Monthly Archives: September 2008

Holding the Door Open

I need to be a little more conscientious about writing here, I think.  I’m having a wonderful adventure as an adjunct at Local U., and I don’t want to let the experience pass by without having written – and thought – about it here.  It’s very easy for 15 weeks to fly by; before we know it, it’ll be winter break – hell, we’re already a third of the way through it – so I’m making the commitment to post at least a couple of times a week from here on out.  I don’t want to get to the end of the term and have nothing but memory to rely upon.

That being said, my classes are going wonderfully.  There’s a lot going on, and I still have a bit of the sense that I’m just keeping up but that it’s getting better.  Do you remember being a kid and running down a steep hill?  Eventually, you weren’t so much running as you were just not falling; gravity was doing the moving for you, you were just trying to keep up.  Yeah, that’s the feeling.  It’s less now that I’ve had a month to settle into it, and I’ve not made any major stumbles, so I’m feeling pretty damned optimistic about the whole trip.

To refresh your memory (because I’ve been pretty lax about writing here, and because I don’t remember what I’ve told you when I DID write), I have two sections of Freshman Writing at Local U., which is a state school in my neighborhood.  Each of my classes is full – 23 students in the morning (too early in the morning, if you ask them) and 24 in the evening – with a pretty even mix of males and females in each.  I have no non-trad students; they’re all 18 or 19-year-olds in college for the first time.  I’ve got one foreign student, a Chinese national whose spoken English is pretty good, but who still struggles with tenses and articles and sentence structure.  I’ve got two genuine slackers who, I can tell already, likely won’t pass the course.  I’ve got about a dozen kids for whom this class is going to be one of the best of their semester; they’re engaged, participatory, and enthusiastic about the work we’re doing.  It’s a good set of classes I’ve got, and I’m grateful that my first experience as a teacher at a “real” school turned out to be as balanced and relatively easygoing as it is.

This post is about one student in particular, though.  Chris is in my morning class.  He’s a quiet kid; a big, imposing-looking young man whose exterior appearance belies the marshmallow within.  He’s the kind of guy who would make women nervous if they found themselves encountering him on a dark street, but he’s also the kind of guy who would offer to walk those same women home.  He doesn’t participate much in class – I think he’s still mostly asleep – but I suspect he does pay attention because, every time I look at him, he’s looking back at me, and not in that blank, half-asleep way that most of the other kids in that class do, either.

The students are working on their first papers – a personal narrative that documents some kind of change they’ve undergone as students, athletes, or human beings.  Most of the kids knew right away what they were going to write about; I continue to be sadly amazed by how many of these children have experienced some sort of personal tragedy already in their short little lives.  They’ve had parents go through brutal divorces, best friends have died in bloody car crashes, one student was diagnosed with a debilitating heart condition after passing out while mowing the lawn and lying there for about half an hour before someone found him.  Crazy.  Anyway, their job is to give the reader some sense of who they were; to discuss and reflect upon an event or series of events that precipitated an essential change in their attitude, outlook, or behavior; and to demonstrate how the person they are now is essentially different from the person they were before.

Chris told me, in our initial conference, that he was going to write about teaching a mentally disabled boy to swim at summer camp.  He told me that he is a kinder, more patient person as a result of that experience, and that he came to the realization that putting oneself in another’s shoes is an important means of gaining perspective and clarity.  Well, OKAY, then!  That sounds like a GREAT topic!  I told him that I was eagerly awaiting his story, and I sent him off to get started.

Yesterday, when the students were workshopping their third drafts – the last before the final paper is due – Chris came to me after class and seemed entirely crestfallen.  “Mrs. Chili,” he said, “my paper sucks.  I mean, it really sucks.  I didn’t enjoy writing it, I didn’t get to the point I wanted to get to, and the whole thing… well, it just sucks.”

“Okay, Chris.  What do you want to do about that?” I asked.

“I know it’s WICKED late and the paper’s due on Wednesday – can I just chuck the whole thing and start from scratch with a new topic?”

“Chris, Honey, ABSOLUTELY you may.  Recognize that it’s going to be a tough thing to pull off because you won’t have had the benefit of workshops with your classmates, but if you feel that a from-scratch effort without peer review will be better than this one with it, then give it a shot.”

With that, my boy brightened up and left assuring me that he was going to knuckle down and get this paper done.  Not only that, but he promised me that it WOULD be better than the one he’s been laboring under for the last two weeks, and to prove it, he’s going to include the paper he started with, just to show me how terrible it truly is.

I do worry about the fact that he’ll not have the chance to revise, but I also know that there are some students (I was one) for whom the revision process is little more than tweaking and copy editing; I was never one to make huge structural changes to my narratives, and perhaps Chris will be okay without that in this case.  What’s most important to me here, though, is that Chris recognized that he wasn’t getting anywhere with the work he was doing and had the initiative to think up another topic (albeit very late in the process).  I have every confidence that his paper will be decent; but more than that,  I think that the bigger lesson that Chris got as a result of this experience is FAR more valuable than the paper itself.

I held the door open, and he walked right on through.


Filed under about writing, admiration, composition, great writing, Local U., self-analysis, student chutzpah, success!, Teaching, the good ones, writing

Grammar Wednesday

For Auntie:

THEN is most often used as an adverb that indicates time or order.

I’ll finish the laundry then start cooking dinner.

She ran through all the ice cream, then she turned her attention to the chocolate chip cookies.

THAN is most often used as a conjunction used to indicate comparison:

She is prettier than I am, but I am a much nicer person.

My brain can think faster than my fingers can type.

TWO is a number:

I have two papers due on Friday.

TO is often used as an adverb indicating direction toward something:

Go to the post office and pick up your package.

TOO is generally used to indicate inclusion or extremity:

This chocolate sundae is too good.

If you go to the movies, call me; I’d like to go, too.

Finally, apostrophes are only used to indicate possession or to stand in for the missing letters in contractions – never use them to make plurals or to change the tense of verbs:

That is Susan’s kite and I can’t stand it when you do that are correct.

Jessica want’s to go to the party and she has a huge collection of stuffed animal’s are not.

There’s some academic (linguistic?) debate about whether or not to put apostrophes with letters, abreviations or acronyms to make them plural (“We check ID’s“), but I DON’T.  For me, the difference between the upper cases of the abreviations and the lower cases of the s that makes them plural is enough of a separation, so I write T.V.s, DVDs, and IDs, but I know that a lot of folks put the apostrophe in there and aren’t considered wrong.


Filed under Grammar

Someone Care to Explain THIS to Me?

You all set me straight about the basketball (though I really DO think that Spaulding should figure a different way of getting the point across), so I thought you might have some wisdom regarding this little oddity;

Yes, indeed, Friends and Neighbors – they’re WATERING the ARTIFICIAL field over at Local U.  What’s up with THAT?!


Filed under little bits of nothingness, out in the real world, The Job

Monday Blahs

Holy crap.

I have a class that meets on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 8:10 in the morning.  It seems that this is far too early for the average college student, because they are all essentially zombies.

Today was the worst.

We’re getting into the “learning to critique your own and others’ writing” phase of the course, and I strolled in this morning asking them to do a quick-and-dirty critique of one of the stories they read were supposed to read this weekend.  “What did you like about the piece,” I asked, “and what didn’t really work.”

Crickets, is what I’m saying here.  They wrote practically nothing, and I carried the conversation essentially by myself.

I have got to figure out a way to get them a little more energized in the morning.  My orders suggestions of coffee (or Red Bull) seem to be falling on deaf ears, and the fact that I brought in a couple dozen Munchkins didn’t seem to ameliorate the situation at all.  They also fail to recognize that I, too,  have to be here at 8:10,  nor do they consider that my day starts a hell of a lot sooner than that (one girl admitted to rolling out of bed at 8:00, just in time to walk to class on time). 

I would like to enjoy this course, but if it’s going to be a matter of me stomping up and down – or playing the clown trying to entertain a bunch of sleep-deprived teenagers – it’s going to be a frickin’ long semester.



Filed under concerns, frustrations, General Griping, Teaching

Things That Make Me Go “Wha…?”

I’m listening to NPR on my way home from class this morning, and there’s some senator or other talking about the financial free-fall that our economy seems to be taking, when he says:

The government’s intention is to go in there with a quantity of liquidity and securitize those assets.

Securitize?!  Is that even a WORD?!  Ignoring, for a moment, that I personally think it’s a bad idea, on a colossal scale, for the government to employ public money to save private firms (and keeping in mind here that, while we’re bailing out unethical banking and insurance institutions, we’ve still got a quantity of people in need of federal disaster relief years after their disasters), this administration needs to stop making new words up.  It just makes them sound dumb.

Oh…. wait….


Filed under frustrations, General Griping, Grammar, out in the real world

Grammar Wednesday…

…a day late.  Sorry, Everyone; Mrs. Chili is having what we in the northeast call a “wicked busy” week, and I completely forgot about Wednesday until it wasn’t Wednesday anymore.

My focus for this week is more a style issue than a strictly grammatical one.  My question is this; what it it about this generation of students that they feel it necessary to start their sentences with “in” or “with” or “by”?  Some examples:

In Vowell’s story, she eventually tries to make peace with her dad and be a better daughter after a lifetime of arguments.

By giving a lot of description it helped Orwell put the real picture in our heads about the elephant dying.

With all the dialogue it makes it easy to understand how ninth graders talk and made it easy to understand what Cooper was going through.

I have no issue with beginning sentences with dependent clauses, but these kids – and by “these kids” I mean darned near all of my students, both at Local U. and TCC – have no idea how to put them in their sentences in ways that don’t seem forced or clunky.  I’ve been listening hard to see if they speak that way, but I’ve not noticed that particular pattern in their speech (though one girl, who came to me for a writing conference this morning, said “like” so many times that I’m ashamed to say that actually stopped listening to what she was saying).

We’re in the part of the semester where I’m not worrying too much about the students’ writing style.  What I’m interested in right now is how well they are able to get their ideas on the page, not by how pretty those pages look when they’re handed in and, so far, they’re doing pretty okay.  I’m trying to figure out the best way to address this by/in/with structure that the kids seem so enamored of, though, so that when we do start talking about voice and style, I’ll have an idea of how to teach them a more natural-sounding way of expressing themselves.


Filed under concerns, frustrations, General Griping, Grammar, Teaching

My Kind of Math

Tonks is taking calculus and, as a consequence, is calling Mr. Chili fairly regularly for help with her homework (Bowyer freely admits that he’s not familiar with calculus).  I love listening to my husband’s half of those conversations; it’s as if he’s speaking an entirely different language.  I suppose, in a very real way, he is.

A philosophy professor in my building likes to post funny things on her office door. This morning, there were a bunch of pictures and the title “how to fail a test with style.”  This was my favorite example:

That would have been MY answer….


Filed under little bits of nothingness

The Final Project

My literature class at TCC delivered their final projects tonight, and it was a hoot.

Several semesters ago, I decided to forgo the typical final exam assessment in my literature classes favor of giving the students the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of the work done during the semester in ways that felt most authentic to them. I didn’t want to give them a test or make them write an essay, I explained, so I opened the assignment up to them and let them, within reason, put together something that proved to me that they had really gotten the work that we did together.

Their first reaction is to go positively apoplectic with panic. They want me to tell them what to do, they protest that they can’t think of anything that would be sufficient or appropriate, they worry that they’ll not tell me what I want to hear and will get a rotten grade. They claim to not understand what I mean when I explain to them what I’m looking for; they tell me that, even though they hate essays, they’d rather write a paper than have to come up with an idea for a comprehensive project on their own.

In the end, though, they almost always come through. I’ve been excited by what the students come up with as projects, and many of them have been memorable enough that I can still recall their ideas nearly a year later. My favorite by far, for example, was the student (the only man in the class, though I’m not sure that’s a salient fact) decided to imagine a postscript for Shelly’s Frankenstein in the form of a children’s story. He wrote, designed, and illustrated a book that had the Creature wandering the Arctic Circle, despondent and bereft after the death of his “father.” Eventually, he stumbles upon the Island of Misfit Toys (work with me, here) where he tells his sad story. So moved is  King Moonracer that he brings the Creature to Santa, who sees a marketing opportunity. The elves get busy making Creature dolls, which they send to the toy stores in London, where Ebeneezer Scrooge buys one for Tiny Tim (thereby effectively tying two of the the major works we read that semester together). In the end, everyone is happy; Scrooge gets to buy a present for his “nephew,” and the Creature finds a home among the happy people of Santa’s village. It was genius.

My experience with this is that students either nail the final, or they utterly flame out – only one or two have hit true mediocrity. Of my eight students this semester, one was in California on a family emergency, five hit it out of the park, one was kind of so-so, and one was my token flame-out (he wrote a “fictional biography” of Poe and refused to deliver a presentation. He’ll pass the class by the proverbial skin of the teeth).

What thrilled me about tonight’s class wasn’t so much what the kids DID, but the realizations they made as they were delivering their presentations. One student, for example, made the realization about Brokeback Mountain (which I had the students read – they could watch the film too, but it wasn’t my primary delivery of the story). After Jack dies, Ennis discovers that Jack had kept a shirt of his from the very first summer they spent together. It was tucked inside a jacket of Jack’s… in the closet. “HEY!” the student said as she was discussing the importance of that symbol (her piece was about the despair that both Ennis and the narrator of The Raven felt after the deaths of their beloveds), “I never realized that – but Jack was hiding Ennis’ shirt inside his jacket – he was keeping Ennis safe inside him – and in the closet. That’s something I totally missed until just now!  What’s more is that it was a closet in his parents’ house!!  That’s an important symbol, isn’t it?”

Yes, Honey – it is.

I wish I had audio posting capabilities, because one student – hand to God/dess – wrote, recorded, and mixed a rap song about Cole (from The Sixth Sense) and Victor Frankenstein. I nearly died laughing – it’s a riot. Another student wrote a comparison of Victor (he was a very popular topic for this class) and Jimmy Cross from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. At the end of her paper, she wrote some haiku. These two are my favorites:


Becomes a new beast
his quandary does control him
he dies without change


Ending his mission
his childishness up in flames
a man walks away

By Jove, I think they got it!

*End note; If you’re interested, here’s the assignment as I gave it to them around week 7 (TCC goes for 11 weeks – I like to give them plenty of runway for this project, even though most of them end up scrambing the week before it’s due).  I highly recommend this kind of final assessment; the kids come away impressed with how much they really do understand, and you’ll be amazed by some of the creativity they can demonstrate.  Some of the connections they make will surprise you; I guarantee it.

I’m looking for you to come up with some way of synthesizing the work that we’ve done this semester in a way that’s meaningful to you, and then to present that work to the class. I’m interested in how creative and comprehensive you can be in this endeavor; I don’t want to tell you to do this or that because I want you to determine what means of demonstrating your mastery over this material is most right for you. Not everyone likes to write term papers, and I’m happy to expand my thinking to accommodate your creativity.

That doesn’t mean that you can cut pictures out of a magazine, paste them on to a poster board to make a collage, and call it even. There are some guidelines to this project that will be common to all of you; namely that the project MUST have a written component, you MUST incorporate between 3-5 of the pieces we’ve investigated this semester, and you MUST include some form of research with your work. Beyond that, though, I’m looking to you to be creative and energetic in your thinking about this final effort, and to ensure that it demonstrates your best work.

In the past, some of the more memorable projects have included students who have written prequels to novels, or written an extra chapter to explain something that happens after the original story ends. One student wrote a children’s book. One student wrote a play based on the life of a minor character in a film, and one student wrote up an FBI profile of a character. A student did an in-depth biography of one of the authors we’d studied that semester, and one student created a movie poster for a novel, complete with a story board for the film and mock reviews from newspapers. Each of these projects played upon the students’ strengths while challenging them to expand their thinking beyond the discussions we’d had in class, and each was exemplary in its breadth, detail, and fun.

My point is that I want you to enjoy this work – but that it IS work. We’ll talk more about this in class – and I’ll get a rubric to you that details the standards I’ll use to assess your project – as the semester progresses. The last Monday class will be the due date, with the presentations happening that same night. Everyone MUST turn in a project and everyone MUST present; if you know you’ll not be in class on the last day, you have to arrange to deliver your presentation on a week when you will be in.


Filed under film as literature, fun, funniness, great writing, Learning, Literature, Poetry, popular culture, student chutzpah, success!, Teaching, the good ones

Grammar Wednesday


Fermat (who either doesn’t have a blog or didn’t include the link) sent a comment on Wednesday’s Grammar Wednesday post asking this:

Mrs. Chili,

I would like everyone’s opinion on this.  Because school is back in, the city has posted large signs of a bright yellow school bus.  On the bus is printed “School’s back.  Drive Safe.”

I think it should be “Drive Safely.”  Is the ‘ly’ slowly being dropped from the vernacular?  I’m too much of a prescriptionist for my own good?

This bugs me, too, so I’m making it its own little special edition, Grammar-Wednesday-on-a-Saturday post.

Buses around here do that, too, and I’ve seen more than a few bumper stickers with the sentiment, as well.  My husband and I always say the “ly” because it makes us crazy that it’s being dropped.

Safe is an adjective that describes something  - that’s not a safe chainsaw or she’s a very safe driverSafely is an adverb that describes how something is done - the children are tucked safely into bed or please drive safely.

I have no idea why the “ly” is being dropped, but I notice it falling off of other words, too – quick is the most common offender but I’m sure, if given enough time, I can come up with a few more (or just watch a Madden game; you’ll have a list of them).  It makes me cringe.


Filed under Grammar

Grammar Wednesday

Because I’ve been busy this week, Grammar Wednesday is being brought to you today by the folks with a sense of humor over at English Fail.  These were some of my recent favorites:

This doesn’t really surprise me; I have kids who spell things the way they say them all the time (the most common example is students who write “would of” or “could of”)

Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me, either.  I was going to make a crack about the kind of student’s who are for McCain, but I’m going to resist…

I bet a bunch of you know someone for whom this sign is agonizingly appropriate.

How much do I LOVE that this is a screen capture from national t.v.?

Gee, ya THINK?!

Happy Wednesday, Everyone.  Keep those GW questions coming!


Filed under bad grammar, concerns, failure, funniness, Grammar, out in the real world, Yikes!