Monthly Archives: September 2011

Grammar Wednesday

The apostrophe.

Something weird happened last night. Just as I was thinking of him, Carson called me. I love it when that happens – and it happens quite a bit – but it still freaks me out a little. I mean, I love Carson and I’m always happy to talk to him, but we hadn’t actually directly connected to each other since our last Skype date, what?, a month or so ago? So when my phone buzzed with his call at exactly the same time I was thinking of him, it kind of blew my mind.

Anyway, our conversation revolved around nothing in particular – it was more of a “hey, I was thinking of you so I called you” kind of thing (again, with the mind-blowing). Before we hung up, though, he asked me if I’d address something in a Grammar Wednesday that was bugging him. Because I love Carson (and because I didn’t have anything better in mind), I told him I would.

It seems Carson subscribes to Runner’s Weekly (he runs. A lot. For long distances and great stretches of time. I have no idea why). “Shouldn’t the apostrophe be after the s?” he asked me.

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Yeah, I think it should. I mean, it’s reasonable to assume that the magazine is aimed at more than one runner, right? The magazine doesn’t belong to just that one guy, right?

Here are the rules (as I learned them) about making things plural:

If you have a singular noun, proper or otherwise, and something belongs only to that noun, use an apostrophe-s – Schrodinger’s cat, Schrodinger’s cat’s favorite box, my friend’s weird-o traditions.

If you have a collective noun that ends in something other than an s, and something belongs to the entire group as a collective, use an apostrophe-s. The pride’s kill, my family’s ancestry, the group’s rehearsal space.

If you have a plural noun that ends in s, proper or otherwise, and something belongs to that group as a collective, use an s-apostrophe (in other words, put an apostrophe after the s that makes the noun plural) – the girls’ bedroom (they share it), the generals’ battle plans, the Windsors’ castle.

If you have an irregular plural noun, use an apostrophe-s – the women’s locker room, the children’s nursery school.

The exception to the ‘noun ending in s’ guideline tends to be with names that end in a ‘z’ sound, and even there I’ve seen variation. The way I decide whether to use an apostrophe-s or an s-apostrophe is I say the word; if I add an extra “es” syllable to the end, I use an apostrophe-s (Jesus’s followers). If I don’t add the extra syllable, I use s-apostrophe (Mr. Hastings’ class).

Yeah?

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Confidence/Competence

…Or is it the other way around?

I met this afternoon with Carrie, a student I taught three years ago in one of my Local U. freshman English classes. I had bumped into her again after all this time when I ducked into my colleague Charlotte’s room at the end of her class – Carrie’s class, as it happens – to tell her about this article. I turned around after talking to Charlotte to find Carrie, grinning from ear to ear. After a lovely hug, she asked me if we could get together. I told her to find me on facebook and we’d make plans.

She’s working on a paper for Charlotte, and it seems she’s been stymied a bit by the prospect (Charlotte is a remarkably sharp and demanding thinker, and she expects the same of her students. I am in love with this woman, but that’s a post for another time). Carrie, it seems, has been fretting about this paper for a while now – to the point of starting three different drafts of the thing – and decided that now was the time to send up a flare and ask for help.

I met her in one of our local coffee shops where we chatted a bit about her adventures these last three years, her travels, and her plans for her life after she graduates in June. Then we talked about her paper (Charlotte’s asking the students to choose one of the works they’ve read in class, then write an analysis of an element in that piece), and about what kinds of strategies Carrie can employ to get to the kind of specificity Charlotte’s looking for. Carrie had an idea of WHAT she wanted to talk about – she had a topic that was acting as the “splinter in her brain” that she wanted to know more about – but she wasn’t sure how to go about getting down to the kind of focus Charlotte requires. Carries’s smart, though, and quick, and within about 5 minutes, we talked our way to her furiously scribbling notes and seeming genuinely less stressed about the task ahead of her.

I can’t wait to read her next draft.

Just as I shifted the conversation to business, Carrie ducked under the table for a second and came back up with a single Gerbera daisy for me, along with a lovely note about how much I’ve influenced her for the better. As I drove home after what I think was a very productive meeting, I thought about that lovely gesture. Sometimes (oh, who am I kidding? Always!) I am surprised by the ways in which students respond to the work that I do with them. I spend so much time worrying about the ones I’m not reaching that I often miss the ways I touch the ones I DO hit.

I’ve been feeling, since the start of this school year, that I still haven’t quite found my groove. I’ve been worried about that, and concerned that maybe I’m “off” in a real and significant way. As I talked with my former student about scholarly things, easily and with authority, I started feeling a little bit of that groove coming back. I’m good at this; I care about the work that I do enough to do it well. I respect my discipline and the students who rely on me to give them skills and tools they need, and I care enough about that to be diligent and conscientious. With that feeling of competence comes an increasing feeling of confidence. I’m on my way back.

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Grammar Wednesday

Do you think I’d get in trouble if I printed this and posted it on my wall?

I probably can’t get away with it, but MAN, the kids would TOTALLY get the Oxford comma!

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Ten Things Tuesday

I try very hard to keep it positive, but here are ten things in my professional life that I could do quite nicely without.

1.  Drama.  I know, I know; I work with teenagers, which means that drama is practically a prerequisite.  I just wish that it wasn’t so profoundly disrupting.  One good freak-out spills over into more spaces than it should.  There’s nothing to be done about it, really – and all the adults in our community handle these things like the professionals they are – but it still bugs the crap out of me (and, if I’m going to be honest, it bothers me more because I can’t keep the kids from suffering at their own hands.  I wish I could make it all better for them, and that’s what irks me the most).

2.  Recalcitrant kids.  You know what, Babies?  Just do the damned work.  Doing the work is MUCH easier than putting up with the shit we give you for not doing it; trust me.

3.  Parents who make my job harder.  There are so many things to add to this category that I’m just going to go ahead and let you fill in the blanks.

4.  Other teachers who make my job harder.  I understand that there are precious few bad teachers out there, and that sometimes the kids think things that the teachers never implied, but I still find myself having to un-teach a lot of negative habits and beliefs.  What the HELL were they thinking when they told my kids that they couldn’t write, or that grammar and punctuation were more important than content, or that the five paragraph essay was the pinnacle of human expression?!

5.  Viruses.  Oh, dear Goddess, but the entire school is a hacking, feverish snot factory.  I’m washing my hands like crazy, chanting hexes, and dousing every surface with Lysol.  I WILL NOT GET SICK… I WILL NOT GET SICK…

6.  Standardized tests.  Look; if pretty much every ethical educator agrees that there’s almost nothing of value in standardized testing, then why the HELL do we still do it?  We’re gearing up for the fall round of tests (math, and reading and writing; science happens in the spring) and I’m prepping my “taking a standardized test is exactly like playing a game” lesson yet again.  Really, all I do is teach the kids how to read the questions; there’s nothing in these tests that asks these kids to demonstrate anything of value about who they are as students, so they may as well learn the “tricks” and play the game well.

7.  Pointless workshops.  I have to go halfway across the state tomorrow to attend an “orientation workshop” for a program that I’ve been involved in for the last two years.  I don’t even get a meal out of it; I’ve been told to bring my own lunch.  Yippee.

8.  Printers.  A student brought me this the other day, and I think it’s SPOT ON (particularly the part about not being able to print a black and white copy because the printer is out of magenta ink).  GAH!

9.  Crappy internet connections.  I love the platforms that we use for our classes.   I don’t love it when we can’t access them because the internet is being fussy.  This becomes a bigger issue the more we rely on online communication and e-copies of materials.

10.  Drama.  This time, the drama is coming from an adult.  It’s not that big a deal – this person is someone I don’t have to deal with very often – but every time I do, I leave the experience feeling drained and defensive.  I need to figure out why that is and learn the counter-spell.

 

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Avatar

I decided to start my Aliens and Vampires in Literature class with the Aliens contingent (though, now that I think about it again, I probably should have started with vampires, since Hallowe’en is coming up… Oh, well…) and, while I’m waiting for them to score copies of Carl Sagan’s Contact, I am showing and discussing films.

We started with Avatar.

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I love this movie.  Is it formulaic and predictable?  Yes.  Does it tell a new story?  Not really; in fact, it’s nearly one-to-one with Dances with Wolves (which I also love, so there!).  Despite the panning that it received in some circles for its lack of originality, I think it is an important movie, and I was excited to show it to my students.

One of my goals in this course is to get kids to think about the functions that entertainment serves beyond simple entertainment.  We spent three classes watching the film (I got a M/W/F short-day class instead of the long-day T/TH class I wanted, so we’re making do; it’s going to mean covering less material, but I’ll make sure we do more with what we do see), and I patently refused to let the kids talk about the films in class before we’d gotten to the last scene.  (That made them CRAZY, especially since it turned out that I had to stop the film for the end of classes in some really compelling spots; the kids nearly lost their minds when I had to stop the movie when Jake drops onto the creature to become Toruk Makto on Wednesday.)

We had our culminating discussion yesterday, and it was amazing.  All but two of the kids had seen the film before – several of them more than once – but every single one of them said that, despite being very familiar with the movie, there were a number of things they saw when they were “watching it for a class” that they never noticed before.

My absolute favorite moment in the whole discussion came at the very beginning of the class and from my “school son” (whom I’m probably going to talk a lot about this year, so let’s call him Bart, okay?)  We were all talking about the idea that, in typical alien movies, the aliens are always the bad guys* when Bart pointed out that, in this movie, the aliens are still the bad guys.  I pointed at him with my eyebrows-up, “you-just-nailed-it” look on my face and waited for what he said to sink in with the rest of the kids.  One by one, the light dawned; we’re so used to thinking of the “aliens” as ‘whoever isn’t us’ that shifting our thinking to recognize that, in this film, we’re the aliens is a surprise.

The conversation took off from there.  We talked about the ways in which we create an “other,” and how that process of making a pariah allows us to behave in ways we likely wouldn’t otherwise.  We talked about where each character made his or her realizations (and about the characters who never got to the point of change) and about how some of the “good” guys in the film – up to and including the hero – were still complicated and flawed.  We talked about the film as modern social commentary in the context of the Iraq invasion after the 9/11 attacks, and about how some people – particularly Americans and those in positions of political power – don’t seem to understand that “our way” isn’t the pinnacle of human experience; that not everyone wants democracy or McDonald’s or jeans and sneakers.  We talked about the different perspective of this film – the human as alien – and about how the film asks us to think about things we do in ways that we might not have been able to if the Na’vi had come to Earth; that the position of the different ‘races’ impacted the way we think about them (and us).  We talked about power and economics; we talked about religion and belief, about what we value (and how we value what others value), and about the environment.  We talked about what it means to be connected – to our environment and to each other – and we talked about colonialism and its effects on both occupier and occupied (though they didn’t use the term, they still nailed some of the high points of the concept).

It was a wonderful, dynamic, interesting, and exciting conversation.  We’re off to a good start.

*I recognize that not ALL alien movies are about violent invasions and forced occupation – I’m also planning on showing the kids Cocoon and maybe E.T. – but I think it’s fair to agree that most of our alien genre is stacked with stories about invasion and occupation.  Those films bring up ideas I want to get the kids thinking about; I’m trying to train them to see beyond the explosions and action to get at what some of these stories have to say about us and how we treat each other.

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Grammar Wednesday

FANBOYS!

I have a number of pet peeves, so I’m going to work though them one at a time.  Today, you’re going to get the “coordinating conjunction starting a sentence”  peeve.

A coordinating conjunction is a word that connects a word, phrase, or clause to another.  Anyone remember Conjunction Junction?  Yeah – that; coordinating conjunctions are the words that put ideas together; For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So – FANBOYS.

These words are not, however, words to start new ideas, and here’s where we get into trouble.  Except when writing dialogue (or in very casual writing situations), it’s not okay to start a sentence with any of the FANBOYS; doing so almost always results in a sentence fragment.  Observe:

But it was because I was hungry.

And then she left.

So I kicked her.

Do these things work in creative writing?  Yes; in fact, I love to use, “and ANOTHER thing…!” but it is almost impossible to make a complete sentence that begins with a FANBOYS word because the coordinating conjunction tells you that there’s another idea that needs to come before this one.

So don’t do it.

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Ten Things Tuesday

I still haven’t hit my stride yet (and, though I’m not quite worried about that… yet… it is a bit vexing), and I’ve been thinking about ways that I can improve my teaching practice (I’m ALWAYS thinking about ways I can improve my teaching practice, but I’ve been thinking more about that lately, as is the case at the start of every new term)  Here, then, are ten things I’m working on doing differently this year:

1.  I’m intrigued by the whole brain teaching philosophy and am working on incorporating it, albeit slowly, into my classes.  I’ve already conditioned the kids to answer “yes?” when I say “class,” and I’ve started to introduce the idea of having the kids teach each other, but I need to work a little more on some of the other cues.

2.  I’m having the kids write much more than I ever have, but I’m NOT grading everything they write.  I’m trying to reintroduce the idea of finding joy in writing, and I can’t do that if everything they commit to paper is subject to evaluation.  I want them to write for the writing, not just for the grade.

3.  I’m trying to be more conscious of the timetables for long-term projects, namely the education plans and portfolios.  I want to do whatever *I* can to reduce the due date panic that always ensues around these things.

4.  I’m being more aware of having lunch with the kids, instead of holing up with the other teachers.  This afternoon, I ate with some kids I haven’t sat with since the middle of last year (and one kid whom we’re watching especially closely as he’s coming to us from a bad situation and we’re worried about his transition.  So far, so good, though), and it was good to be social with them.

5.  I’m trying very hard to work LESS than my students do.  I want to give each class an increasing level of responsibility for their own learning, and for marking their own progression (which is part of where that portfolio stuff comes in).  I’m still working on how to do that, but it’s something I’m nearly constantly aware of.

6.  I’m working on better utilizing the technology I have available.  I’m still trying to figure out how to grade on BlackBoard (which is the platform that Local U uses), but I think I’ve got things mostly down for the programs we use at CHS.

7.  I desperately want to send HAPPY notes home to parents this year, so I’m marking my calendar to send home positive emails to a rotating bunch of kids every couple of weeks.  Parents only expect to hear the negatives; I think that’s a terrible undercurrent to the parent-teacher-student triangle.

8.  I’m making better use of my planning time.  Of course, not TODAY… today, I’m blogging… but in general.

9.  I’m going to be asking my kids to read more than I have before.  Once they figure out that they’re not reading in order to pass a test but rather to be able to talk to each other about what they’re reading, my hope is that they’ll see reading as less of a job and more of a way into the world.

10. I’m rediscovering my joy in what I do.  I adore this job, I adore these kids, and I’m grateful every day to be able to do what I do.  I hope some of that energy rubs off on the kids.

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