Monthly Archives: July 2007

There’s One Every Term

A post in which there is much and copious swearing. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

I have a grammar class this term. That, in itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing and, in this particular case, is actually pretty darned good. I’ve got a good group of students who regularly show up and at least TRY to engage with the material. I do my best to make the work accessible, and I really feel like this group recognizes and appreciates that effort – in short, they’re playing along and the class is, if not fun, at least palatable.

One student showed up today in a mood. He started the class by trying to hand in last week’s homework and claiming that he had NO IDEA that I don’t accept late homework. “I was absent, and I didn’t read the fucking syllabus, so how the hell was I supposed to know?” was his response to my restating my policy. I ignored the epithet and reminded him that he was here on the first day of classes, when I clearly and painstakingly explained that policy. All that earned me was a cranky boy dropping noisily into his seat and putting his head on his arm.

He stayed that way all through class. About halfway toward the break, I called on him to answer a question we were working on at the board, giving him the benefit of the doubt that, while he may not be LOOKING at me, he may well still be LISTENING to me. He looked up, gave me a dismissive sort of glare, and said nothing. Someone else answered the question in the awkward silence he created, and he took that as permission to put his head back down, but not before muttering more swears under his breath.

Just before break was over, I called him out into the hallway, closed the door, and asked him gently (because this behavior isn’t normal for this boy – he’s apathetic about the class, but he’s never been outwardly rude to me) if something was wrong. “Yeah, something’s wrong,” he said, “this fucking class sucks. I hate this class, I hate this shit.”

“I’m very sorry you feel that way. I understand that this is a tough class, and that the material isn’t exactly thrilling, but you’re here for a reason. I’m doing my best to make it as fun as I can, but you have to participate.”

“It’s fucking stupid; I hate it.”

I reiterated that I felt sympathy for him, but that if he were going to spend the class napping, he’d have to do it somewhere else. At this point, he stomped back into the room, grabbed his crap (swearing the whole way) and stormed out.

Sigh.

I had to write a letter to my boss (and to the boy’s department head) about the scene. I’m not personally bothered by it – hell, I kind of agree with the kid and I’d resent the hell out of a basic grammar class, too – but behavior like that can’t be left alone. The boy doesn’t usually behave like that, either, and I’m concerned that there’s something really wrong with him. Besides, he seriously ruffled the kids who were in the class – they’re a really GOOD group, and they recognize that the class is only going to be as enjoyable as they’re willing to make it. One girl – goddess love her – actually apologized to me for his tirade. “You’re doing a good job,” she said, “you didn’t deserve that.”

Here’s the note I sent to the bosses. I’ll let you know how it all plays out.

Dear Gentlemen:

This is just to let you know that I had an incident with Steven Student this afternoon.

He is in my 1:30 Foundational English class, though his attendance has been spotty. He came to class this afternoon and we had what I consider a mild incident early in the class about his trying to hand in last week’s homework late. He then proceeded to put his head on the desk and essentially ignore the class. When I called on him to answer a question on something we were working on at the board – giving him the benefit of the doubt that he was listening, if not looking – he was unresponsive at first, then openly hostile.

After break, I called him to the hall to ask him what was going on with him. His response to me was verbally abusive, and I told him that, if he were going to nap, he should do it someplace else. He stormed in to the room, collected his things and, amidst a fair bit of cursing, stomped out of the room.

I’m concerned for Steven – this behavior hasn’t been my experience of him to this point. Before today, he’s been pleasant to me, if not a little credulous of the class material – and he’s never been abusive. His behavior this afternoon shocked me.

I recognize that the students come to me at a difficult time of day and that most of them are pretty much wiped out by the time they arrive in my class – and I know that I’m not teaching edge-of-your-seat material – but I think that the dynamic of the class is a surprisingly positive one, given those circumstances. The students who regularly show up are making an effort to learn, and they recognize the effort that I’m making to make this material as accessible as possible. Steven’s reaction today surprised a lot of students, and really disrupted the positive energy that we try to maintain in the room.

I felt that it was important to let you both know that this happened, and to let you know that this is not usual behavior for this student. Please know that I’m available for any questions you might have, and will offer any assistance – to you or to Steven – that I can.

Warmly,

Mrs. Chili

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Filed under concerns, General Griping, Grammar, Teaching, Yikes!

Grammar Wednesday

Adverb Placement Edition!

California Teacher Guy has another grammar question (thanks, CTG – I LOVE GW suggestions!!); though, because my computer has mysteriously eaten the email he sent containing the request – again – I can’t quote the query for you.   Grrr.  Paraphrasing, then, CTG wants to know whether it matters where one puts the adverb in a sentence like:

“We usually go to the movies on Sunday afternoons.”

My short answer is, “it depends on the adverb.”

Grammatically, we can say (or write) this particular sentence four different ways.  We can put the adverb usually where I put it above – that is, after the subject (we) and before the verb (go).  We can also set the adverb at either the beginning or end of the sentence, thus:

Usually, we go to the movies…

…to the movies on Sunday afternoons, usually. 

Further, we can put the adverb in the smack center of the sentence, like so:

We go to the movies, usually, on Sunday afternoons.

Grammatically, this last sentence is still correct, though I find it a bit awkward to actually speak.

Really, all we’re doing by moving the adverb in this sentence is changing the emphasis: the sentences all mean essentially the same thing – that it is a common occurrence for us to go to the movies on Sunday afternoons – but the flavor of the sentence is changed a bit when the adverb is moved (at least, to my understanding, anyway -  you may not perceive a difference at all).

Let’s look at a different adverb now.  Take this example from my Elements of Grammar:

He only nominated Jones for president.

andHe nominated only Jones for president.

In the first sentence, he nominated Jones, but he didn’t actually vote for him; the nominating was the only thing that happened.  In the second sentence, he didn’t nominate anyone else BUT Jones for president.  Get it?

Finally, I promised to go over then/than today. Here we go:

THEN is an adverb used to denote time or sequence:

First, I gave a lesson in adverb placement, then I cleared up two commonly confused words.

I bought gas there last week, but I paid 5 cents more for it then.

Look at the recipe first, then see if you have all the ingredients you need. 

THAN is a conjunction used to introduce a subordinate clause, usually expressing comparison, choice, or preference:

You will find no better town than this one.

I would rather die than marry that lout.

She is far taller than I. 

Happy Wednesday, everyone!  Keep those grammar questions coming!

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The Sub

images-41.jpegNo, not THAT kind of sub (though… yum!)

I was a substitute teacher for Organic Mama’s composition class on Monday.

The class is tiny – only five students – and it was really a pleasure to work with that small a group. It felt a lot more like my favorite seminars in grad school than my larger classes tend to (though my middle class, with only 11 students, comes pretty close to approximating that atmosphere). There was the added bonus of a former student of mine in the class; I liked this boy when he took my public speaking class last term, and it was a delight to see – and talk to – him again.

Yesterday’s class went well. Everyone showed up and everyone brought the picture that O’Mama had asked them to bring as a writing prompt. I spent the first few minutes of the class talking to the kids, asking them about their majors and their backgrounds, then I started a conversation about description. What is it, and why is it so important? I read Polaroids, Anne Lamott’s chapter about description from her book Bird by Bird (“that is one cool dude!”) and we talked about the idea that sometimes, you don’t know what a piece is going to be about until you’re done writing it.

After a bit of discussion about what makes for good description, we all took out our photographs and started writing.  Here, for your perusal, is the first draft about my photo; I’ll bring it in to workshop with the students tomorrow.  It totally sucks – I have NO idea, really, what it’s about – but that’s okay.  First drafts, according to Anne Lamott, are supposed to be shitty:

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The rocking chair is backed against the wall, in a small downstairs bedroom, facing the door.  It’s a real rocker – the kind with bowed wood on the ends of the legs – and not a glider, which seemed to be the only kind of rocking chair the furniture salespeople had to show us when we were shopping for a rocker just before our first daughter was born. 

The chair, for all its wooden hardness, is very round: the back is a wide arch of wooden slats, the runners curve gently up under the legs, the arm rests, thick and shiny with lacquer, end in rounded edges that are comfortable to the hand.

The chair has no cushions, and I never got around to making any, so the only softness came from whatever form of blanket or pillow that happened to be tossed on it.  When the girls were little, I had no shortage of blankets: crocheted or woven or pieced; filled or flat; soft or scratchy; single-hued or multicolored; populated with Pooh or nameless teddy bears or the letters of the alphabet.  Even with the addition of blankets, though, and the happy memories I have of rocking my precious babies to sleep in it, that chair was never comfortable.

That didn’t matter a bit to my children.  More often than not, I would find them side by side in that chair.  The baby would get in first, assisted with a helpful boost on her diapered bottom by her older sister, who would then grab a back slat and hoist her own self into the seat.  They would “read” (though, of course, they weren’t quite at deciphering the letters yet), tell each other stories in their own sister-language, play with bears or dolls, or just sit in companionable silence.  there was always a blanket, though, and the baby always – without a single exception that I am able to recall or document with a photograph – the baby always sat to her sister’s left.

Most siblings fight.  “Sibling rivalry” is a term that is most often spoken of as a foregone conclusion.  Happily – at least, thus far – it’s a concept that has been all but foreign in our home.  My girls have thrived in close contact with one another, sharing the back seat of the car, bunk beds, sand boxes, and that rocking chair.  From as soon as the baby could sit upright, the two have shared that space, reading, talking, sharing, speaking their particular dialect of the language only sisters know.  I watch, quite apart from them, though they are living pieces of my heart, as they continue to grow together.  I am in constant awe of their matter-of-fact affection for each other.

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Filed under about writing, colleagues, Learning, Teaching

A Dark and Stormy Book Club

It is with great excitement that I invite you to participate in a new book club!

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Hosted by Bo, Saintseester and myself, A Dark and Stormy Book Club is meant to provide the community of traditional book clubs, but without the hassle of trying to find meeting times convenient to everyone (and, of course, allowing for a great deal of, shall we say, geographical flexibility). We’re taking advantage of blogging and podcasting to make this book club more dynamic and fun and, well, easier on everyone’s schedule. You can sign in to the blog or listen to the podcast whenever you want without having to clear a space in your calendar or find a babysitter.

Once a month, one of your hosts will suggest a book for investigation and post it at A Dark and Stormy Book Club. A link to purchase the book will be embedded in the post, too, if you feel you’d like to add the selection to your personal library. We’ll allow several weeks to read the book, then we’ll host a radio show podcast of discussion about it. Eventually, we’ll open the discussion to outside callers so that you can join in. How cool is that?

After the podcast is recorded, we’ll open the book up for discussion in the comments section. There, we’ll post discussion questions and offer up an opportunity for everyone to chime in and post their thoughts and comments. Don’t forget that your hosts are teachers and writers in real life, too – feel free to ask questions, if you like, and we’ll do our best to answer them for you.

Our inaugural book is The Road by Cormac McCarthy and, while it’s not a happy, feel-good kind of read, it IS one that will inspire a lot of good thinking and discussion. Please join us – it’s going to be a lot of fun.

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Filed under colleagues, crossover, Learning, reading, Teaching

I Love My Job

I really enjoyed teaching on Thursday.

I spent most of both of my public speaking classes moderating conversations about free speech, Don Imus, and ethics. I’m trying to get the students used to the idea of actually talking to each other instead of directing their comments (usually phrased as questions, a la Taylor Mali’s pet peeve) to me. I want them to test their edges, to venture into territory that they’ve perhaps never navigated before, and to challenge one another’s conceptions of each other and the material. I want them to be engaged, to think, to talk, and to wonder.

I think I made some pretty good headway toward those goals on Thursday. In my first class, I have two students of color: Ebonics Boy, whom I’ve mentioned before, and a beautiful young black woman we’ll call Imelda (when asked what’s important to her, her answer was an emphatic, “SHOES!”). I started the class by talking about their homework, which was a response to the Imus situation and why they think they should care about it.

Imelda was the first person to speak up. Her contention was that, if the people to whom Imus’s comments were directed weren’t insulted by them, then he’s really not guilty of unethical speech. As a black woman, she felt that she had a particular insight to this situation – she wasn’t insulted, she could care less what this ignorant white man has to say about things he knows nothing about – and wanted to know what the big deal was.

images1.jpegI thought that it was interesting that she should mention this because MY first exposure to all of this Imus stuff was through NPR – I happened to tune in during an interview with the women of the Rutgers women’s basketball team and distinctly remembering one woman say that, while others on her team were hurt and angry, Imus’s remarks meant nothing to her; he didn’t know her, he didn’t know what she loved or what scared her or what she was capable of. He could say anything he wanted, was the gist of her answer to the interviewer’s comment, nothing he said would change who she was. My question to Imelda was; is it only the people at whom a comment is aimed who get to decide what is and is not offensive?

We also got into the conversation about whether or not certain words can beimages-12.jpeg said only by certain people. Ebonics-Boy had a lot to say about this: it is his contention that white people have no right – ever – to say nigger. Ever. In any context. It’s okay for black people to use that word, though, and it’s okay for him, as a Polynesian, to use it because, as he so enthusiastically reminded everyone, he’s not white. This argument was contested by a couple of students who believe (rightly, I think, but I didn’t say so) that it is completely unreasonable to put those kinds of limits on words and that, if a word can be used by one, it can be used by all. Sadly, these arguments came to no avail. E-Boy hasn’t figured out how to have intelligent, reasoned conversations yet – he is still very much an all-or-nothing kind of person. This is is going to be a recurring issue with this student and me, I can just tell.

One of the things I love about these conversations is that there are no right answers. I admit to the kids that I’m not even sure how *I* feel about these questions – sometimes I that that words are just words, and the only power they have is the power we give them, but other times I think that words are the embodiment of the energy we radiate – that words are powerful all on their own. My answer to the question I asked Imelda was no – I, as a very white woman, was offended by Imus’s remarks. I have been offended by things that people have said to – or about – complete strangers. It’s an issue I still think about – and one that they should, too.

images-22.jpegWhen we moved away from our conversation about language and sensitivity and ethical speech, we moved on to JFK’s inaugural address.

One of the things I really love about teaching this class is that I get to introduce my students to great works of rhetoric that they would likely not otherwise experience. Without a single exception, for example, none of the students in any the classes I’ve taught thus far has known anything about MLK’s most famous speech beyond the “I have a dream” catchphrase. Seriously – they’ve never heard – or read – the whole thing. The same is true of a lot of “famous speeches:” the Gettysburg Address, Reagan’s comments at the Brandenburg Gate, Albert Speer’s closing comments to the Nuremberg Tribunal – the list goes on. I was excited to start this term’s listening and reading experience with our thirty-fifth president’s inaugural speech.

It’s a beautiful piece of rhetoric. Even though the students don’t always have the historical knowledge to put the speech in its true context (I have to do a lot of background for them to explain the arms race and the cold war – most of them don’t catch the allusion to the Declaration of Independence and none of them knows that nukes were on everyone’s mind), they are still able to appreciate, to greater or lesser degrees, the structure of the speech. They are able to pick out some of the bigger metaphors – the bit about those seeking power by riding the back of the tiger seems to be their favorite – and can point out most of the examples of antithesis. They’re also able to find the occurrences of chiasmus, even if they can’t adequately describe what a chiasmus is or why it’s such an effective device. It’s a really great “light bulb moment” when I draw an X on the board and put “country” and “you” on the top points, then “you” and “country” on the bottom.

We spend a fair bit of time analyzing the speech. We talk about the content (what was his big idea? what is he asking for? what does he want his audience to do, think, feel, or believe?) as well as the construction (why do you think he chose THIS word instead of THAT one? Why does he keep saying “any” in the bit that says “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe“? Why does he pause here or there? Where does he raise his voice or quicken his pace and why?). I want the students to not only be able to appreciate the story of a speech, but to be able to recognize and think critically about the structure of it – how is it built? How is language manipulated to the speakers purpose? Show me the strings in the puppet show, please, and tell me how they work to make the whole thing move.

For the most part, I got some enthusiastic participation in classes last week. Some of my kids – a surprising proportion, actually – really seemed like they were starting to get it. I have high hopes that our forays into the investigation of rhetoric will be lively and fruitful. I’m going to learn a lot this semester.

I really do love my job.

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Taking Issue

I feel a little like I’m poking the beehive with this one – we’ve not had a good linguistic scuffle around here in a while – but I just can’t let it pass.

517s8malepl_aa240_.jpgMy grammar students have been asked to purchase this book. It runs for about 83 bucks on Amazon; I suspect that it’s a bit more expensive at TCC’s bookstore because it comes with a reading packet, too. For that kind of money – really, for ANY money – we would reasonably expect that the book is good for what it claims to do, right?

I’m not so sure the kids haven’t been robbed.

Last Thursday, I left the students with the assignment to do the practice exercises for chapter 2. The work reviews the four basic kinds of sentences (students have to identify sample sentences as commands, statements, exclamations, or questions), subjects and verbs (students are asked to identify these things in the practice sentences), and sentence fragments and complete sentences. In one of the fragment exercises, students have to decide whether a sample structure is a complete sentence or a fragment; in the other, they are asked not only to decide whether the structure is complete, but to complete it if it’s not and, in either case, to identify the subject and the verb in the sentence.

I’m taking issue with the directions for this final exercise. It reads, and I quote:

Instructions: Below are some of the expressions from Practice 3. For each complete sentence, underline the subject with one line and the verb with two lines. Turn each fragment into a complete sentence. Then underline the subject with one line and the verb with two lines.

Is it just me, or is the final “sentence” in that series of directions grammatically incorrect? Ignoring that, if the sentence were complete on its own, there should be a comma after “then” – it’s introductory material – I don’t think that the structure actually is a complete sentence. My argument is that it’s really a dependent clause.

Run with me for a second, please:

I think (and I could be wrong here – I could also be channeling my inner prescriptivist…) that “then” in this sentence is functioning as a coordinating conjunction that connects two clauses; “first do this, THEN do that.” Turn each fragment into a complete sentence, then underline the subjects and verbs. The sentence as it stands can’t really stand alone; it’s dependent on the sentence that came before it for meaning – if we don’t know what we were supposed to do first, how would we know what to do next?

Am I right, or am I full of uptight, grammarian bullshit?

If I’m right, it bothers me deeply that this is in a textbook that is supposed to be teaching English grammar.

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Grammar Wednesday

The “woulda, coulda, shoulda” edition.

CaliforniaTeacherGuy sent me an email on Sunday asking me to “deal with this, oh, please, on Grammar Wednesday!” (that was actually the title of his email). He said:

“I would of had to purchase it anyways.”

This quote come from an educator’s blog. (I will not say which one.) Two egregious errors in one short sentence! I find it sad–no, appalling–that people who are teaching children can’t even get their grammar straight. Is there no hope for the future of lucid speech and writing?

(Sigh.)

CTG

First of all, I have to say that, yes, my first reaction to this sentence was the same as CTG’s. When I thought about it for a few minutes, though, I came to have a softer approach. We should all keep in mind that blogs are NOT the classroom. Someone who writes in IM-speak on their blogs may well be highly literate and correct in their professional settings. I’m willing to cut most people quite a bit of slack where these sorts of things are concerned.

Now, having said that, I should also point out that I don’t know a SINGLE educator who would say – or type – “would OF,” regardless of the forum in which they were communicating.

My students write this all the time. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not the most groan-worthy error they make, but it’s still wrong and I try to get to it as soon as possible in the class.

I understand WHY they do (it comes from the contraction “would’ve” – they’re writing what they think they’re hearing) but I make a point of trying to break them of it right away. I put “would/could/should HAVE” on the board, then put the same words with the contraction, then write a big “OF” with the circle and the slash around it. We talk about how it sounds and about what they’re actually hearing (the ‘ve’ of the contraction, not the ‘of’ of , well, OF!). It’s actually a lesson where quite a few light bulbs go off, and a couple of students have come to me thanking me for clearing that up (they also really love the Vulcan salute and that I underline the “position” in preposition – that helps them understand the function of that part of speech).

The other bit of that sentence – the “anyways,” – is a little harder to put down: yes, it’s a non-standard structure (derived, according to my source, from southern and south-midland American dialects), but it’s been used so much that it has become part of the casual language.

As a compound word – anyway – it functions as an adverb that means, essentially, nonetheless or regardless. Take the words apart – any way - and they mean in whatever fashion.

The way to tell which to use is to ask if “in the” can be substituted for “any.” If you can make the substitution, use any way: if you can’t, use anyway (and, regardless of which you’re doing, don’t make it plural. Drop the ‘s,’ please!  Mrs. Chili and California Teacher Guy thank you).

It was pouring rain, but we went to the beach anyway. It was pouring rain, but we went to beach (in the) way? No – use the compound word.

You can get there any way you want: by car, by bus, or by train. You can get there (in the) way you want? Yes – use two words.

Next week, we’ll tackle CTG’s question about adverb placement.

Happy Wednesday, Everyone!

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