Category Archives: Education

L’il Miss Attitude

Every year, I study my new class rosters and practice saying the names aloud so I don’t sound like a total dork on the first day.

One year, I was feeling pretty good until I came to one particular name.

T-a.

I didn’t know what to do with it.

I mean, I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. I tried a lot of different combinations.

Tee-ah? Tee-ay? Tah? Tay?

I had no idea. I figured the best thing to do would be to just admit defeat and ask the student to pronounce his or her name in class.

The first day of class came.

New students filed in and gravitated to the seats they liked the best. Some near the front, others farther back.

I introduced myself and began taking attendance, reading down the list, changing “James” to “Jim” and “Richard” to “Rick.” I even had the foresight to ask the student whose last name was Montague what he liked to be called. A good-looking chap in a baseball cap smiled at me and said, “Adam.” His name had appeared as “Bartholomew” on the roster. I didn’t want to embarrass him because his parents had made a bad choice 19 years earlier. Turns out, he went by his middle name.

Finally, I hit the dreaded name.

“Okay,” I said, “I am not sure how to properly pronounce this name, so I’m wondering if there is a person with the last name of Dinkens here today.”

The room was silent.

“Nobody here with the last name of Dinkens?” I repeated.

Someone clucked her tongue. “That’s me,” said a girl with her chin tilted up at a hard angle.

“I wasn’t sure how to pronounce your name, so I thought you could help me out,” I said.

“Why don’tchu try it?” L’il Miss Attitude asked, crossing her arms across her black and white striped tee shirt.

“Okay,” I said, “Is it Tee-ah?”

The girl made a sound like she had been annoyed with me since the moment I was born.

“Lord,” she said, “Don’t you know the dash ain’t silent? It’s TaDASHa.”

Silence swirled around me noisily. It was the first day of class. I had to set the tone, properly. I wasn’t mad at this girl, but I could not allow her to disrespect me, not right out of the gate. Seventeen billion thoughts on how to handle the situation occurred to me simultaneously ranging in severity.

While I was leaning toward a good old-fashioned paddling, I chose a stern voice.

“Are you a first year student here, Tadasha?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Tadasha said, chewing on her thumbnail.

“And is this your very first class on campus today?”

“Yeah.”

“And do you have a full-time schedule?”

“Yeah.”

“And how many other classes do you have today?”

“Three,” Tadasha snipped.

“And you are telling me no one has ever mispronounced or struggled with the pronunciation of your name in your entire life?”

“Bitch, where I live people know me.”

I thought my head was going to blow off my shoulders. Did I hear wrong or did a student in my classroom just call me a bitch? I felt like I was on some kind of bad reality TV show, you know the type where someone eventually jumps out as things escalate and tells the unsuspecting victim that he’s been punked? Except the clock kept ticking and no one seemed to be coming to my rescue, and I didn’t see any cameras. I had to do something.

Everyone was staring at me.

“Okay Tadasha,” I started, while moving to sit on top of my large iron desk. “Here are a few things for you to consider as you move through the rest of your day. First, I predict that this exact interaction is going to happen to you three more times today. And when you address the person who mispronounces your name — because it will be mispronounced — it would be wise for you to not address that person with profanity.” I looked my student in the eye: “Calling someone a ‘bitch’ is rarely the appropriate way to address another person whether in a classroom on a college campus or in life.”

Tadasha was silent.

Everyone turned to look at her.

Suddenly I realized I was playing a weird verbal tennis match, and I had obviously smacked the ball over to her side of the net.

Everyone was waiting to see if she was going to make a mad dash to return it.

She didn’t, so I kept going.

Full. Court. Press.

“Also, just so you know, you have an unusual name. The hyphen — or dash — as you called it, is generally silent. We don’t usually pronounce it. People may know you in the part of the world where you have lived for the last 18 or so years, but no one knows you on this campus, so if you want to have positive interactions today I recommend that you be kind. Try to have a sense of humor. No one wants to hurt you. On the first day, your teachers are just trying to figure out who is who. That’s all I was trying to do.”

Tadasha was glaring at me.

“Last, we have not started off well today, so I would suggest that you head down to the Registrar right now and get yourself enrolled in another section of Comp-101.”

Tadasha gathered her purse and her books and walked out of the class with her head held high.

She never came back, and I never saw her again.

I often wonder if Tadasha made it through the day. The week. The semester. If she graduated at all. I wonder about her hard edges. About how she had made it so far yet knew so little about how to interact with other people. Was she just scared? Did I blow it? Did I do her a favor? Or did I ruin her?

Who do you wonder about from your past? What do you imagine that person is doing now?

*names have been changed for obvious reasons

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The Day I Got It All Wrong

When I teach, I come to class prepared. In fact, I sometimes come to class with a Plan A, Plan B and an Emergency Back-Up Plan. I think this stems from the days when I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. Case in point: Many years ago, when I was just starting out, students were completing their last day of oral presentations. One girl was standing up before the class doing her thing and a small group of boys were being – well, let’s just say, a little bit disruptive. Nothing major. They just weren’t really interested in the symbolism that she had found so riveting in Ordinary People.

I tried to get the attention of one of the boys. No luck. I tried to make eye contact with another. Nothin’. Finally, I took my pen – a Precise V5 extra fine tip pen in hand and attempted to throw it so that it would hit the main offender: Let’s call him Hugo. It should be noted here – and you can’t make this stuff up – that Hugo happened to have one good eye, having lost the other eye years earlier, although I never found out the circumstances surrounding how it had happened. Anyway, I tried to aim for Hugo’s leg – to get his attention without disrupting the entire class. I figured he’d feel the pen tap his leg, look at me, I’d give him “the death eye” and he’d stop screwing around. It seemed foolproof.

I don’t know how it happened because I usually have pretty good aim, but anyone who was in the class that day would vouch for the fact that the pen did not hit Hugo on the leg. That pen had a mind of its own and fueled by green ink, it launched itself upwards right into Hugo’s face just below (or maybe above?) his good eye.

Hugo stood up before the entire class holding his face, “What the hell are you doing?” he shouted (and with good reason). “You could have blinded me!” And with that, Hugo announced that he was going to the nurse, the principal and, then, he was going to call his mother.

I had done precisely what I had set out not to do. I had disrupted the class completely. At the time, I was pretty sure that I was going to be fired. After apologizing to the student presenter for creating such a commotion, class ended, and I hustled up to the Upper School principal to whom I confessed all my terrible, unforgivable sins. She clucked her tongue at me, told me to call Hugo’s mother, and explain what had happened. Thank goodness, Hugo’s mother was wonderful, supportive and understanding; she even joked that sometimes she wanted to poke out Hugo’s good eye. Later, I also apologized to Hugo who apologized to me for being disruptive and disrespectful.

I have often thought about my experience with Hugo. As a new teacher, I was trying to figure things out. After throwing a pen at my wonderful student, I learned many things: First and foremost, I learned to never throw anything at anyone in class ever again. But I learned a lot of other things, too. Over time, I discovered more creative methods to communicate with students about their behavior without making the class come to a grinding halt. I learned a great deal about respect that day and how quick actions can lead to terrible consequences. I learned that sometimes teachers need to apologize to their students because sometimes teachers are the biggest twits of all. We learn from experience.

Oh, and I didn’t get fired.

What’s a not-so-great thing you did on the job that turned into a huge learning moment?

Roots & Wings

The Golisano College of Computing and Informat...

Image via Wikipedia

Way back in December, a brochure made its way into my house advertising a summer kids’ camp at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Monkey read it hungrily and announced that he really wanted to take a computer programming class.

I heard him but I left the information on the back burner.

On a very low simmer.

Because I didn’t want Monkey to spend two weeks inside with eleventy-zillion computer screens. Lord knows our summers in New York State are short enough as it is. So I didn’t really jump on it.

But Monkey was relentless.

(I don’t know where he gets it.)

After weeks of daily questioning, he wore me down and I signed him up so for the desired two-week session. For two weeks, five hours a day, my child sat in a college classroom learning how to use Adobe Flash to create a computer video game.

And he loved every minute of it.

In the car on the way home each afternoon, he talked (mostly to himself) about “code” and “servers” and “syntax errors” and “unnecessary right braces before end of program” and other things I did not understand.

On the first day of the second week Monkey said: “You don’t have to walk me in.”

I looked at my 11-year-old son. He assured me I could just drop him off at the curb, that he knew just where to go “on-campus.” He unbuckled his seatbelt and kissed me on my nose, an old ritual since his pre-school days.

I let him go.

I wasn’t worried about him, but I didn’t drive away so quickly. For some reason, the moment felt kind of monumental. I watched my son’s slim body move further and further away from me until he was so far up the path that I almost couldn’t differentiate him from another student. Eventually, Monkey (or maybe it was the other kid) opened one of the two heavy doors to the brick and glass Tom Golisano Building for Computing and Information Science and disappeared without even looking back.

I imagined my son graduating from high school and heading off to college in five years time. And never looking back.

Later that week Monkey asked me if he had to finish middle and high school or if he could just skip ahead to college.

(This from a child who still doesn’t know how to properly use a comma.)

I, of course popped into teacher mode. I explained to him that, while he might excel in computer technology, he still needs to learn about literature and history, to continue to work on his writing and language skills – because otherwise there would be holes in his educational fabric.

“Right now, school is helping to weave a tapestry in your brain,” I said. “But that tapestry is only partially created. If you stop going to school or skip the subjects that don’t appeal to you, it would be like enormous moths attacked the tapestry and chewed giant holes into it.”

Monkey was quiet so I kept going. “You need a know a lot of different types of knowledge before you go to college. And you are going to need to understand how those types of knowledge are interconnected…”

Monkey interrupted. “Mom, I’m kidding!” He patted my hand in mock reassurance. “Don’t be so serious.”

Oy.

I know it’s a parent’s job to give a child roots and wings. And Monkey has got ’em.

I just didn’t think he would want to fly off so fast.

If your child wanted to pursue year-round school academics, would you encourage him/her to do so? Or do you feel taking time off to relax during the summer is important?

Duplicates Disease

baby names for dummies
Image by alist via Flickr

A little while ago I received my roster for my fall Comp-101 writing class.

I scored a great building.

(No pole in the middle of the classroom this semester, people!)

And I have a full house, so there is no chance the class will be canceled.

Also reassuring.

And then I noticed it.

Assuming everybody shows on the first day, I should have four Ashleighs.

And an Ashley.

Four Zacharys.

And a Zach.

One Nathan.

And a Nate.

Oh, and two students with the last name “Johnson.”

With my luck, they will be identical twins.

Holy crowly!

I’m usually pretty good with names, but I’m thinking it is going to take me longer than usual to figure out who is who.

Several years ago, I repeatedly called a student Brennan. Problem was his name wasn’t Brennan; it was Brendan. By chance, Brendan chose to sit in the exact same seat that Brennan sat in one hour earlier. I tried moving Brendan’s seat, but I kept calling him Brennan. He was gracious at first – but eventually, he got annoyed.

Can you blame him?

But even if I goofed up my students’ names, I never confused their grades because my sound-alikes were in different sections.

But this year is going to be different.

All these students with the same-sounding names will be in the same section.

How are we going to have class discussion?

What will I do if 3 Ashleighs are simultaneously raising their hands because they want to respond to something?

Secretly, I find myself praying that one or more of my duplicates will drop my class before the semester starts. Or, in the very least, that each student will have dramatically different appearances and personality traits.

I’m hoping that Ashleigh #1 will be an amazing writer who loves to talk while Ashleigh #2 will be lazy and fall asleep at her desk each day. With any luck Ashleigh #3 will have tanning-booth bronze skin a la Snooki, and Ashleigh #4 will be an albino with red eyes and protective eyewear. I haven’t figured out what Ashley could be like. Maybe she will walk through the doors wearing a fabulous fuchsia pin. And maybe I can persuade her to agree to wear it every day Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the entire fifteen weeks of the semester.

I’m a little anxious about this. Can you tell?

What tricks do you use to remember people’s names? And what tactics do you recommend for a situation like this — other than a seating chart. Think creatively, people.

Spot Check

Teacher

Image by tim ellis via Flickr

I’m kicking off Wednesday #TWITS: a fancy-schmancy acronym for Teachers Who I Think Scored / Teachers Who I Think Sucked. (It only took me eleventy bajillion hours to think up that one.) So here is my middle school memory about one very specific moment. Obviously, I have changed the teacher’s name.

• • •

In middle school, I had the meanest homeroom teacher. Unfortunately, she was also my English teacher, which meant I had double doses of her each day. Mrs. Dour ran a tight ship. She liked her rows straight. She liked her students quiet. She hated boys who leaned back in their chairs. She also hated girls who wore clogs. “Too noisy,” she complained. She called on people when their hands were down, and when she wrote words like “onomatopoeia” on the blackboard, she pressed so hard against the slate that the white chalk often crumbled into dust. Mrs. Dour wore her reddish-hair in a tight bun every day, but by 8th period, when I had her for English, most of her hair had fallen down, giving her a slightly deranged look.

I was pretty scared of her.

One June day, Mrs. Dour gave us all a 7-minute writing assignment during which time we were supposed to do something in our black and white composition notebooks.

I can’t remember what we were supposed to do because of what happened next.

Mrs. Dour turned her back to the class to write on the board. She was wearing a lightweight, white top and a long, gauzy, white skirt that day. I remember this because at that time I was preoccupied by what everyone wore. I noted in my superficial middle school manner that white did not flatter Mrs. Dour’s pasty complexion, and I planned to deconstruct her ensemble after class with my two friends during our bus ride home.

Right about then I noticed a small, reddish dot on the back of Mrs. Dour’s skirt.

Initially, I figured Mrs. Dour must have sat on one of her red felt-tipped markers. She was the only teacher who wrote in red felt-tip marker, and her fingers were often covered with red lines by the end of the day. While waiting for inspiration, I stared at the red mark on Mrs. Dour’s skirt – and I noticed the stain had grown larger. I looked around to see if I could catch anyone else’s eye, but everyone was madly engaged in our teacher’s in-class activity. As Mrs. Dour’s hand carefully crafted perfect cursive letters, I tracked the red as it spread across her bottom. What started out first as a dot, morphed into a quarter-sized circle and rapidly grew into an asymmetrical patch of red, the size of my adolescent fist.

I remembered how, midway through that year during gym class, we girls had been made to watch The Movie, a film created to explain what was starting to happen to our female parts. Our innards. I learned why some of us had boobies already and why some of us would have to wait. (In my case, years. Stupid hormones.) I remembered how we had grabbed each other’s hands as we huddled together in the gymnasium, trying to stifle our giggles. And before we left the locker room that day, each of us received a plastic “goodie-bag” filled with a cute little free sample of mouthwash, some deodorant, two sanitary napkins, and two tampons.

So I knew what was going on.

Meanwhile, I waited for someone else to notice. Or do something.

But as I watched the hand on the clock do that backwards-to-go-forwards click, I realized I was going to have to be The One.

I quietly pushed back my chair and, leaving my clogs behind so as not to make noise, I tiptoed across the room to join Mrs. Dour at the board.

She saw me out of the corner of her eye but kept writing, her back to the class.

How I wanted her to turn sideways and look at me, but she didn’t.

“Is there a problem?” Mrs. Dour snapped without so much as glancing my way.

If she had looked at me, I could have been more discreet. Instead, I fumbled for words. It hadn’t occurred to me to get the words right and then approach Mrs. Dour. My feet had just moved me to where I needed to go. I figured the words would follow.

Imagine blood all over this.

“Yes,” I said.

Mrs. Dour spat, “Well, what is it?”

Heads popped up.

As inaudibly as I possibly could, I whispered: “There is blood all over the back of your skirt.”

Mrs. Dour, whom I had always assumed to be very old, was probably in her late forties. She was always so terse; she came off like The Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, which definitely added a decade of scowl lines to her deeply furrowed forehead.

So there I was, Dorothy Gale, stuck in the tornado that was Mrs. Dour.

“Come with me!” Mrs. Dour growled. She took my left arm firmly and escorted me from her desk to the door which she snatched open. Together, we marched directly across the hall to the student bathroom where Mrs. Dour disappeared behind a stall door.

I stood by a trio of sinks, waiting for directions. For divine intervention. For Mrs. Dour to tell me to go. Or stay. Or something.

I didn’t expect Mrs. Dour to cry.

But that is exactly what she did.

From behind the stall, I could hear her pulling the terrible, industrial squares of toilet paper and weeping.

For the first time, I stopped seeing my English teacher as Mean Ole Mrs. Dour, the persnickety disciplinarian with all those rigid rules: the woman who gave me detention at least once a week.

I saw her as a small, embarrassed, woman who didn’t know what to do.

I looked at myself in the mirror and found enough courage to ask Mrs. Dour if there was anything that I could do for her.

My voice echoed against the empty bathroom walls.

“Do you think many people… saw?” Mrs. Dour asked.

“I don’t think so,” I lied.

Truth be told, I suspected that nearly everyone had seen the mess on the back of Mrs. Dour’s skirt, and if they hadn’t seen it with their own eyes, the people who had were likely telling everyone who hadn’t.

I was pretty sure that would be the end of Mrs. Dour. After suffering such public humiliation, I was positive she would resign that afternoon.

Oh, yes she did.

But Mrs. Dour was in homeroom the very next day. She was not any nicer. She continued to do her job just as she had before.

She continued to complain about the girls who wore clogs. She continued to issue me my weekly detention. Mrs. Dour was not a nice teacher. I cannot remember any books that I read or projects that I did that year. I remember only that single incident. But I learned something important from her nevertheless.

I learned that sometimes a person has to push through her fear no matter how scared she might be and just keep moving forward. Sometimes, you have to take a deep breath and face the thing that you fear: which in this case – as is often the case – is the fear of ridicule or the laughing masses. Because sometimes that’s all you can do.

I suppose Mrs. Dour did teach me one other lesson.

A teacher myself, I can tell you I have never, ever worn a white skirt.

Ever.

And I never will.

When is the last time you were truly afraid? What got you to push past your fear?

A Commencement Speech by Alec Jacobson

Recently, my super cool, crazy smart nephew was selected by his peers to deliver the commencement speech at his high school graduation which took place this past Sunday, June 25, 2011.

Our entire family was beyond overjoyed, and we joked that we would all need to wear Depends because, in real life, Alec is pee-in-your-pants funny! It is my understanding that during his last week of school, Alec wore some crazy stuff: weird retro sneakers; a hat with a pocket on it; a sleeveless, neon green pinny with the word “RUN” on it printed in hot pink. He was also spotted carrying a teenie-tiny, little Buzz Lightyear backpack, the kind of bag a little boy might tote to school on his first day of kindergarten. (It is also my understanding that everyone thought that his outfits and accessories were “off the chain.”)

I couldn’t wait to hear what Alec would say when he addressed the Class of 2011!

Here is what Alec said.

(NOTE: I edited Alec’s speech a bit for the sake of brevity. Please know Alec did all the niceties. He thanked the student officers, his teachers from kindergarten through twelfth grade, his parents, his siblings, and all the people who voted for him to speak. He also named specific individuals and rather than run around town getting written consent forms from everyone he mentioned, I simply omitted these specific references and kept things general.)

Alec post graduation, 2011

Good afternoon everyone.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Alec Jacobson.

When I found out that I was going to be speaking at graduation, it was actually quite anti-climactic.

I was sitting by myself in The Commons during homeroom, waiting for first period Gym to start, when I heard Mr. W. come on the announcements and say: “And congratulations to Alex Jacobson for being elected to speak at graduation.”

You can imagine that after I heard that I was pretty befuddled because:

a) I was trying to play the word “SPEAKER” on “Words with Friends”;

b) I never in a million years thought I would have enough friends to vote for me to speak; and

c) there was literally nobody in The Commons to whom I could turn and share my excitement.

So it was just me, my contained bliss, and a tad bit of rage due to W’s mispronunciation of my name.

But I got over it.

I alerted my mother of the news via text only to have her respond in all caps with: “OMG! OMG! Who are you?! Probably not my son.”

And then my sister texted me, “Congrats! You’re amazing.”

Never in my life would I have expected to be here.

Just a few weeks ago, I sat at the Senior Banquet when it hit me that we’re actually finished with high school. I remember looking around, and taking everything in, and I realized that we LOOK all grown up. Four years ago, all of us looked feeble, immature and — to be honest — awkward. I mean, I was just a short little red-head, a “ginger,” with very few friends. But now, we are adults.

We are old.

I may or may not still have red hair, but wow, we are a good-looking class.

More importantly, look at how far we have come.

For us, the future is bright.

The reality is that most of our high school years will be a blur. Sure, we’ll remember our good friends, our favorite teachers. We’ll remember our prom dates and those countless sectional titles that the boys’ and girls’ teams brought home. But the reality is that these events did not define us as a class. It is the people who have made this class truly one of a kind.

When looking at our class, many people define us by our intelligence. Sure, it is pretty incredible having students attending Harvard and Princeton and Yale. And nine going to Cornell. And while that is super impressive, the more defining aspect of our class is our diversity. We have people going to music school, business school, art school. Pre med majors, pre-law majors, and math majors. Future doctors, lawyers and CEOs right in this room seated before us. Because the truth is that this class is not only one of the most intelligent in our school’s history, but also one of the most unique.

For us, however, high school is just the beginning. It may seem like the end and, sure, it is the end of a remarkable four years. More importantly, this graduation marks a new beginning to our young lives. After all, I am giving a commencement speech, and the word “commence” means to begin.

I know it is sad, looking around right now and realizing that this may be the last time we are all together as a single, unified group. Tomorrow morning, I personally, will be going to camp for the entire summer, so to many of you, this is my goodbye. But I hate leaving things on a somber note, so I want you all to know that not only will I be back, but we’ll all be back: to make sure that our four years of high school aren’t just that blur. So I guess this isn’t truly goodbye, but an “until we meet again.”

In the meantime, go out and do something fun. Do something great with your summer and whatever lies ahead. For those of you who haven’t already seen it, watch the movie Into the Wild and tell me with a straight face that you don’t immediately want to immerse yourself in nature and discover your true self.

And like Mark Twain said: “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.” Don’t rely on others to teach you things. Discover them yourselves because now we are on our own and the future lies in nobody’s hands but ours. Right now, we may think  “these are the best days ever,” but they won’t be. We have so much more to do.

So go on out, Class of 2011, and live large.

Because as my friend penned in my yearbook: “Doesn’t everybody deserve to live large?

Alec’s friend touched on the elusive American Dream when he asked: “Doesn’t everybody deserve to live large?”

It’s a great question.

An affluent district that has been relatively untouched by the recession, I saw students fortunate to have such amazingly strong foundations. They have been able to concentrate on academic excellence. They have been able to focus on homework rather than having to work to help their parents make ends meet. They have lived in homes –  nice ones with green lawns. They have had pets to cuddle and closets filled with the right clothes. Many have taken expensive vacations abroad. They have not gone to bed hungry. They have gone to bed in their own beds.  As I looked around, I was strangely struck by how wealthy the school district in which I reside truly is. Not only in terms of fiscal resources, but in the fact that students are, for the most part, emotionally well supported.

Precious few have to tiptoe nervously in a world of instability.

And that is a blessing I am not sure they even realized.

When the Class President spoke, she quipped to parents in the audience that they needn’t fret about losing touch with their children because everyone is simply a text or Skype away.

This implied the ownership of laptops and/or cellphones.

No one batted an eyelash.

Of course these students have laptops and cell phones and unlimited calling plans.

It is implied that these students are going to live large.

For these students, the future is bright.

But I think about other students graduating from other districts, too — where the American Dream appears to have dried up. Where students are starting out in a slump. And as Dr. Seuss noted in Oh, the Places You’ll Go, “Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.” I imagine Alec’s optimistic message was perhaps, a little different from other commencement speeches held around the country where the concept of graduation as a new beginning is something being met with less optimism and more uncertainty.

My nephew wrote a great speech which he delivered beautifully — and with a fair bit of self-deprecating humor.

His peers voted him “Most Likely To Become President.”

We know Alec is ready to fly.

My only wish would be for everyone to have that same opportunity to live large.

What wise words would you offer the graduating class of 2011? And do you think everyone deserves to live large?

Much Disagreement About Agreement

About a week ago, everyone in my neighborhood received this green postcard from the newly opened Huntington Learning Center. Very eye-catching.

Truth be told, normal people probably tossed it right into the recycle bin. But because I read anything and everything of/or related to education, I flipped over the card.  And I proceeded to do a little dance. Because I knew I had a blog.

Here is the back of the card. Can you spot the error?

The scene of the crime!

What? What do you mean you don’t see it?

Don’t worry, you are not alone. Almost no-one catches this error. In fact, it has gotten so that this “error” isn’t really considered an error at all. So today’s “Who-Gives-A Crap” moment is brought to you courtesy of this twit.

For those of you who are still looking at the postcard going: “I still don’t see the problem,” don’t be ashamed.

The problem is in the sentence:

Help your child learn skills they’ll use all year.

The issue is that “child” is singular. How many kids? Unless you also have a secret love-child unbeknownst to your wife, the answer is one.

But the folks at Huntington linked that singular child to the pronoun “they.”

Whaaaat? Where did all those extra kids come from? I thought there was only one kid.

To be sure, a person can deploy the “singular-they” in his or her speech, and it will likely pass without objection. People do this all the time. Spoken language is more casual than written language because of the speed at which we speak. We can forgive our newscasters, our reality TV hosts, our Snookis.

(We can forgive Snooki, right?)

But careful writers try to avoid using the “singular-they” whenever possible.

Looking for linguistic affirmation, I went over to the folks at Let’s eat, Grandma’ or ‘Let’s eat Grandma’: Grammar Saves Lives’ on Facebook to see if I might get some help from the moderators there.

I asked someone – anyone – to show me a page from a Style Book that says it is correct – even acceptable – to use this construction. Mike Workman showed up at Grandma’s and declared:

I figured someone might say language is always changing and the non-gender specific use of the word “they” is just easier. It sounds more natural, and we don’t have to fuss with any of that “he/she” stuff. But I didn’t expect someone to tell me that “most style guides accept ‘they’ as a gender neutral collective noun that could also be used as a singular noun.”

Whaaaaat?

Throughout the thread, Mike kept insisting that it was fine to use “singular-they.” He quoted famous authors who had done so from Shakespeare all the way up to the 1930’s. I gritted my teeth. To me, all that meant was that famous, dead authors made errors that, sadly, went into their books. (It seemed unfortunate that those great authors didn’t have better copy editors.)

Every time Mike said it was okay to use the “singular-they,” I kept thinking: Eating with our hands seemed more natural than using cutlery until someone taught us how to use forks and knives, no? I felt like I was getting linguistic advice from a Deadhead who had eaten way too many ‘shrooms. His message seemed to be: “Oh go ahead, it’s all right – nobody cares – do whatever you want, dude!”

So I went looking for these sources to which Mike was referring. (Because I am that geeky.)

And, frankly, because I was scared that I have been teaching it wrong.

And then, Charles Young showed up, my knight in shining armor. Or my Grammar Geek in white underpants. It didn’t matter. He swooped in to rescue me. He parried Mike Workman with his linguistic sword:

Okay, so I didn’t totally understand Charles, but I knew he was trying to agree with me. In a really fancy way.

Fifty comments later, Mike and Charles were having a serious cyber fist-fight. Each man was equally passionate about his (their?) love for me feelings about the use of “singular-they.” One man said, “Yea!” The other said, “Absolutely no friggin’ way.”

I figured things would die down at Grandma’s. I went to bed. And then I went away for the entire weekend. And when I came home, I saw the thread was still going strong!

At post 192, people were beginning to wonder if the thread would ever end. I thought I might be blocked from the group for causing such dissension among the ranks.

It was a runaway train. I had to try to stop it.

I left “Grandma’s” again, thinking: What is an English adjunct to do? I mean, I understand Mike’s point. The whole he/she thing is really cumbersome, and didn’t the lucky recipients of those shiny green postcards completely understand the intended meaning? I mean, we knew what we were being offered, right? So what’s the harm?

Well, here’s my issue. This place offers tutoring for SAT testing. And, as of today, if the following fill-in-the blank question showed up on the SATs —

Help your child learn skills ______ will use all year long.

— and the possible choices were:

(A) he

(B) they

(C) he or she

(D) who friggin’ cares?

as it stands right now, choice (A) would be considered sexist; (B) would be considered an example of  poor agreement, and (C) would be considered the correct answer. Although I recognize, at this point, most of you are leaning strongly toward choice (D).

I discussed this with two Advanced Placement high school English teachers and Most Excellent College Department Chairperson: a veritable holy trinity of English educators. And while Mike kept insisting the practice of using “they” is “widely accepted,” I was unable to find one single Style Book that stated it was “grammatically correct” to use this construction in formal essay writing.

I mean, some of us have to teach Comp-101. We have to explain the rules.

The nuances of language are complicated. It isn’t easy to master all these rules, especially the ones that feel archaic and forced. Come September, I am going to explain to my students that they need to have a speaking vocabulary and a writing vocabulary. I am going to try to convince them that we have to be poly-lingual. We need to know how to speak one way to friends and another way to teachers. We may write one way in texts, but (hopefully) that is different from the way we correspond to our parents and educators. On Twitter we have to Tweet it in under 140 characters, which requires a lot of creative abbreviation that would not be acceptable in a formal paper. Ever. The reality is, each of us needs to be literate in every one of these vocabularies (and others, too). We all need to be able to move between these worlds effortlessly and with expertise.

Call me old-fashioned, but until the folks at the Modern Language Association tell me otherwise, “singular-they” shall be considered sloppy usage.

Excited by my epiphany, I decided to pop in to “Grandma’s” and – to my horror – the thread was still going strong with over 400 comments! And even though I totally wanted some of the cookies that I knew were baking in the oven, I turned my back on “Grandma’s” house. It was getting ugly in there. I’m telling you, they were bringing out the Bazookas. And I don’t mean the bubble gum. Who’da thunk I’d get so much mileage outta dat ‘they’ question?

Do I need to tell the folks at The Huntington Learning Center about this? And seriously, what do you think they’ll say? Did anyone even make it to the bottom of this post?

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In Praise of the Pencil

Google Images

In 5th grade, Mr. Zych lectured all of his students about how to properly sharpen a pencil. He wasn’t messing around. His speech was not short, and he covered everything from how to properly grip the pencil to the cranking motion – how it should be smooth and continuous, not jerky. He even discussed the perils of over-sharpening, which could lead to premature tip-breakage. Mr. Zych turned pencil sharpening into a science.

Personally, I have had a love-hate relationship with pencils. I first learned how to print my alphabet in pencil and then I learned how to write in cursive in pencil. That was Paradise. Finally, a way to write all the stories stored in my head. Later, I preferred to write with pens – preferably ones filled with purple or green ink. But ever since my son started school, he has been forever in need of pencils; they seem to always be around, and so I returned to the yellow pencils of my youth. I had learned to appreciate the feel of a pencil in my hand again. I even started to like the scratchy-scratchy sound of the graphite as it dragged across the page. After I recently stepped on a pencil, I became suspicious of them again and switched back to pens.

Meanwhile, my son is still on a steady diet of pencils. In middle school, the kids seem to devour them: literally and figuratively. I know my son nibbles on his; I’ve seen the teeth marks. I’ve watched him crunch while he contemplates before committing to writing an answer on paper. But sometimes I wonder if he actually eats them, too. I mean, where do they go? How many pencils does one kid need in a school year?

A few weeks back, Monkey came home in a tizzy.

“I’m out of pencils again,” he announced.

Nonplussed, I told him there were under three weeks of school left and that I was pretty sure he could make-do with his nubs until June 20.

He started at me with contempt.

“Are you serious?” he questioned. “I have exams! I need pencils! Ticonderogas. Now!”

He was not messing around.

The next day while in the grocery store – to my horror – I found plenty of office supplies, but they were only generic pencils. And even I know that those erasers don’t do the job. You need another eraser to get rid of the smears those lame pencils leave behind.

So I made an extra trek, this time to Staples – home of the Ticonderoga pencil – and invested in the Bulk pack. (Because that was all they had.) Let’s be clear. Ticonderoga pencils are like platinum. They cost a fortune. The only way a pencil could be more fabulous would be if you printed your name on pencils. A Ticonderoga is the Hum-V in the wonderful world of pencils. Teachers definitely prefer them. Definitely.

I rationalized that I could spend $15.77 + nearly 9% tax on pencils because they are non-perishable, so it is not like they will ever rot or mold. And I figured whatever is left at the end of the school year, Monkey can use in 7th grade, thus saving me some back-to-school shopping hassle.

A few days later, a good friend of mine called me and reported that her son – also a 6th grader – had run out of pencils. While requesting to buy more, she said my name was invoked. Apparently her son said:

“Can you just be like Mrs. J. and get the Giant Pack of 72 Ticonderoga pencils?”

Apparently Monkey had been bragging about his new stash.

I laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of it. Bragging about pencils?

And then I thought about how I had come full circle. Just one week before, I was cursing pencils as my husband dug around my heel with a needle in an attempt to get the lead out. (I know, I know. Pencils are made of graphite. I was going for the funny.) But now I found myself saying a silent prayer on behalf of all pencil-loving children everywhere. Uncharacteristically, I clasped my hands together and thought to myself:

Lord, may this be the worst thing my child ever desires. May this be his worst addiction. May he never see cocaine. May he never use LSD or heroin. May he avoid cigarettes and alcohol. May he avoid the ‘shrooms, the X, the meth. May he never huff. May he find the strength to avoid the Oxycontin and Adderall.

May he always be addicted to Ticonderoga pencils.

Because, honestly, I’ll happily help Monkey score his Ticonderoga pencils forever. I’ll even help him sharpen them. Mr. Zych schooled me on that a long time ago, and I feel confident I can help my son with his #2 pencil fix without any need for an Intervention.

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Lessons From School Picture Day

A few weeks back Leanne Shirtliffe (Ironic Mom), Clay Morgan (EduClaytion) and Keenie Beanie came up with a brilliant horrifying idea. To go digging back through old school yearbooks and encourage other bloggers to post pictures of ourselves on our pages, along with a little write-up. They would call it:

I wanted to participate in Leanne’s, Clay’s and Keanie Beanie’s brain fart child, but I was saddened to realized I had actually scribbled all over my face in nearly every picture. Think I’m kidding? I’m not. This is my Senior picture.

Worst. Picture. Ever.

I was really into the Grateful Dead at the time. Please note my fancy spelling of the Dead, my little rose at the top of my picture, and my penned in peace-sign earrings.

I did find one picture in that same yearbook that stood out to me.

It was the picture taken for Senior Superlatives, a tradition at my high school. Members of the Senior class voted for their choice of male and female representatives in 12 different categories like Best Looking, Best Dressed, Most Friendly, Most Artistic, Most Athletic, Most Musical… you get the idea. (I wonder if they still do that.)

Scroll down to see what I got.

Monsieur Flirt and I were on-again, off-again friends during high school. During this picture, I think we were off. Yeah, definitely off. The week prior he had intentionally backed into my tan Plymouth Volaré as we waited at a red light. Honestly, he just lightly tapped the front bumper of my car with his rear bumper. Problem was my mother was also in the front seat of the car, and she did not think the whole “bumper cars” thing was very funny. She was pretty pissed.

She also has no recall of this incident at all.

Anyway, the day for photos came and Monsieur Flirt and I weren’t really friendly. I think he might have punched me that week. Or maybe he was mean to one of my friends. I don’t know. All I know is that the student photographer kept saying, “Get into a more flirtatious pose!” And neither one of us could muster it. I mean, we just couldn’t. Could there be stronger body language that says: I do not want to be in a picture with this person? But our relentless, young photographer was on assignment and kept making suggestions like, “Why don’t you dip her?” and “Why don’t you pretend to kiss?” Horrifying.

Finally, Monsieur Flirt and I decided to go with the back-to-back thing. Actually, I don’t think it was really a decision. As you can see from Monsieur Flirt’s face, if Photo Dude wanted a picture, that was what he was going to get.

When the yearbook came out days before graduation, I stared at that photograph for a long time. I thought about the words: Class Flirt. I did not think of myself as a person who “made advances.” I did not consider myself a vamp or a vixen or a seductress. But it made me realize that a lot of other people saw me that way. I mean, they voted for me. The idea made me squirmy.

I didn’t like it very much.

The idea stayed with me as I headed off to college. So did I completely reinvent myself? No. I am still a little coquette. I still bat my eyelashes and wear high-heeled shoes. I still chat it up with the boys. But I’m not interested in giving anyone a “come hither” look nor am I interested in stringing anyone along. That is not a sport in which I like to dabble.

These days, I’ve got Hubby. And Monkey is my photographer. He calls the shots. He holds the camera and tells me to be myself. And so I am. In pictures and in life. I still enjoy a fabulous double entendre, which is probably why I have a thing for The Bard. But there is so much more to me. There always was.

Photo taken by Monkey at age 11.

If you want to participate in School Picture Day, it’s not too late! Read the instructions here. Then post a picture, write a little somethin’-somethin’ (or just leave a caption) and go check out the school photos of some other bloggers like Clay Morgan and IronicMom and KeenieBeanie. If you posted a photo on your blog, please include a link in the comment section. I promise to visit. Even if you don’t do it today. I figure you have the rest of the week. For the purposes of my blog, it is School Picture Week! 😉


Locked and Partially Loaded for Fall 2011

Look at all the out of print books. Sigh.

I recently found out what I’m teaching next fall.

I am elated.

It is the perfect schedule.

Then I went online to select my books.

The books that I have been using for the last four years.

Only two of the three of them were there.

My reader – the collection of essays upon which I have come to rely – is now out of print, so I will have to reinvent the wheel.

Hurgenflurgenshlurgen.

Women will understand this: this is akin to how we feel when we go into the store and find out that our favorite lipstick – the one that looks perfect on us, the one we have used for years, the one that helps to create our signature look – has been discontinued. Guys, I don’t know. This must be what it is like when your sports event has been preempted for A Sex in the City marathon and both your DVR and your computer are broken. So you can never see the game. Actually, I don’t know what this is like for guys. Maybe it’s like when they stop making your favorite hot sauce.

You get my point, though, right?

Immediately after I learned that my book was out of print, I received a lovely, gentle reminder that book orders are due as soon as humanly possible.

Right now, I’m in desperation mode.

I might chew off someone’s arm.

Part of me is considering not using a reader at all and just book-marking all the amazing blogs here in the blogosphere and having my students read them and respond to them. Perhaps use them as writing prompts.

It would definitely save my students a boatload of money.

And it would eliminate those annoying beginning of the year conversations:

Me: Where is your book?

Student: My financial aid hasn’t come in so I haven’t been able to buy some of my books.

Me: How about a pen? Where is your pen?

Student: Yeah. I didn’t have the money.

This conversation generally transpires while the bookless student is gripping the newest and most uber-expensive cell phone, leaving me to think: You manage to shell out $80 a month for that, right? The smartphone you can afford? But not my book? Yeah, you are goin’ places.

But this is just my desperation talking.

Because, you know, I have to revise my entire syllabus.

Which, in truth, isn’t the worst thing.

It’s good to freshen things up and shake things around once in a while.

Because no matter what materials I end up using, there are things that always remain the same.

I may be delusional, but (I think) most of my former students will tell you that I give off the vibe that I find them endlessly fascinating. Which, by the way, is true. They will probably tell you that I give them solid feedback and that I am willing to help them. Day or night. The reality is, I am good to them as long as they do not heckle me.

Because I am the show.

Yeah, yeah, I can run a writing workshop. I can create interactive activities for them. But if students want to excel in my class, they need, first and foremost, to have a good sense of humor. After all, I’m working my butt off to provide them with culturally relevant, fresh material. But my show only runs three days a week, so they’d better not miss my routine. Once they are invested, I expect them to work their tails off to try to impress me with their thinking and writing. I want to see those synapses a-firin’. Because nobody sees my show for free.

I was not a cheerleader in high school for nothing. I was in training. I was a gymnast and a dancer and I even danced (briefly) for money on a hydraulic lift. (Don’t ask.) I performed in plays throughout my life and, in graduate school, I got up on stage to sing. Why? Because secretly I wanted to be Stevie Nicks. Because I was honing my craft – learning how to deliver my lines, to speak with authority, with presence, with passion, with humor, with humility. I was learning to be fearless,  – so my students would,  one day, dare I say it, actually want to do things for me.

That sounds dirty.

I don’t mean like that, you pervs.

I mean students can tell when a teacher has prepared; they can tell which teachers genuinely care about what their students have to say, which teachers value their words, which teachers are working to give their students the skills they need to succeed in the future. And when students feel this, they generally want to please.

So my beloved book of essays is out of print.

It’ll be okay.

Things are looking good right now.

I’ve checked things out and my room for the fall does not have a pole in the middle of it, like the classroom I had last year.

Don’t get me wrong, the pole was fun. For a while.

But “obstructed view” is never the seat you would want at a kick-ass concert.

In this room, every seat’s a good seat.

Can’t wait to shake my groove thing.

So for now, I don’t rightly know exactly what I’m doing in the Fall of 2011.

I can only say with confidence, that the show will go on.

And now that I think about it, if I’m shaking things up, it’s probably time to get a new lipstick.

I’ve been wearing Malt for way too long.