AWP Part 1: The Decision

“Do you want to go to AWP with me?” Michelle asked. “I need to know soon. Like by today.” 

That’s how I ended up going to the annual conference of the AWP, which I think but couldn’t guarantee stands for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (but then why isn’t it AWWP?). Every year, a bunch of our writing friends go, while Michelle and I gawk at their happy pictures on Facebook, wondering, how did they get the time off work? How long are they staying? What do you even do at a creative writing conference? 

This year, an incredible confluence of events meant that my best writing friend Michelle had to go to AWP. For a change, it was scheduled during our spring break, across the state rather than across the country, and she just published a book she needed to market. 

I hate conferences. I might have mentioned this before. I was force-fed a horrible diet of yearly conferences as a graduate student. Now I feel about conferences the way a lot of people raised in the 70’s feel about carob. It didn’t taste good, and the people who said it was good for me were lying. 

But this was our BIG OPPORTUNITY to go to AWP without missing any classes (teachers hate missing classes), and anyway, I wanted to see Michelle do all her readings and panels and book signings. So we registered, booked a flight, reserved a hotel room in downtown Los Angeles. 

As spring break approached, I got nervous. I really wanted to spend spring break writing and catching up on my grading. If I wasn’t going to do that, I’d better make this conference worthwhile. I looked through the endless list of panels and activities. There were dozens of panels each day, fifteen at a time. Panels on writing, panels on publishing, panels on teaching. Panels on diversity and writing. Panels on parenting and writing. Panels in tribute to this and that author. Prose panels. Poetry panels. And of course, panels of advice from real literary agents, who probably would have the longest lines of people waiting to talk to them and hand them a business card and book proposal after the panel.

It reminded me of my least favorite conference, the one held annually by the Modern Language Association, which every English grad student needs to attend if they are looking for a job. A giant conference filled with useless panel sessions, grad students giving talks solely for the purpose of getting their departments to fund their trip, panels with audiences that were smaller than the panel itself. 

And then, that sense of desperation, of everyone’s needy ego, of desperate desire. These big conferences are like New York–you go there starry-eyed and full of big dreams, leave starved and deflated. 

It was to much to figure out ahead of time. I was going to wing it. But just in case, I rewrote the synopsis for my novel, printed out ten copies and stuck them in my suitcase. 

>Part 2

Interstellar Burst

Is there some way to write like Radiohead? 

I’ve listened to this song a bazillion times—-Airbag from OK Computer, one of my favorite albums to write to–but today I looked up the lyrics. 

In an interstellar burst

I am back to save the universe. 

No. Really? 

I would have guessed…hmm…

Into stay the past, 

I’m back to sing to you. 

Not that that makes any sense. But the lyrics are un-gettable. They’re draped over the music in a scrambled way, the accents all in the wrong places. Thom Yorke belting it out like drunken karaoke, and no words intelligible, just an irrestistable stream of emotion and voice and syllables. 

I love that. I love anyone who can do that. Use words as a medium without their meaning. Like scatting with secret messages. 

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs do it on my favorite song of theirs, Bang

As a fuck son, you sucked. 

(Try saying that out loud, and see if you can understand yourself). 

And Pink Floyd on Pigs

Big man, pig man

Haha, charade you are. 

All songs that people might sing along with at the top of their lungs, without having any idea what they’re saying. 

So, so cool. Someday I’ll learn some non-musical way to do this. 

I suspect it might involve poetry, though…



Reading Out Loud/Per Se

I went to the Saturday Night Special open mic again last night, and read a short fiction piece. Reading my work aloud isn’t my favorite thing to do, but I try to do it at least once in a while. It’s good to practice appealing directly to an audience who is right in front of you, to consider what will make them laugh and what will make them think and what will make them sad when you read it to them. I’ve been going to this open mic on and off for a few years now, and the readings get better and better each time. Here’s what I read:

Per Se

Asher was up all Saturday night surfing the Red Pill Subreddit, which was an anti-feminist website. He went to bed at five and woke up at two p.m. It was pretty much a given that he would spend all Sunday day on the Red Pill Subreddit unless he left the house, so he went to Tilden Park.

He wasn’t an anti-feminist per se. It’s just that the guys on the anti-feminist sites were some of the only guys he could relate to. They weren’t snobs, and some of them made some pretty valid points about stuff. But Ryan, who was the only semi-cool guy from Asher’s dorm who would actually talk to him, told him those sites were for losers who were just salty that they couldn’t get laid. Which was the whole reason Asher was on the sites, because he was a loser who couldn’t get laid. That’s how all the guys on the sites were; it wasn’t some kind of big secret. But anyway when Ryan said it, he called Asher son in that way cool guys talk to each other.

“Son,” he said, “Those sites are for salty losers who can’t get laid.”

No one ever called Asher son, definitely not his father, an emasculated beta male who worked in nonprofit fundraising and had failed to teach Asher how not to be a social pariah. It felt nice to be called son, even by a guy who was chronologically speaking four months younger than him.

The Uber driver dropped him off by a trailhead. She looked the same as the girls in his dorm, Ugg boots, nice body, probably stupid.

“Time for a hike,” he said. She looked him up and down all skeptical, like it was that obvious he wasn’t the hiking type. How to successfully lie to women was another one of those things his father never taught him. Sigh.

As soon as she was gone, he doubled back through the parking lot, past the playground, and up the hill to the petting farm.

He walked through the crowds of parents and kids, said hi to the sheep, bowed low to the rooster, who he thought of as the farm’s concierge. He’d been coming maybe once or twice a year since he was a kid, whenever he felt too lonely and depressed to accomplish anything productive, and it always looked exactly the same.

The cow barn was his favorite. It was dark and shady and smelled like mud. The cows had heads that were as big as Asher’s whole torso. They could eat a baby in one bite, but they never did, even though all the moms kept waving babies right in their faces. They just stood very patient, accepted pats on the head with neither anger nor pleasure, watched the people watching them. Something about the cows made Asher feel very peaceful.

Three Ugg-boot chicks came in the barn, petted the cow, shrieked and giggled when it licked one of their hands with its slow, giant tongue. They looked kind of familiar, like maybe they were in one of his classes. Maybe they lived in his dorm. The parents were all nice to the Ugg-boot chicks, let them play peekaboo with their babies and say hi to their little kids. They never let Asher talk to their kids.

He wished Ryan would come to the farm with him sometime. Maybe Ryan and a few of the cool guys from his dorm. But guys didn’t do stuff like that together. Girls did, guys didn’t. Asher didn’t know why, exactly. That was another one of those things his father never taught him.


Deadly Mansplain (Halloween 2015)

I read this story on Halloween at my favorite open mic, Saturday Night Special. 

 “Before we get too involved,” she said, “there are some things I need to tell you. There are things you don’t know about me. I have a secret.”

“I’ve got it,” he said, like it was a quiz. “You’re afraid of commitment.”

“What?” She said. “No.”

“Also I’m guessing you’ve been in some bad relationships. Maybe some abuse. That’s why you’re so insecure.”

Abuse? Insecure? Her?

“I’m not insecure,” she said. “I mean, am I?”

“It’s okay, babe,” he said. “All the women I’m attracted to are insecure. It’s probably something about me.”

She wanted to say, do you know who you’re talking to? She wanted to say, you wouldn’t talk to a man this way, would you? She looked at the soft spot where his jawline met his neck, the pale skin, the soft, dark stubble. That spot was the main reason she hadn’t brushed him off a million times in the last two months they’d been dating.

“Do you want to hear it or not,” she asked.

“Yeah, sure, babe,” he said. “Of course.”

That muscle running thick down the side of his neck. The meatiness of it. The delicious solidity of a grown man, the kind of man who lifted weights three days after work and both days on the weekend. It brought out that thing in her, that primal, hidden thing that the world must never know of.

“Lay it on me,” he said.

She hushed her voice. The room dimmed, and a crackle of electricity filled the air outside the window.

“I am Adrasteia,” she said. “Immortal queen of darkness, perpetual sovereign of the night, undying monarch of the underworld.”

Thunder crash.

“Wait, what,” he said.

“A vampire,” she said.

“You’re shitting me.” His Adam’s apple bobbed indignantly under that soft, thin skin.

She snarled one side of her lip, flashed demon-yellow eyes, showed him the deadly sharpness of her canine tooth.

“That’s like a metaphor,” he said.

“It’s not a metaphor,” she said. “It’s literal. I’m literally a vampire.”

“Right, I was just telling my buddy that. I was like, this girl I’ve been seeing, she’s literally a vampire.”

“But you didn’t mean literally,” she said.

“It’s a metaphor for feeling invisible,” he said. “Like how vampires don’t show up in the mirror.”

“I don’t feel invisible,” she said.

“And how you always come out all awkward in photos, like you don’t know what to do with your face.”


“The vampire metaphor,” he said. “Vampire is a metaphor for invisible or no one really sees you. It’s in that novel The Woman Warrior.

“When did you read a novel?” she asked.

“In college.”

“You’re remembering it wrong.” She straightened her long, silk-lined cloak, ran her fingers through her hair so her widow’s peak looked extra widowy. “Vampire is not a metaphor for invisible. You’re thinking of ghosts.”

“I’m not thinking of ghosts.” He touched his neck, brushing away a strand of shaggy hair. “We’re just going to have to agree to disagree.”

“No, we’re not,” she said. “I’m a vampire and you’re not, so you can’t tell me what vampires are and aren’t a metaphor for. You’re not an expert on everything.”

“Okay, miss vampire. Why don’t you tell me. What is vampire a metaphor for?”

His dark sweater had little holes in the weave, she realized. Through them, she could see the swell of his collarbone.

“Violent physical appetites,” she said.

He opened his mouth to argue, but she covered it with one long-clawed hand. She used the other hand to pull his head back. There it was, the soft neck. She stretched the skin tight over the small blue veins and took took a long, satisfying bite, savoring the thickness of his blood, the heavy smell of laundry detergent and unearned confidence.

Kids These Days

Today I ran into a few of my colleagues having a “kids these days” conversation in the copy room.  I am really lucky not to encounter too many of these at work.  Complaining about students is like tequila shots or Girl Scout cookies–appealing in the moment, but afterwards you feel sick. Lots of teacher-training activities actually have a “no complaining” rule built in, because, like tequila and Girl Scout cookies, once you start it’s hard to stop.

These particular complaining teachers are all nice people and good teachers and love their students, and they probably just have stronger stomachs than I do. And some of what they said was right. According to them, kids these days:

  • Can’t stop staring at their phones
  • Use text-message shorthands in their formal writing
  • Have illegible handwriting
  • Write in pencil when they should use ink
  • Can’t write a complete, grammatical sentence.

I have to admit, it’s all true. In the fifteen years or so I’ve been teaching English, students have gotten worse in all these areas. (Except they always had bad grammar and I don’t care if they write in pencil). But I don’t believe things just decline, especially not massive, undefined, complex things like “kids these days.” I was pretty sure the kids must be spending all that time when they’re not practicing their handwriting and spelling out the word “Y-O-U” doing something productive. And yeah, I can think of a bunch of things kids these days (“kids” being my students) are doing better than they did when I started teaching:

  • Typing
  • Using the internet to create and promote their own art, music, films and writing
  • Judging a credible website from a sketchy one
  • Teaching me how to use updated versions of Word and Powerpoint
  • Treating students who are different with compassion and respect
  • Caring about racism and wanting to discuss news stories about racism
  • Not saying “ew” when the word “gay” is mentioned
  • Feeling safe enough to come out, and supporting their friends who have come out
  • Reading for fun (thanks to Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, etc.)
  • Wearing clothing that covers their butt-cracks.

There! Ten things! My students are way better at all these things than they were a decade ago. And in my opinion, if I have to trade these things for never capitalizing the word “I” or not being able to put down their (fucking) phones, I’ll take it.

The Neighborhood

Fantastic Negrito on the cover of the East Bay ExpressI love when I run into news (good news) about people I know. I don’t know why–it just seems really thrilling to pick up a weekly paper and see someone I know on the cover or featured in a story inside. It gives me a feeling that people around me are doing amazing things all the time, and I love feeling like that. 

This morning, I walked past the stack of East Bay Express newspapers in the coffee shop where I was writing, and I  recognized the person on the cover:  Xavier Dphrepaulezz, the musician known as Fantastic Negrito. Fantasic Negrito has a practice space and art gallery in the same building where I and my gang of small lady ninjas hold our late-night workouts. 

I took a picture to post on Facebook. In my caption, I called Xavier my neighbor.  When I wrote about Fantastic Negrito before, I also called him my neighbor, and a few of my friends asked for clarification. He’s not your real neighbor, right? He’s your neighbor in your training space. They weren’t trying to be picky or strict sticklers for the truth, just trying to get a mental picture of who this person was and how I knew him. But I think there was also a bit of an implication that I was being misleading, that he wasn’t my real neighbor. Real neighbors live where you live, not work where you work or play music where you exercise. 

So for my picture of the East Bay Express cover, I thought about modifying the word “neighbor” for my caption. I could say “basement neighbor” (since our training space is in/called the basement), though Fantastic Negrito is not in the basement but way up above us, on the much snazzier second floor. Or I could say, “training space neighbor.” 

Giving it some thought, I decided on just “neighbor.” First of all, Jack London Square, where our workout space is located, is only two miles from my apartment near Lake Merritt. I ride my bike there most nights. While I wouldn’t call it my neighborhood in most situations, it does in many ways feel like my neighborhood, a spot on the map of my life, a place that feels almost in sight of where I live. 

But more than that, I realized that a neighbor of my basement space is really just a neighbor, and that is because the space is part of my home. That’s a really amazing thing to realize. 

We’ve been training in the space for a little more than two years. We first rented it when our kickboxing school closed. At the time, it felt, to me, like the world was ending. There was no other school that would be comparable to the curriculum or excellence of our school. What would we do? 

A few of the women from the school got together to devise a plan of action. We didn’t know what we would do, but we knew we wanted to stick together as training partners. All of us had trained in martial arts for about a decade. We wondered: could we lead our own training? And if so, where would we do it? The idea of a park came up, but I hate working out outside, and we would have to bring any gear we wanted, which would mean we would have to drive there rather than bike or take public transportation. I advocated hard for a dedicated space–an indoor space. 

But getting that set up was a ton of work. We spent a month visiting different locations, sending each other pictures, working out how much we could afford and how much room we needed and where we could all get to, transportation-wise. 

foundry space
foundry space

One of our favorite spaces we looked at was advertised as “convenient hobby space.” When we wrote to the owner, he wrote back: “We have an old foundry with lots of nooks and crannies.” When we visited (after looking up what a foundry was), it turned out to be a GIANT abandoned factory-type building, about a square block in size, on an unpopulated side street. We went in through an enormous roll-up door, through a street-sized hallway between buildings, into a warehouse space that had all kinds of people sawing and drilling things, plus tons of antique furniture stacked everywhere. We went upstairs in a small industrial elevator, and into a wonderful dusty space full of weird junk, with high ceilings and a lovely giant window and a dirty wood floor littered with rusty nails. 

The guy told us that if we wanted the space, he’d help us clean it out and install anything we needed, such as electrical outlets. 

We loved that space, and thought we might take it. It seemed crazy badass to train in a giant abandoned foundry, if not a bit intimidating (we tried to imagine what it would be like in there at night, the endless echoing space, the possibility of a quarter mile between us and anyone else). 

Before we made a decision about that space, we looked at one more. It was in a basement, the same price as the foundry, a similar size but in a small warehouse instead of a giant one, on a well-traveled street rather than an abandoned one. 

empty basement space
basement space

This was it: our new space. 

Getting it ready was exciting but stressful. The air, walls and floor were thick with dust; it made us cough just to walk around in there. We put on gloves and masks and swept, vacuumed, mopped, until it was all clean. 

Training there felt odd at first. It feels really different to work out in a new area, especially one that doesn’t have the feel of a workout space yet. We figured out some tiring but safe drills to start out with, because we weren’t used to the concrete floors yet, with their giant cracks and irregular surfaces. 

cleaning the basement

It only took us a few weeks to feel completely at home in our new training space. The smell of our sweat and hard work got into the air, the shapes of our feet pressed into the wrestling mats, and it became home. We bought more equipment, and had lots donated to us: weights, pads, mats, heavy bags. 

Now, over two years later, our space feels like a full-service gym. We have enough equipment down there that one of our worries is, if we have to leave someday, where will we put all this stuff? It’s not an ad-hoc any more, not a temporary make-do kind of space. It’s our training spot, our second home, the space we do our hardest work. And the people around us, for better or for worse, aren’t just our sort-of neighbors, but our real, true neighbors. Like any type of neighbors, some of them are awesome, some are annoying, some are downright crazy, and some of them are famous! 

DB gang


Imagine writing a short story. Perhaps it is twenty pages long. The story has a beginning, a middle, and end. It has characters, setting, conflicts, resolutions. It comments, implicitly, on a number of themes. 

For your short story, you can see all these elements–the plot, the characters, the themes–in one session of reading. You can sit down with your short story, read it from beginning to end, fix the parts that aren’t working. Then you could read the whole thing again, determine what still isn’t working, fix the parts you overcorrected–where there was no description and now there is too much, where action occurred too gradually but is now too sudden. And then you could read it yet again. You could literally read it dozens of times each day, making small corrections each time, until your story wasn’t even a story anymore but a perfect, polished jewel. 

Now imagine writing a novel. Maybe your novel is three hundred pages long. Each chapter is its own short story, and there are dozens of them, each one needing to properly balance and reflect all the others. It takes several days, at a minimum, just to read the whole thing, much less make any changes. 

How will you possibly revise this beast? 

For my last novel, The Divine Sharpness in the Heart of GodI wrote the whole thing through (on a  blog, as many of you will remember). After that, I had planned to start a revision back at the beginning. But I wasn’t happy with the ending, so I went back ten chapters and wrote a new ending. Then I started at the beginning and revised the entire thing, tightening up rambling sequences, adding more description where it was too spare, adding one new chapter in the middle. Then I reread the whole thing again checking for typos and wonky sentences. 

After that, I was pretty much done. There were some areas that I still thought could be strengthened. But to strengthen those areas, I would need to make changes that might disrupt other parts of the novel, leading to more and more revisions that could possibly unravel the entire structure of the novel. Every change you make in a novel is a giant commitment, because you can’t just spend an hour reading the entire text to make sure the change is working. The change might help the novel, or it might mess it up, and it’s often difficult to tell which.

So I stopped revising. I put out a self-published version for my friends and family and began sending the novel to agents and contests. I moved forward, wrote a few stories and articles. I planned my next book and began to write it. 

Then I got feedback from one of the agents I had sent The Divine Sharpness to. She loved the book but had a few issues with it. I agreed with everything she had to say. So I decided to table the new projects and go back to revising the old one. 

So here I go. I’m changing all kinds of things; the characterizations, a bit of the plot, the ending. It’s extra daunting to go in and start messing around with something that already had a finished-ness to it, but I know it has to be done. Part of me feels like: still this? I’ve been working on this novel for years…three years, it turns out (I had to go look it up). Well, it’s gonna be a few months more. I am predicting six months, and then, after that, I’m sure I’ll have to revise it again. 

That’s okay. I am good at long-term projects. I am a master of delayed gratification. When I first saw kids taking the marshmallow test (kids who can wait five minutes before eating a marshmallow earn a second marshmallow), I knew exactly how five-year-old-me would have reacted: I would have asked, if I can wait ten minutes, can I get two extra marshmallows? 

Someday, this novel will be finished. And I’ll look back on the days when I was writing it, and revising it, and revising it again, and I’ll think: wasn’t that the most fun I ever had? 

I am singing the “REVISION!” song to this tune (the traditional song of my ancestors, the New York Jews):

Girl, You Need More Makeup (AKA The Photo Shoot)

Yesterday I did something very, very out of character for me. I let someone put a bunch of makeup on me and then take pictures! I know, so crazy. 

First of all, I don’t like taking pictures. (If you have ever done jiu jitsu with me, you know this). Especially digital pictures (which are the only kind of pictures anyone takes of me). There is no worse self-consciousness than posing for a picture, trying not to make a weird face, then having the photographer check the picture and tell me to stop making that weird face. 

But as I get ready to do some presentations and readings, I realized that I need some decent publicity photos. The photo I usually use is one I took with my computer, sitting at a coffee shop grading essays. 

coffee-shop selfie
I like this picture because it really captures my essence. In case you ever wondered what my life is like (I know you can’t stop thinking about it), it’s basically like that picture. 

For the conference I just went to, Michelle and I wanted to include pictures with our email addresses at the end of our presentation. She had a lovely professional photo of herself smiling at a literary event, wearing her signature red lipstick and dark eyeshadow.

Lovely picture of Michelle Gonzales

I had…the coffee-shop selfie. 

“You can’t put those two pictures next to each other,” Michelle said. “You’re not even smiling.” 

We found another photo where I was smiling, from her birthday party a few years ago. But compared to her photo, mine still looked faded and unprofessional. 

That brings up another issue: makeup. I am not a big makeup wearer. I use some tinted moisturizer and lip gloss; that’s about it. I think it is quite lovely on other people, but I just don’t need to look that pretty on a daily basis. But for my grown-up-professional-teacher/writer photos, I would need to wear, as my favorite song of 2015 puts it, “just a touch of makeup, some natural looking makeup.” 

Luckily, my friend and former student, Claire Nobles, is a badass makeup artist and amateur photographer. So I hired her to put actual makeup on me. This included such extremely bizarre substances as foundation, blush, MASCARA (aka eyelash tar). It actually all felt very good, except the mascara which I have officially decided is yucky (but looks good in pictures). The nicest part was the foundation, because Claire applies it with an airbrush, which feels like a cool fan blowing on your face. I liked how the blush looked, which I didn’t expect. She did it so it didn’t look like blush, but just like my cheeks were naturally a bit red. 

We took the photos in the Oakland Rose Garden, which is one of my favorite places in Oakland and the world. I’ll have the pictures in a week or so, after Claire processes them, but here is a sneak preview. 

Karin in front of pretty blue flowers. Karin by redwood tree

Also I love this song so much: 

If you are looking for an amazing makeup artist, Claire Nobles can be found at her website and on instagram and twitter.  

Preview: Garbage Doesn’t Sell

I’m writing series of short stories, and I’ll be starting a blog to share them. Meanwhile, here’s a preview.

Feely the cat was dead.

Run over on the street in front of the apartment slash art studio. That’s where Yolanda found him, on Monday morning, when she was out looking for garbage with her big metal bowl. He was just lying there like maybe he was okay, but he wasn’t okay. His mouth had blood and other stuff coming out of it, stuff that looked like it belonged inside of him, and his eyes were all bugged out. And one of his little legs was sticking out a bad angle. Other than that, he looked really good for being dead. You could tell how soft and fluffy he was, and all his orange stripes and his white paws were there. He looked like he’d still feel really good if you petted him.

“Feely,” she said. It just came out of her mouth, like it meant something, like he could still turn his little head and give her a big, indifferent cat yawn. Still meander over all slow and pet himself on her outstretched hand.

She had to yell and wave her arms a lot to get the traffic to stop. All these cars were just flying down Foothill Boulevard, just honking and speeding and running right over Feely, because they just had to get to their fancy grownup jobs and the mall and wherever people went in a big rush at ten in the morning. Zipping right past her, even though she was waving her arms, yelling, “My cat! My cat!” And he was just getting more and more messed up: flatter, fur smashed into the pavement, leg maybe starting to fall off.

Finally this one guy in a little red car stopped. Yolanda ran into the street and put Feely into the metal bowl. His hips were totally flat like a pancake, with all the guts out. The leg was dangling by some tendons but it was still attached. His head was in pretty good shape, and his fur felt soft, like it looked. But his body was all stiff. She scooped up as much guts as she could with her fingers. She squatted low, got her face close to the street so she could look for small bits like whiskers or some fur or brains.

The people behind the red car were honking. They couldn’t go around because the cars in the other lane were zipping by really fast like usual. Yolanda yelled, “Go burn! Burn in a fire! I hope you get a disease!”

The guy in the red car started honking, too, and waving his arms, like what’s wrong with you, get out of the street. Like he’d never seen a person whose cat got killed before. Yolanda could have stayed there blocking them, could have sat on her butt right there. Pissing people off did not lose her one tiny baby wink of sleep. She thrived on pissing people off. Also it was necessary for people to learn the lesson of not rushing and that sometimes you are just going to be late, and even if you are missing your flight or something, it was not the worst thing that would ever happen to you. It was much worse to have your cat be dead right in front of you and have to pick up all his guts, even if you were kind of ambivalent in your feelings about death as a general thing.

Then she noticed the big puddle of blood that her foot was making. Reminding her she should have put on shoes, because there was always a bunch of glass in the street. So she raised her fist at the cars. She was still in her nightgown so they could probably see her boobs flopping around. And all her armpit hair. Go on, get a good look, television zombies. Brainwashed cartoons. She held the bowl up so they could see Feely. And she yelled, as loud she could with her raspy voice, “This is my cat!” And again, so they’d really know, “THIS is my CAT!”

Stop Calling Students “Unprepared”!

me and Michelle at the 2015 ALP Conference
conference selfie

I might have mentioned before that I sometimes don’t like conferences. I might have also mentioned that conferences about teaching are usually pretty good (mostly because I love talking to teachers).

The conference I just got back from was fucking incredible.

It was the conference of the Accelerated Learning Project, or ALP. Accelerated learning can mean a lot of things, but for the ALP, it means (usually) reducing the time it takes for community college students to get into college level courses.

More than half of community college students are placed into English and math courses that are below college level. We call these students “unprepared,” shake our heads at why students have such low skills, chastise the high schools that give students such bad preparation. But the truth is, most of the students placed into these courses are not incapable of doing college-level work.

In fact, the methods we use to determine who is ready for college courses are horribly flawed. Most colleges use multiple choice tests. Studies have shown that these tests are not valid predictors of student ability. One of the most common tests, Compass, was just discontinued this month because its creator, ACT, determined that the test didn’t predict how students would do in college.

My colleagues and I have taken the placement test given at our college. When the counselors asked us which questions students should get right in order to be prepared for college English, we couldn’t tell them. The questions seemed to have no connection to anything we actually teach. One section in particular baffled me. The directions said, “For the following questions, we will ask you to rewrite sentences in your head.”

So I knew the placement system was bad. In particular, I knew it was bad for the following reasons:

  • It prolongs the time the student will spend in college.
  • It costs the students more money.
  • It discourages students, many of whom drop out rather than face multiple levels needed just to join an actual college course.
  • It sends a message of inadequacy and unwelcome to students.
  • It underestimates the abilities of many or possibly most students.
  • It sets low expectations.
  • It disproportionately places minority, poor, and female students into below-college-level courses.

Another problem with having multiple levels of below-college-level courses is what is called the pipeline effect. As the course sequence to get to college-level classes becomes longer and longer, more and more students leak out of the pipe and never make it through. Every added level that a student needs to take exponentially reduces their chance of reaching a college level course. For example, consider 100 students placed two levels below college-level English. Imagine that 80% of students pass their course and advance to the next course each semester.

100 students enroll in 2 levels below Freshman Comp.
80 students enroll in 1-level below Freshman Comp.
64 students enroll in Freshman Comp.

Only 64% of students get a chance to take the college courses that they had in mind when they enrolled for college.  And these are the best possible circumstances. Eighty percent success is much higher than average in these courses (typical success might be more like 40-60%). Also, not every student who passes the course will enroll in the subsequent course. So the actual numbers of students who never make it through the system are much worse. Of course, some do repeat the course and eventually move forward, but many do not, discouraged by the seemingly endless road ahead of them. Many schools have more than two levels below college-level; four or five levels is not uncommon. 

These numbers are particularly disturbing when you consider that many or most of these students were placed incorrectly by their placement tests. And under-placed students are at great risk of dropping out because of boredom and frustration.

I already knew all this before the conference. That’s why I went: to learn how we can change our system to not place students in lower-than-necessary courses. But the conference made me realize how dire this problem is, and how many students might be wasting their time and money, getting discouraged, and/or dropping out of school because they have been incorrectly placed by a standardized test.

When more students are allowed into college-level English right away, success rates for college English go up, not down.  The following graph shows how many students pass freshman English (the first college-level course) at Butte College. Butte changed from one standardized placement test to another a few years ago. When they gave the new test, they found it placed about twice as many students into college-level English as the previous test had. The college decided to let these placements stand, to see what happened. You might expect that a smaller percent of students would be able to pass college English, since more “unprepared” students were allowed in. But in fact, the opposite happened.

graph of college English completion rates at Butte College
From “Let Icarus Fly: The Four Cornerstones of Gateway Course Completion and the “Re-imagination” of Student Capacity” by John J. Hetts. His research is incredible. Presentation here:

When students were placed higher, many more students were able to pass college English within two years of taking their first English class. This means that most of the so-called unprepared students were actually able to pass college English and did not need the extra, preparation classes. (The chart breaks the students down by race because the lower placement of non-white students is a particular area of concern). 

For students who do need extra help, colleges can offer a tutoring or support class that takes place the same semester as college English, rather than before it. That way, students get support for their schoolwork, but aren’t prevented from taking college classes.

The best thing about going to a conference about a topic like this is I got to meet lots of amazing teachers who really care about students, about treating them with respect as adults, about not making unfair judgments about them, about making sure they have access to education and that they are truly learning when they are in our classes. It’s amazing to see how many people believe in this model of education, and even more amazing to see the organizers of the conference, who are willing to travel the country fighting for equal educational opportunity for all students.