Monthly Archives: October 2008

I Bet This is What He’s Thinkin’

I’ve got a student JUST like this…

credit to Chalkboard Manifesto

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Grammar Wednesday

The “Better Late Than Never” edition.

I’m CRAZY busy this week; Mr. Chili is away, so I’m single parenting and, of course, I had signed up for a workshop this week (before I knew he would be gone), I’m getting crappy sleep lately, and I think I might be coming down with something.  If any of you are single parents, I unsarcastically bow to your superior logistical skills and patience.  Seriously; I don’t know how anyone can do this as a matter of course.

Luckily, I have California Teacher Guy to bail my harried ass out of a GW jam (oh, and check it out; he did his very own Grammar Wednesday at his site, and a lovely and biting one, too!).  He emailed me on Saturday with this request:

My dear Mrs. Chili,

The county tax collector put the following notice in the local newspaper:

“The First Installment of 2008/09 taxes are due and payable November 1, 2008…”

Right this grievous wrong, please!

Fondly,
CTG

For starters, I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with that funky capitalization, but essentially what we have here is another matter of subject/verb agreement.  It’s the first installment that’s due – taxes is modifying the installment – so the verb in that sentence should be is.

I’ve been hearing a LOT of this sort of thing lately – I must be tuned in to it.  Just this afternoon, while driving home from the aforementioned workshop (which, not for nothing, was about as far as one can get across my state and still be IN my state – I live on the extreme opposite side, so I got to listen to four hours of NPR today), I heard a BBC reporter say something like “one in ten Americans is in favor…” of something or other…  Sorry – I can’t remember the gist of the sentence because I was too geeked out about the subject/verb agreement thing being right (and I’m willing to cut myself some slack; I’ve been up since a little after five this morning).

I’m off for a VERY early bedtime.  Nite, nite, y’all!

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The Ad Lesson

I had a GREAT class the other day, and I wanted to share the experience with you in the hopes that you might be able to steal something good from it for your own classroom.

I have never been able to teach a class without including a heavy dose of critical thinking in the mix.  Really, everything I teach boils down to that; there are mechanics and such to include in the curriculum, certainly, but what good is grammar if one can’t use it to get ideas out?  What’s the point in learning how to deliver a speech if one can’t put into it solid and well-supported ideas?  Really, English classes (in my context, anyway) are all just thinking practice; I’m teaching students to see beyond what’s on the page and to really think about what’s happening and why, and about how they can use the experiences they gain from the work we do to inform the rest of their lives.

That’s the goal, anyway.  I’m pretty sure I fail far more often than I succeed, but I never stop trying.

My comp. students at Local U. are working on analysis papers and, if I’m going to be fair, I’ve got to admit that I really nailed them.  My morning students are tasked with choosing a controversy, analyzing three different views about that question, and representing those views in as fair and objective a way as they can.  My evening students have it even worse; they were asked to choose a topic, event, policy, or person – past or present, foreign or domestic – that ties into an aspect of civil or human rights, then write a paper that explains their chosen topic, puts it in context, and makes clear that human rights connection.

Ooof!

I recognize that I’m asking a lot of them, but it’s not as if I’m tossing them in the pool and expecting them to swim; I’m bringing noodles to the party, but whether or not they grab hold of them is entirely out of my control.

The other day, for example.  I decided to run an exercise in analytical thinking, and I thought long and hard about how to present this activity in a way that would be both challenging and engaging.  I chose to build the class around two sets of two different television advertisements to see how well the students were able to 1) identify the messages in the commercials, 2) investigate the ways in which the ads got those messages across, and 3) assess whether or not the commercials were effective for them – or would be effective in general – and why or why not (because we English teachers LOVE to ask “why or why not?”).

The first set of ads came from the insurance industry.  First, I showed them this Geico commercial:

They were all familiar with the caveman campaign – almost all of them had seen this ad before, even – and they all agreed that it was a good one.  More on that in a minute.

I also showed them this ad from Liberty Mutual:

I took an informal poll after we’d watched the ads a couple of times each.  The cavemen won the popularity contest hands-down.  Students thought the commercial was funny, and they all agreed that the company did a good job getting the message of their accessibility and ease of use across through this campaign.  One or two students preferred the Liberty Mutual ad, though, and stated as their reasoning the idea that insurance should be responsible.

HERE’S where we started getting somewhere!  The Liberty kids thought that the Geico ad gave off an impression of glibness and irresponsibility – “next time, do a little research” was cited as evidence for that claim.  Of course, they recognized that the ad was supposed to be funny, but the impression that the students who preferred the Liberty Mutual ads got was that the company doesn’t really understand their customers.  They were shot down by their peers who countered by saying that the Geico ads were supposed to be funny – that there aren’t cavemen, so they aren’t Geico’s customers – and the company really did a good job of getting across the idea that Geico is convenient and simple to use.  The students agreed – almost to a person – that the ads were directed at entirely different populations; the Geico ads were directed at a younger clientele and the Liberty ads were aimed at older, more settled customers.  I’m not sure I agree with that assessment – and I don’t think that the students’ reasoning was sound – but I was pleased they came to those conclusions; that kind of thinking marked a departure from their usual “retell the plot” mode.

We had a bit more trouble with the car ads, but I found this discussion to be much more fruitful (figures, doesn’t it?).  First, I showed them this commercial from Volkswagen.

Almost none of them had seen this ad before – as I recall, it was a pretty short-lived campaign from several years ago.  I have to keep reminding myself that these kids are just that – kids – and that they’ve probably not paid a whole lot of attention to advertisements up to now.

Then we watched this ad a couple of times:

Again, I asked for the show of hands and – big surprise – the Cadillac ad was the clear winner, especially among the men (this was an interesting breakdown – I’ll get to that in a minute).  I asked the students to explain to me what was going on in each of the individual commercials, and I was surprised when I got a whole lot of plot.  “These two guys are having a conversation in the car, and…”  They seemed to have a much harder time looking at how the ads WORKED in this case – they wanted to tell me what the commercials said or what they showed, but they were hesitant to dig in to how they manipulated their messages to an effect.

They were also completely clueless about the (in my mind, over-the-top-overt) role that sex played in the Cadillac ad.  The men identified with it, certainly, but none of them was able to articulate what was at work in the ad beyond the “hot babe” and the high-heeled shoe on the gas pedal.  I had to lead them through the idea of power and control, about the tone of Ms. Walsh’s voice (“like melted chocolate, you guys!” was the exact phrase I used, and that freaked them out a little, I think), about the use of light and sound in the ad, about the words that were spoken (“does it return the favor?!”  Seriously – how could they not see that?!) – all of it.  When I tossed out the idea that the ad was really just a visual representation of an orgasm (“Come ON, you guys!  Spaghetti straps – is she in a neglige?  She’s in a TUNNEL.  Look at the lights, VERY.  RHYTHMICALLY.  MOVING.  PAST.  Then she BURSTS out of the tunnel and there’s light and music and OH, MY GOD!), they were shocked and demanded to see it again, at which point most of them were embarrassed that they’d missed that implication every time they’d seen the ad before.  They’ll never not see it again, I can tell you that!

We talked then about who the companies were trying to attract with the ads and the nearly-unanimous assessment was that the VW ad was looking to hook the family-oriented consumer who’s concerned about safety while the Caddy ad was aimed at men.  I took serious issue with these claims and tried to push the students to justify their answers.  They responded by saying that the main idea of the VW ad was saftey – that you could survive a crash in this car – and that safety is very important to parents.  “Okay, agreed,” I said, “but I didn’t see any families in that ad.  In fact,” I went on, “the driver dude was talking about a girlfriend.  There were no booster seats in the car.  As a matter of fact, all the ads from this campaign that *I* saw featured young people, presumably single and out enjoying themselves.”

They didn’t have a counter-argument for that.

I had a BLAST shredding the claim that the Caddy ad was aimed exclusively as men, and I think I sent a few of my students a little over the edge with my response.  Kate Walsh is HOT.  I’m a straight chick, and she does it for me.  Men want her, women want to be her – she’s gorgeous, she’s in control, she’s smooth and confident and surrounded in luxury and power.  SHE’S IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT, fercryinoutloud!  Let’s not forget that she is an actress in a show that is almost universally loved by women (my guess – though I have no hard data to support this claim – is that most men who watch Grey’s Anatomy or Private Practice only do so becuase their girlfriends/wives watch it).  There is no way that Cadillac was excluding women from this commercial; the choices that they made – from the actress to the lines she spoke to the color of the car – were all carefully made and meticulously executed.  It’s a gorgeous, highly effective ad.

The students loved this exercise, even if they didn’t quite get it.  I don’t expect them to, really – at least, not yet.  I kind of feel like Annie Sullivan; I’ll keep pumping water over their hands; eventually, the cold, wet stuff and W-A-T-E-R will connect in their brains, and they’ll wonder how they ever missed all this wonderful, exciting stuff happening all around them.

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Analysis and Applicability

Last week, I invited a colleague of mine, a vibrant, energetic, and incredibly academically vigorous man, to come and speak to my classes about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into his presentations about the Holocaust.  Tom, the outreach coordinator for the center for Holocaust studies where I did my summer fellowship this year, travels the region delivering presentations to schools and organizations about topics that range from Nazi political policy to Anne Frank to Darfur to Holocaust denial.  Because of the incredible importance of the work that he does – and because Tom is a man deeply concerned that he always comports himself in as moral, respectful, and ethical a way possible – a lot of work goes in to these presentations.  It was this work – this research, this consideration of credibility and validity, and this organization – that I wanted my students to see.

I thought the presentation was excellent.  Tom did a wonderful job breaking down his process; he led us through his consideration of his topic and his audience, his intent for a particular presentation, his assessment of the credibility of his sources, and the process he uses to choose, place, and caption images.  He spoke clearly and eloquently about analyzing a topic and seeing it for its component parts.  He explained the elements of his introductions and the ways in which he defines terms, lays groundwork, and establishes context.  He emphasized the importance of tying a presentation together at the ending; about synthesizing the whole back to the elements that were laid out in the introduction, and about leaving the viewer with a powerful, unifying image.

None of my students got any of that.

When I polled my evening kids about what they were able to take away from Tom’s lecture, to a person they all said “nothing.”  One of them said that she understands that it’s important to not show Jews as victims; that showing them as they would choose to be represented is respectful, “but,” in her words, “that’s about it.”

I knew this would happen.  About five minutes into Tom’s talk, I looked into the blank faces of my students, who were respectfully listening and watching as Tom gave his overview of the work he does, and I knew they were all thinking, “but I’m not doing a paper on the Holocaust,” or “none of this applies to me,” or “I’m not even using pictures in my paper.”  My guess was that one common thought running through their heads was “MAN!  I wish I’d slept in this morning.”

It was at this point that I started taking notes.  I translated everything that Tom was saying and expanded it so that it would be relevant to my students.  He spoke about how he needs to be careful when using pictures in his presentations, and I wrote about the importance of understanding the context of images – not just pictures, mind you, but concepts and ideas as images – before using them in a paper.  He talked about one of the Nazis’ “reasons” for the Final Solution, and I wrote about analyzing an issue to uncover and represent its basic elements.  He talked about pissing off a high school class who expected a particular kind of Holocaust presentation (“You’re the Holocaust Guy, right?  We’re going to have an easy class today!“) by giving them something that struck a lot closer to home than was comfortable for any of them, and I wrote about understanding one’s audience and knowing what they expect, what they think they already know, and how to get them to where you want them to be at the end of the paper.  He spoke about considering what’s not represented in a photograph, and I wrote about how important it is to be aware of both the obvious and the unstated (or the subtle) when one is putting together a piece of writing – sometimes what is not said is what’s most important.

When I broke it all down like this for my evening students (I don’t see my morning kids again until Monday), they grudgingly conceded that they could see that, maybe, Tom’s presentation really was relevant to them.  They just haven’t had enough practice looking beyond the plot – beyond what’s literally in front of them – to see how something that seems unrelated to their immediate concerns can be important and meaningful.  I modeled that behavior for them, and my hope is to give them some practice in this kind of work at least once more before the semester comes to a close.

I’m not just teaching these freshmen how to string a bunch of sentences together and how to cite in the MLA format; I’m teaching them how to be conscious and critical consumers of information.  I want to teach them how to really see.

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Grammar Wednesday

Another “Commonly Confused Words” edition!

My students are really cute.  They try so hard, but the often fall just short of the mark, Goddess love them.  Here are some words that my students still aren’t quite sure about, and this post will form the backbone of a lesson I’ll give next week as my classes work on the drafts of their second major paper.

Everyday / every day:

Everyday – all one word –  is an adjective that means “ordinary” or “regular.” 

These are my everyday clothes; I dress up when I’m going out. 

All of the everyday dishes were in the sink, so she had to use the china for dessert.

Every day - two words – is used to indicate something that happens regularly.

She has classes every day.

I know we’ve gone over this in a previous Grammar Wednesday (maybe more than one, now that I think of it), but my students still choke on the difference bewteen loose and lose.

Loose (rhymes with “moose”) is an adjective that describes something as being not tight;

The knot was too loose to hold my bathrobe closed and, as a result, I flashed the UPS guy this morning. (Not really, but it’s a good sentence.)

Lose (rhymes with “dues”) is a verb that means to misplace something or to fail to win.

There’s no way we can lose next week’s game; the other team is a disaster on defense.

If I lose my keys again, I’m going to be in deep trouble with the building manager.

I was a little surprised that a mix-up between alter and altar came up in a student’s writing last week.

Alter is a verb which means to change or influence

I wouldn’t alter your approach to the problem; I think you’re right on track.

She altered her commute this week to avoid the nightmarish construction downtown.

An altar is a sacred platform, the sort of which one usually finds in a church.

As she approached the altar, the bride’s nerves got the best of her and she fainted.

There are a bunch more, but this is enough for today. I’m still trying to figure out how to get my students from starting the largest percentage of their sentences with “by,” “with,” or “in,” (“By citing a lot of credible sources, it shows that the author was careful in his research”) but I’m confident that I’ll at least get them to cut back, even if it means running a style and readability workshop about it.

I’ll leave you today with a question that Suzanne asked me in an email last week (and I’m writing this from L.U., which means two things; one, I don’t have the email with me – I’m working on memory here – and two, I can’t figure out how to link to her blog. Sorry, Sooza). She wanted to know which of these two structures was correct:

More than 20,000 tons of cargo passes through the port every year.
More than 20,000 tons of cargo pass through the port every year.

How would YOU have answered this question? I’ll edit this post in a few days to tell you how I responded to Suzanne’s question.

Happy Wednesday, Everyone!

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Ten Things Tuesday

I read “The Things They Carried” with my lit students yesterday (well, with the ones who showed up, anyway) and was reminded of how visceral and present that story can be.  O’Brien is deft and effective in his storytelling, and I was moved, yet again, by this multi-layered, thought-provoking war story.

O’Brien tells his story though the description of the things that a platoon in Vietnam carried with them during their experiences of this war.  Very rarely – in fact, only once – does O’Brien actually describe the character of the men; instead, he tells us who they are and what was important to them by describing the things they thought were important enough to bring with them into battle – and the things they had no choice but to carry – and the respective weight of these things; the weight of ammunition, the weight of memory, the weight of rations and responsibility.

In homage to the tale, here are ten things that *I* carry with me as I make my way through my world.

1.  I carry my wedding rings and the promises that they represent.  My marriage is the single most important thing in my life, and I am never without the physical representations of that relationship.  I carry with me a deep and abiding respect for my husband, as well as a profound and unspeakable love.  For the magnitude of the commitment and responsibility, the weight is effortless and I will happily carry it for the rest of my life.

2.  I carry my cell phone.  The gadget represents much more than my ability to stay connected at will with anyone, it also represents safety, information (I have an iPhone, and thus can access internet and maps and music and…) and reliability (I would be a wreck without the calendar feature).

3.  I carry my children.  Not literally, of course, but they are an inexorable part of who I am and are integral factors in how I make decisions.  I want to be a good model for them for a kind, compassionate, considerate, capable woman, and it’s because of them that I make many of the choices that I do.

4.  I carry my driver’s and teaching licenses.  The driver’s license is predictable – I’m betting you all carry one of those – but I tucked the little card that came with my teaching certificate in my wallet because it represents an accomplishment that I was never quite sure I’d reach until I was almost there.  Which leads me to…

5.  I carry a tiny but nagging insecurity.  I’ve not quite managed to fully silence the monsters of my past, and every once in a while a little voice escapes from the closet to tell me that I’m just kidding myself and everyone around me.  The only thing that voice doesn’t demean is my acting abilities, it seems, for it tells me now and again that I’ve got everyone fooled.  I’m getting better and better at ignoring the voice – and the more I ignore it, the quieter it gets – but it’s still there.

6.  I carry my friendships.  Most of the time, this is an easy burden to bear – I have wonderful friends who give me far more than I feel I give in return – but sometimes I find myself carrying this load a bit too heavily.  I’m still working on negotiating the place a few friendships have in my life; I’ll get the weight settled eventually.

7.  I carry a sense of justice, and that I am part of a larger whole.  This is a hard one to describe without coming across as all airy-faerie, but part of my yoga practice involves my recognition that I belong here – that I have a right and an obligation to participate fully in this life – and that my actions, words, attitudes and behaviors matter to more than just my immediate circle.  I try to be mindful of the kinds of ripples I start in the pond, and try to make sure that the energy I send out reflects the highest and best I have to offer.  I speak out when I see injustice – I will not sit down and I will not shut up – but more than that, I try to always be aware of what I may be doing, however unintentioned, that may be perpetuating an injustice.

8.  I carry stories.  Song lyrics, novels, films, short stories, t.v. episodes, poems; I continue to amass a library of experiences that I can bring to bear on my life, and that I use to make sense of the world around me.  I love to think and talk and argue and ruminate about stories and what they mean beyond the plot, and I carry a respect and admiration and affection for the people who engage my thinking about stories.

9.  I carry a love of language and a curiosity about its use.  I carry a desire to continue to learn – I am shamelessly greedy when it comes to knowledge; I can never have enough.  I carry the two-sided belief that I am both incredibly smart and never smart enough; that where I am right now is pretty darned good, but that I can always be more and better than I am right now.

10.  I carry a sense of joy and love and compassion and kindness.  I want the people around me to be at ease in my presence.  I want people to think kindly of me and to be happy to see me.  I want to be aware of the little things that I can do to make others feel appreciated, important, and cared for.  I carry with me an awareness that, every day, I can do or say something – even if it’s just a smile – that will register positively with someone else.

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I Love Clever Word Play

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