Category Archives: teaching

The End of a Semester (or, How I Turned into a Softie)

 

I have tried and tried and tried to finish a blog post this morning and just can’t. I have about 10 drafts going, but alas. Nothing. So I’m going to go au natural this morning.

I think part of it is the end of the semester has just really wiped me out. Grading nonstop until 1:30 in the morning is exhausting. And then, brilliant me decided to have a Christmas party. THE DAY AFTER GRADES WERE DUE. So that turned into a whole evening/morning of manic cleaning, menu planning, and decorating. The next day my parents moved out of my house (they stayed with me for a month between the sale of their old house and the closing of their new house), so the weekend was spent painting rooms and unpacking them. Their new house is beautiful and closer to me and not 100 years old, which is good for a number of reasons. Then Monday, my brother (aka Picky Boy) came in from NYC. In other words, it. has. been. crazy.

However, it’s a good crazy. I’ve done a little bit of reading, but honestly, I’ve been so busy, reading hasn’t been much on my mind. Plus, reading dozens of essays right at the end of the semester did me in. I had to share one story, though:

I had one student who, from the beginning of the semester, I really liked. He’s a young kid, from an inner-city school, and he was just so enthusiastic. When the class turned in its first essays, his was awful, though I could tell he spent some time on it. Truly. It was terrible. There was no organization, no coherence. The grammar was abhorrent, and there were sections I could barely read. So I pulled the kid aside and asked him to set up a time to meet with me because he failed the assignment. Those of you who teach know, not every kid will take advantage of extra help. This student did. He came to my office. I gave him two specific areas of concentration to focus on and told him to rewrite one paragraph. He did and brought it to me, and I increased his grade based on that paragraph.

Throughout the semester, he remained engaged and worked diligently, but he could never seem to really make the cut. We continued to work on several problems in his writing, and he improved steadily. During the final, I graded their final essays, and when I came to this particular student, I put my pen down. I read it through, and it was very obviously still his own work, but guys, it was good. It was organized. The essay topic was dead on, and I was so proud of him. I marked a few things and slapped a 90 on that essay and wrote him a note about his hard work.

When he came up to turn in his final, I pulled him aside and told him he couldn’t take the essay with him, as I wasn’t handing them back but that I wanted him to look at his grade. He scowled at my mark-ups on the first couple of pages, but when he got to his grade, he clutched his chest, looked at me, looked down at the essay and back up at me: “Really? I really got an A? I’ve never made an A on a paper.”

I told him he had done the work, had improved steadily and that he did a fantastic job on the essay. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he looked at me and said “Thank you so much. You made my Christmas.” I explained to him that the grade had absolutely nothing to do with me and that he should be proud of himself. He thanked me again and walked off, saying he would text his mom and grandma. I discreetly wiped tears from my eyes as well.

And you know what? He really made my Christmas. It’s easy to wish I made more money and gripe about how teachers don’t get paid enough (we don’t). It’s simple to fall into the trap of whining about those who don’t put in any effort and then complain because they get a C in class. But to really see a student persevere and improve and then appreciate your and his own work? It was really touching. The only problem is, ever since, I have been boo-hooing at the smallest things, and I am not a crier. Hell, last night we watched Cupcake Wars, and I practically cried. We watched Miracle on 34th Street yesterday, and the second Santa spoke Dutch to the little girl, off I went again. Don’t even let the ASPCA commercials come on. Frankly, it’s embarrassing, but I guess it’s better than the alternative.

So, to you and yours, whether or not you celebrate Christmas or just use the break as an excuse to read, I hope there is a little softie in you (if, for nothing else, so I don’t feel quite so foolish), and as always, happy reading.

 

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(Almost) back to regularly-scheduled programming…

Merry Christmas! I feel awful for not posting in so long and hope you haven’t abandoned me. However, I have been doing a whole lot of this:

And not a whole lot of this:

But I do have reviews and exciting news right around the corner. So stay tuned, dear blog readers, I will return.

In the meantime, what the heck have YOU been reading that I should add to my TBR (To Be Read) list?


Thanksgiving, or how we used Squanto to survive..

Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends. For those in other places, I am most thankful for your blogs, your comments, and this community. In teaching American Literature, early American writings are, by far, the most painful. I am certainly glad we have them for historical purposes, but boy – talking about “how many people have died of that awful disease because we have displeased God” is kind of a downer.

But – the Thanksgiving story fascinates me, or rather, the holiday we have come to know as Thanksgiving and its origins fascinate me. A few lines in journals and memoirs created what is now one of America’s most dearly-loved holidays.

Basically, in 1621, the Pilgrims (or Separatists, as they were also known) were so dang happy everyone had stopped dropping like flies. Half their party had died within three months of landing. Squanto, who could communicate with them because he learned English as a captive, taught them how to best use the land, and Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag, befriended them. So the Pilgrims had actually learned how to navigate this New World, and it was time to party Pilgrim style – with thanks to God, hunting, and boasting to friends and family back in England (even then we were a bunch of disrespectful upstarts).

So here it is folks: a couple of the passages behind your ovens full of turkey and sweet potatoes, stoves with bubbling pots of vegetables, televisions blaring football and parades, and of course, houses packed with family. It’s truly an American holiday, and I love it, even though it marks the beginning of the end for Native Americans and the tenuous friendship we once shared.

From William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation:

Thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity. They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

And Edward Winslow, in Mourt’s Relation:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.


Where are the editors, or Why all the damn similes?

Note: I do not use red pen on student papers as I have found red ink makes them feel they did worse than they actually did. Like employees given pink slips, students are immediately on the defensive.

Pop Culture Nerd and I had a brief exchange on Twitter last night wherein we discussed our picky astute observations regarding grammar-ly matters. (Yes, I totally made up “grammar-ly” so as not to sound incredibly high-handed). I was bemoaning the overuse of similes, she, adverbs, i.e. he demanded forcefully. You see, when you read as much as I do (and as much as most book bloggers do), certain trends begin to stand out. PCN has a great post up about the tics that bug her the most.

Today, I want to go into a full-fledged rant on the simile. Similes are great. “A comparison using ‘like’ or ‘as.'” Excellent. Fourth graders often employ similes in poetry. Adults, however, tend to have a greater grasp of the English language and should not need to rely as heavily on them for description. Notice, I use the word should in that last sentence. Unfortunately, everything I read lately seems to have an overabundance of the darn things. The one that stands out the most: They folded into the booth “like two spoons in cake batter.” Ugh. I get it; they were tired or comfortable or whatever. I really didn’t need the foodie image. Really. Now I’ll tell you, this came from Adriana Trigiani’s book Rococco, but I’m not picking on her alone. This afternoon, while teaching a class, we were discussing paragraph organization, and here’s a quote directly from the textbook: “… the line of thought in paragraph B swerves about like a car without a steering wheel.” I honestly had to pause to let that one take effect. Like moths to a flame, writers seem to be drawn to similes, and if even the textbook uses these (in my opinion) ridiculous analogies, who am I to complain?

My academic background is in English and technical writing and editing, so these choices get my back up. Once or twice, I guess they’re ok. Any more than that, and the writing is lazy. The opening to Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is one of my favorite, so let’s look at it in all of its simile-free glory:

Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy …. Barrabas arrived on a Holy Thursday. He was in a despicable cage, caked with his own excrement and urine, and had the lost look of a hapless, utterly defenseless prisoner; but the regal carriage of his head and the size of his frame bespoke the legendary giant he would become.

How different would that phrase ring if we changed it:

Barrabas came to us be sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy like filigreed gold …. Barrabas arrived on a Holy Thursday. He was in a despicable cage, caked with his own excrement and urine, and had the lost look of a hapless, utterly defenseless prisoner like the image of Jesus walking to Golgotha. Like a king, the regal carriage of his head and the size of his frame bespoke the legendary giant he would become.

Like a fly in the ointment, Allende’s lovely passage is, well, less lovely. The imagery and the symbolism in the real excerpt are certainly there (interpret as you wish), but if you make it explicit, the words lose their impact. No more interpretation. Less beauty.

So why are authors still doing it? In PCN’s post comments, many blame the writer, and yes, the writer should be held accountable. However, as an editor (in name only, not career), I cringe to think that a professional editor lets manuscripts slide from her desk with these sorts of stylistic choices. The job of an editor is to take what the author created and make it better – grammatically and stylistically. One of my categories on this blog is “where are the editors,” and I’ve started using the tag whenever appropriate. I mean, I get it: Writers tend to use similar words and word phrases and may not always pick up on them. Editors should.

Stay tuned for more “Where are the editors?” posts…


Blah Blah Blog

Wow. I am sure you are tired of reading this, but I have been so so busy. Teaching ESL and developmental writing has worn me out, especially at the pace of a summer session (19 class days), and I have mostly been watching Arrested Development (absolutely hilarious) and finishing up a Ruth Rendell novel, End in Tears. It was my first venture into the world of Inspector Wexford, and I must say, it wasn’t the most enjoyable jaunt. The story seemed to drag; I didn’t really care who the murderer was. Plus, the writing was really awkward. There were many times when I had to re-read a sentence to ascertain the meaning.

That said, I read two phenomenal books last week and continue thinking about them this week. I haven’t reviewed Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, although the post is begun. I am not sure if it was the audio format or the material itself, but I am having a difficult time completing my review.

Tomorrow, my developmental writing students have to take a timed essay test (college policy, not mine), so I will be bringing one of my library books along for company. I hope it is not the sort of test where I am expected to watch them the entire time. A. They are adults. B. I am an adult. and C. I WILL GO INSANE. I cannot stand having absolutely nothing to do. Yet, the first sentence I wrote in this post seems to be complaining of the very opposite. Oh well. You were warned I am picky.

Now I’m off to choose a library book. I’ll keep you posted…


Push by Sapphire

Book to movie production is a double-edged sword. For instance, when I first saw Milk, I was appalled that it was the first I had ever heard of Harvey Milk, the man and politician in the 70s in San Francisco who made gay activism what it is today. However, I am so happy that his story was brought to me, even though I hated that Hollywood was the one that informed me. In the last year, it has almost become a joke: Precious, based on the book Push by Sapphire. Each time it won something, I would hear those words. I knew, based on reviews of the movie and the attention it was getting on several feminist websites I encountered that it would not be an easy viewing.  I also knew that, regardless, I would read/watch it. When I went to the library Monday night, I picked it up. I didn’t realize the book was actually published in 1991, which is why I love/hate that Hollywood once again beat me to the punch.

It’s a slim volume, and if you’ve been under a rock the past year, here’s the premise. Clarieece Precious Jones is 16, pregnant with her second child by her father, miserable at school, and desperate for a different life, a life for which she will always have to push. Her mother beats her because the father leaves when he realizes Precious is pregnant (he comes back). The mother has also apparently been molesting Precious. Precious is illiterate, and the book opens when she is suspended for being pregnant a second time, saying, “I ain’ did nothin’!”

The book is written as Precious’ journal and is thus full of misspellings and colloquialisms as well as foul language. ‘Miz Rain,’ her teacher at Each One Teach One (an alternative school) encourages her students to write their stories in journals; Precious takes to her journal, and it becomes therapeutic for her. The book is not easy to read, but I tire of hearing people say they don’t think they could handle it. I mean, I get it. If it were gratuitous, that’d be one thing. But it’s life. This book may be fiction, but the story is rife with truths. Life is and can be ugly.

More than anything, this book impacted me in a major way. I am also listening to the audiobook version of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (review up tomorrow), and both are stories of African-American women and incest. Although totally different, these two stories have really made great companions. Whereas Morrison’s story is, as always, so beautifully descriptive of something so vile, Sapphire’s story is in your face. It knocked me out and drug me down when I finished it at midnight last night. It made me angry; no – it infuriated me.

Precious is fat. The scale stops at 200, and she knows she’s heavier. She smells bad at times; she used to urinate on herself at school because she wouldn’t get up. She has been abused by everyone and everything in her life. Her first child at 12 was born with Down’s syndrome or “down sinder” as she calls it and is named Little Mongo. Her grandmother is absent although she cares for Little Mongo. Her father rapes her repeatedly, and her mother beats her and molests her. All of this rent my heart in two, but as a white woman – a privileged white woman – what absolutely killed me were lines like these:

Why can’t I see myself, feel where I end and begin. I sometimes look in the pink people in suits eyes, the men from bizness, and they look way above me, put me out of their eyes. My fahver don’t see me really. If he did he would know I was like a white girl, a real person, inside.

She ain’ come in here and say, Carl Kenwood Jones – thas wrong! Git off Precious like that! Can’t you see Precious is a beautiful chile like white chile in magazines or on toilet paper wrappers. Precious is a blue-eye skinny chile whose hair is long braids, long long braids.

Passages like these actually nauseated me. Feeling ugly at times is one thing; I feel that way with no makeup or when I haven’t fixed myself up. But to feel like I could only be pretty if I were another race? To feel that maybe if I were lighter skinned or white that I would not have been raped, that my mother would have loved me, that I may be able to read?

How, how we have failed children like these! I know and acknowledge that incest, rape, child abuse, and illiteracy affect white children, Hispanic children, Russian children, yellow and brown, light-skinned and dark-skinned, diabetic, fat, skinny, gay, straight, innocent and not-so-innocent boys and girls. I can understand why there are those out there who didn’t want this book to become popular or who didn’t want the film to be made because it then becomes an African-American issue and not a capital “I” Issue. What I love about this book? That it moved me to want to take action.

Toni Morrison has a gift for beautifully telling horrible stories – stories for which the word ‘horrible’ is not even emphatic enough – but she never moves me to want to leave the realm of the story and do something about it. There was a moment in reading Push when the teacher Blue Rain is working with the students that I thought, I want to do that. It scared me. I know that people like Blue Rain (the non-fiction people) are out there doing this work and breaking their own hearts every day and working for little money, but oh, the rewards. For now, I want to find a literacy program and help support it. I’m not sure how yet to do that effectively, but on this site, in the future, I won’t do giveaways. I will promote whatever literacy program I research and decide would best use your money and my money. You and I, dear reader, are blessed. We have books aplenty, but more than that, we have the ability to open the pages of those books and allow them to take us away or to inform us or to better our minds. There are those out there who don’t have that option for more than just monetary reasons.

I promise you, and I promise myself that I will become an advocate for literacy. I promise to push.


Week in Review

Teaching two classes in a summer session is not for the faint of heart. I’m extremely grateful for the work, but the pace is really difficult. If it were a course I had taught before (or in the last year or so), it wouldn’t be as difficult, but each night is full of prep work for the next morning. I am teaching an Intermediate ESL Reading course from 8 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. I then rush off to the gym – or home if I need extra prep time for my second class – and head to a city about half an hour away to teach Developmental Writing from 12 p.m. to 1:45 p.m. Ah, the life of an adjunct.

Teaching ESL is tiring but so rewarding. I have four students: one from Ukraine, two from Saudi Arabia, and one from Iran. Each has a degree from his or her own country and is here to learn English and gain an additional degree in the States. These students are so incredibly eager to learn; in fact, some days, I don’t look up until it’s already 9:30 – past the end of class. One in particular loves to talk about slang. He’s already asked me about the phrases my bad and shotgun and even taught me one: mean mug (giving a mean face, if you’re slang illiterate like I am). However, teaching this course is also exhausting. I have to be conscious of every single word I use as my students’ vocabulary is good but still limited. We have a great book with units that teach a bit of grammar, vocabulary and culture in each lesson. That said, there is still a lot that I have to come up with on my own. Plus, the students have questions outside of the lessons. Try explaining the word certainly to a non-native speaker. I can sense their frustration at times, and I am sure they can sense mine. I have always heard English is a very difficult language to learn, and partly, I think it is because we have so many words like certainly that are not necessary but do assist the language. And don’t get me started on how many times I have to say: “Well, that is an exception.” Grrr.

Developmental Writing is a course for students who are not yet able to matriculate into the regular writing courses offered. Almost every student has some sort of learning problem. On top of that, I am dealing with years of incorrect instruction. Ever heard anyone say “Put a comma where you pause”? Yeah, I want to roll that person in poison ivy. (I know. I’m so violent.) Each student is capable of writing a complete sentence, but the writing is littered with fragments, misspellings, and incorrect verbs. It is overwhelming to try to correct that in 19 days, and frankly, I am appalled that the course is being offered in a summer session.

So, dear reader, this picky girl has not had much time to read this June. I come home really exhausted, but this week, I have manages to read the final two books in the Stieg Larsson trilogy and thoroughly enjoyed them. I will try to wrap up my thoughts and write something coherent in a couple of days. I was not sure if I would be able to read the last two as the first really, really scared me (I stayed up all night with a shovel next to my bed). A Facebook friend asked why I was so frightened by it, and I think I would have to say it was the torture/sexual torture aspect of it. I cannot watch Law & Order: SVU either. There is something about that kind of evil that sticks with me. It’s odd because I love mysteries and really do not scare easily when reading. I am glad to say that The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest were not only not scary but very enjoyable. I wish Larsson were still alive to finish the 10 books he had originally planned.

The rest of this week included:

  • making black bean soup (delish)
  • exercising in a Zumba class at the gym (fun!)
  • watching Extract, a Mike Judge film (also creator of Office Space)
  • walking the dog
  • napping
  • trying to find energy to blog

This evening, I was planning to go with my Wine Night girlfriends to Kemah (near Houston, Texas) for a special Wine Night on the water. One of the girls’ fathers owns a boat and property on the water and was planning to take us out to enjoy fireworks and wine. Unfortunately, I strained a muscle in my low back this morning and won’t make it. So now, I’m debating on what book to start next. Happy reading to all, and happy weekend!


Carrie Bradshaw is a real you-know-what.

Sorry, dear reader, for my absolute lack of posts this week. I’ll be back next week. I have been prepping for the start of summer school at the university. I have been reading, but it’s been textbook reading, and I figured you guys may not be too interested in what I thought of those books.

This weekend has been busy busy: salsa dancing in Houston Friday, errands and shopping in Houston on Saturday, a dear friend’s housewarming brunch this morning and a viewing of Sex and the City 2 this evening. My thoughts are succinct: Carrie Bradshaw is a real so-and-so, and wow! those are some over-the-top outfits. I may have more thoughts later, but that’s it for now.

Sweet dreams, and happy reading!