Thoughts on teaching and learning

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I have spent so many years of my life teaching and, while there have been challenges, none have been as challenging as my most recent experience. I can’t say it’s because of the difference in the overall culture, because I grew up in a very western-like setting and a very cosmopolitan city that is far more advanced than where I am now. Perhaps that could be the reason, and yet I have found such a different attitude towards learning and education here than what I have encountered and know of among cultures in the eastern hemisphere.

In the east where I grew up, education was valued highly. Good education was a privilege, because not everyone could afford it. Nonetheless, nearly everyone wanted to go get an education if they could, and for the middle and higher classes, that meant paying whatever families could afford to go to a more prestigious private school run by a religious organization. Private schools meant learning all lessons in English, which was recognized as a huge advantage. Private schools also meant more progressive curricula and more adequate educational support systems, from textbooks to laboratory and sports equipment. Private schools competed with each other to achieve the highest status because that brought greater recognition and graduates thereof were in demand. Public schools suffered because of lack of funding, poorly paid and poorly trained teachers, and overcrowding. As a result, few public school graduates made it through college or attended mediocre colleges and diploma mills just so they could join the workforce as blue-collar workers. The rest joined the workforce as contractual labourers, farmers, fishermen, house help, and the like. Even training for skilled trades cost more than the average person could afford, so many workers remained unskilled labourers.

Here, education seems to be taken for granted, not only in the public schools, where many children feel they are being forced to attend and would rather not go. I wonder if that is because it is seen more as a right than anything else, and because the government strives to ensure everyone receives an education. Even when they enter a college for technical or vocational training for which they pay a considerable sum, they seem to treat it as a right rather than a privilege. Could that be why many students, as a whole, are more demanding and less inclined to be motivated to do any work on their own? Because if it is seen as a right, is there a general feeling that education, skills training, and knowledge are owed to them rather than something they should work hard to acquire?

That attitude could be a huge problem and a barrier to learning simply because the students expect knowledge to be handed to them on a silver platter. I had that feeling when I taught a class at university for one semester, and the students gave feedback saying that they expected me to lecture them 3 hours straight, which would have been the whole period; they also expected me to teach them everything I knew about teaching–which, by then, was over 20 years of collective teaching experience at all levels, from preschool to university, including professional training and development. Worse yet, many of them did not like the process of delivering demos and receiving 360-degree feedback because they felt they were being embarrassed in front of their peer. My thoughts were that if they could not receive criticism from peers, what more of their students when they would be working as teachers?

In my most recent experience, I have received feedback saying that students did not appreciate having to do research or self-directed study. Also, I learned they were not expected to do much homework or assignments outside of classroom hours. They had 40 hours a week of class time with no real study periods. It seems like a lot of cramming of a lot of information in very little time. I know that where I came from, universities and colleges were regulated in regard to the maximum number of hours of coursework students could take each semester, which would be 24 hours or a maximum of 8 classes each week. That way, students would have 16 hours to absorb any new information, research, and complete assignments. They would also have time for extra-curricular activities. After all, we want well-rounded graduates, don’t we? All that this cramming does to churn out graduates as quickly as possible is spit them out half-baked.

Another thing some students did not appreciate was not being given key search terms for researching in the Internet, or even having to research on the Internet. Research is a skill we develop little by little, from being a beginning reader to one who looks words up in a dictionary, from being a novice Internet user searching for music, videos, and games, to the Internet user who appreciates and takes advantage of links, wiki references, and information databases. The Internet has made research so easy, allowing users to enter anything from words to questions and spitting out hundreds of thousands of search results. The sophisticated user will know how to narrow the topic down to very specific questions, or cast a wider net by searching for keywords. Who determines the keyword? Certainly not a tertiary-level professor. By the time students are at the tertiary level, students are expected to be discerning enough to figure out what keywords and questions to use when researching a topic. Unless they have never worked with computers or search engines (even if they don’t know what a search engine is, they most likely have used one if they have used computers and gone on the Internet), there is no reason a student can’t figure out how to search for a topic, given a question to answer.

I could go on and on and create a dissertation-long blog entry, but I will stop here and explore these ideas further another time. Until then, au revoir.

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To Reach the Unreachable Spot

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Have you ever seen Baloo the bear in the The Jungle Book movie scratch his back? He just about goes crazy finding the perfect tree with bark of just the right roughness, or maybe protruding branches, to rub his itchy back on. That image brings to mind a young man I used to work with at a Tim Hortons coffee shop, who utilized the corners of walls or posts to scratch his back, which seemed to frequently plague him with itching. (Is it just men who so frequently get itchy back? Perhaps because of their propensity to grow hair there?)

That brings me to examine the myriad and most effective ways to relieve that unbearable itch.

The most obvious way, naturally, it to be like a bear and find a post, wall, or doorknob against which you can rub your back. That is really handy when you’re alone in a place where there isn’t much you can use. If you’re not alone, you can, quite obviously, simply ask another person to scratch your back for you. Not that very many people are likely to oblige, though. That would really depend on your relationship with that person. (Just as a warning, strangers are less likely to oblige and might take offense, look at you strangely, or do more than just scratch your back, if you know what I mean.)

The next best way would be to find an implement long enough to reach that unreachable spot. Quite often, a pen or pencil will do the job nicely. Don’t forget to use the non-writing end of the pen, though, or make sure it is capped. Ink isn’t always easy to get off your skin, and if you had to bare your back, for whatever reason, people might wonder at your unusual tattoos and try to figure out which prison you got them in, or if you had a very bad tattoo artist. Pencils don’t write quite as easily on skin, so it doesn’t matter which end you use. The pointy tip is generally more effective. However, it does matter if you’re wearing a light-colored top. Pencil marks on that don’t rub off easily. To be safe, just don’t scratch with the writing end.

You can also use a ruler, which is longer and good for that itch which is somewhere dead center so you can reach it with neither the overhand nor the underhand scratch. Rulers are also better for taller people with longer backs. You get the picture.

One of my personal favorites is a paint brush–not a house painter’s wide brush, but rather the artist’s long, elegant paint brush (such as I prefer to use). The handle tips are very effective for scratching that damned spot, although, I have been known to sometimes have multi-colored hair in the back of my head.

Around the house, you’re more likely to find all manner of implements besides pens, pencils, rulers, and paint brushes (but the last only if you happen to be an artist, of course, or have a child in the house with a handy paint set with a brush that hasn’t disappeared under a couch or fridge or some other inconvenient piece of furniture or appliance you can’t reach under). Thinking of children, you could use their little plastic bows and arrows (if they have a set conveniently lying around) or assemble a Lego tower (again, if they have enough pieces you can find). Rummage around your closet and you could use a hanger or a mop or broom handle, depending pretty much on which closet you’re rummaging through. A long-handled shoe horn can also be very effective.

Cooks, chefs, and other kitchen workers have a distinct advantage because their cooking implements are generally close at hand. They have rolling pins (too round, sometimes, but will do in a pinch), whisks, wooden spoons, mixing spoons, cooking forks or turners, and knives (completely inadvisable). The best tool, however, is the pasta spoon or fork or ladle–you know which one I mean. It has perfectly curved claws that scratch as well as a hand–often better, because it has more fingers! It’s infinitely better than a garden fork or clawed hand rake, which tends to have a shorter handle and might be covered in soil. Just make sure you dump the pasta (or serve it) before you use the pasta server. Of course, if I saw a cook do that, I wouldn’t be likely to finish my dinner or ever eat that cook’s food again!

Whether it be a lowly pencil or a stainless steel pasta server or a fancy long-handled tangle-removing hairbrush, if it aids you to reach that unreachable spot, to scratch that impossible itch, no matter how itchy, no matter how far, then you have found the perfect spar!

*****

(Written while a student was writing an essay describing five unusual ways to use a pencil.)

On the Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee controversies…

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There is nothing wrong with saying it like it is. There is no reason, however, to be offensive, abrasive, insulting, or rude. Some people just didn’t learn their manners. Some people just don’t care how what they say or do affects others. Some people think they sound smart and good and sassy, which is not really smart or good. Some people think they can get away with saying and doing anything they want because of their social status, wealth, or popularity.
 
I am so glad people are calling them out on their behavior and taking action. It’s just showing the world that we don’t have to listen to people who are loud and bullies. We don’t need to listen to people who are insulting or offensive. There is enough negativity in the world. There are better, more tactful, and subtle ways to get the point across. Let’s stop feeding our children and grandchildren with this permissive acceptance of what really is crude and low-brow entertainment.
 
Do we really want to live in a world where people exchange expletives in normal discourse? Where people barrel ahead, do what they want, and get what they want just because nobody wants to be their next target? The world does not need bullies. Many of us would have grown up with greater confidence and more spectacular achievements if we were not bullied in childhood.
Take it from someone who was bullied throughout her childhood.

Why did Health PEI Board of Directors resign?

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This article was in the local news today — http://www.theguardian.pe.ca/news/local/updated-entire-health-pei-board-of-directors-resigns-over-concern-with-government-direction-212349/

 

Okay, first of all, this article says the changes will align Health PEI with other systems across the country; second, the changes will increase accountability within the health care system; third, they will create stronger linkages to community; fourth, they will clearly define roles and responsibility for both the ministry and the health authority. I don’t see how any of that is bad. No healthcare system should be isolated from the people they serve; no healthcare system should exist without great accountability, since our lives depend on it; no healthcare system (or any other system) should operate without clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

While MacBeath thinks Health PEI has done a phenomenal job in creating a single and unified health system for the island, that does nothing for the actual delivery of health services. Ask any islander who has sat in the emergency waiting room for anywhere from 3 to 12 hours before being seen by a doctor or even a nurse; emergency room intake clinics with only one in operation; emergency room doctors being caught asleep instead of attending to patients; emergency room staff chatting or doing things other than attending to patients, while patients wait to be seen; patients with critical symptoms who are sent home; patients who are unable to make an appointment with their family doctors without having to wait anywhere from one week, if they are fortunate, to three weeks, a month, or even more if not — usually, by then, the conditions patients need to consult their doctors about could have worsened considerably or disappeared; islanders who still do not have a family doctor despite having grown up on the island; family doctors who do not listen to their patients’ concerns and dismiss them summarily without even checking them; the conspicuous lack of specialists; the inability to keep emergency rooms open 24/7 all over the island; the inability to be admitted into a nursing home or long-term care facility without a waiting list; the absence of dental care for all islanders; the limited vision care; the lack of mental health professionals; and the list goes on — as far as I am concerned, these all sound like gross mismanagement and an inability to deliver quality services worthy of a first-world nation, in which case it is a good thing the board has resigned.

Don’t get me wrong. I respect and admire doctors for their skill and their service. I grew up around hospitals and physicians in a third-world country where I never had to wait more than an hour, at the worst, in an emergency room in a private hospital where my health insurance covered everything; where I could see my family doctor on the same day I showed up at the clinic; where specialists were not difficult to find or access. I’m not saying that system was perfect, because most health care was private, and what was provided by the government was equally excellent if difficult to access because of the sheer density of the population being served.

I am fortunate to have a caring, concerned family doctor–I am fortunate that I already have a family doctor! I am fortunate that I have not had to be a frequent visitor to the emergency room, and the few times I had to go on my own, without being brought by an ambulance, I had to wait no more than an hour before an intake nurse saw me and only somewhere between three to six hours before a doctor saw me.

I wonder how doctors and nurses can take an oath to heal and serve yet tolerate this appalling lack of quality service or even selflessness that is needed in their professions. I wonder why it is so difficult new doctors or doctors from out-of-province to set up a practice here. I wonder why some doctors are able to tuck away over a million dollars in salaries and vacation once or twice a year, leaving patients without anyone to see. I wonder why booking with some specialists has to be done up to a year in advance. I wonder why islanders even have to go off island to see certain types of specialists. I wonder why there is an ambulatory clinic where you can’t just ambulate in to be seen when you have the time or the need for attention to something that is not an emergency. I wonder why we can’t communicate directly with our doctors by email — they don’t even give out their email.

If copying the systems in other provinces brings us up to the standards of other provinces so that ER waiting times can be cut down to an hour or less; so that every islander has a family doctor; so that ERs are open 24/7 all over the island; so that patients always see their health service professionals genuinely concerned about their health instead of idling away time while ER patients wait; so that triage procedures are followed; so that we have all the specialists we need on island; so that every member of the healthcare system is accountable to the islanders , whose taxes pay their salaries; so that hospitals are operated with absolute efficiency and no complexity — because the best management system is that which makes the complex seem effortless and simple, rather than cumbersome and difficult. If the health care system is delivered by the government, then by all means, it should be directed by the government. Why should they resist improvement and change, when it is crystal clear to every islander that it needs improvement and change? A mass resignation like this shows a lack of concern for the community they should be serving.

Let them be reminded of the Hippocratic Oath they swore to, which, nowhere, says that they should enrich themselves, vacation in southern countries, limit access to their services, and allow patients to wait hours on end suffering varying degrees of pain, discomfort, and anxiety from simply not being attended to.

A Modern Version of the Hippocratic Oath

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

Diatribe over.

What’s in a Name?

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Last week, I included the poem, “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer and referred to him as “she/her”, for which I sincerely apologize. I have so many female friends named Joyce that my mind automatically assigns the feminine pronouns to the name. In the same way, I have so many female friends named Evelyn, we forget that it is a male British name, immortalized by the writer Evelyn Waugh. The practice of naming children since the second half of the 19th century has become extremely complex and confusing. Prior to the 60s, people used traditional names in traditional ways. Boys were Robert, Peter, John, or William; girls were Linda, Rose, Marie, or Sarah. Well, sure, there were more names, but the names used were also traditional names, many of which had been used in previous generations. When the 60s floated in with the world-wide flower power, hippie lifestyle, and love generation, people began naming their children after nature, like Daisy, Amber, Hawk, and Rain, or after virtues such as Hope, Charity, and Love. After that, international names became more popular, following the rise of certain celebrities. It did not take long for people, looking for originality, to put a twist in the spelling of traditional names, followed by the invention of names or adapting names to suit the opposite gender, which, by the way, is really common in cultures where the simple change of an ending changed the gender of a name. By the 80s, baby-naming books included popular names from around the world, and the options have been growing in leaps and bounds. Since the 1990s, the trend has been to use gender-neutral names and Ashley, Lindsey, and Leslie have become highly popular, along with dozens of permutations in spelling: Ashlee, Lindsay, Lesley. Many surnames have also became popular first-name choices, such as Branden, Morgan, and Regan. I have subbed in classes where there were several Jaimes, both male and female, pronounced “Jay-mee”. In the Spanish-speaking world, Jaime is pronounced “Hai-me” with a short e and is a masculine name, the Spanish equivalent of James. Multicultural exposure in the western hemisphere has also presented parents with more child-naming options, and besides French, Irish, and Scottish names proliferating in North America, parents are looking to Russian, German, and Spanish names to adopt. So what can you find out about a person through their names? Nowadays, it’s safe to say, almost nothing, because who knows what Morgan’s gender is? Nonetheless, if you are choosing names for your characters, it’s safe to do a quick name search for popular names from each year to match your character’s dates of birth as well as place of birth. Let’s just say it’s not likely to have a North American born in the 50s to be named Shakira.

Valentine’s Day Again, or Love and Other Emotions

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You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love.
~ Ernest Hemingway

Valentine’s Day is around again and, while that might not mean much to some people, it certainly means something to the masses victimized by commercialism. At the very least, it’s a good time to reflect on love and its accompanying emotions. Yes, love afflicts people with various emotions, depending on the situation. When we fall in love we are elated, feel joy, happiness. Sometimes we become obsessed with the object of our attentions and we end up despairing,  miserable, insecure, and uncertain if the attention is unreciprocated. If the one we love loves someone else, we become jealous or envious, which can lead to anger and rage. When we lose love, we go through sorrow, grief, despair, and misery all over again. When our love is reciprocated, we become excited and exuberant. Clearly, love is one powerful emotion that floats us up to cloud 9 or has our heads in a tizzy. No wonder people celebrate Valentine’s Day. It brings the promise of so much more than just chocolates and roses. It reminds us what it is to be alive.

Imagination is enhanced by inspiration and, usually, the best inspiration comes from being in love. That’s probably why literature is littered with so many love poems, songs, and love stories. Love and courtship have certainly been the motivation for countless historical events, giving rise to a couple of eras when the subject of literature revolved around the themes of courtly romance, chivalry, love, and beauty. Even outside those eras, there has been no shortage of literature dwelling on similar themes. However, I believe imagination is likewise enhanced by any other powerful emotion. A great deal of writing has emerged from anger and rage, fear, despair, grief, depression, and joy. Inspiration certainly is not limited to what only those emotions evoke—humans are afflicted with myriad emotions in varying intensities and writers take advantage of that. Writers are moved to express the infinite nuances of each emotion in countless ways and fill millions of shelves with the whole gamut of emotions pouring out of millions of characters that entertain and—yes—inspire the reading world.

Writing Short Stories: Beginning with Character

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In my short story writing classes this year, I started a new approach that’s working wonders. We started with creating the main character, the protagonist and giving that character a problem. I’m going out on a limb and saying that’s all you really need: a character and a problem. You might wonder how that becomes a story. The story comes from how that character reacts to the problem. Usually, you’d think a character with a problem would want to solve the problem. Not all the time. Sometimes, characters will try to avoid the problem or ignore it. Or they will try to get rid of the problem–not necessarily solving it–but hiding, disguising, or pawning it off on someone else. Does that sound familiar? That’s because that is exactly what people do when they’re faced with problems: they try to solve them, avoid them, or get rid of them. There is a requirement before you can even write how your character approaches the problem: you need to know your character intimately–possibly even more than you know yourself. You need to know your character’s traits, which I identify as physical, psychological, and professional. Remember, not all traits are ideal–just because nobody is perfect. All human beings are complex and have one or more shortcomings, flaws, or faults, and this reality should reflect in your characters. Physical traits include all physical characteristics, down to crooked yellowing teeth and a mole on the left elbow. Psychological traits include personality, emotional profile, even personality types. An easy way to get general psychological traits is using zodiac personality traits or look at personality profiles based on different tests (Enneagram or Myers-Briggs are easy to find). You can also include habits and preferences, similar to a slumbook — favorite color, favorite song, favorite clothes, favorite movie, favorite food, and all other favorites as well as any particular dislikes. Professional traits don’t necessarily mean your character is a professional. This is just a way of describing what a character does–and professional can simply be a housewife or househusband, student, or retired navy captain. After identifying your character’s traits, you need to create a biographical history, a background, family, friends, associates, milieu. You need to know where the character grew up, lives, works, studied. You need to know what your character has for breakfast and where he or she gets coffee. Finally, you need to examine your character’s motivations: Why do they do what they do? Why do they think, act, speak, or feel a certain way? What makes them happy, sad, angry? What are they passionate about? Only when you know how your character feels and thinks will you be able to write how your character will react, what your character will do when faced with a particular problem. Then you will have a story.

 

Improve Your Writing through Observation

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Writing is as technical and scientific as it is creative. Yes, even when you write creatively, there is no end to the use of scientific methods. Those of you who remember science classes will recall the scientific method requires (1) observation, (2) questioning, (3) hypothesizing, (4) experimentation, and (5) conclusion or generalization. We use the same skills when writing creatively. How? Let’s begin with observation. Writers observe the world around them, probably more so than any other people. It is from observation that writers find topics to write about. From observation, writers are able to create detailed descriptions of just about anything. How else would you describe the expressions on a person’s face who receives news of a tragedy—the widening of the eyes, the jaws dropping slightly or more, the blank expression of being unable to comprehend, and then the realization of the actuality. You watch people as they react to different situations and then ask yourself: Does the recipient accept the news, understand it, control emotional responses? Or does the recipient break down in shock, express denial, anger, depression, pain, or anguish? What emotions are expressed or shown? How are the emotions expressed? Some emotions might show similar facial expressions and body language but there are universal similarities in the way people react and the way they express emotions. The next thing you do is make certain predictions or guesses. What will the person do next? Why did the person react that way? What about the news affected the person so much? Experimentation might not be a very evident step, but when you explore the different reactions to the same situation, change certain factors—maybe where or when the news is delivered, or who receives the news, or how the news is conveyed—you could come up with several possible situations you can play around with. When you know how your characters will respond and commit that to your story, you will have come to a conclusion. The whole process of creating stories involves the exact same process in a gazillion permutations and each combination will be a different story. That’s why you’ll never run out of stories to tell.

To writers, though their pens lie still (a poem)

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…And though their pens lie still and no new stories unfold
their stories will linger forever and be told and retold
their words will stay alive and leap from every page
forever to regale a reader, no matter what their age,
and while they’ll never leave another footstep on the ground
their words will travel far and wide and circulate around
we’ll always hear their voices whispering softly in our heads
we know they will live on and on as long as they are read.

©cindylapeña, 2016

Because we lost so many writers in 2016…

http://www.cbc.ca/books/2016/12/in-memoriam-authors-we-lost-in-2016.html

What writers do for the holidays

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If you’re like me, you’ll probably be taking advantage of the holiday season to write because it’s a nice chunk off work. Of course, since I’m completely off a regular job, I have all the time in the world to write and paint now, until I find another job. That also means I have all the time in the world to procrastinate. I could make up several excuses not to write or paint: my apartment is a mess, thanks to soon-to-be-gone neighbors; I haven’t decorated for Christmas, although considering it’s two days away, what’s the point in decorating; I’ll be cooking up a storm for Christmas dinner, although considering my apartment is a mess, there’s not much room to debone a turkey, and since all I do is end up eating the same meal every day for the rest of the week until New Year’s, when I’ll probably roast another turkey that’ll feed me until Valentine’s day, so what’s the point, really, of making a huge meal for one person; there are new castle puzzles online and completing them with 500 pieces makes a satisfying couple of hours; I could catch up on tv series and movies I’ve missed and binge watch Fibe On Demand or Netflix; I could try out my brand new Amazon Prime video and catch up on shows that aren’t on Fibe On Demand or Netflix; I could catch up on my reading, finally; I need to finish prepping for my winter courses; I need to clean up my apartment since it’s been a mess for the last three weeks, thanks again to my inconsiderate neighbors; I need to catch up on my advanced courses–and since I haven’t been signing in every week, I’ll need to start all over again just to refresh my memory; I need to resume my French lessons–and since I haven’t touched those books for the longest time, I’ll need to review everything again; I need to update a lot of things on my websites, including adding new content, etc.; I need to continue making and posting online content for sale; I need to make more new crafts for sale; and the list goes on. There are some things I can do at the same time, of course, such as my laundry and anything else; or keep the TV on as I work on my computer–it’s pretty much how I keep abreast with all the shows I want to see; then I’ll watch them all over again because I won’t remember seeing a thing or will forget the stories because I was engrossed with writing or painting. My point is, we writers are probably the most creative people when it comes to thinking of ways to put off writing. Thank goodness for a weekly newsletter that keeps me writing something. It would be just as easy to set it aside, but we don’t want to disappoint.

Whatever it is you decide to do throughout the holidays, may you have the best of the holiday season and wishing you find some time to get a bit of writing in!

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and the Best of the Season to you all!