Weekend Wrinkle: The ‘Mom Effect’

Mom and Me 1960
Mom and I at the beginning of our journey together.

Writers are always complaining about how difficult a job it is to write, and believe me, it’s no cakewalk.  Yet there’s a job that is infinitely harder – raising a child.

There’s no Roget’s or Strunk & White or Chicago Manual of Style that shows us how to shape the future of a child. Even if there were, no child is like another, so it wouldn’t work anyway.

Mothers have a unique bond with their children, a mysterious link often (but not always) forged in the womb. It is a humbling feeling to know that what you do will affect what kind of person a little human will become; that this calling (I can’t really call it a “job”) – with endless overtime, no sick leave, no vacation, and definitely no hazard pay – will deeply affect the way a child sees the world.

Mom and Me

Mother’s Day is Sunday, and my mother has been on my mind all week. I have a reservoir of childhood memories. I remember the oddly comforting smell of coffee combined with cigarettes. I remember being taught to catch fireflies in a jar in the summer – then letting them go. I remember hikes in the “woods” and discovering insects, animals, birds, and plants.

I remember my mother putting our feet in bread bags before putting our boots on then smearing our faces with Vaseline as she sent us out for a day of fun in the snow. I remember changing into dry, warm pajamas on our triumphant return and feasting on hot soup and sandwiches. (If we were lucky, we’d get hot chocolate, too!)

I remember her reading to me and teaching me to read. That was one of her greatest gifts. I can remember her taking me to the library. I remember her irritation when she caught me reading instead of cleaning my room. (I did that a lot!)

But there was more. There was her expectation for academic excellence. There was no question that I should always do my best. I never, never wanted to disappoint her.

As I became an adult, my mother provided the best sounding board. I can remember fits of crying during high school frustrated about how I didn’t fit in anywhere. I can remember complaining about how my own parenting efforts seemed fruitless. I can remember being lost in grief and desperately looking for an emotional anchor when my husband died.

Through all that, my mother listened – without criticism, without offering solutions, often without comment. She was just a sympathetic, often empathetic, ear. She was all that I needed.

Other ‘Moms’

The older I get, the more I realize that so many other women – motherly figures if not mothers themselves – influenced me.

My grandmother was my “pal” growing up. She instilled a love of cooking and baking. My aunts showed me how sisters relate to each other. Each taught me something: Aunt Mamie, how to laugh at life; Aunt Annie, how to explore faith and spirituality; Aunt Betty, how to act professionally and preservere; Aunt Sadie, how to love nature and not worry if people think I’m a little odd.

My supply of motherly figures doesn’t stop at relatives. I have many women friends – both older and younger than I – that continue to teach me life lessons: Brouge, the benefits of honesty and generosity as well as the steadfastness of friendship; Mrs. R, how to strive for excellence and be a buffer for others; BERL, how to get off my butt and have adventures.

The Cycle of Motherhood

Sometimes, when my daughter calls me to tell of her latest exploits in parenting, I can’t help but flash back to those calls I made to my mom.  All those trials and triumphs I shared with my mom are coming full circle.

This “Mom Effect” that I’ve experienced over the years influences my writing voice and my viewpoint. How can it not? I tap into all these gifts I’ve received every time I sit at a keyboard or put pen to paper.

So, to all the women out there (mothers all, if not necessarily in the traditional sense), the daughter of Pauline, granddaughter of Santa, and mom of Mandy would like to wish you a beautiful Mother’s Day.


Who Cares About Shakespeare?

“I don’t know why we have to read Shakespeare,” grumbled a student recently.

Why should we care what someone who’s been dead going on 400 years had to say? What possible relevance could his writing have in an ever-connected, electronic, modern world?

The reason the Bard has lasted half a millennium is because he was a master of exposing the desires and emotions that make us human: envy, greed, arrogance, love, miscommunication, and social status. These things never change.

What sets him apart from a glorified Elizabethan soap opera writer is the way he develops his characters and their interrelationships. His plays are multi-layered. He can evoke sympathy for some of his most evil characters like Iago. He can make us lose patience with the hero (Hamlet).  He can show how the responsibilities of power can change our relationship with our friends (Henry V).

Modern relevance? Shakespeare dealt with depression and mental health issues hundreds of years ago in plays like Hamlet and King Lear. 

However (and this is a big “however”), there are two main problems facing modern readers of Shakespeare’s work. These are what produce groans and complaints from students.

A Rose by Any Other Name

The first is vocabulary. Let’s face it; English has changed in 500 years – a lot! It’s hard enough keeping track of the changes in word meanings and slang from the last half century let alone the last half millennium. And Shakespeare loved throwing in double meanings his Elizabethan audiences would have known and appreciated.

When I want to read Shakespeare, I first have to remind myself of some of the nuances of the vocabulary. Yes, reading the footnotes can be annoying, but they help me “get it.”

When we read Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade, I had a teacher who was wise enough to realize that Shakespeare’s English was like Greek to us.  He also knew that, if he pointed out some of the racier double entendres, he could keep the attention of his teenage students.  I thought he was a little crazy, but he made the play more real for us.

Any writer knows meaning is vitally important for painting the right picture. English has so many words! Synonyms have shades of meaning that can make a masterpiece out of a cartoon.

With Shakespeare, those shades of meaning are faded and need to be restored for us to appreciate the full richness of his work.

The Play Is the Thing

The second major problem with teaching Shakespeare is that students read the plays. Folks, the Bard’s work was meant for the stage, not the page.

Unlike a novel, where the author sets the scene and describes what is going on, a play is written with off-stage direction and dialog. If we can’t see and hear the speakers, with vocal inflections and body language, it’s really tough to get a good feel for the characters. It’s almost like reading a bunch of statements.

It wasn’t until I took a Shakespeare class in college that I truly appreciated the difference. At the time, PBS was running a series of BBC-produced Shakespeare plays. My professor held play-watching parties at her house. It was fun, and we got to experience Shakespeare the way he wanted us to – by watching the actors.

The Wheel Is Come Full Circle

Too often we think of Shakespeare as some guy sitting in a room churning out plays teachers tell us are masterpieces. Shakespeare lived in a time of political turmoil, intrigue, social class struggles, racism, and religious persecution. He sometimes put things into his plays that could be seen as critical to the monarchy, and he often skirted disaster.

Shakespeare Uncovered is a great PBS series that explores some of Shakespeare’s plays, what they mean, and the setting in which they were written.

It is important to remember that Shakespeare was a real man, living in a real world, with real problems. He used his talent to hold up a mirror to the world to say, “This is what you are, and this is what you could be.”

So, yes, what Shakespeare wrote centuries ago is still very much relevant today.

Pursue STEM, But Don’t Forget the Pen

The college I teach at recently had a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) event to encourage students to get involved in those fields. There is a big push on in this country to get our students up to speed in these areas. It’s important because innovations in these fields lead to a country’s prosperity and ability to compete in a global market.

What I’m afraid of (and I do seem to be seeing it) is that the educational system is sacrificing emphasis on writing skills. It’s great to be an engineer, but if you can’t get your ideas across to someone else, you are ineffective.

Man typingGood communication skills — especially in writing — are also very important to a business’s and country’s prosperity. Just read through Carolyn O’Hara’s recent article, “How to Improve Your Business Writing” in the Harvard Business Review.

It’s great to be able to create new innovations, but you still have to tell someone about it.

Numbers, My Lifelong Nemeses

slugNumbers and I don’t get along. In fact, I hate math!

Okay, “hate” may be a strong word, but I have the same reaction when presented with a math problem that I would if a slug was plopped before me: “Eew! Yuck! Run away!”

Put words and letters in front of me, and I can play all day. For some reason, numbers just don’t register well in my brain. I’ve had people blame it on the educational system (which is not fair) and tell me I’m numerically dyslexic (is that a real thing?). Whatever it may be, it has meant that numbers have always been an effort for me.

I admire people who do well in math. In high school, I had a friend who did calculus problems for fun! I even read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Didn’t understand much of it, but what I did was intriguing.

I’ve tried Sudoku, the really easy ones, and been stymied. Yet I love doing crossword puzzles, especially the New York Times’s Sunday ones. (Sure, it takes me several days and a dictionary, and I never do it in pen.)

“We get the message,” you’re thinking, “but this is supposed to be a blog about writing.”

Well, it’s also a blog about learning. The point is that, when I hear someone say, “I hate writing,” I can emphasize. But that’s not an excuse to avoid honing writing skills.

I worked hard (really, really hard) to pass algebra, geometry, and (gag) trigonometry in high school. Physics also presented a challenge. I confess that most of that stuff I forgot very quickly, mostly because I don’t use it.

On the other hand, ask me a percentage or how to adjust a recipe, and I can pretty much do that in my head. The mathematical functions that I need have stuck with me.

For instance, if the news reports that my property tax rate has increased five percent per thousand, you bet I can quickly calculate how much more that is going to add to my tax bill. I even calculated (after going through about a ream of paper) how much gravel I would need for a patio I’m planning to put in. When I’m driving long distances, I try to do calculations in my head to keep me awake.

Sure, I can find a calculator online just as people can find paragraphs online they (illegally and unethically) copy and paste. But just like an athlete, my brain needs the exercise. Math helps me with organization and logic, so I force myself to do something that is useful but that I don’t like at all.

Do I get it right all the time? Heck, no! The last time my checkbook was balanced was in college when my accounting major roommate (now my dearest friend) decided to do it. Three hours later, completely mystified by my “system,” she succeeded but vowed never to try it again.

When it needs to be correct, I seek out a professional. I have an accountant do my income tax, but I try to organize my information as best I can before I hand it over.

The moral of this blog post is that, even though we feel frustrated and mystified by something, like writing, it is still valuable to make the effort to practice and improve it.

My Parents’ Learning Legacy

I love to learn.

My brothers, although not as bookish as I, still have the same curiosity. How did that happen?

Mom reading the newspapers.

I can only attribute it to our parents, especially Mom. It is easy to forget that even the smallest action by our parents can influence our learning for the rest of our lives.

Although he worked long hours (sometimes three jobs at a time!), my father still was influential in developing our learning habits. We got three daily newspapers — the local paper and two New York City papers. It was not unusual to watch Dad, when he got home from work, sitting in his chair in the living room reading the paper while watching the news on television. Mom usually got to the papers after dinner.

Children will copy what they see their parents do. We still are newspaper readers (although I do most of my news reading online). My oldest brother reads the Sunday New York Times cover to cover.

Then there were the documentaries. When we were children (lo! those many years ago), television programming was limited. Yet every Sunday night started off with Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. We caught every Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic special we could. Mom would take us to different parks, and we’d pretend we were explorers and naturalists.

Mom took an active role reading to us and then helping us learn to read. I can honestly say that I can never remember being unable to read. I have a distinct memory of walking into my kindergarten class for the first time and being able to read “red,” “yellow,” and “green” on the giant poster of a traffic light.

Of course, there were the flash cards. Being numerically challenged, I really needed drilling on addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Mom was there with those colorful cards. (I still have problems with my six times tables.)

My parents’ encouragement, and some serious studying with classmates, helped me limp through algebra, geometry, and even trigonometry. It’s not their fault it all got flushed out of my head the weekend after graduation.

I think the greatest gift my parents gave us was a responsibility to find things out on our own.

“Mom, how do you spell …?”

“Look it up in the dictionary.”

“How can I look it up if I don’t know how to spell it?”

“Sound out the letters.”

Mom didn’t have a lot of sympathy for us if we weren’t willing to make an effort for ourselves. She was willing to help us if we got stuck, but she certainly wasn’t going to do the heavy lifting.

All this might not seem like much. My parents didn’t constantly expend huge amounts of energy or money on getting us to learn. They just created an environment, set expectations, and made us accountable for ourselves. It was not much, but what a huge influence on our lives!

P.S. Mom was a good speller. She and Dad would do the same crossword puzzles in the daily papers. Dad was a “creative” speller and always finished first. Mom would get so mad because he had most of the clues spelled wrong.

Flipping — Not Flipping Over — Grammar

flipping grammar

2day were gonna talk bout good grammer & how to teach it?

Go ahead and laugh. These types of writing mistakes are more typical of our graduating high school seniors than we may want to admit. Although it might be fine for text messages to friends, it is totally inappropriate in almost any business communication.

How do we make sure that our students in post secondary education go out into the business world equipped with proper grammar skills? How can we get in the proper practice without having to take up too much class time we’d prefer to spend honing organizational skills?

One thing I have been experimenting with the past couple of semesters in my composition course is flipping the grammar material. I assign students reading and review of a grammar rule or problem along with an exercise. Then I give a quiz at the beginning of the next class. The quizzes don’t count for a great deal, and students are allowed to collaborate on the answers. (My classes are small, so they can usually do it as a group. With larger groups, I try to pair off students.) There are also online practice quizzes and worksheets for additional practice. I have even been creating short videos to help the students learn the concepts. (They aren’t compelling, stellar productions, but they are designed to help students visualize proper grammar.)

The idea is to make students responsible for going over and practicing the grammar on their own. They are expected to be prepared when we go over the concepts quickly again in class. The process is designed to cut down the time spent drilling grammar rules and to concentrate in improving the clarity of and meaning in their writing.

As further reinforcement, I will have students correct mistakes in paragraphs. (Sometimes I call it “Grade the Instructor”; sometimes I even get an F.) They understand that they are responsible for recognizing and correcting grammar mistakes in their own writing.

So far, I’m having mixed results. I think the main problem is getting students to understand the importance of completing the assignments outside of class. Most people dislike grammar to begin with, and dealing with it on their “own time” is not a high priority.

Relevance is important in education. By stressing how proper grammar helps make writing clearer and connecting that idea with how marketable good writing skills are, I try to encourage my students to take the flipped grammar process seriously. In return, I will continue to try to find innovative ways to make grammar, if not fun, at least more palatable.

What kinds of things do you do to help make teaching grammar more effective?

A Marriage Made in the Classroom

I recently showed my composition class an example of overblown writing. The paragraph was full of multi-syllabic words that pretty much required a dictionary to decipher.

I asked them what they thought of the paragraph.

“Sounds smart,” one said, a common response.

“But can you understand what the writer is saying?” I asked. As they shook their heads, I asked, “So how ‘smart’ is the writer?”

In business, especially in the digital age, clarity is important. People need to access information swiftly, so writers need to make their point clearly and quickly.

I wonder, though, if we do a disservice to our students when weacademia and work put all our stress on academic writing. Learning the rigors of academic writing helps build research and organizational skills essential to good written communication. It also tends to encourage writing that is loaded with pretentious vocabulary, unnecessary wordiness, and passive voice as the students try to sound “smart.”

Most of my students are not headed toward careers in academia. They need to develop writing skills that will make them successful in the workplace. Even in business writing, they will need to beware the pitfalls of jargon and overused, trendy phrases.

How do I reconcile an academic-based syllabus with the needs of business-focused students? I stress that what we do in class is like the wind sprints football players do to get them ready for game day. I constantly try to point out how what they are learning is relevant to what they’ll need in the workplace.

I show them why good grammar is essential to keep the reader focused on ideas rather than mechanics. I demonstrate why they need to supply adequate supporting evidence for their ideas. We talk about how to write differently for different audiences and purposes.

One thing I try hard to do is to translate what we are learning into real-world applications. For instance, after learning to write descriptive essays, I have the students view a video of a work accident then ask them to write an incident report for their “supervisor.” Summary and response as well as persuasive essays are followed by students finding a job posting then writing a cover letter to apply for it.

I try to wed academic writing skills with workplace requirements. When I show my students that what they are learning in class will be useful in their careers, they see the benefit of working hard to hone their writing skills.