunky and unnecessary. I don’t need to see a photograph every time I want to track a habit.

Strides and Habit Minder have many features, and I can easily imagine those being the best habits apps for people who want something more detailed and less minimalist than what I want. Strides has a lot of features in the free version, and I actually used it for months before switching to Done. For some reason, however, it stresses me out. It feels very corporate-looking and serious, and that doesn’t fit my needs. Strides allows you to tag your habits and group them (something I later realized Done also offers).

Habit Minder can be customized in interesting ways. It has too much going on for me, but I can envision others enjoying it. Not all habits have to be entered as yes/no, as habits are usually set up in most habits apps. You can have habits associated with counting (squats is an example–maybe you want to do 50 a day, but only do 20), or time (meditation is an example–maybe you want to meditation for 15 minutes but only do 5). So Habit Minder allows a level of detail no other app I’ve seen accommodates.

Better Habits has a fun design, and confetti explodes across the screen when you complete a habit. It also displays affirmations as you continue a habit streak. I’d see this one working well for people who want encouragement. It also has a feature of rating your habits by difficulty, to help you determine how long it’ll take to adopt them.

Habit Hub offers the unique option of many reminders. Most habit apps giving you a reminder at whatever time that you choose. You can set Habit Hub to continue reminding you to do a habit until you’ve completed it. So you could have it remind you ever hour, or every 5 minutes during a specific time frame.

Daily Habits has a unique feature that allows you to associate habits with time of day. This feature would be useful for someone trying to develop a morning routine, evening routine, or any time-based chain of habits. I used to use Daily Habits years ago, and almost didn’t recognize it because of how much it has changed. It now also allows you to join groups (paid version only), which could be great for accountability.

I enjoyed sifting through all of these apps, and am pleased with the one I chose–Done. I only have one complaint: when I set a habit that I am doing less than daily, the app shows the icon indicating the habit hasn’t been completed even if I’ve completed it that day. So, for example, I want to exercise 5 times a week (but only once any given day). If I mark that I’ve exercised one day, I want the icon to be gone for the rest of the day, but it’s not because I haven’t reached the 5/week amount yet. I will probably message the developers about this.

What habits app do you use? Have you tried any of these? I’d enjoy reading about your experiences in the comments.

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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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organization, productivity

Pomodoro Timer Apps 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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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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