An End-of-Semester Wish List


The other night, I graded my last paper of the semester and cracked open the bottle of wine that had been calling out to me all week. As I sipped my single glass of victory, I reflected on the state of my students’ writing.

I couldn’t help but long for them to enter my classes with a better foundation in grammar and syntax, so I came up with a wish list I would like elementary and secondary school teachers to try and fulfill.

  • Properly teach comma use. I want to put a thumbtack,point up, on the chair of every teacher who takes the lazy way out and proclaims, “Put a comma in whenever you pause or take a breath.” They set their students up for a lifetime of comma confusion.
  • Teach other punctuation. I know K-12 teachers are doing this, but I’d appreciate it if they explained that exclamation points shouldn’t end every sentence and question marks should only show up at the end of direct questions. (Oh, and please explain that colons and semicolons are not interchangeable with each other or commas.)
  • Ditch the absolute prohibition of beginning sentences with “because” and replace it with “being that.” Yes, I understand students often end up with sentence fragments if they start sentences with “because.” However, this should not become a lifelong ban. Why not prohibit “being that” instead? Honestly, I can’t think of any good reason for it.
  • Help end creative capitalization. I understand that, in an age of texting and microblogging (Tweeting for the uninitiated), this could be tough. Trying to convince adult learners that the pronoun “I” should always be capitalized is frustrating. Modern texting apps may automatically capitalize it, but students don’t notice. The concept of proper nouns versus common nouns seems to escape them, too.
  • Show students how parts of speech are building blocks to proper sentences. Like parts of an engine or rooms in a building, each part of speech has a role to play to build solid, effective sentences.

The good news, at least for me and my future students, is that the Common Core Standards being implemented in states across America cover these things.

It gives me hope that good grammar, unlike cursive writing, will not follow the path of the dodo.


Find Summer Adventures at Your Library

From Stars reading in tree

Ah! Warm days, sunshine, and no school. Summer is here and so are swimming, bicycle riding, camping, and trips to the library.

Huh? Trips to the library?  In summer?!

Hey, these aren’t your grandma’s libraries anymore. It’s amazing some of the things today’s libraries offer.

Sure, you still get your story hours, but there are so many more programs you (and your children) can tap into. There are free movies, book clubs, computer instruction (some libraries even offer online gaming groups), and reading contests for children and teens.

One library I visited recently had a flyer out for a program on how to maintain and repair your bicycle–really useful information for the human-powered, bi-wheel crowd.

There are magicians, comedians, and musicians who put on performances. One summer program for children I tripped over was “Play with Your Food,” which promised a fun way to explore the senses as well as a way of making a s’mores machine.

There are so many benefits of tapping into your local library this summer, not the least of which is to keep children reading during school break so they won’t have to play catch up come fall.

Where else can you tap into so much fun at very little or no cost than your local library?


(If your child is looking for good books this summer, check out Stars from which the illustration is taken, and Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe, which is really funny.)

To Write Better, Focus on Quality Reading

I constantly  talk about how to be a better writer based on my observations and anecdotal evidence. Now, a recent study from the International Journal of Business Administration is backing me up.cat_and_dog_in_library

What you read influences how you write. If all we read are tweets, Facebook posts, or short news blurts, we will tend to mimic those constructions (syntaxes) when we write. I had a student in a composition course who constantly, despite my repeated warnings, failed to capitalize the personal pronoun I and continued to use text abbreviations like b/c, thru, and w/o in his essays. He was mimicking what he read.

Quality of reading material matters more than the quantity of time spent reading. If we spend hours and hours reading posts about the Kardashians or pulp novels, we may feel as if we are making great efforts to improve our minds. However, we still aren’t improving our ability to write well. We need to stretch our reading muscles even if the quality text we read is only in short spurts.

The medium doesn’t make a difference. Many people feel electronic text is more difficult to read than a printed page, but the study suggests this is less of a problem than the quality of what is written. Sometimes electronic offerings tend to focus on “make it quick and make it easy.” However, there is little difference in whether a book is electronic or in physical print when it comes how it influences writing.

Good writing skills are highly valued in the business world. The study states:

Changes in workplace technologies have placed an even heavier emphasis on reading and writing skills than they had in the twentieth century workplace. Employees now send and receive more messages than ever before, while applications like email have eliminated editors and support staff who would formerly have edited writing for managers.

Since modern technology has taken away the former layers of review, the onus falls squarely on the writer.

It isn’t a matter of intelligence; it’s a matter of ignorance. It’s not that people don’t have the intelligence needed to write well. It is our ignorance of other ways of writing that holds us back. If we are never exposed to a variety of rhythms and syntaxes, how can we know that they exist and that we can use them, too?

Students often ask me how they can become better writers. I tell them they need to read better writing. Now I have at least one study to support me!


P.S.: With a title like “Syntactic Complexity of Reading Content Directly Impacts Complexity of Mature Students’ Writing,” the study itself was a real syntactic workout!


So, You Don’t Know InDesign…

Which is more important: knowing a specific software or being familiar with the basics of how it functions?

Most of us realize there is no way we can keep up with all the different versions of the different types of software out there. Even if we could do it physically, we couldn’t fbrain softwareiscally. Who has that type of budget, especially if you’re a freelancer?

If you don’t know InDesign or Publisher, but you do know QuarkXPress, couldn’t you easily learn the other publishing software? If you can use Articulate Storyline, couldn’t you adapt to Adobe Captivate?

Everyone has her preference, but the basic principles are the same.

I think this is very much like comparing knowledge with learning. When you have knowledge, you have a repository of information. When you learn, you can take that information and apply it someplace else appropriately and efficiently.

Even when you know a particular software very well, chances are the next version is going to change something. Just look at the venerable Word. With each version, you have to learn new tricks or hunt for functions that used to be right at your fingertips.

I know people who stubbornly cling to old versions of software. I can so empathize. There are days I still pine for Windows XP. Unfortunately, the marketplace often demands constant updates to keep our work compatible with that of our clients.

The good news is that understanding the underlying fundamentals of a software can help you more quickly learn the quirks specific to another software (or version).

Exercising those “little grey cells” is the best way to keep up with the software “Joneses.”


Curiouser and Curiouser

cat and pi day

Happy National Pi Day!

(What is the area of a 9-inch pie? Let’s see: πr2 = 3.14 X 4.52 = 3.14 X 20.25 = 63.585 square inches.)

A very good friend of mine recently told me that I had the largest repository of useless information of anyone she knows. I take that as a compliment.

I think it is because I am a writer and incurably curious. I am always reading something or watching educational shows on the History Channel or PBS. I like to know about things.

I like to share what I know through my writing. (Does that make me a know-it-all? I’d like to think not since my motivation is more “Isn’t this neat?” and not “Aren’t I smart?”)

When I watch Jeopardy!, it seems there are many writers who make the cut and are successful players. Writers do a lot of research on a lot of things. Along the way we tend to retain tidbits of information other people don’t know (or even care about).

I find investigating things I don’t know about pleases me. I hope there never comes a day when I don’t care about learning new things. I think that would be the worst thing that could happen.

In the meantime, power to pi and learn on!

Does Culling Vocabulary ‘Dumb Down’ Future Writing?

In “Elegy for lost verbiage,” Economist Obituary Editor Ann Wroe  wrote a wonderful piece using words that are disappearing from the SAT verbal test in 2016. RIP vocabulary

The piece was sent to me recently by my friend (and clipping service) Barbara S. Rivette. The editor in both of us just can’t let items like this pass by.

Now, I’m not opposed to eliminating antediluvian words such as cleave, gourmand, pellucid, penurious, vituperate, and obstreperous. However, I think the College Board has gone a little too far.

Among the words headed for the garbage heap are garrulous, virtuoso, duress, licentious, dirge, bashful, quaint, negligent, and (appropriately) extraneous. I think these are words that can pinpoint meaning and give just the right seasoning to our writing. Other words on the chopping block that I think are vivid and useful are maelstrom, nadir, beguile, morass, tirade, and anachronistic.

With immediate access to online dictionaries, why are we eliminating these words from the vocabulary of our young people? Will we revert to monosyllabic synonyms to ensure students can pass their SATs with enough points to get into college? What then?

One of the best things about English is its lush, expansive vocabulary. It has a huge inventory that allows for beautiful verbal creations. Can you imagine poets 25 years from now not having diaphanous in their word arsenals?

By not expecting students to stretch their vocabularies, are we doing a disservice to future writers?

To Cursive, or Not to Cursive?

I recently tripped over a news item that made me do a double take. It seemed innocent enough, but it really startled me.

HandwritingCursiveCapDirIt was a short notice that a local school was offering cursive writing lessons to anyone who wanted to take them.

I was a bit shocked because

  • I was under the misguided assumption that everyone had to suffer through practicing thousands of loops in third grade, and
  • If they didn’t, why would they want to?

Apparently, there is a not-so-subversive cursive war raging through America’s education system.

Most states have made teaching cursive writing optional. The argument is that there are more important areas to concentrate on during the limited school day—like keyboarding.  In a time when kindergarteners are using iPads in schools, teaching handwriting seems as outmoded as the quill. Why not teach skills that will be more important in “real life”?

While the opposition’s arguments are sometimes specious (one Washington state lawmaker proclaimed that cursive was part of “being American”), there is research that outlines the benefits of hand writing. The tactile connection from brain to hand to paper has been shown to improve motor skills and spark creativity. It can also help mitigate dyslexia.

Should we just let cursive die out?

Personally, I would hate to see that happen. Taking the time to write something out long hand forces me to slow down and makes my work more thoughtful. I also feel that technology more and more disassociates us from what we produce. There’s something about holding what I’ve written in my hand on paper that seems much more solid than posting it up on the “cloud.” In fact, I’ve gone to using fountain pens for some of my writing.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s no way I’m giving up my computer. But I sometimes get more satisfaction from all those loops on a page.

Where do you stand?

Can We Teach with Fiction?

Is fiction a good way to teach things? If so, can it be used to teach concepts like history and science?

I don’t know about you, but I’m much more likely to sit down with a good historical novel than a history book. I learn a lot from characters, and I jules vern booklike the omniscient view novels usually provide. Not to mention dialog is a lot easier to get through than long paragraphs of facts.

Fiction makes things come alive. We can learn certain truths through well written fiction. We can learn about character motivations, political strife, or the effect of technology on the way people behave.

But fiction does more than just show us scenarios of human behavior. It inspires us to pursue further knowledge. How many scientists were inspired by all those Star Trek series? Before Gene Roddenberry there were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne.

How many future police detectives were inspired by Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot?

Want to learn about the French Revolution? Read an unabridged edition of Les Miserables (go ahead, I dare you).

I don’t argue with the stress educators are putting on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). These subjects are important foundations to success in modern society. However, I would argue that a good, solid liberal arts education can lead to success in life, too.

The intelligentsia of the Renaissance had it right: We need a wide ranging knowledge base. More importantly, we need a drive to learn more about everything—especially subjects in which we might not otherwise be interested. This is more important in an era when we are spoon fed information by computer logarithms based on our web surfing habits.

Fiction can help by making unfamiliar subjects more interesting and by sparking in us the urge to learn more.

Weekend Wrinkle: Another Adventure Begins

Everyone loves new things – new cars, new clothes, even new semesters.

business writing welcome documentYes, it’s the beginning of another semester, and this year I get the opportunity to teach a course on business communications. I’m really excited about it because it is the perfect platform to proselytize about good writing.

I think it’s great because it lets me relearn concepts I may have forgotten and even investigate some new ones.

One of the icebreakers I ask my students during the first class is, “What is your dream job and why?” I realize that I’m living part of my dream every day. I get to write and share and find new ways to spread the excitement of writing.

I even love the challenge of getting my students to understand and appreciate (if not love) grammar.

If I can pass on just a fraction of my enthusiasm to my students, I will consider my job well done. I’ll have helped send another group of effective communicators into the world of business and, hopefully, to success.

Happy start of the semester, all!

Weekend Wrinkle: Some Summer Boredom Survival Tips

“I’m bored!

It seems like five minutes after school ends for the summer, we hear this unceasing chorus.

Adults wonder how kids, with a seemingly endless supply of activities before them, can even think this let alone constantly declare it.

We scour our brains trying to figure out what to do to keep our kids occupied. If we’re clever, we can sneak in some learning when they’re not looking. How can we encourage budding writers without making it seem like torture?

I’ve always been a big reader and fondly remember trips to the library as the highlight of my summer. Of course, today’s kids are much less likely to read. However, libraries offer all kinds of activities that we can tap into. Most of them are free or really inexpensive.

Turning off the TV and reading some books together is an option although maybe not totally workable. I recently read the Percy Jackson series so I could have something to talk about with a younger generation. Unfortunately, no young person I know has read them. But we could have a discussion about how the books differ from the movies.

The big buzz in training these days is “gamification,” but savvy parents have had this figured out for years. Games make learning fun.

How does this apply to building writing skills? Well, a game like “20 Questions” can spark curiosity and analytical skills. Encouraging kids to think of as many words as they can to describe an object or a picture in a set amount of time can increase descriptive skills and vocabulary.

There’s always the ever popular and creativity sparking revolving story where one person starts a story and others in the group pick up and continue the plot line. (This is really effective when sitting around a campfire and the subject is something creepy.)

“Tell me about Frozen. What was it about and why did you like it?”

A question like this, and follow up questions, can help children build organizational and critical thinking skills – things essential to good writing. But, parents, you really need to listen patiently and give children a chance to organize out loud.

These things aren’t going to completely solve the “I’m bored” problem, but they can help build better writing skills in children without them ever realizing what’s happening.