Monthly Archives: April 2011

What Teachers Make

I can’t imagine that there is anyone in America who hasn’t seen Taylor Mali’s video rant.

But just in case, here it is again, in a different version.

Because it really is true.

What do you think about this piece of free-verse performance art? Does it make you think of any particular teacher? Care to share? And if you are a teacher, which part do you relate to most?

And what exactly do they say about lawyers? 😉


Well, We Almost Made It Through Without Incident

Photograph from Google Images

On the last afternoon of my son’s spring vacation, right when his annoyance with me had reached its apex and his blood sugar had bottomed out, I suggested that it might be a good time for him to get a jump-start on his next book report. The one that isn’t due until mid-May.

“Only 18 days to work on it!” I joked.

Except I wasn’t really joking.

Monkey agreed, if reluctantly, to work on his first paragraph. He disappeared for twenty minutes and then returned. I asked him if he would read his paper. He groaned, but he obliged. I suggested that his thesis could use a little tweaking and asked him to go and work on the paragraph a little bit more. He declined. Adamantly. I persevered. We locked horns.

I should have predicted what was going to happen next, but I didn’t.

He shouted.

I shouted louder.

Eventually, he screamed, got a little teary-eyed, and stomped off to his bedroom – ostensibly to revise.

After fifteen minutes, when he did not materialize, I decided I would check on his progress. That’s when I found Monkey. Under his bed. He had gone there to hide.

From the world.

From the work.

But, mostly, from me.

The next thing I knew, I was lying on my son’s rug. My cheek brushing against the carpet, I remembered how – as a child – I tried to cajole an escaped gerbil into coming out from its hiding place.

At first he wouldn’t even talk to me. After a while, though, he let me have it.

“I just don’t understand why it had to be perfect!” Monkey sniffed. “It’s just a friggin’ first draft! I have over two weeks to work on it.”

It was my “Oh shit!” moment.

And he was 100% right.

Which meant I had to apologize.

And so I apologized to Monkey for getting all up in his grill about his school work. Truth is, he is about the most organized person I know when it comes to time management. And I told him so. I also told him that sometimes it’s hard for me – especially when it comes to writing – to just let things be. I told him how “imperfect” is hard for me when it comes to English.

“Also,” I confessed, “I didn’t know that you actually revise.”

“Of course I do,” he said. “Geez! Give me some credit!”

I felt I had to offer Monkey something more than an apology. (More than the snack that he, also, clearly needed.) After all, I felt I had really underestimated him.

And then I got an idea.

“I would like to extend an offer to you,” I said. “Are you interested?”

“Maybe,” said Monkey, still facing the wall.

“The next time I say, ‘You just lost your iPod Touch,’ you have a free ‘Gimmee-Back-My-Touch’ card,” I said. “You know like those ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ cards in Monopoly? Like that.”

Monkey rolled over to face me. The slats of his bed hovered a half an inch above his ear.

“Make me a card!” he demanded. “And decorate it insanely with icons from all the apps I like. And add lots of stickers and stuff. And put it in a cool font.”

Suddenly, I felt that I’d been duped. Somehow I went from apologizing to my son to negotiating with a terrorist.

“And no expiration date!” he said smugly. “That’s your homework,” said Monkey, smiling, letting me know everything was okay with us.

He grunted as he slithered out from under his bed.

He isn’t going to be able to fit under there much longer.

“Also, there’s a friggin’ huge, hairy-dust ball under there,” said Monkey, trying to see if I’d let him get away with his second friggin’ of the day.

I did.

“Yeah,” I said. “I kind of noticed it rolling around while I was talking to the back of your head.”

We both burst out laughing.

Thank goodness for hairy-dust balls.

“May I please go and ride my bike before vacation ends?” Monkey asked.

“Dismissed,” I said.

“Thanks,” yelled Monkey and, as he ran out the door he added, “I’ll expect your homework by dinner!”

Anybody have any good stories about apologizing to your kids? 

Guest Post by Clay Morgan: Lessons From a Pop Teacher & a Few Zombies

Today’s guest blogger is Clay Morgan from Besides being one of my very first cyber-friends in the bloggersphere, Clay is an amazing educator. He is a revolutionary. You know that game six-degrees of separation? Well, in the world of bloggers, it seems nearly everyone knows Clay. He gets around. Today he is sharing his thoughts about using Pop Culture in the classroom.

As a teacher, I’m often amazed at what pools of knowledge I must dive into in order to effectively communicate with my students.

Just the other day I was giving a lecture on Europe after World War II. Many of the students were fading and staring blankly in my general direction. I was about to explain one of the most important parts of the entire course and needed them alert and free of mental paralysis.

Good thing I know so much about zombies.

I’m not referring to the students although any teacher doing the job for a while knows what it’s like to stand before a room of pupils imitating the undead. I’m talking about the zombies of culture, specifically movies.

See, I needed to explain the crisis of Germany after Hitler’s death in 1945. Nations like America and England recognized the importance of a strong German nation, strength that was critical to European recovery. At the same time, someone had to keep an eye on nasty Joe Stalin and the Soviet Union.

But those pesky Russians and their nervous cohorts in France were sick of Germany. They despised the nation that had brought war on them twice in a quarter century. Tens of millions had already been killed. They thought letting those Germans come back again was just asking for global destruction. Plenty of folks wanted Germany turned into a parking lot surrounded by fields.

History as Yawnsville

So I’m teaching this anti-German plan named for U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Students must understand these events to get a grasp of the Cold War, our centerpiece for the rest of the semester. They didn’t seem too enthused. Then I remembered Zombieland.

Most of my students haven’t seen the greatest films ever made about WWII such as Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, or Life is Beautiful.

But they have seen Zombieland, a 2009 flick in which Jesse Eisenberg (the guy from Social Network) plays Columbus—a college student trying to survive in a zombie dominated world.

Columbus lives by about 30 rules, the most famous of which is probably #4: Double tap. You might not know what that means, but my college students do. It means shoot twice when the walking dead want you to join them. It means be certain that the monster you just defeated doesn’t get back up.

History that Pops

Do you see where I’m going with this?

My class was alive and kicking when I told them that the Morgenthau Plan was the 20th century attempt to double tap. Germany was the zombie. This analogy led to a great discussion on world power and how we should handle those responsible for human atrocities. My students will never forget the stakes of the post-war world with such a powerful visualization. Based on past experience, I have a feeling I’ll get an email in a couple years thanking me for a good class and joking about double tap.

Some education types say that movie references have no place in an academic setting. My question to them would be whether or not they want to connect with students or not. The past couple generations have been saturated in culture. It’s long been in our heads and now it’s in the palm of our hands.

Students live and breathe this stuff, so why not make it work for us? The best way to teach someone what they do not understand is by using what they do. You wouldn’t walk into a Chinese classroom and expect the students to understand your English. Same thing goes in Western classrooms. If you fail to speak their language, you will not be heard.

Applications for using pop culture in educational settings are only limited by our creativity. That’s why a bunch of us started, to pool together the best ideas out there so we’ll have a nice reservoir of ideas to dive into.

I expected opposition and ignorance from naysayers. I was even prepared to double tap their arguments. I did not expect such a fabulous response so quickly.

Clay Morgan, Superstar has already been featured in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and I’m now being asked to speak at collegiate conferences about these ideas. That’s pretty funny because my pedagogical strategy consists of a) showing up for work and b) being myself.

The best response has come from dozens of teachers—grade school to higher ed—who are eager to share their experiences and ideas. More email comes in every week.

Teaching as a career is a grind that can wear us down. Then we risk getting tired and disconnecting. We lose effectiveness when that happens. Why not have some fun and dive into our bountiful culture? You never know where the interests of others will lead a discussion. You might even find a way to bring a group to life by talking about the undead.

So what do you think? Do you like the way Clay thinks? Would you want to be a student in his class? Have you ever been in a class where the teacher used Popular Culture references? What do you remember? Or do you think this kind of approach dumbs down our educational system?

Clay will field your comments today.

Rewarding My Frequent Fliers

A while ago, I decided that I would reward the person who made the 3,000th comment on my blog with a gift.

No, there is nothing significant about the number 3,000. I was obsessing over my stats just happened to notice that the number was fast approaching, and the time felt right.

I just wasn’t sure what I was going to offer up.

I figured as an English teacher, it would be most appropriate to offer up a book. But what to send?

And then the day came, and I saw who made that 3,000th comment, and everything became clear.

Isnt he cute?

When I arrived in the bloggersphere last May, the very first person to welcome me was Carl D’Agostino. Carl helped me to network with some of his blogging buddies and he has been a steadfast follower ever since my very first post. In fact, no matter what time of day I post, I can pretty much count on Carl to be the first responder. If he lived closer to me, I would totally have him on my person to contact in an emergency list. He is that reliable and that fast.

I was thrilled when I saw that Carl made the 3,000th comment back in March. And because he is a former teacher, I offered him two book titles: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby (which he once confessed he’d not ever read) or Lynne Truss’ irreverent Eats, Shoot and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

Carl chose Truss’ hilarious book for grammar sticklers.

Then I told Carl there were strings attached to the gift.

I asked him if he would write a short response to the book in which he explained one thing that he enjoyed or learned which I could use in my blog.

Here is his response:

A Book Report by Carl D’Agostino on Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

If you see how the two pieces of punctuation in the above title affect understanding a great deal, you will enjoy this book and even learn some history. If you don’t see alternative meanings, you need to read this book. Truss says, “Punctuation gives sentences manners.” She explains how punctuation allows sentences to speak to us rather than merely appear before us.

I am glad Mrs. Schuls-Jacobson gave me this reading assignment (over spring break – sheesh).

Carl emailed me a great cartoon to accompany his response. Extra credit bonus points duly noted and awarded. Even if this illustration was created six years ago, it’s still funny. 😉

Carl illustrated this!

So thank you and congratulations to Carl! If you like his illustrations, you can find lots more of them here on his blog I Know I Made You Smile.

And to the rest of you, keep those comments coming. My blog will be a year old in May. I’ll probably have some other special surprise up my sleeve.

Unless it is really hot outside, and I’m not wearing sleeves. 😉

Lessons From Search Bombing

Image blatantly stolen from

Some folks are timely with their posts. They write about Christmas on Christmas. Me, not so much.

It has taken me until spring vacation to write about the shenanigans that occurred on April Fool’s Day, when Ironic Mom (Leanne Shirtliffe) and EduClaytion (Clay Morgan) got together and created a hilarious way for bloggers to have a little fun. They call it “Search Bombing” and it involves using Google to type in little things we bloggers know about each other and then intentionally searching for them in an attempt to have them show up on the intended bloggers’ “Most Frequently Searched Terms” lists. And since most bloggers are obsessed with moderately interested about their statistics, it is a fun little way to add a little personalized zing to each other’s pathetic lives spent chained in front of our computer screens.

If you want to know more about Search Bombing, check out this link here. The video kind of explains it all.

The following are terms that I’m pretty sure by which I was intentionally search bombed:

• Lessons in making out with a teacher
• Teachers lessons to dance get me body
• Pictures of hot teacher in Halloween costume
• Giving a cross for a bat mitzvah
• Calgary Calgarah
• The Conclusion for 2011 – kindle and nook almost in a tie
• Pictures of hot girls in graduation hats in space
• I was bullied by my zombie camp counselors
• Teacher fucks puffy coat in elevator
• Did William Golding have any siblings?

Now, people simply have to understand that the post that gets the most views every day is my piece on head lice. Okay, fine. I have an irrational fear about getting head lice. And even thinking about head lice totally freaks me out. That friggin’ post averages 147 hits a day, thus serving as a constant reminder of my neurosis. So I’m not sure I was actually search bombed, but the following are terms that showed up, and they seemed waaaay too detailed and each only registered only one search – which put them on my uber-suspicious list. These searches might have been intentional or not; either way, they are hilarious.

• My kid has head lice. Do I have to do something?
• I was around someone with lice. I use gel and two different hairsprays everyday. Am I ok?
• How do I know it is head lice or just dandruff?
• Has anyone ever tried to blow torch head lice?

So what is the point of today’s blog? I don’t know except to say thank you to Clay and Leanne and Chase and Carl and Jessica and Wendy and Larry and Kathy and Worst Professor Ever… and everyone else who regularly visits my blog enough to know that I loved overnight camp and that I have a thing about people in puffy coats on elevators, that I like to dress kinda slutty for Halloween and that I have a thing for Lord of the Flies.  Thank you for making my first year in the bloggersphere so memorable, for introducing me to your friends, and for letting me sit at the cool kids’ table at lunch.

Words That Piss Me Off

Juxtaposition of circle and square cakes

Is it an English teacher thing or do normal other people have a collection of words that carry emotional weight for them?

By this I mean, do regular folks like certain words and dislike other words? Or do most people just walk about the earth caveman-style without worrying too much about things like this?

Let me give you a for example.

I was reading a blog the other day.

It mentioned the word “juxtaposition.”

Do you get it?

I have to tell you that I have a thing about the word “juxtaposition.”

That word pisses me off.

First of all, I missed it on my SAT’s over 20 years ago.

(Okay, fine, over 25 years ago – whatever!)

I totally remember coming out of the lunchroom after being made to sit next to a repetitive pencil-tapper for three consecutive hours on a gorgeous Saturday morning. (Let’s not even discuss the fact that I have a thing about repetitive noises. My closest friends know that if they tap something more than five times in a row, I will throw them to the ground.) Let’s just say, I was definitely a little twitchy.

Anyway, I came out of the cafeteria and went a little ape-shit.

Me (all indignant): Who even knows what juxtaposition means? Anyone? I mean who would know that word?

Everyone looked at me blankly.

And then one person defined it.


Mr. Smarty Pants: Juxtaposition is the act of placing close together or side by side, for comparison or contrast.

Me: Really, Mr. Smarty Pants. That’s awesome that you know that. Can you use it in a sentence?

Mr. Smarty Pants: ‘I like the construction of sentences and the juxtaposition of words – not just how they sound or what they mean, but even what they look like.’ That’s a quote by Don DeLillo.

Me: Who the hell is Don DeLillo?

Mr. Smarty Pants: Where did you say you want to go to college?

I was sooooo pissed.

But from that moment forward, i have never forgotten the dang word.

Do you get it now?

And the reality is, I love the juxtaposition of words and ideas!

Oh, the irony!

And guess what? Now I use the word “juxtaposition” all the time.

Almost daily.

Just because.

I will not tell you the other skillion words that drive me bonkers bother me because if I am ever taken hostage in a bizarre twist of events that would lead to the taking of hostages, I would rather be water-boarded than have people whisper my least favorite words in my ears.

Can you imagine if my captors juxtaposed the whispering of all those awful words with simultaneous, repetitive pencil tapping?

That, dear readers, would be hell.


What words drive you to pain and chaos, and why?

Grammar is a Hussy

I got this little gem from a colleague who was in the midst of grading three sections of English 101 mid-term papers. Upon completing one full section of essays, he decided to reward himself.

(I usually reward myself by eating a bag of Snickers.)

Anyway, he found this little gem and sent this around via department mail:

My colleague took pause to wonder:

Do you think if we “sexed it up” (as the British say), we could ever get everyone to use it?

Let me be the first to say that I am a Grammar Pimp and proud of it.

I use Grammar all the time.

And she has never failed me.


Grammar is slick.

She is tireless, and she never lets me down.

She has never asked me for anything, and I have only benefited from my relationship with her.

Seriously, who wouldn’t want in on that kind of action?

Grammar, you have a bag full of tricks, you dirty girl.

You aren’t afraid of anything: noun-pronoun agreement, misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers. Colons don’t scare you and –  Grammar, you little trollop – you love when people use their hyphens properly.

Don’t you?

Yes you do.

Knowing Grammar is great.

But using Grammar is excellent.

I’m telling you: Use Grammar.

She wants you to.

If we approached grammar as if it were a reality TV show, do you think it would make kids more psyched to learn their grammar rules? Or would a whole bunch of teachers just get fired?

A Literary Interview With You

Cover of "Pat the Bunny (Touch and Feel B...

Cover of Pat the Bunny (Touch and Feel Book)

A couple of weeks ago, Clay at EduClaytion put together an “Interview with You” Post. Then Leanne at Ironic Mom borrowed his idea and applied it to music from the ’80s. I’m flat out borrowing (read: stealing) their idea and applying the interview concept to books.

Here’s how A Literary Memoir works. In the comments section below, please cut and paste these 9 questions, then fill in your answers. Feel free to elaborate as much or as little as you like.

But first, here is my literary memoir:

  1. First book I remember being read: Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt. How I loved those soft and shiny and sandpaper pages.
  2. First book I remember reading all by myself: The Cat & The Hat by Dr. Seuss
  3. Favorite Young Adult Book: Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. In fact, everything by Judy Blume. I read them one after the other. Ate them up like caramels. They. Were. Delicious.
  4. Favorite book of all time: Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I think I refer to this book on a daily basis. Every student I have ever taught can vouch; I talk about it. A lot.
  5. Book I hated so much I could not finish Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulker. This is the only book that kicked my ass. I simply could not get through it. Don’t get me wrong: I loved As I Lay Dying and plenty of other Faulkner, too. But this one just stunk. Like a skunk. In a trunk.
  6. Book I will always keep: A Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Poor, poor Holden. Plus, I have taught from this particular copy so many times that it is all marked up inside. It has sticky notes and stars all over it; all the important stuff is underlined. Despite the fact that some of the pages keep falling out, this one will go with me wherever I go. It will be loved to death.
  7. Last Book I Read: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Holy crap. This book scared the bejesus out of me. I simply cannot say anything about it. It will ruin everything. I will, however, take a moment to thank my friend Gina for recommending it to me. She recommends the best books. Her last three recommendations have been hits. This one, however, freaked me out.
  8. Book I am reading now: The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, Lucette Lagnado. Book club. Lots of pressure to finish.
  9. Book I plan to read next: Why do you think I’m having you do this? 😉

To play along, cut and past these questions into the comments section and fill in. Here’s a blank set of the questions:

  1. First book I remember being read:
  2. First book I remember reading alone:
  3. Favorite Young Adult book:
  4. Favorite book of all time:
  5. Book I hated and could not finish: 
  6. Book I will always keep:
  7. Last book I read:
  8. Book I am reading now:
  9. Book I plan to read next:

Have fun. Can wait to read your responses! 🙂

What the “Huck”?

Traditional raft, from 1884 edition of Adventu...

Image via Wikipedia

A few months ago, I wrote a tirade about the Alabama publisher who took The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and “sanitized” it because school teachers confessed they felt uncomfortable teaching it in their classes due to the  use of the “n-word.”

I ranted and raved about how wrong it is to alter books and how it sets a dangerous precedent.

I never posted it.

I realize that not everyone will agree with me, but I think much (but certainly not all) of the power in Huckleberry Finn is in Twain’s brilliant use of language and how the plot morphs from a story of one, young, rather selfish boy on a journey to a story about a boy and a man, together, against the world.

There is an incredible irony that engaged readers will pick up on that Jim, the slave, referred to as a “nigger” 219 times during the course of the novel, is the most moral, loving, genuine, forgiving, character in the entire book. He is probably one of the greatest father-figures in American Literature. And, if read correctly Huckleberry Finn stands as one of the strongest condemnations of racism in American literature as Huck recognizes Jim’s humanity and says he would rather go to hell than send Jim back into slavery.

I had written much more – about how it is important to discuss the power of the “n-word,” its origins, and its different contexts in different communities; how it is necessary to challenge students about the casual use of the “n-word,” to get them to consider if it is ever okay to use this word and if so, who can say it, when and under what circumstances.

I caught this bit on Huckleberry Finn and the N-word debate on 60 Minutes and about 7 minutes in, I just knew that this report was saying it better than I ever could. If you ever read Twain’s novel or have kids who read it or might read it, it is worth the next 12 minutes of your time. And if you are an educator, I recommend you see it – first, to think about your methods. Because this is a book where one has to be mindful. But this piece of journalism would be great to show in one’s class to get a real discussion on race relations going.

If you were an English teacher, would you use the version with the original text? Or would you choose the new version where the “n-word” is replaced by the word “slave”? Or would you avoid the discussion on race altogether?

Lessons From An Only Child & Three Dead Fish

Calvin is an only child

Sometimes I’d really like to flip Granville Stanley Hall the bird.

Problem is, the dude is dead.

About 120 years ago, Hall established one of the first American psychology-research labs and supervised the 1896 study “Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children,” which described a series of only-child oddballs as permanent misfits. Hall concluded only children could not be expected to go through life with the same capacity for adjustment that children with siblings possessed. “Being an only child is a disease in itself,” he claimed.

Thanks, Granville.

You, like, totally rock.

And by rock, I mean suck.

While much work has been done to debunk the myth of the weirdo only child, most people still think one is the loneliest number. And, shockingly, strangers continue to ask me, over 10 years after my son was born, when I plan to have another. As if having just one is the worst, most unthinkable thing I could ever do.

You’re hearing it here first, folks: I’m not having any more kids.

The womb is closed.

Meanwhile, Hubby and I are doing our best to raise our singleton son, now 11 & 1/2 years old, and we think we are doing a pretty good job of it. I was recently thumbing through a journal that I kept when Monkey was very small, and I stumbled across an anecdote that seemed apropos to share here.

When Monkey was about 3 years old, he won three identical goldfish at a carnival. Actually, he didn’t win them so much as acquire them; the man at the booth said it was late in the day, that it was the last day of whatever festival we were attending, and he basically wanted to unload the fish. So when Monkey’s dart popped one balloon he became the “big winner” of the day and we came home with a plastic baggie o’fish.

Monkey promptly named the trio the best names he could think of: “Mommy,” “Daddy” and “Monkey.” And he fed them (sometimes). And he watched them swim (sometimes). And he disappeared when I cleaned the bowl (always). And for a while, things went along swimmingly. The fish were nice to have, but he didn’t seem very invested in them.

One morning, hubby and I awoke to the sound of Monkey screaming, “Mommy! Daddy! Mommy! Daddy!”

Husband and I jumped out of our bed and ran down the hall to find our son standing on top of his bed staring into the fishbowl.

“Mommy and Daddy are dead,” he announced.

Now these were three completely identical goldfish. There was absolutely nothing to tell them apart. no telltale spots, no interesting marks, no places where anyone had been chomped, so I had to ask.

“Monkey, how can you tell that it’s Mommy and Daddy that didn’t make it?”

My son looked at me like I was an alien. “Well, because as you can see,” he said, pointing into the tiny little bowl, “Monkey is right there. He’s fine.”


Hubby and I looked at each other. Our child didn’t seem to be traumatized. In fact, when we asked him what we ought to do with the two fish that had gone belly-up, he replied pragmatically, “Probably flush ’em.”

Like most only children, Monkey has hung out with his cousins and turned his closest friends into pseudo-siblings, knowing it’s not the same as having real brothers or a sisters but not necessarily missing what he doesn’t have. For him, siblings are kind of like the floating goldfish we flushed away so long ago: they were nice while they lasted, but he prefers having the bowl to himself. He has seen siblings who get along beautifully, and he has watched siblings claw at each other like cats. He realizes that just because a person has a brother or a sister doesn’t mean that relationship will be a close one. These days, he also knows that being an only has its perks: No one will mess with his many collections, or go in his room to snoop around, or kick him unexpectedly in the twigs and berries. But he couldn’t have known this back then.

The day the fish died, my husband explained the bowl had been too small, that there had been too much urea in the water and not enough oxygen. He asked our son if he wanted to get a bigger tank, more fish.

“No. One is good.”

Recent studies show that only children are no more messed up than anybody else’s kids. In fact, only children tend to do better in school and get more education — college, medical or law degrees — than other kids. Source Material

So everybody can stop worrying.

The only kid is all right.

Where do you fall in the birth order? Has birth order impacted you? Do you think birth order matters at all? Or is it all a bunch of hogwash?