Tag Archives: English major

I’m Starting to Hate Lists

In general, I am a list maker. It gives me a fleeting sense of organization and control, whether that’s making a grocery list before heading to the store, writing out an errands list to spare myself making separate mini-excursions, or even working up a to-do list for the day as soon as I get to work. To me, these lists have immediate use for a few hours, maybe a day, and then they get tossed.

The reason why I am starting to hate lists (“hate” being a relative term, of course) is because I’m starting to feel insulted that a huge percentage of writers (journalists, bloggers, you name it) continue to bombard me, a reader, with lists. 5 Ways to Be a Nice Blogger. 10 Movies That You Should Go See. 7 Reasons Why This Team Will Beat That Team in the Playoffs. 6 Things I Learned When I Went to This Conference. 50 Things You Should Never Say to a Guy. (Cosmo, of course, is one of the worst offenders of The List, though the frivolity of their lists is obvious to most… I think.) As I mentioned up above, I use lists briefly, and toss them; thus, when I read a List that is supposed to be an Article, that’s what I do to that info — toss it. It’s like throw-away writing, except it’s published. Sad.

Don’t get me wrong. In the land of creative non-fiction, list-making has its place, and I understand that. I even appreciate it. It’s the ever-growing mass of public list-making acts that are seen as articles that are starting to stress me out unnecessarily. I actually like to read things that are written out in lovely paragraphs full of solid grammar and often deliciously delightful adjectives. I appreciate the art of a writer working hard to make a transition from one idea into the next one smoothly. Lists-turned-articles are a bit of a killjoy for me… As they are being presented in my universe lately, they seem to take the thinking out of thinking; to me this underestimates the abilities of literate folks altogether.

Yes, I also understand that people have limited time these days — limited time to write and limited time to read, especially if they’re reading from a 3.5-inch diagonal screen. Lists have a way of squeezing themselves neatly into that space, and maybe that’s what lots of people want/need in their day of digesting way way too much information in the first place. I get it. Even if I had some kind of smartphone (I don’t — it’s sort of fun to be a pseudo-Luddite), that’s not my ideal means of getting any sort of reading — even casually — accomplished.

For this girl, this English major at heart, I’m going to have to have to opt for other forms of written creativity. I don’t need to read daily treatises or Bible-length articles all the time (that’s what The New Yorker is for sometimes), but I need something greater than a list to generate my interest these days. To quote the timeless sarcasm of John Bender in The Breakfast Club: “Moe-Lay really pumps my nads.” That’s how I feel about lists right now. Maybe not forever, but definitely for the time being. In the future, I will signal a change of heart when I post a list of Reasons Why I Now Like Lists Again.


All Good Readers Unite

Currently I am working with the 6th-grade students in a 5th/6th combo class. There are 11 of them, and we have been meeting for about 40 minutes per lesson — today was Day 4 of our mini-writing unit. I am asking them to write the time-honored five-paragraph essay. In today’s teaching universe it is more correct to say “multi-paragraph” essay because obviously not every idea can be argued in only three little body paragraphs, and on the flip side, students don’t need to be forced into saying more than is necessary to get the point across. I imagine five paragraphs has held for so long  because of the magical wonder of things that come in threes, so intro+body+body+body+conclusion makes sense.

They are writing character analysis essays about a character of their own choosing from a novel they have read this year. Many of them (but not all) are writing about one of the characters from The Hunger Games trilogy. Overall I think they’re doing rather well so far, especially considering that I’m moving them along faster than if I had a full class. Today I explained to them that they are allowed and encouraged to make any argument about their character that they wish… as long as the text supports that idea. This is the moment when I call upon their CSI: (fill in city of one’s choice) knowledge — when the CSIs come up with a theory about a case but don’t have evidence, then they either have to find irrefutable evidence to back it up or revise their theory based on the evidence they do have. (Referencing pop culture is one of my favored teaching tools.) In other words, if they misunderstood the book, then it’s more than likely they would make unsupported inferences about their characters. The pre-writes I saw today need some revision but not much.

Now in the land of online news, people are not called upon to write multi-paragraph essays to demonstrate their understanding of articles. But people feel compelled to write comments on material they read and/or engage in dialogue around it, and I do enjoy this democratic freedom. What is painful to me — when I  feel interested enough in an article to read some of the commentary — is the seemingly poor reading comprehension of the readers. So many comments (especially the hyper-critical or extremely favorable ones) don’t seem to reflect what is actually written.

Within any article’s comments, I am simply irritated when people are 1) snarky; 2) self-righteous; and/or 3) easily offended by any kind of disagreement or question of their opinion. But I am plain old concerned when folks seem to have completely missed the point/thesis/gist of the article, not to mention the author’s tone… then compound the problem by taking on the tone of #1-3 above. There are multiple contributing factors to this, one of which is the ease that one can just click “Comment” and start writing based on a gut reaction or respond to another comment in the same way. Another would be the anonymity that virtual commenting provides — it feels safe to make ridiculous remarks without necessarily having to put your live face behind them. Most of all, however, I am worried that people in general are weak readers. (insert my sad face here)

There’s a reason why people have to take standardized tests, at least in my opinion: they’re essentially massive reading comprehension tests. Going into college or graduate school would be awfully hard if you couldn’t read non-fiction and/or fiction… and write about it in a meaningful way. Sure, Twitter and texting are here to stay, but there is still  a space in the world for writing that is beyond 140 characters. Maybe articles should have a quick 3-question multiple-choice quizlet to check comprehension before you’re allowed to comment….???

Now I know that my English-major self is clearly biased and possibly over-reacting. Regardless, I know that it is so important that our students — who will grow into adults faster than we can think — read and write competently for schooling purposes and for being good at life. It would be wonderful if the comments people share were more often examples of thoughtful, constructive criticism and praise grounded in the text. I don’t think that’s asking too much. It’s the least I am asking of my students.


Behold the ’80s

Sweet Jams shorts - not the ones we had in our family, but a fine example

Growing up in the ’80s was great, as I recall: the 49ers and Joe Montana were dominant; my pop music cassette collection ruled; and I was not at all embarrassed by the thought of wearing Jams shorts. (Admit it — you owned more than a pair or two yourself). I remembered the phone numbers of my parents and friends easily, too, and the only place I answered a phone was inside my house. Ah, memories.

Now that I live in the 21st century, though, I am still re-living the ’80s. Every single movie or show that is currently popular was once popular in the ’80s (though yes, I liked The Transformers trilogy, as over-the-top as they were)… they even had to revisit Tron with Tron: Legacy and remake Dallas for TV to boot. Seriously? As for fashion, there are parts of the updated ’80s styles that I can handle, and then there is the rebirth of odd crop tops and the whole jeggings trend, and I just can’t get behind either of those things. Because shirts cover stomachs in my world and I think one should have to choose to wear either jeans (skinny is fine) OR leggings instead of both at the same time. Call me old-fashioned that way.

So I don’t know what to make of this. On the one hand I get that fashion and what is popular goes through its natural cycles. I have noted the steadily rising popularity of true bell-bottom jeans (far beyond bootcut) and some serious platform, verging-on-disco-worthy sandals — welcome back, ’70s! On the other hand I worry about a dearth of new ideas and innovation in general. Does every single book that people like have to become a movie? Does every ’80s Saturday-morning cartoon have to become a movie? Or better yet — a movie trilogy? I guess one can argue that recycling these kinds of things makes them relevant for a new generation, and perhaps there is value in that. But there’s this selfish part of me that thinks, “Those things were part of my childhood. Get your own distinctive cultural material to remember.” No one person can own art and culture, I know, and probably the folks who are producing this material for the popular audience are my age+ and feeling nostalgic.

Maybe what I’m actually concerned about is what the implications may be for my own future children and the kids of my peers. Are they just going to remember being over-stimulated, over-digitized, and over-exposed? And in thirty years will we have retreated back to landlines and more thoughtful privacy rules because we finally tired of loving Big Brother? I adore my 2-year-old goddaughter — my brother’s youngest child — and she definitely said to me over Christmas, “You have an iPod.” One of my colleagues told me that her daughters — who are approximately 7 and 5, respectively — will take a picture and say, “Mommy, are you going to post this on Facebook?” Frightening, but a result of what we have created collectively.

I even read an NPR article yesterday that said our manners are declining! People statistically are growing less and less inclined to say “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome.” Wildness.

Again, this is all just further proof that I am turning into my parents and pining for “the good old days.” Or it just begs the question that we used to examine in 10th-grade Humanities Core when I was teaching high school English: To what extent does modernization create progress in a society? While our teaching team made sure to offer them a variety of texts, we also read — appropriately so — Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

[Side note: Did I also mention that I hate how Oprah Book Club books — even for classics — get brand new paperback covers emblazoned with her Oprah Book Club seal? As a lover of books and an English major, this bothers me to no end.]

Looking forward to re-reading this post when I’m 60-something.


Where’s Your Outline?

As I have mentioned in a previous post, although I was an English major in college and taught English to high school and middle school students, writing an outline was never one of my strong points. It always seemed like such a major extra step before writing an essay, because I actually enjoy the revision process. So why do all of this pre-planning when it was much easier to just let the ideas flow?

One of my current endeavors involves me having to write an article, and I have been vainly trying to put together my article outline for far too long. I finally completed said outline over the weekend, and the weight lifted off my shoulders has been tremendous. With my outline in place, writing the full text is going to be a piece of cake. It is in these small moments of victory when I wonder why I was being such a procrastinator in the first place.

Of late, I have also been involved in a lot of planning: creating a timeline for our upcoming reunion this fall; organizing a team-building staff meeting; putting together a professional development session focused on standardized testing. It has occurred to me that part of the reason why I loathe “writing an outline” is because it is time-consuming. It requires having a clear purpose to why I’m doing what I’m doing. It forces me to do research, get on the same page with other people, coordinate efforts, condense my ideas… all of those things can be exhausting. The planning often feels much more taxing than the execution of the idea itself. At the same time, the process of planning (read: writing the outline) can be rewarding in and of itself and lead to greater clarity around the goal.

Somewhere in my teaching I heard or read a quote that went something like this: “I’d rather take an eraser to a blueprint than an axe to a foundation.” In other words, revising or adjusting plans is far easier than having to undo actions that didn’t make sense or didn’t move toward one’s intended outcome. It has taken me up until this last month or so to internalize that thought more deeply and start to think harder about how I want to be applying the same principle to my life. While I have no intention to try to control every single second of my day, I find that having a plan in place is comforting; that way, when things seem to deviate off course, I have a sense of where I’ve left off in my “outline.”

Right now, Husband and I want to find a house. We want to start a family. We want to develop our respective career paths. Those things don’t necessarily happen just because we want them to. It is up to us to make plans, to have the hard discussions with each other, to have moments of internal dialogue so we can create a basic outline of steps to complete to lead us forward. While I know that this process will be challenging, I also know that it will also be rewarding and hopeful as we look toward our future together.


Re-vision

I was an English major in college, so I can’t even begin to think about how many papers I have written over the course of a lifetime, especially when I factor in that I also took more than my fair share of other Humanities courses. But being the procrastinating creature that I am, it was very typical that I would write papers the night before or in the hours before they were due in class. My strategy was that I could produce one quality page an hour, so if I started a five-page paper at midnight for a class that didn’t start until 11am the next day, no stress. What I didn’t comprehend until later was that I was mashing all of the steps of the writing process – you know, the ones I would eventually have to teach high school and middle school kids as an English teacher — into one: brainstorm, draft, revise, and edit all at the same time. I’d jot down quotes I liked from the text or texts (that’s how I do outlines), ponder them, start writing, re-read, make some changes, and eventually jump back to the beginning and write an introduction with a thesis once I had some paragraphs written. A weirdly advanced skill.

When I became a teacher, I learned quickly that teaching students how to revise their own writing was tough. For a lot of students, producing a draft is hard enough. Revising is that much harder. Make changes? Re-read my work to see if it makes sense before I publish it? Find a different supportive quote? Delete stuff? Ugh. Most of my students, in our first go-rounds of writing some kind of narrative or essay, would think that fixing some capital letters and punctuation was enough. I realized that I needed to make a clearer distinction, then, between revision and editing/proofreading. Revision, I told them,  literally means “the act of seeing again” — that is, to look at your work through fresh eyes and make changes for the better as needed.

Lately I think I’ve been in the process of revision for the draft of my life and probably always will be. When I was fresh out of grad school and in my first year of teaching, I was completely idealistic and fully prepared to “teach to change the world,” as my grad program encouraged. I wanted to be someone who made a difference for that one starfish, as the parable goes. Thus I spent millions of hours at school, prepping and grading and figuring out how to plan curriculum, and I did that alongside fellow young teachers who were equally dedicated. And for a long time I believe that we did make a difference for more than one starfish, just by being teachers who really cared. Many of our students became the first in their respective families to graduate from high school, and some went on to finish college. Some are still working on finishing their college degrees and grinding away with gusto. By being at our school, many students started to revise their views of their lives and what was possible.

In my sixth year of teaching, I became really unhappy. I still deeply loved my students and pushed them to reach for my very high expectations. In fact, I will always remember one of my sixth graders sharing out her reflection (a requirement of mine on the day that they turned in final drafts): she said she felt so proud of herself for turning in work that looked like a college student’s, as she had taken the time to type it and format it exactly as I had shown them. It was, in retrospect, a very rewarding year from a teaching perspective. But around this time of the year — February — I knew in my heart that I couldn’t go back in the fall. I loved them, but I loved myself and valued my own well-being more. I couldn’t go back to school and be what I call a paycheck teacher; I believe that all students deserve more than that. So I had to start revising: what was I going to do now?

I think that leaving that position behind gave me fresh eyes. I had to think about what my priorities were in life and what other directions or paths I could take. Go back to school? Try to have kids while contemplating a career move? Do nothing for a while and just work retail for fun? In the end, landing in a mentoring position was right for me because I could still have an impact on students by working with new teachers. It was sort of an exponential increase in size of impact, because now I was working with three teachers who each had at least four different sections of students. A revision of my role in education.

Since we moved, though, that position only lasted for one school year. Now I am in an elementary school and essentially working as a mentor, even though that is not my official title. I have spent my time there since September constantly trying to revise my role and shape it into something that fits me and the school. I don’t think I’ve fully figured it out yet, but it’s getting there. It’s evolving. Who knows how/if they’ll want me back next year, or if I will want to be there next year.  In the meantime, I’m still trying to revise how I see these next few years of my life here in Alaska. Are we going to be lifers here? Will one of us stumble across an opportunity that will move us somewhere else in the world for a time? Will we — fingers crossed — start to raise a family in the next few years? I’m trying to look at myself and my life with fresh eyes. Maybe that’s the real reason why I’m writing now.

What I know for certain is that revision, or re-vision, is not just about writing a paper. So far, I’m thinking that the 30-year-old draft of me is solid, but we all know that good is the step before better or great.