Sunday, December 13, 2020

"Come and Find the Quiet Center"

Sermon given Sunday, December 13, 2020 for Magic ValleyUnitarian Universalist Fellowship Zoom Worship Service

I am so grateful to be here with you virtually today and look forward to the time when we can be together again in physical space. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts about this month’s theme: stillness.

Like many of us during this year of global pandemic and tremendous change, I have begun to categorize my life into the Before Time and the Now. As some background, I’m a mother of four children (two in college, two still in high school), a wife, a community college English professor, and a mental health advocate.

For many years, the one constant in my life has been chaos. I’m betting more than a few of you can relate. What was your life like in the Before Time?

Then COVID-19 came—and before we get too far, I have a confession to make. The pandemic was definitely all my fault. No, really! Let me explain.

Here’s what my calendar looked like in the last week before everything changed.

On Saturday, March 7, I attended the Depressed Cake Shop fundraiser for Boise’s Interfaith Sanctuary homeless shelter and connected with my dear friend and fellow mental health advocate Valerie Van Gelder and her sister and equally dear friend Jodi Peterson, director of Interfaith Sanctuary. My children and I had baked “depressed Oreos” for the event—sad looking dark chocolate cookies with grey cream cheese frosting filling, but when you bit into them, you saw a rainbow of cheery pinks and blues and yellows, reminding us that mental illness doesn’t define who we are.

That evening, I attended the Idaho Democratic Party’s gala. When I bought my tickets, I had been over the moon at the thought of hearing Mayor Pete, then ecstatic over the prospect of Elizabeth Warren, then when they both cancelled, I was just happy to attend and catch up with good friends. Remember when we could hang out together? took my last groupies that night, and now, it seems like another world to me when I look at those photos. We were all so physically close! None of us was wearing a mask! (It was a wonderful night).

On Sunday, March 8, I attended what would be the last in-person service of the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. There were murmurs then about COVID—cases popping up in Seattle and New York—but here in Idaho, nothing seemed out of place just yet.

On Monday, March 9, my 48th birthday, I taught my usual English classes at the College of Western Idaho, and my sweetheart took me out to Rice, one of my favorite Asian restaurants, for what would turn out to be my last supper inside a restaurant in 2020.

On Tuesday, March 10, I hosted a Mayan archaeologist for a guest lecture at the College of Western Idaho for my survey of world mythology students. More than 30 students and community members attended. We passed around a heavy rubber ball used in pok a tok, the traditional Mayan ball game that figures heavily in the Mayan creation story.

A week later, we would learn that someone in the building that night with us had tested positive for COVID 19.

On Wednesday, March 11 my students were beginning to ask questions—and I did not have answers. I blithely told them not to worry—that if we went online, I had years of online teaching experience and would be able to support them during the few weeks we would not be able to attend class together.

That night, I attended what would be my last in person choir rehearsal at BUUF—and realized to my horror that I had accidentally double booked myself for the coming March 15 Sunday services.

And here’s why the pandemic with all its chaos is my fault. I had said yes to playing for BUUF’s choir and to playing the organ at my children’s Mormon church—at exactly the same time! Reverend Sara, the music director, and I began a frantic flurry of emails trying to come up with a new order of service that would allow me to play at one church before racing up the road to the other one. But no matter how we looked at it, the logistics problem seemed insoluble. It looked like I would have to let someone down and accept the consequences of my poor planning.

So in desperation, I prayed to whatever gods may be that somehow I could get out of the mess I had created for myself. And here we are.

On Thursday, March 12, I taught what would be my last in-person classes—the last time I stepped onto CWI’s campus--until the Fall semester of 2020. That night, I attended my son’s last minute choir concert at Northwest Nazarene University. His choir had been chosen from all the high school choirs in the Pacific Northwest to perform at the American Choral Directors Association annual meeting—which had abruptly been cancelled earlier that week because of fears about the pandemic.

So the choir sang for us instead. The director joked (with foresight, it turns out) that it was probably the last time singing like this would be legal for a while. In case you haven’t heard, it turns out choir is pretty much the perfect superspreader event.

The music that night was exquisite, and tears ran down my cheeks as these high school students whose entire world was about to change began with their signature piece, a hymn called “Come and Find the Quiet Center.” We’ll come back to that hymn in a minute, but for now, let’s continue through the last week of my Before Time.

On Friday, March 13—Friday the thirteenth (haha). I learned that my college had decided to start Spring Break early and extend the break for three weeks. That three-week break turned into five months—and while I have returned to campus to teach a few in person classes, wearing a mask and socially distanced, of course, most of my colleagues are still working remotely.

On Saturday, March 14, the big Latter-day Saint mental health conference I had been looking forward to attending, featuring former Brigham Young University quarterback Tanner Mangum, was cancelled. That afternoon, I went to the fabric store and purchased cotton prints and flannel backing to make masks. It was the last time I would set foot in any store other than a grocery store for a while.

And on Sunday, March 15, the gods answered my desperate prayer. I was no longer double booked because everything was cancelled! Everything that day, and the next day, and the next, stretching into months, was cancelled.

What could this mean? At first, we all thought it would be a few weeks. Then we thought, maybe a few months. Then we realized the awful truth: 2020 was cancelled.

And just like that, I had the one thing I could never find enough of: time.

So I sewed masks. Like many of you, I baked—a lot—and thought about planting my garden. I developed a daily practice of taking long solitary walks around my neighborhood.

During my walks, the hymn my son’s choir sang would often fill my mind. I want to share the words with you.

“Come and Find the Quiet Center” by Shirley Erena Murray

Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead.
Find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed.
Clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes that we can see
all the things that really matter, be at peace and simply be.

And I wondered, What is so hard about stillness anyway? Why is it so hard to “be at peace and simply be”? The answer is not an easy one. In the sudden enforced quiet, we—all of us—have been forced to face the truth of our own mortality. We might get sick and die, or we might not. Our loved ones might get sick and die, or they might not. But we all have to face the truth: none of us gets out of here alive. We are powerless over life and death.

Some people turn to religion in times like these. We may think of Jesus calming the wind, the waves, and his disciples’ fears with a simple command: “Peace, be still.” Or we may think of the Biblical seventh day, the Sabbath, a day created specifically for rest and contemplation of the Divine.

Or our thoughts may turn to the Jewish tradition, especially during this week of Hanukkah. Speaking of another sacred day, Yom Kippur, the “Sabbath of Sabbaths” and holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Rabbi Marc Margolius of the West End Synagogue in New York City wrote that stillness is “the quintessence of Yom Kippur itself: the necessity for human beings to be, rather than to do; the necessity to be still, rather than to speak; the necessity to seek out the authentic and eternal, not the artificial or temporal.”

Rabbi Margolius further observes that “Some of Judaism’s most powerful religious metaphors are internal; they invite us to seek God not atop a mountain or in heaven, but within ourselves.”

Have you climbed mountains seeking something? I have. But these days, I am spending more time seeking God within myself.

In yoga, the hardest posture for me is savasana, corpse pose, where we lie silent and still on our mats. It’s also the most essential-part of my daily practice: to quiet my busy brain, to say “Peace: Be Still.” I have found that as I focus on being instead of thinking or doing, I can feel myself connected to the world in marvelous ways, experiencing what it means to exist in the glorious eternal now.

This time of enforced quiet has definitely not been all fun and games though. In the stillness, I learned some hard things about myself. I learned first that I was tired. We are all so tired. Living with mundane, quotidian existential dread has a way of doing that to us. From pandemics to politics, our poor limbic systems are stuck in panic mode.

I don’t know about you, but I’m taking antidepressants and doing tons of telehealth therapy to cope with even little things like grocery shopping right now. As a mental health advocate, I know there’s no shame in this. These times are hard, and I’m grateful that there is help, and that I can access it.

But I’m also focusing on my breath. At its simplest, breathing is the essence of existence. And as we breathe, we can “Clear the chaos and the clutter” so that we can see what really matters to us. As I have seen what really matters to me, I have experienced a profound sense of gratitude.

In the stillness, the second hard lesson I learned was that any sense of control is an illusion. In the Before Time, I thought that I was the master of my own fate. I tricked myself with Outlook calendars and social media and other tools of modern existence into believing that I could control what happened to me or to the people I loved. I can’t. You can’t. To “find the frame where we are freed,” we must first free ourselves from this illusion of control.

On my daily walks last spring, I began to develop what the poet Amy Clampitt called “a limitless interiority” where anything seemed possible. I watched ducklings grow from balls of yellow fuzz to mature confident adults. I watched buds swell on tree branches and slowly unfold their petals to the sun. Every day, a few more blossoms opened until the trees were splashes of pink and white against the blue spring sky. Those buds were hope. I watched as the blossoms faded, the trees greened then turned to gold. The leaves carpeted the sidewalks, and still we waited.

In the traditional Christian liturgical calendar, December is a time of waiting. During advent, Christians wait each year for the birth of their god in human form.

(Fun and slightly sacrilegious fact from Life Hacker Joel Cunningham—if you buy an advent calendar the day after Christmas this year, it will count down the days to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s inauguration). 

But seriously, when you think about it, isn’t hope for a better world, in its simplest form, at the heart of religion? We are called, all of us, in this season of waiting, of hope, of light, to “Come and find our quiet center.”

My children and my students keep asking me when we will return to normal. I have good tidings for them—and for you: We won’t.

In mental health advocacy, we have a saying: “Normal is a setting on the washing machine.” If we’re lucky, we’ll emerge from this time of stillness with something important to say and do. When our eyes are opened to the things that really matter—to social justice and equity for our Black and Brown brothers and sisters, to stewardship for our fragile earth, to the future we want to leave our children and their children—we will “find the room for hope to enter.”

But most importantly, if we’ve learned the lessons of these challenging times, we’ll enter our new world, whatever it looks like, secure in the knowledge of how to return to our quiet centers, “to be at peace, and simply be.” That peace is my wish for myself and for all of you, in this season of waiting, of stillness, of hope, joy, and light.

Closing Song

Bothell High School "Come and Find the Quiet Center" arranged by Kirk Marcy

Or my son’s Sonous choir directed by Seth McMullen: at minute marker 28:10-30:35 

Reading: From “A Silence” by Amy Clampitt

past parentage or gender
beyond sung vocables
the slipped-between
the so infinitesimal
fault line
a limitless interiority

beyond the woven
unicorn    the maiden
(man-carved    worm-eaten)
God at her hip
the untransfigured
bluebell and primrose
growing wild     a strawberry
chagrin     night terrors
past the earthlit
unearthly masquerade

(we shall be changed)

a silence opens


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Online Teaching 101

Ready or Not, the Future Is Now—and It Doesn’t Have to Be Dystopian
Photo by bongkarn thanyakij from Pexels

Many of us in higher education received emails last week about either taking our classes online or preparing to do so. If you’re anxious about the next several weeks, imagine how your students are feeling! Many of them have avoided online classes or have had a negative experience with one in the past. For context, I teach hybrid, face-to-face, and online classes in an open-access community college where many of my students are already at risk, and last week, I could smell the fear. 

As a teacher, you are likely well aware that current research about online education suggests that distance learning is not as effective as face-to-face classes and that the retention and persistence rates for students are poor. Also, let’s be frank here: some administrators seem to think that online classes are “easy” to teach and that all we have to do is post our syllabus online to turn a face-to-face class into an online one.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and you should be aware upfront that developing and teaching an online course, in my experience, typically takes more time than teaching a face-to-face class (though it comes with added perks like flexibility and the ability to offer classes during a pandemic). For this reason, it’s important to track your labor over the next few weeks.

With those caveats, I want you to know how much I personally love teaching and learning online. As an instructor who began teaching online and hybrid classes in 2010 and completed my Organizational Leadership doctorate in a fully online program in 2016, I have seen firsthand that online teachers can create effective active learning opportunities. With intentional planning and deliberate outreach, an online class can provide a robust learning environment for your students.

Below, I have outlined a few areas that have been important to me as an online teacher, along with examples and resources. I have focused my suggestions on relatively simple and quick ways to transfer your existing face-to-face class to an online environment.

Communicate Early and Often
One of the most important ways to build engagement with online students is to communicate early and often. Communication should take a variety of forms, and make sure you let your students know what your preferred style of communication is. Here’s how I communicate with my classes:
  • Weekly LMS course announcements about assignments, sometimes including a short video I record on my phone and upload to YouTube.  
  • Regular and frequent emails, including a weekly email wrap up of the work we covered. Note: it’s important to make sure that students are checking their student email. Including a tutorial about how to forward their student emails to their phones can be a great way to make sure that they are checking their messages. It’s also really important that you respond to emails as quickly as possible, but definitely within 24 hours. I check for student emails before I go to bed every evening and when I wake up in the morning. Here is an example of a weekly wrap up course announcement/email I created for my English 215 Survey of World Mythology course:

  • “Ask Your Instructor” open forum in your LMS discussion board. Students can post questions that the whole class may have. Subscribe to this board so that you can get back to students quickly. 
  • Video feedback on assignment grades. Both Canvas and Blackboard make this easy to do by incorporating a way to record audio or video feedback directly in the assignment comment box. This way of giving feedback has two advantages: 1) It generally takes less time than line edits or written feedback, and 2) It builds rapport with your students. They will feel like you really care, which will contribute to their ability to succeed in the class. See here for Blackboard instructions:
  • Weekly online office hours. Some of my friends use these office hours for emails and DMs with students, which is fine. I also host a weekly Blackboard Collaborate live session. Usually between 2-6 students attend. Students have reported that just knowing they have this option makes them feel less anxious about our online class. If you don’t have Bb Collaborate, you could do the same thing through Google Hangouts.
  • Phone calls or live video chats. Sometimes it’s just easier to work with a student individually over the phone or through a video conference. 
  • A “resources” or “FAQ” link where students can look for commonly asked questions, including important information like how to contact the IT help desk and access online tutoring.
  • Student feedback. Treat your students as collaborators in your course development. I use Google Forms to ask my students for their preferences about short stories or potential assignments or to assess how well a particular assignment worked. This helps the students to feel like their voices are heard. Here is an example from my CWID “You Are What You Eat” course, where I surveyed students for their opinions on ethical issues that surround food (this took about 10 minutes to create):

Keep It Simple

You may not have spent much time thinking about UX (user experience). But I’m sure you’ve encountered a website that is frustrating or difficult to navigate. Keeping your online course as simple as possible will be important to your students’ success. In an online guide written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Flower Darby provides a useful glossary of common online pedagogy jargon that may help you as you think about your user experience:

Here’s how I do this:

  • Start by looking at your existing syllabus and lesson plans. You probably already have discussions and assignments scheduled for each week. For each of these discussions and assignments, you’ll need to develop an online equivalent.
  • I recommend using the discussion board weekly for formative assessments. There are a few different ways to organize your discussion boards. Depending on the subject matter, you may want to create a single thread and have students respond directly to the thread. Or you may want to allow students to create their own threads within a forum. Have students post an initial response, but also require them to respond to classmates. It’s also important for you to participate regularly on these boards to build instructor presence—but you can quickly develop a bank of generic comments that can be repurposed. 
  • I use discussion boards in a variety of ways, including peer review on assignments and essays and for discussions that we would normally have in a classroom setting. Using discussion boards is pretty easy for most students, and grading them is pretty easy for you. Create a simple rubric with your expectations. Here is an example from my online Connecting with Ideas course: 

  • Think about how to organize your course as clearly as possible. I use weekly modules, open during the week we are working on them. These modules include links to the course documents, discussions, and assignments that students should focus on each week. All of my assignments are available under an “assignments” link, and all of my course documents are available under a “course documents” link, organized in folders by type of assignment.
  • In general, one discussion board assignment and one other assignment (such as homework, a lab report, or other assignment) should be enough to replicate what you did in a face-to-face class. Keep due dates regular and consistent so that students can plan ahead.

Be Creative and Use Your Resources

Again, using your existing syllabus and lesson plans as a guide, think about how you can meet the same outcomes in an online environment. Do you currently have group projects? So do I, and the online students really have fun with them. In the real world, many students will work on distributed teams, and giving an online group project is a great way to help them practice. You can set up different group discussions and even group Collaborate Live sessions in Blackboard; Canvas lets you set up entire sub-course sites for groups where they can have their own announcements and discussions. Here is an example of a critical edition website of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” that one English 211 student group created using Google Sites (shared with permission):

Do your students give speeches or presentations? Consider using Voice Thread or Flip Grid.  You can also use Flip Grid for discussions. I ask my students for their advice about tools—while I have not used this yet, for example, I would not be at all averse to having students create a TikTok video assignment.

For lectures, I’ve seen many of my colleagues use tools like Screencast-O-Matic or Powtoon. But I am more old school. I use PowerPoints that I created for my face-to-face classes and record narrative in PowerPoint 2016. I then export the presentation to video, upload it to YouTube, and voila! 

One note about YouTube presentations: try to keep your presentations under 15 minutes. Students seem to lose attention beyond that time frame. This may mean breaking up existing presentations into shorter ones. Recording a lecture like this is quick and easy--less than an hour from start to finish. I recommend avoiding specific due dates or saving all due dates for the last slide. It’s easy to record a new final slide with updated due dates each semester—then export to a new video. 

Here’s an example from my Survey of World Mythology class: 

If you have access to Office 365, you have a wonderful presentation tool in Microsoft Sway. A colleague showed me how to use Sway to create multi-media online lectures that are optimized for mobile phones. Adobe Spark is a similar program. Here’s an example of a presentation I created on the Maya for my English 215 Survey of World Mythology class (it took me about three hours).

While I teach humanities courses, thinking creatively can also apply to science courses. For example, my oldest son is in the final semester of his college physics program, and his college made the sudden decision to move everything online. He’s most concerned about his lab circuits class, but his professor is already exploring ideas like getting each student an Arduino to work on at home. I have a feeling that in the current climate, if you have a solid proposal for something like this, administrators are definitely likely to consider your requests.

Finally, the website Amazing School Resources is collecting a wide range of free educational resources to use in online classrooms. You can access the list here:

In conclusion, you can do this. Make sure you reach out to colleagues and to your institution’s instructional designers (and be patient with them during this time because I am sure they are slammed). Whenever I have a question about how to move something from a face-to-face to an online environment, our college’s instructional designers have provided excellent suggestions and resources, including many of the things I shared above. Program chairs should consider creating a professional development site in your LMS and using a dedicated discussion forum to share assignments and resources (our wonderful program chair already does this, and it’s a lifesaver!). I know many of my colleagues who teach online are more than eager to offer resources and support.

The last bit of advice I have comes from research on growthmindset, something that we all can now model for our students. Many of us have negative ideas about online teaching. But this modality has undeniable benefits. Without online education, I could not have earned my doctorate as a working single mother of four children. Online education means access. It means opportunity. And when done intentionally and with students at the center, online education can definitely mean success. The future of education is now—and it doesn’t have to be dystopian, for teachers or for our students.

If you have other ideas or resources to share, I would really appreciate you linking to them in the comments.