Day Zero

“The night ends, and the day, it begins.”

I was talking to my students this week about words that are often confused, by them, in their writing. When we got to fewer vs. less they were confused.

Me: So, use fewer when you can quantify it, and less when you can’t. For example, you have fewer calories, because you can count calories. But you have less fat, because you can’t count fat.

Student A: I count fat all the time.

Me: How do you count fat?

Student A: Like 30 grams.

Me: So you count grams.

Student A: Yeah. So.

Me: A gram is a unit of measurement, quite like a calorie, that you can count, specifically because you can’t count things like fat. You have to count something else that can actually be counted.

Student A: Oh…

Approximately 5 minutes later, we were all good, and Student A finally nodded, assured that fat wasn’t something that could be counted without the aid of quantifiable units of measurement. I suddenly felt like a math teacher instead of an English teacher, then things were all well with the world once more. Continue reading “Day Zero”

English As A First Language

english-language-day“I know English,” he tells me. “I was born here in America.”

“Then why don’t you use it correctly?” I want to ask, but I don’t. I don’t because I’m a teacher, and I’m worried that he won’t be receptive to the learning that’s about to take place.

“A lot of people who were born elsewhere can use English better than you can,” I want to say, but I stop myself. It’s not about others. It’s about him, and why he’s so resistant to getting better at the language others will judge him for in the future.

“There’s a difference between knowing English and being able to utilize it correctly in your writing, and we all have work to do that way,” I say instead. I can tell he’s trying to process that. Then he nods, and I know there’s still a chance for this kid.

He is a college freshman. Most of the kids I teach are. I am a writer, but teaching writing is a completely different animal. It takes a patience, a perseverance, an understanding, and a diligence that I’m not sure a lot of other professions have, because semester after semester there are always a few who feel they have nothing left to learn about the language we all love. They are wrong. The key is figuring out how to show them that without wounding their fragile egos.

If it’s in the dictionary that means I can use it.

The kids I teach today learned how to write using text messages and emojis. It has been an integral part of their world since day one, and auto-correct is their king. If auto-correct changes something they go with it, regardless of how ridiculous it sounds. If spell check says the word is “its” they’re going to rock with “its” until the day they die, no matter the circumstance.

“If it’s in the dictionary that means I can use it,” she tells me, turning her phone to show me that backs her up. I’m afraid to tell her that urbandictionary is not a real dictionary, that its words are largely made up and its definitions are wholly untenable.

“The dictionary has certain colloquialisms in it that, while they’re used in informal speech, have no place in formal writing,” I say, instead of telling her that she’s bowing down to a false idol.

grammar_timeI’ve learned a fascinating truth over the course of teaching for 10 years: It’s very difficult to teach people something they already feel they know. Learned habits and grammatical mistakes are compounded because they don’t listen when something is explained the correct way. They believe that having English as a first language makes them experts when it doesn’t. It hinders a lot more than it helps, especially in the classroom when I’m trying to remind them how to construct complete sentences.

I fell in love with English because of its complexity. I knew from an early age that the language identified as national by our country was a complete behemoth, that in order to tame it I would have to focus and understand just as much about the pitfalls as I did about the correct usage. I was enchanted by its idiosyncrasies and thought that to be its master would take a lifetime. It does.That’s because English is constantly changing, even from the time these college students were children to now.

“You know what I meant,” he says when he once again fails to capitalize the word “I.” And he’s right. I definitely knew what he meant, but that won’t help him when he does it on a cover letter for his dream job and that letter gets quickly recycled.

It doesn’t care that you learned English as a first language if you don’t use it correctly.

Because the beast that is English grammar cares not two whits about intention. It only cares about what resides on the page, what was actually written down. It doesn’t care that you learned English as a first language if you don’t use it correctly. And it matters. When there are 300 people applying for 10 jobs, and so many of them are comparable in terms of skills and experience, many resumes and cover letters are weeded out based on errors.

It’s called taking care of and cultivating this glorious language we’ve been entrusted with, not making excuses for why we haven’t done so. That’s why I spend so much time and effort working hard to make sure my students understand how massively important it is to master English, regardless of where you were born.


Looking Glass

I looked up from the calculator and the computer screen, satisfied that I had done everything I needed to do, that my affairs were all in order, and I closed out the browser with a sigh. One semester down. One semester of getting used to  being called Professor, of going to college on the other side of the equation. No longer a student. Now an instructor. And three months after I began it still seems a bit odd, but far less than it did in September.

I got to know the students quickly, playing the name game, having them write about what makes them unique on the very first day of classes. I’m tough that way, expecting something right off the bat, but there really was no other way to show them what they were going to get from me over the course of the next three months. And now that time is over, and I’ve said my goodbyes, and I have my schedule for spring, for the next four months of my teaching career.

As I looked at that blank computer screen I remembered doing the same thing nearly 11 years ago, when I first entered a high school classroom as a teacher. I felt inadequate back then. Who was I to grade the work of those students? Who was I to say who should pass and who should fail? It was as heavy a weight as I had ever had to bear before, and while this is similar it has even more of an edge to it. Because this is college.

When I was in college I wore jeans and the same four revolving t-shirts, replaced by three revolving sweatshirts in winter and the colder parts of spring and fall. I sat in the back of each one of my classes and made friends with the misfits back there. But I wasn’t a misfit, far from it. I was the kid who constantly had his hand in the air, waving it for emphasis or out of frustration. Sure, I got top of the line grades, but I was never satisfied. I realized as this fall  semester progressed that I’m the same as a professor, except I expect that drive to do well from each of my students.

But they’re not me, and I had to keep wrapping my brain around that, to keep reminding myself that my expectations had to be reined in and shifted to accommodate where they were coming from. I had to remember that this isn’t high school, that they needed to learn to   be responsible for themselves, that I couldn’t hold their hands, call their parents, and bleed out the worries that I had for some of them as the semester moved on like a downhill train.

So I followed some sort of hybrid strategy, emailing them when I was worried, trying to prod them along without mothering them. It was a tight-rope act of which I was proud, but was it enough to instill in them the intrinsic motivation they would need to persevere and pass the course?

I stared at that screen after submitting final semester grades, and I smiled because for the most part they did get it, they did follow my guidelines, and they did pass. Of course there were a few who didn’t make it, but overall they were leaps and bounds above where they had been when they began my composition course, and the grades proved it out. But more than that. The work they turned in by the end of the semester was better, more concise, more dynamic than even I could have hoped to see. And I’m looking forward to doing it all over again in the spring… times three.


The Blackboard

blackboard-green-cleanI walked into that classroom with chalk in my right pocket. It sat neatly ensconced in a box I had just picked up from the main office, but I had absolutely no idea what I was going to write with it. The room was large, about the size of the entire downstairs of my house, but then again it housed 31 desks — 30 in neat rows for the little angels who had yet to arrive, and one at the front of the room for the teacher. That was me.

Across the entire left side of the room was a blackboard. It was green, with a raised, black edged margin filled with corkboard at the top and punctuated by a thin tray on the bottom. An eraser was already seated in the tray, waiting. I extracted the box of chalk from my pocket, shook a few out into my palm, and placed them next to the eraser. That’s where they sat for nearly an hour while I arranged the room to my liking, while I penciled in my brand new gradebook, and while I stared out the window soaking it all in.

Then I began writing, and the words came fast and furious. An entire lesson plan unfolded across the length and width of that board in startling white. In the corners and on the edges, from the center and blossoming out like a flower coming into full bloom, my first lesson plan came to fruition as quickly as a typhoon. And then it was over. I dropped the smaller piece of chalk back into the tray and slid like smooth satin into the plush desk chair, exhausted.

I closed my eyes and smiled, knowing that when I opened them again it would still be there, in startling white, across a field of green.


The Professor

professorbackground2The phone rang last Tuesday at 3:30 in the afternoon, and I had absolutely no clue who would have been calling at that time. Usually the only calls we get around then are from the doctor’s office, the dentist’s office, bill collectors… you know the type. So when I answered the phone and the person on the other end asked for me by my given name I assumed it must have been one of the aforementioned group of 3:30-type callers. But it wasn’t.

The lady on the other end of the line identified herself as the assistant dean of whatever, and my brain suddenly started moving a mile a minute, racing desperately to catch up to the conversation that seemed to have gone on without me. There was something about being an adjunct professor, and was I still interested, and could I work days, and when could I come in for a meeting. It was a lot to process in such a short period of time (she had been on the phone for a grand total of two minutes by that point), but my brain just did make it in time for me to say

“Yes” (to if I was still interested)

“Yes” (to if I could work days)

and “Tomorrow” (to when I could come in for a meeting)

Now, I had been to about a million of these type of meetings, where they say they’re interested but then something falls through. It’s a meet-and-greet where everyone’s glad-handing and back-patting, but what really comes from those? But I was wrong yet again. This wasn’t one of those meetings at all. This was a meeting of the minds, a place where two needs met and made a dynamic plan together. Indeed, before I left the room on Wednesday I was officially an adjunct professor at Mohawk Valley Community College.


So I start this new semester barely a week after that meeting — tomorrow is when it begins for me. It’s been a whirlwind, filling out all this paperwork, playing catch up to all the other adjuncts who have been motoring along all summer towards this purpose. But I’m good with all of that. The adrenaline and the excitement of SOMETHING NEW is driving this bus now, and it isn’t letting go of me anytime soon. Once I’m in front of that class tomorrow — teaching — I know that’s where I belong. It’s my calling, and I can’t wait to get it started.

Now, am I going to have them call me Professor? Still thinking about that one.


Dear Journal: These Darn Kids

parent-teacher-cartoonDear Journal,

Another year of summer school has come to an end, and I’m wondering once again how I made it through the six weeks. For the second straight year I didn’t miss one day of school (it was a promise I made to myself and to the students on day one), but that takes a toll, especially when the kids change so much from year to year.

Five years ago, when I started, there were the odd “bad ducks,” those kids who were sneaky, who did their best to get over on the teachers. They were few and far between, and we were able to isolate them and deal with them right then and there. The rest of the students were respectful, and were easily redirected when they got a little rowdy.

But now, now we’re in an age where most of the students feel entitled, where if I didn’t hear the “F” word in a given day it was shocking. The level of disrespect towards teachers and towards other students was astounding. Even when threatened with getting kicked out of the room it was like water off a duck’s back with these students. They didn’t blink, and oft times said disrespectful things under their breath on the way out of the room. It didn’t matter how much they were written up, what kinds of disciplines they received, they felt entitled.

And that’s the real difference. Even the “good” kids, when challenged, could pull out the “F” word with the worst of them, and could be disrespectful if you caught them on the wrong day. I couldn’t imagine it five years ago. Even if the kids thought it they wouldn’t have said it. There was an atmosphere of respect, even if it was surface, that’s gone now. Depending on the given day even the best kids would go off on others, including those in authority.

My mother would have torn up my backside for doing anything remotely like that, but most times if we even got in touch with the parents we came away from it knowing they wouldn’t do anything to back us up. Because that’s where the kids get their sense of entitlement from in the first place. Which is the problem. Which is why I’m exhaling now, because I couldn’t for six weeks.


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