Monthly Archives: September 2009

Grammar Wednesday

The “How Not to Behave” Edition.

So, here’s the scene; I’m sensing, from more than a few of my English I/II students at CHS, that this writing thing is scary business. I’ve got one or two kids for whom writing is manageable – fun, even! – but for the rest of them, getting pen to paper is a chore along the order of mucking out horse stalls or cleaning up cat barf.

I decided to try to get to the bottom of that, so the other day, I ditched my lesson plan for half the class, dropped back, and punted. “Okay, you guys,” I said, “what’s your deal? Why do I see panic in your eyes when I ask you to write?”

I got the usual assortment of stresses – from I don’t know how to get started, through I have a hard time staying on topic, all the way to I just can’t spell. All perfectly reasonable – and manageable – complaints.

One boy, however, floored me. “I hate to write,” he confessed, “because my parents charge me for all the mistakes I make.”

That’s right, friends and neighbors! Forget the red pen! You want to REALLY kill a kid’s desire to write?   Make him pay cash for his errors!

I think I managed to recover my composure pretty quickly, though I do have to say that my first response was something along the lines of “you’re kidding, right? Please tell me you’re kidding!” (He wasn’t.  At least he’s not being thrashed for his errors, but still…)

Look; you all know how I feel about proper grammar, and if you don’t, well, then you just haven’t been paying close attention. The thing is, though? I expect proper grammar from people who’ve had the chance to learn it. I expect it from people who should know better, not from people – kids especially, but any ESL student, regardless of age – who are still trying to figure the rules out.

I told this boy to quit showing his mother his papers. He’s certainly never going to learn proper grammar if he is too scared to write in the first place, now, is he?


Filed under about writing, composition, concerns, dumbassery, failure, Grammar, I love my job, parental units, Teaching, winging it, writing, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

Quick Hit, Continued

Oh, Amanda

Here’s an email exchange that happened last night.

On Sep 28, 2009, at 9:21 PM, Amanda wrote:

What do you mean about a story? I though we were working on “Why is this book important to you” thing, expanding that and such. I guess I missed something in class.

Mrs. Chili replied:

First of all, take a DEEP BREATH.  DO NOT – let me repeat that, DO NOT – freak out about this.

This is a personal narrative, Mandy; you’re going to be talking about how this book influenced you or informs your identity.

Remember the example that I gave in class (Cass read it from the class website)?  If I were to write this alongside you all, I would write about how my passion for social justice was sparked when I was 12 and reading Roots for the first time.  I would talk about how, before I had the experience of that book, I never REALLY understood what slavery was – to me, it was some dusty and distant thing that happened in history books; it didn’t MEAN anything to me.  Through the experience of reading Roots, though, I came to know characters – Kunta and Bell, Kizzy and Chicken George – and to CARE about them.  That book moved me deeply, and reading about the experiences of characters I cared about  helped to personalize something that I - as a modern white girl of relative privilege – could never experience.

Because of that experience, I started to look carefully at how prejudice operated in MY life – in my home and my school and my world in general.  I started to become more sensitive to the nuances of power and oppression, about how discrimination plays out in my life, and where I can effect change in the world.  I would probably tie my story together by telling my reader that, as a teacher and an academic, my field of inquiry now rests in the literature of the oppressed and, because of the interest that I stared with Roots when I was a girl, the adult that I am now is a GLBTQ advocate and a Holocaust scholar, and I let my sense of equality and justice inform EVERY part of my life – both personal and professional.

Get it?  If you want more, email me back – I’ll be at my computer for another 20 minutes or so (but I’m going to crash by ten…)


Mrs. Chili

She’s in class with me now, and it seems that she’s still speaking to me.  Baby steps…

Leave a comment

Filed under about writing, compassion and cooperation, I love my job, Teaching, the good ones

Ten Things Tuesday

Ten teacher-related things I’ve bought since I got my job.

1.  60 books for my students.

2.  A new pack of these pens.  These are, without question, my MOST favorite pens in the whole world…


3.  Great Books for High School Kids; A Teachers’ Guide to Books That Can Change Teens’ Lives.

4.  A bunch of quotables magnets

5.  Another copy of The Book Thief.  I’m starting the novel with my I/II class later this week, and discovered that I’ve loaned my copy to someone but failed to put the borrower’s name in my geeky library software, so I had to go and buy another copy.

6.  …. HUH!  I guess I haven’t spent as much money on teacher things as I thought.  Okay – the rest of this list is strategies I’m using to get myself organized.  For starters, I’ve brought a bag full of sticky notes and binder clips to school.  Homework assignments get a sticky note label and then get clipped together before going in the briefcase.

7.  I have two briefcases, now that I think of it.  One black leather – for Local U. – and an identical one done in camel tweed for CHS.  Having the two separate – but similar – bags really helps me to keep the courses straight.

8.  I have two classes at CHS, and each of them has its own folder in the above-mentioned tweed briefcase.  The freshmen and sophomores are in a green folder (get it?  Green?  As in “new at this stuff”?  I thought that was mighty clever), and the juniors and seniors have a red one (for no particular reason, now that I think of it.  Maybe I’m not so clever after all…).

9.  Mr. Chili designed a PDF of a lesson planning worksheet to my specifications, and that’s what I’ve been using (so far, with pretty great success) to map out my path for the week.  I use the above-mentioned pens to color-code the different facets of the lessons; red for homework, pink for quick writing prompts, light blue for the main lesson, brown for the week’s objectives, and dark blue for the readings and handouts.  I also throw in black for the daily reading time, purple for any special bits (like the weekly word on Mondays), and green for any hands-on activities.  By the time I’m done with them, the planning sheets look quite festive!

10.  OH!  This one counts on both sides of the list; I bought myself a wire file box (much like this one, only in silver) to keep track of the materials I copy for the students.  The box sits on my “desk” (which is in quotes because it’s not really MY desk; it just happens to be a place where I can put my stuff) and contains copies of chapters, peer editing guiding questions, great quotes, and Calvin and Hobbes cartoons.

Happy Tuesday, Everyone!


Filed under little bits of nothingness, Teaching, ten things Tuesday

Quick Hit


One of my students is the child of my boss, who took me aside this afternoon with a glint in her eye.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I just have to tell you,” she said, “Amanda was up in her room last night, completely losing her shit.”

“Oh, dear,” I said.  “What was wrong?”

“That’s the thing,” she replied, “I don’t know.  When I went up there to ask what the problem was, she looked me full in the face, threw her hands in the air, and said “YOUR ENGLISH TEACHER!’  Not “MY English teacher,” but YOURS, as in “it’s all YOUR fault because you HIRED this crazy woman!”

We both had a pretty good chuckle at that.  Amanda is an exceedingly bright girl.  She’s always willing to talk in class, but she has an almost crippling fear of writing.

I know EXACTLY why Amanda was mad at me last night; I was asking her to write – to tell a story about how reading has influenced her development as a person – and the act was terrifying to her.  I’m not sorry, though; one of my goals for this year is to get her over this baseless fear she has and show her that she CAN write.  I’m even betting, once she slays whatever demons she’s battling over this, she’s going to be a spectacular writer, at that.

Still, I think it’s kind of funny that she’s blaming her mother’s hiring decisions for her stress in English class…


Filed under funniness, I love my boss, I love my job, parental units, Teaching, the good ones, writing


I love my job.  I think, by now, that much is clear.  One of the contributing factors to my adoration of my current situation is the fact that nearly all of my coworkers Rock.  My.  World.

I belong to an exceedingly small staff (we are ten including me).  Of my nine coworkers, I have regular contact with six, and I think that five of them are, to use the current parlance, fucking awesome.

One gentleman in particular works for me.  He’s the kind of person I really admire; he’s smart without being haughty, he have a very clear understanding of his job and the responsibilities it entails (and, you know, he does it), he doesn’t put up with any nonsense from anyone (and I mean anyone, from the kids to the board of directors), and he’s not afraid to call bullshit when he sees it.

We get along swimmingly.

The other day, he sent this to the entire teaching and administrative staff, and I took it as yet another sign that this guy and I are vibrating at the same frequency.


Filed under Uncategorized

Banned Books

There are a TON of things I’ve wanted to tell you all about, but I’ve been so stinking busy lately that I’ve not had a spare moment to sit down to write!

Let me start by letting you know (and thereby reminding myself) that the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week is upon us.  Even today – at this very moment – small-minded people are trying to limit the access that others have to written material.  Tense Teacher experienced something of this sort with her summer reading list.  It’s happening, and it’s happening now.

Freedom requires vigilance, People.  We earn our freedom by being careful and aware and informed.  Efforts to restrict – or outright ban – books are born out of fear that results in a need to control how others think, and there’s nothing about that that’s okay.  I’m going to wear my “I teach banned books” tee shirt to work tomorrow, and will announce the banned books week in the morning announcements.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that my kids will get a banned books activity to do in class tomorrow, too, especially since our school is very open and progressive and I’m betting it never even occurs to these kids that this sort of thing happens today.  Part of my responsibility as their teacher is to model good citizenship, and honoring banned books week is one of the ways that I stay engaged and active in my community and my world.  I want my students to think about the implications of banned books week – I want them to wonder about what other people don’t think they should be allowed to think about.  I want them to understand that this is a relevant topic right now – that it’s not something relegated to history – and I want them to get mad enough to do something about it.

I love my job.


Filed under critical thinking, dumbassery, ethics, frustrations, I love my job, Learning, lesson planning, out in the real world, politics, reading, Teaching, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

Don’t Think, Because This is a Charter School…

…that I don’t mean business.

This letter went out to several parents last night.

Dear Mr. and Ms. Parent;

I’m writing to let you know that [your child] had trouble participating in today’s class discussion about the film we watched in class on Monday and Tuesday.

Participation is a major component of a student’s grade in English class.  While reading and writing are certainly important skills to demonstrate in English – and are skills that we will work with carefully and often over the course of the semester – I’m also interested in seeing how well students are able to express themselves verbally.  I encourage – and expect – everyone in class to contribute to what I call “class conversations,” where students lead the discussion about the literature we’re investigating; they make statements or ask questions of themselves and their classmates that demonstrate to me that they are fully engaged in the intellectual and cognitive work I’m asking them to do.

Before we began to view The Last Samurai, I gave very clear instructions that students were to take careful notes while they watched the film.  I expected them to write lines of dialogue that stood out for them, to sketch out what they thought were significant scenes, and to ask questions about things they didn’t understand.  I told them that I expected this for the express purpose that they have those notes to refer back to when it came time for today’s class conversation. [your child]‘s voice was notably absent from our conversation, and I am unable to discern how much of the film she really engaged with.

I plan on taking [your child] aside tomorrow to ask her what conditions I can help her create to get her more focused and participatory in class.  I suspect that she doesn’t participate because she feels she has nothing of value to say, and I hope to make her understand that I don’t expect her – or any of my students – to have all the “right” answers.  I do expect, however, that they show me, on no uncertain terms, that they are present and mindful and engaged in class.  It’s okay to say “I don’t know” only if it’s followed by “but I think….”

Please feel free to email me with any questions or concerns you might have.  I’m invested in [your child]‘s success in our class, and I’ll do everything I can to help her create the conditions she feels she needs to do well.


Mrs. Chili



Filed under Uncategorized

Grammar Wednesday

My students seem to have trouble with naming the self last.  They would much prefer to say “my father brought me and my brother to the movies a lot when we were little,” or “Me and Sarah have been best friends since the second grade” than to work the more proper structure of “my brother and me,” or “Sarah and I.”  I spend a fair bit of  “final polishing” workshop time with their drafts pointing out that students should name the self last.

They also have a fair struggle with WHICH pronoun to use WHEN.  I’ve covered this before, but let’s do a quick refresher, shall we?

OBJECTIVE pronouns stand as the OBJECT in a sentence.  These are words like me, you, us, them, her, and him.

Give it to me.

The insult was directed at her personally, not at us as a group.

SUBJECTIVE pronouns – I, you, he, she, they, we, and the like – function as the SUBJECT of sentences:

I was disappointed by the lack of effort you showed in today’s class conversation.

He thought that she was beautiful.

These words are not interchangable.  It is incorrect to say “Dad brought my brother and I to the movies,” or “He thought her was beautiful” (though, to be fair, it’s “me” and “I” that my native English speakers have the most trouble discerning).  The way I teach this to my kids is to ask them to take everyone but the pronoun out of the sentence and read it again.  “Dad brought I to the movies” is clearly incorrect, and once they learn that trick, they almost never have further issues with which word to use.


Filed under bad grammar, Grammar

Like Moses in the Classroom….

The other day, my iPhone made that happy little “you have a text message” sound.  I opened the application to find this from my sister:

Hi!  I called the other day, talked with the girls.  Bean said she would tell you I called…. I need some help from you.  Please list the top 5 rules of writing.  Also, thinking about the MSW program at L.U.  Can  you ask around and see what people have to say about it?  Thx!  How have you been?  xoxoxoxoxoxo

“HUH!” I thought.  First of all, Bean did NOT tell me that Auntie had called.  No one in my family is particularly good at transmitting phone messages, so this shouldn’t come as a big surprise, especially to Auntie; I never get the message that she called.

I buzzed her back and told her that there wasn’t a tablet of commandments or anything, and then told her that I’d put together MY list and send it to her (she’s helping a client, with crappy writing skills, who’s trying to get into college).  She only asked for five, but when I sent them to her, she told me to just run with the 10 Commandments theme and go all the way.

Here’s what I came up with.  Keep in mind that, if you ask me tomorrow, my priorities might have changed a little bit, and do feel free to contribute your OWN commandments for the craft of writing!


image credit

1.  Thou shalt READ!  Read everything you can.  Read magazines, read newspapers, read books and blogs and poems and song lyrics and old speeches and… well, you get the idea.  Good writers read ALL THE TIME.  Good readers suck language in like sponges.  Good writers geek out when they find words that are arranged in just the right way.  Good writers try on different voices and styles, and the best way to do all of those things is to read, read, READ!

2. Thou shalt figure out how you organize thy thinking, and then DO IT. Some people outline, others brainstorm.  Some make maps or webs.  Some writers draw storyboards or write the first line of every idea on index cards.  Some do “brain dumps” or free-writes or fast-writes (some even write their first drafts with the monitor of their computer turned off).  Some talk their friends and lovers to death about the ideas in their heads.  Whatever works for you, DO IT!  The greatest fault I find in my students’ writing is a lack of organization and cohesiveness, and that’s tough to fix once the writing’s on the page.

3.  Thou shalt worry about the big stuff first. I can’t tell you how hard it is to get my kids to outrun their inner critics (and, to be honest, it’s hard for me, too).  They look at me suspiciously when I tell them that I DON’T CARE about their spelling or their punctuation or their subject/verb agreement.. for now.  What I want them to do is to get their ideas on the page – to take care of the big-picture issues first.  Don’t bother wasting time fixing something that might be edited out completely later.  Get the big ideas out now; making it pretty and proper can come later.

4,  Thou shalt find thyself a reliable critic.  Maybe more than one.  I don’t care how good a writer you are; you need – yes, that’s right, NEED – new eyes to see your work.  It’s hard to gain any kind of critical distance from something you’ve been intimately tied to (and trust me, writing becomes intimate after a very short time), so it’s hard for you, as the writer, to see the piece with any critical objectivity.  I know that I very often read right over mistakes or omissions in my own work that are absolutely glaring to someone else.  Getting feedback from fresh eyes is vital if you’re going to get any better.  Work with these people – let them read your work out loud to you, ask them specific questions, make the time you spend together worth both of your efforts.  As a subtext to this commandment, I’d like to add Thou shalt learn to take criticism in a healthy and professional way. That intimacy I talked about a second ago?  That’s going to make taking criticism about your writing very hard.  Remember, a good critic will never, ever, make criticism personal, so you shouldn’t take it that way.

5.  Thou shalt train thyself to become a keen observer of thy world and the people in it. Great writing can be inspired by anything (I, myself, have been circling around a bit of graffiti on a Local U. ladies’ room stall that reads “April is the cruelest month.”  I KNOW I’ve got a story in there, somewhere!), and if you don’t start looking around – and looking closely – you’re going to miss a wealth of thinking and writing opportunities.

6.  Thou shalt understand the concepts of tone and syntax as they relate to audience and purpose.  If we were doing these in order of importance, I’d put this one up at the top when talking to my students.  How they do not understand that addressing me, their teacher, as “hey” and using IM-speak in their papers is a bad idea is entirely beyond me.

7,  Thou shalt understand the conventions of grammar and style BEFORE breaking them. Sometimes, one just has to start a sentence with a conjunction.  Every once in a while, a sentence fragment is exactly the right thing.  All of that is fine, but there is a huge difference between breaking the rules on purpose and breaking them because you don’t know any better. Trust me; it shows.

8.  Thou shalt give thyself permission to write crappy pieces. We all like to imagine that our favorite authors come downstairs in their bathrobes in the morning, grab a cup of coffee, sit down at their computer, and just allow literary greatness to spill effortlessly out the tips of their fingers.  The truth of the matter is that all writers have to clear out the clutter in order to find that elusive literary greatness.  Don’t freak out if you write something that sucks so hard it embarrasses you; we all do it.

9.  Thou shalt write, regularly and often. Open a blog, write a letter, start keeping a journal or a notebook; do whatever you have to do to write something every day. Give yourself an opportunity to try on new voices and to play with new techniques and strategies.  Keep the door open to your creative self and you’ll find that, if you give that creativity a voice, it will manifest for you more often than you realize.

10.  Thou shalt remember that writing is a process. Every good writer knows that this thing we do is a craft – a practice – and we never really “get it.”  We’re always learning and growing and changing as writers – anyone who tells you that they “know” how to write is handing you a line.  Remember, though, that while we say that “practice makes perfect,” the truth is that “practice makes permenant,” so keep seeking out mentors and teachers and inspiration to help you continually improve your craft.  Keep looking closely at the people and things and events in your life.  Keep asking questions and chasing down the ideas that intrigue you.  Don’t let your crappy writing overshadow your moments of eloquence and brilliance.  Most of all, just keep at it.


Filed under about writing, composition, fun, funniness, great writing, I love my job, Learning, out in the real world, self-analysis, Teaching, writing

Another Theme?

I’m seriously considering starting up another regular theme, but I can’t come up with something clever and alliterative to call it.

In essence, what I want to do is to post bits of beautiful writing. Every once in a while, I come across a group of words in my reading that just resonate with me; language so beautifully crafted and evocative that I go back and read it again, just to savor the sound of it in my mind. I can’t call it “Fabulous Fiction Fridays” because the words I find are not always fiction. “Wonderful Words on Wednesday” would bump Grammar Wednesday to a new day, and we can’t have that!

Hmmmm. Perhaps I need to lighten up a bit, give up the alliteration, and just post the damned things whenever I find them, huh?

Okay, then; here is my latest find, from I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb, page 47:

When you’re the sane brother of a schizophrenic identical twin, the tricky thing about saving yourself is the blood it leaves on your hands -the little inconvenience of the look-alike corpse at your feet. And if you’re into both survival of the fittest and being your brother’s keeper -if you’ve promised your dying mother- then say so long to sleep and hello to the middle of the night. Grab a book or a beer. Get used to Letterman’s gap-toothed smile of the absurd, or the view of the bedroom ceiling, or the indifference of random selection. Take it from a godless insomniac. Take it from the uncrazy twin-the guy who beat the biochemical rap.

Isn’t that just gorgeous?


Filed under Uncategorized