Monthly Archives: January 2007

Grammar Wednesday!

Gerry, over at TwoBlueDay, has asked for some clarification where quotation marks are concerned.

* Rule number one – NO DOUBLE PUNCTUATION! Don’t put a question mark in the quotation marks, then a period to end the sentence. You only need one mark:

Susan asked, “would you please just stop tapping your foot?”

* Always put a period inside a quotation that ends a sentence:

Forrest Gump was right when he said, “life is like a box of chocolates.”

* If your punctuation (other than a period; see rule #1) has to do with the sentence, put the mark outside the quotation marks:

Which professor was it who told us that “my class is the only one that should matter to you”?

Have you read “The Raven”?

The crazy woman backed into my car, then waved and smiled without so much as a “sorry”!

* If the punctuation has to do with your quote, put it inside the quotation marks:

He asked, “did you know that my middle name is Ludwig?”

After she caught Steve cheating, Jan exclaimed, “all men are swine!”

* Even if your sentence AND quote are questions (or exclamations), put the mark inside the quote and, again, never use double marks:

Did you see the movie “What About Bob?”

Which song has the lyric “who can it be now?”

Blue asked for some clarification of the who’s/whose and its/it’s conundrums, so here they are again:

Most common pronouns don’t take an “apostrophe-s” when being made possessive; his, hers, ours, theirs, yours, whose and its:

Whose socks are in the silverware drawer?

The car is so underpowered, it can’t get out of its own way.

The “apostrophe-s” form indicates a contraction and means it (or who) is (or has):

It’s been five days since you tackled me; I’ve still got the rug burns on both my knees.”

The car blew its transmission and now it’s totally junked.

Who’s responsible for bringing the Jell-o mold salad to the church dinner?

The man, who’s a lumberjack and a cowboy, turns into a softie whenever there’s a baby around.

I taught my students to remember this by having them imagine that the apostrophe is really the dot to the “i” that’s supposed to be there….

As always, feel free to ask for clarification if I didn’t quite explain it right, and keep those suggestions coming!!

Happy Wednesday!


Filed under Grammar

Learning to See

I’ve talked before about how important it is for a writer to be observant. I am working on ways of sneaking observation into every lesson plan I design for the rest of the term, and I think that my students are really starting to figure how to put what they see (or, more importantly, what they think is important about what they see), into words.

I had lunch today with someone very dear to me. MeadMaker and I have a very long history – we broke 20 years 4 years ago – and we very often go to each other for help seeing outside our respective boxes; I’m not sure it’s possible for two people to think more differently, yet still get along as we do.

MeadMaker has decided to go back to school, and has started the process by taking a single Gen. Ed. – psych. – at his community college (not TCC; I’ll never be his English teacher*). He asked me today what he can do to be a better writer.

Did I mention how different we are?

I started out by telling him that the most important quality that writers share is the ability to really SEE things. Notice the color of the water that collects in the old coffee can under the rain spout. See that the waitress has two earrings on one side, but only one on the other. Imagine what happened to the guy in front of you in line at the bank to make him so cranky today. Play with images or snippits of other people’s conversations.

He rolled his eyes at me.

The truth of the matter is that he just doesn’t pay attention to things that don’t directly affect him. We’ve been meeting for lunch at this restaurant every Tuesday for the better part of two months now, and not only could he not remember our usual waitress’s name, but he couldn’t even describe her to the guy who took us in to be seated. We always end up at one of three tables in the same section, and I was able to tell him what hangs on the wall across from us (it’s a TGIFriday’s, so it’s loaded up with things like posters from Charlie’s Angels and Jaws, bits from games of Twister and Operation, a picture of the Kennedy family in their little wooden boats, a Worhol print of Marilyn, a picture of the crew of M*A*S*H and one of Diana Ross and the Supremes, along with a bunch of other pop memorabelia). As I’m doing this, his eyes are getting bigger and bigger. We’ve sat across from these things every week for months, and he’s never even given the stuff a passing glance.

I’m going to send him some exercises to get him thinking like a writer and hope that they help him. He may never put pen to paper with anything I send him – frankly, he’s got enough work to do without my adding more to it – but if he takes some time to THINK about what I ask him to see, I think he’ll find that he notices a lot more than he ever did.

**it’s a damned shame that he’s not going to TCC and that I’ll never be his English teacher, because I’d be the best one he ever had…

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Filed under about writing, Teaching

Another Monday

So, I met with my Monday hybrid class this morning. The class itself went pretty well; nearly everyone was there and we managed to get through an amazing amount of material in the scant two hours we have alloted to us. I’m feeling much less pessimistic about this class as a whole after today, though I still have grave doubts about some specific individuals. I also decided, after meeting with my boss in the copy room this morning, that I’m going to teach my classes exactly the same way; that I’m not going to be afraid to load my hybrid class up with the work I feel they need to do just because they don’t seem willing to do it.

Another Comp. teacher was in the room when I was explaining to Joe that I don’t feel as though I’m doing my best for these students because I’m hesitant to give them the work that they need to boost their skills and reinforce the concepts that I’m teaching them. “They’re not doing the work I’m giving them now,” I explained, “I don’t want to give them more work that they’re just not going to do. All that does is increase their opportunities for failure.” While both Joe and the other teacher agreed that this may be the likely outcome of my giving the students the work I feel they need, they both pointed out that this is college: these students have the choice of whether to participate in their education or not, and my hesitancy to give them the work they need to do in order to learn what I’ve been contracted to teach them is serving no one.

The students went home today with a worksheet and nine assignments from the book (understand, though, that the book assignments are things like “write five sentences” about something or “identify the subject and verb in the following sentences” or “think of four different synonyms for the following five words”). Starting next week, there will be significant writing assignments added to their general grammar lessons (becuase they still need the grammar lessons). I’ve also told them that I’m going to stop grading on a credit/no credit basis; that they’re going to have to start putting some real effort into making sense with what they write to me.

Joe told me that he and the head chef are going to be making the rounds to Gen. Ed classes starting next week, making public service announcements (though I suspect these will seem much more like not-so-thinly veiled threats) about how important it is to do well in the math, English and computer science courses the students are required to take to complete their degrees. I’m not entirely certain these will help, but the certainly can’t hurt.

Oh, and one last thing: I was sitting outside my classroom, waiting for the 8:10-11:00 class to finish, when I heard this from one of my – shall we say – lesser motivated students as he came up the stairs:

“I haven’t passed an English class since the sixth grade.”

Yep; and if you keep with your current strategy, you’ll keep that perfect streak going through this semester, too!


Filed under concerns, Teaching

I Wish to Convene a Pow-wow

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Monday hybrid class.  I’m horribly concerned, and I need some guidance.

I wrote here about what I assigned for them.  While my “full compliance” average is going up – THREE students did everything I asked this week –  the number of students who completed only part of the work went down.

My problem is this: I do not feel as though I’m being an effective teacher in this situation.  I have a group of kids who are (obviously) less than motivated to do the work that I ask of them.  The issue with that – well, beyond the obvious – is that, as it is, I’m not giving them nearly ENOUGH work for what I’m teaching, and I’m afraid to give them more becuase, if they can’t keep up with the namby-ass amount of writing I’m giving them now, they’re going to positively evaporate if I were to start giving them more.

I’ve spoken to my boss about the problem, and he’s spoken to the department head for the culinary school about it.  When I passed Joe in the hallway last week, he mentioned that he and the head chef would be dropping into ALL the Gen-Ed. classes, either this coming week or next, to talk to the students about getting their collective acts together.  As it turns out, mine is not the only Gen-Ed. class that’s experiencing these compliance problems.

I’m wondering, though, if it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to seek out the head chef ahead of time to express my concerns about the amount of work I feel I can reasonably give my students.  I am invested in seeing them succeed, certainly, but not if “success” means giving them only what work they’ll deign to do.  I’m not comfortable sending them out at the end of my class not knowing what I’ve been asked to teach them, but I’m not at all confident that they’ll be able to keep up with what I would have them do to satisfy MY standards.

I may just go in early tomorrow to see if I can hunt down Joe and the culinary department head.  Now, if I could only remember where I left the damned peace pipe…..


Filed under concerns, Learning, Teaching

They Just Don’t Get It

I asked my students to write two, one-page papers for me.  When they were done with that, I asked them to write a short reflection piece, telling me what the actual act of writing was like for them.  I asked them a couple of leading questions (what came easily for you?  What was difficult?  Why?) and told them they could write an essay or a journal entry or a note to me – the format wasn’t important, but the self-awareness was.

My kids are obviously not used to being metacognitive.

So far, I’ve gotten a range of responses tha vary from plain vanilla apathy to outright hostility:

**  “I don’t know what to say.  I sat down and wrote.  When I was done, I stopped.” 

Or this one, cut and pasted – as is –  from an actual studen email:

**  “I dont like to write when im told to. When i get a thought or an idea that i just think is so cool or origional i write it down in this book that i’ve had for years. I have crazy theories and philosophies in it. I write about things i cant talk to people about because of argument of opinion.  I like this class but i am having trouble writing ” ON CUE.”  So im sorry but this is the best i can do. Hopefully later in the class ill get better.”

Then there was this one.  I’m not really sure I understand what this student was trying to say, but do know for sure that we’re going to talk more about proofreading and what constitutes a complete sentence:

 “I find it easer to write about an experience of a specific event that just recently happened in my life, appose to something like my dinne, where there’s not really much to say.  Also writing about something vague, just relationships in general helps because you have so much to write about and so much you can add.  Especially because almost everyone can speak from there own experiences and those usually leave an impact ona persons life.  It’s almost like a guaranteed different point of view.”

Now, before anyone gets on me for making fun of my students’ lack of eloquence and… well… general command of their language, you all need to understand that I’m NOT doing that.  I’m not worried about grammar and vocabulary and punctuation; I know I can teach those.  What I am doing, however, is lamenting the fact that they’ve made it all the way to me without ever having been taught how to think about what they’re doing, how to be self-aware, and how to express that in ways that make sense to other people.

I think I’m going to be spending a good portion of the rest of my weekend thinking of exercises to teach them how to begin to think in ways that help them become more conscious of what they’re actually doing.  I understand that being meta is hard work, and I understand that most people never bother to think about how they think, but I also believe that self-awareness is a critical – critical – component to an effective education.

I’m just not sure I’m a good enough teacher to get that across…


Filed under concerns, Questions, Teaching

I Love My Job

I really, really do.

Nothing spectacular or out-of-the-ordinary happened in my composition class today. Actually, it was a rather uneventful class: we went over some commonly confused words, then we talked about Op/Ed writing and how to construct a brief but powerful opinion piece. I gave them another bit of my writing (but didn’t tell them it was mine), and had them write about it. I’m dying to see what they wrote.

Finally, we talked about letter writing technique. I drew out a sample letter for them on the board (and clarified the difference between “stationary” and “stationery”) and, together, we wrote a sample business letter. I handed them a copy of Lincoln’s letter to a bereaved mother and we talked about the use of vocabulary and imagery. It was a really good lesson.

I sent them home with a bunch of Op/Ed pieces from the New York Times with instructions to choose one to respond to, then to write an opinion paper of their own. Starting next week, their writing is going to be graded on a rubric, so they’ll start receiving actual grades, rather than “credit/no credit” scores for their work. They’ve been writing a lot for me, and I think they’re just about ready to start getting serious about it.

I really do love this job.

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Filed under little bits of nothingness, success!, Teaching

Grammar Wednesday!

Picky edition!

As you’ve all given me your wonderful suggestions for Grammar Wednesday topics (keep ‘em coming, please!!), I’ve been wondering for a while about the proper use of some words that continue to stump me. Since they may also stump you, I’m putting them here for the collective good.

Lend / Loan – The general consensus is that these words are interchangable. I disagree. Lend, to my traditionalist mind, is a verb which means to offer the use of something with the condition that it be returned at a later date. Loan is a noun, which is the something that is offered for use:

“I will lend you my car, but I need to have it back by three so I can pick my kids up from school.”

“They needed the loan from his parents to make the down payment on their first condo.”

As I said, the words have grown, through common usage, to mean the same thing, and you’re very likely to hear loan used as a verb… but not from me.

Between / Among: There’s quite a bit of wiggle in how people use these words, too. For me, though, between usually implies a relationship of two things; among speaks of relationships of more than two. Bill Bryson, in his book Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words (generously gifted to me by Organic Mama), said it much better than I can:

Between should be applied to reciprocal arrangements (a treaty between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada) and among to collective arrangements (trade talks among the members of the European Union). “

Yeah.  What he said.


It’s kind of a lame Grammar Wednesday, and for that I apologize.  I just wasn’t inspired this week.  My students are writing now, though, so I’m SURE I’ll have LOTS of material from which to draw in the near future.

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Filed under Grammar

The Winner Lesson Plan

Today’s class was focused on observation.

One of the most important qualities for writers to have is a keen sense of what’s happening around them. Meg, in her beautiful post about her self-identification as a writer, tells us that she pays attention. She notices things – sometimes big, obvious things, sometimes just little details – and is able to turn those experiences into words. All of the really good writers I know (and I know quite a few) all share that ability to really see. They listen, they watch, and more than that, they think about what the things they see and hear (and smell and touch and taste) mean to them – or what they might mean to others.

I started today’s class by asking students to write for five or ten minutes about the first thing they notice about a person, and what that thing can or cannot tell them about that person. Several students struggled with the assignment – most of them are not used to being meta-cognitive – and it took them a while to get going with it. Truth be told, most of them figured out what they wanted to say after they decided that they didn’t have anything to write about – all the really good work was done in discussion, but I’m okay with that.

They turned that piece of writing in to me, and then we started talking about observation. What does it mean to see something? What kinds of things do you notice, and what may escape you that you might find helpful? What kinds of things do you think other people notice about you, and do those things tell others something about what kind of person you are? Do you ever people-watch? I asked my photography students to tell us about composing a shot; what’s worth burning an exposure for? Do they ever find something in their photographs after developing them (or loading them on their computers) that they didn’t realize was there when they took the picture? It was a really good conversation, and I drew nearly everyone into it.

Once we’d finished there, I threw some pictures up on the screen for them to see. The first was of a young man dressed in a black hoodie looking straight into the camera with a slight smile on his face. The second was of this picture, and the third was a close-up of an autumn leaf, chewed through by something, through which we could see more fall colors and a vast expanse of sky. I gave them each a moment or two to look at the pictures, then three minutes to write everything they could about them. When we were done, they talked about the things that they saw and it was wonderful to see them help each other through the pictures (“You said the boy looked friendly – where do you see that?” or “You think the dead guy is an American?! WHY?!”).

The real fun, though, started when I gave them this picture…


Last year, I did a unit on the literature of the Holocaust with my high school freshmen. We read Night and essays from Vierling; we watched Nuremberg and parts of Schindler’s List (because it’s just too horrible to watch in its entirety: though I think everyone SHOULD, I’m not sure that everyone should in high school..). Toward the end of the unit, I showed my students this painting by Samuel Bak and it was, perhaps, the most successful lesson I’d ever done. Until today.

There’s something about the depth of imagery in these paintings that just sucks people in, and my class was no exception. I hooked ALL of them – every last recalcitrant one – with this exercise. There’s SO much to see in Bak’s paintings, and even if one doesn’t immediately associate the images with the Holocaust (only one of my students made the leap, and then only hesitantly), the works tend to leave people with a creeping sense of being ill at ease, that something’s not quite right, but it’s hard to say exactly what that something is.

Watching my students work their way through this painting was so satisfying to me as a teacher. They abandoned their “I see angels” “I see a violin” easy stuff and really dug into what it was they were actually LOOKING at. They noticed tiny things (“is that a machine attached to the guy on the left?”) and they questioned what the images meant. Like I said, only one girl came close to making the connection to the Holocaust, but I’m not entirely sure that was important. They were really seeing, and were exited by the implications of what they saw.

If you teach English, or history, or art or psychology or ANYTHING that you can work the paintings of Samuel Bak into your curriculum, I highly recommend you do so. You will not be disappointed.

I never have been.


Filed under about writing, success!, Teaching

Monday, Monday

So, today’s class went off pretty much as I expected it to, though with far fewer students than I imagined I’d have.  It seems there’s some sort of stomach yucky going around the college, and I ended up with only 15 of my 23 students showing up today.  Not that I’m complaining even a little bit about that, nosiree!  If you’re puking – or have puked in the last 24 hours, or think you might puke in the near future – you can consider yourself excused with my blessings and can stay the hell home, thankyouverymuch!

Anyway, I spent the first half of class going over the first half of the notes that I had for them.  Their book lays out a “writing process” that, for the sake of saying I did it, I’m going over: choose a topic, define your audience, decide on your purpose, organize, add detail, check for clarity and correctness and style and readability.  We made it to “organization” before I cut them loose for a break, then we came back to a grammar overview (everyone knew the five things that make a sentence complete and we buzzed right through the parts of speech!  WOO HOO!).  Then I gave them a few things to read and asked them to do a ten-minute write to respond to one of them, assigned the other for online homework, and gave them the writing assignments that I gave to their Tuesday/Thursday peers.

I am pleased, and a little shocked, to tell you that there was significantly less groaning about the assignment from this class than I got from the T/Th kids.  Of course, there were fewer actual KIDS in today’s class, so it could just have been a volume thing.  Really, though?  MUCH less complaint about the assignment – and far fewer picky little questions about it, too, which tells me that either: A) I explained myself much better to the Monday kids, having had the practice with the T/Th kids last week; B) the Monday kids have a better grasp of what I expect them to do (HIGHLY doubtful) or; C) the Monday kids have absolutely no intention of actually doing the work, so they’re not going to waste energy griping about it.

I’ll tell you which it was in a week…

In other news…

I met with my boss today and we talked about the email I sent him on Friday.  He wavered a little – or, at least, I think he did, because he phrased it that I didn’t like his suggestion that I offer to take late work just this once (I didn’t, but it’s not about “like” or “dislike”) – but he did stand behind my decision to not cave to the students.

His concern was that I would eventually find myself in a position of stalemate with students, and of having to explain to other parties (the head of the students’ departments, parents, the Dean) without any conciliatory moves at my disposal.  I explained to him that I’m not certain I want any such moves, but that I understand that it’s better to bend sometimes than to constantly challenge oneself to break altogether.  I offered up my suggestion of giving the students another assignment, around mid-term, to make up for work they didn’t do, and he agreed that this met everyone’s needs.

He really is a fair and even-handed boss, and I’m grateful to be working for him.  I’m also really proud of myself for taking – and sticking to – my stand.  I’ve not always been good with challenging authority (at least, not from a position of rationality or maturity) and I think I nailed this one.  I’m marking that as check in the “personal growth” column.

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Filed under Learning, Teaching

Ready or Not

My Monday/Online kids come back to class in two days.  They are NOT going to be pleased.

I’ve decided that I’m only going to make PASSING reference to the work the students did (or didn’t do) from the last class.  I’m not going to make a big deal out of it because I don’t want the class to be adversarial.  I will win pissing matches with the students – I have no doubt about that.  I just choose not to engage them in such contests; I just don’t have the energy.

What I AM going to do, though, is to load them up with notes on Monday.  They missed a class because of MLK Day, so they’re already behind.  The fact that they only meet with me once a week means that I’ve had FOUR classes with my Tuesday/Thursday kids; the Monday kids have some serious catching up to do.  I’m also going to collect their journals (I’ll send them an email when I’m finished with this post to give them a heads-up that they’ll be turning those in) and set them to some quantity of reading for the second half of class.

They’ll be going home with the same assignment I sent my face-to-face kids home with on Thursday: write two one-page papers and then a reflection on the writing process.

I seriously suspect that they’ll also be going home with a few choice thoughts about me and my little class, too…



Filed under General Griping, Teaching