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