Tag Archives: Writing

Education via Barney!

Do you remember Barney and his Backyard Gang?

” I love you – you love me”…  the song was infectious and the children’s show a simple reminder that children could play and learn together within a variety of age groups- whom ever happened to people their neighborhood.   I had been doing graduate work in both anthropology and linguistics- plus education, as they are indeed entwined- and the furor caused by the introduction of Barney’s little sister and whether she, TV character and role model that she was, should speak English “properly” or the way a two year old might actually articulate continues to resonate – particularly when writing conferences happen and student’s wish to “break the rules”.  Sociolinguistics is a field of practice that looks closely at speech patterns, the ones we actually use when we communicate together.  And writers tend to listen and observe these speech patterns too.  For this reason characters to be believable must sound like they would if overheard on the street.  Since few children at age two have their grammar in sync with the adult world and even adults do get confused over the “proper” use of the word “me”, hearing a TV character proclaim “me want to go too!” may have rung “true” to the majority of the watchers as to how a child would talk, however, being a role model (even if a furry dinosaur), the prescribed “I want to go too”, became mandatory for the show to be labelled enriching, and to be “OK” for kids as an educational viewing.

Problem- overuse of the word “I” has meant that one hardly ever hears anyone use the word “me” anymore- and while I can’t track this to the above mentioned Barney TV show- I do know that students of all ages have trouble placing the object in its expected situation because they rarely hear it in use outside of grammar books-  The ubiquitous “I” is the noun now that often causes the most confusion- “Please give it to ______?  (me- belongs in the blank) – so simple refresher here:

you and I – can we substitute the word “we”

you and me – can we substitute the word “us”

And if writing dialogue and you “just know” that is how a person really would speak- by all means share the sounds as you have heard them; however, if answering a formal set of questions where grammar is expected to be “just so”- then review the basic expected constructs and create a few simple guidelines for yourself.  For example, if there are particular structures that you find a reader/teacher nearly always circles and suggests could be improved, focus on these to begin, reminding oneself- “check the verb tenses”, or  “have I looked it over for transitional connecting sentences between paragraphs?”  By recognizing one’s own form of practice it can be easier to begin the needed proofing of a draft- Oh hadn’t I mentioned this? yes- after the brainstorming and the rough draft comes a mini-break- then the proofing and editing / and most important of all- the handing it in!

Everyday; anyday- but not all day

I awaken to the morning sun
Bathed in the glow of “Tomorrow”
Knowing; fully well;
That tomorrow is finally
It is –

I prefer the whir
of the cars on the Allen
Whooshing (by)
outside and below-
than the sounds of the clanking, hissing,
and croaking; keys dropped, shoes knocked
steam through the pipes;
FOLKS!wouldn’t it be nice if they were humming:
“morning. its morning, Morning, its morning”
Inside and

Boundaries: please help me set them- feedback encouraged

Today’s blog deals with security, two types: internet and personal.  There is little more frightening than the idea that someone may break into one’s physical space- and when we teach internet security we use the idea of a back door and teach students not to leave the back door open,though in my case ((English being the subject matter), my students are much more computer savvy than me, and I learn from them all the time.  But this past week, two frightening incidents occurred.

First I started a course to upgrade/refresh business skills – with the dream to expand my business and over the next two years, become a fully functioning learning center- very exciting, a dream that has been percolating for ten years 🙂

Second, I celebrated personal changes within my family, being grateful for the most basic of things, the health and welfare of those nearest and dearest.

BUT, and as my students have come to recognize when there is a “but” in an essay – look for the transition, follow the points as they appear and hear the writer’s voice; BUT the first indication that something “was out of sync” came via the internet- had I been guilty of leaving my internet “backdoor” open and allowing for hackers? In fairness instead of turning the computer off I often put it into “sleep” – so perhaps I had let the hacker on-board.   In a bizarre set of incidents my keyboard initially didn’t register, then when my keyboard did register the only strokes it would type- either the symbol for trade mark, or the symbol for  registered.  – Some one who would not want me to achieve my business ideals? – Creepy, unusual, and most bizarre an occurrence that only happened within my home following my first day away from home and physically in class; however, taking the computer elsewhere – the keyboard works.  (My children had suggested throwing the machine out and buying a newer model-fortunately this expense is not necessary as the machine indeed works) the hacker however did damage; causing days of: frustration, annoyance, time and energy.   BUT – new “but”– many people get hacked- I chose to see it as a bizarre compliment? someone not wanting the business itself to grow– competition or just someone’s mean games? Regardless- a physical object.

Back to BUT  number 2:  after an exhausting run around day and the awareness that I had an evening meeting to attend I did the unthinkable –  I sat down and put my feet up- in a space without a back door- home- a condo, with doorman and security- and another very unusual action- fell asleep with an alarm on to waken me up in time for my meetings- excuse the lengthy description but what happened was frightening: as someone who almost never naps, and who considers the after school and weekend time the most productive the entire concept of that one hour break was unusual- so it was doubly scary to suddenly hear a male voice in the unit, to, in a sleep induced blur, waken to a physical presence inside the suite and I screamed, and thankfully my son was home,  and together we made certain the intruder left.  But visibly shaken I said to my son that for the first time I had an inkling of what could happen in a household where a person were startled in such a manner and the homeowner carried a weapon- there is no question in my mind- I would have used it!   Having always been against the concept of guns, having been an advocate of peaceful negotiations, having taught children of all ages sessions on ways to sow “seeds of peace” I found myself wishing for a weapon, or at the very least a jar of pepper spray.  And though I pretended to relax and dismiss the issue, to focus on my meeting later that evening, and did indeed attend the meeting but – another but- may not have given the types of clearly formed presentations I have developed a reputation for- I realize today that we as readers of events in the news, on the media, or simply gossiped about, we lack the very real first hand knowledge of why any individual may react to a situation in a particular fashion.  I “screamed” – growing angrier and angrier with the realization of the fact that the computer games and the in-person games may have been connected.  And Today? today I realize that back door, front door, side door- none had been opened when it came to my personal space.  And I realize too that if in future  I read about an individual who took “extreme measures” to defend him/herself or family I will be less quick to wonder how someone would react- for there are times for conversation, times to shout as loudly as possible, and times to- dare I say it -perhaps even grab a weapon.  My son reminded me of my previous and, to date, anti-violence stance and the fact that we laughed together after, that it was indeed a good thing that I hadn’t had a weapon and the problems weapons cause.  Unfortunately, today, all I can think of is Roosevelt and how stunned I was as a child to discover what his famous “big stick”  was a symbol for.  As an English tutor- I deal in symbols, and attempt understanding of them, or if not clearly able to offer a definitive explanation for a piece of poetry or prose then to suggest others offer their interpretations.   And the world around us, not merely the printed or artistic piece is filled with symbols.  So this blog is a question mark-  about Boundaries, how we define them, establish them and make clear when the lines may not be crossed.  And on a personal note how we teach them – clearly, articulately but with the underlying recognition that little is as easily erased as lines in the sand. 

– grateful that journal keeping can clear the  “cobwebs” in addition to communicating.  Interested in reading any reader responses.  Thank you

Variations on a theme: feel free to jump in :)


And how I would change it, to read –

I will let them be young
Fill their hearts with laughter
Help them grow wings
Nurture their sense of wonder
Inspire them to believe
And love them like
Everything they dream about they may make possible-

If not today, then- tomorrow!


I like my version better!

And dislike the concept of “belittling” anyone so separated those two words, in case a ‘quick read may have suggested other wise 🙂

Either way – children are a blessing –

HMMM- may make it into a poster for a classroom wall…

 My motto: “Change is Good” (and a better slogan than Greed)


Rules in writing – and how to break them! Modeling exercises

Was tempted to call this – How to move beyond the 5 paragraph essay.  So often we are using this basic concept, of 1 paragraph for the  introduction, 3 paragraph body, and 1 paragraph conclusion that we forget to encourage pupils to play with the writing format, to focus on the content and to use the 5 paragraph scheme as a version of an outline.  Because, the reality check is, did the piece of writing share information, rather than merely regurgitating something? For so many students offering opinions is a scary position to find themselves in.  Yet every piece of writing does share an opinion. 

It can be fun to begin with informal debates; using a randomized system to divide up the the class into groups and then have each group practice responding to both real issues and nonsense ones.  By “randomized system” I suggest drawing straws, names in a hat, sounding off with numbers…, the options for adding opportunity for different students to work together are numerous.  And it is through the scrambling of expected norms in a classroom, that students may find themselves more willing to share an idea- when one is no longer “the quiet kid” or the “outspoken one”, the brainstorming that must take place to plan an argument – academic argument, using a logical progression- can begin to take hold.  I have noticed so many students attempting to write any piece in one “perfect” sweep; rarely do the results merit the hard work such students are actually doing.  The students who are more freely aware of the process that writing entails, are less likely to ponder their initial attempts, knowing well that brainstorming is just that – a beginning.

From the brainstorming,  a move to construct an argument while recognizing what might be the counter argument (in a debate it is best to be prepared) provides the thinking in action that moves an in -class exercise towards a life skill. Students must challenge one another, defend a position, and accept when an argument or position will not be the winning one for that session.  The process itself may be examined, and when students take turns as the voting judges, learning to question why they approved of one position over another, the “higher level thinking” begins to be displayed.  Turns may even be taken, with various students assigned to be the “devil’s advocate” within a group.  Higher level thinking skills are brought to the fore, and this ability to both challenge themselves and challenge others, can be put into written responses.  In effect, the students themselves are modeling the process, sharing in selecting the more strongly supported position, and recognizing what is meant by offering “proof” in an essay.  

Personal admission: strong proponent of experiential knowledge. For any learner, regardless of age, recognition of a concept comes through the application.  When writing is demystified, and shown to be a means for communicating a point of view, regardless which genre we are highlighting in a class at the time, it is possible to have learners find the argument.  By using academic vocabulary even with younger pupils we allow the learners to hear the actions, while doing the exercise.  Underlining the theses statement and commenting on the supporting paragraphs ought to be more than supplying a visual with a sample essay already commented upon.  The importance of all students being able to identify main idea is not merely to increase Ministry mandated test scores, but is another life skill.  If students can read instructions and then describe in their own words how to play an online game, they can also offer an opinion as to what they believe makes one game more challenging than another, and thereby join in a “debate” with peers on a topic of their interest.  Being able to support their opinion becomes crucial to comfortable communication.    As does being able to walk away from an argument and maintain one’s opinion- the ability to agree to disagree

Today’s blog was inspired by a comment that preceded a recipe- an unusual comment as most cooking sites offer the recipe with the expectation that the recipe itself is “king”.  This website chose to remind readers to improvise. While many of us do “tweak’ recipes based on personal preference and family eating habits or restrictions, I was struck by the thoughtful wording that preceded the instructions: “A recipe…  cannot pretend to replace the practiced hand and telling glance of a watchful cook. For that reason feel free to stir your own ideas into this dish. When you cook it once, it becomes yours, so personalize it a bit.”;  my sentiments, exactly!

FYI the recipe was for Cornbread- and I have changed it by adding a little less of the butter/margarine/oil component- and it is delicious 🙂 







wwasA recipe is merely words on paper; a guideline, a starting point from which to improvise. It cannot pretend to replace the practiced hand and telling glance of a watchful cook. For that reason feel free to stir your own ideas into this dish. When you cook it once, it becomes yours, so personalize it a bit. Add more of an ingredient you like or less of something you don’t like. Try substituting one ingredient for another. Remember words have no flavour; you have to add your own!
Read more at http://www.foodnetwork.ca/recipe/michael-smiths-cornbread/8544/#DjFpJH86zE20CVfr.99

Higher level thinking test questions: understanding and teaching

Books, Books, Books.  They were, and still are to be found in my home: magazines, journals, posters too.  Like the internet, books are connected, with ideas referencing backward through time.  For a reader, these connections can be a reason for recognizing the “new” ideas, or the new challenges, and even if one doesn’t enter into the conversation directly, the connections provide understanding and put into context what the author may have had in mind. – Fancy Literary Term: allusions- dictionary definition, simplified, to refer (back) to something else- a pre-internet form of links or “buttons” .  However there is a second implication in the term “allude” and it can be suggesting “implying”.  Students do need to understand both the actual reference in a piece of writing and the implications that a reader may infer, if learners are going to be able to “make sense” of formal Reading Comprehension tests- regardless of if the test is called “Common Core” in the States or E.Q.A.O. in Canada or given any other title in any other country.  Reading Comprehension testing and students scores improve when Poetry is both offered and shared in the learning process.

Why Poetry, and not merely any other form of writing, when poetry or analyzing a poem may only be a small portion of the exam/test itself? It is impossible to teach poetry without getting into or allowing for personal responses, opinions based on the combination of emotional response and the actual words on the page. Poems that “work” do so on many levels, allowing a variety of ages, and readers, to “enter into the imagery”, and be absorbed by the rhythm, before the analysis.  Poems that “work” may also be read from both the literal and the figurative (stance) – demanding a lesson into second readings, a scavenger hunt of sorts for clues within the writing which begins the practical aspect of what many readers do on automatic pilot: read it again. 

Descriptions on tests qualify questions, only a few instruct young learners to offer “proof” from the test reading or their own personal experiences.  The majority of questions aim to demonstrate that students were in fact tested, that the learner knew how to respond to a similar type of question.  And it is a “taken for granted” that as an educator one might be annoyed at the style or implication teaching to the test demands.  Yet I am not, for test taking needn’t be an overwhelming threat to one’s ability to demonstrate knowledge, nor ought it to be a frightening experience.  First the test itself needs to be placed in context,  that learners might see it as a positive challenge- give students a brand new piece of technology and ask them to “figure it out”, or a new game, or a new way of walking to school- each is a challenge- that requires putting together the old way – what one knows, with the new object- what one is trying to make sense of.  If the testing challenges do annoy me at all, it is in their very lack of “higher level” thinking questions;  learners of all ages do want a challenge to be challenge worthy- the prize is so much more satisfying then.