Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why We Read; Why We Write

English teachers are often asked by book-weary students, "Why do we have to read?" or, "Why do we have to read this book? This book is depressing." 

We also hear, "Why does everyone die in every book that we read? Can't we read a book with a happy ending?"

These are interesting questions because they open the gate and let us address the fundamental reasons why people write and why we all should read.

We read in order to understand and process the human experience. 

Here are two examples (there are millions more):

Reading a novel such as The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini helps us to understand life in Afghanistan, as well as how it feels to live with guilt, and how we may atone for this guilt, for the wrongs that we've done to others. 

Reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel helps us to understand the era of the Tudors in medieval England, and when we read this historical novel, we realize that people have always been--at heart--the same. We are and have always been political animals, giving to get, trying to protect ourselves and our families in dangerous times.

It's true that characters usually die in fiction, drama, and real life.

Why is this? 

Maybe because we are all going to die. Death is inevitable, the ultimate shared human experience. 

Thinking about death is useful because it helps us to think about life. It's yin and yang--we can't have one without the other. If we didn't die, we wouldn't know how to cherish and make the most of our lives, now would we? Similarly, if we didn't know evil, we would never be able to recognize good.

We write about people and death and love and sin and good and evil in order to communicate, to share ideas and experiences. 

Writing helps us to find common ground or to persuade others to consider life they way that we do. 

For writing to hold our attention, it usually needs a story,  an anecdotal experience we can relate to.

Story is essential; stories are the basic framework through which we consider life and the world.

The primary subject of our writing is often our own story (after all, the individual usually finds him or herself to be the most interesting subject; that's just natural, even if, deep down, we know it's not always true). We know, or think we know, ourselves. 

Sharing our stories helps us see how the personal is also the universal.

And that's what it's all about: realizing that we are connected, no matter where or when we live, or how we live. We share common human stories. 

Life is not perfect; usually, it's pretty hard. But if life weren't hard sometimes, we would not be able to appreciate when it's easy.

Life, while you're in school, is indeed comparatively easy. Enjoy it--even if you have to read that depressing book.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Last minute tips for ACT exam

·    My number-one tip? READ. 

    Read the English passages (seriously). 

    Read the Reading passages (doh!). 

    If you simply look at the underlined phrases in English, you will make silly mistakes…and the longish Critical Reading passages require overall comprehension; you will save time and energy by simply doing your job and reading them in the first place.


  •       NO CHANGE is, quite often, the answer on ACT English test questions. Don’t be afraid to choose NO CHANGE as the answer. Remember that most questions are asking you to choose an answer that best serves the passage. If an answer choice does NOT improve the writing or argument, it is incorrect, and thus, NO CHANGE.

  •             Redundancy is huge on the ACT English test--be able to recognize redundancies (these are sometimes easiest to spot once you notice that three of the answer choices are basically saying the same thing!). Remember that some redundancies are not apparent if you have not read the ENTIRE sentence, or even into the next sentence!  A transition that repeats another nearby transition is also a redundancy…

  •             The most succinct answer is usually correct.  The trap here is that this might almost look too plain, too simple, and you will be tempted to pick the answer choice with the more sophisticated wording (yet, this choice is also usually redundant—which is hard to see if you don’t know what the fancy words mean).

  • Verb tense is a common question or concept tested—you MUST read the entire paragraph to really know which verb tense is correct. Do not make the mistake of simply reading the underlined phrase.

  •             Re: the dreaded “Overall” questions at end—these look daunting at first, but if you have taken my advice (advice which is good for ANY reading passage on this test, or in life) and you’ve stopped for 30 seconds after reading and self-tested, asking yourself, “What was that about? What was the subject and/or the argument?” you will be in great shape, and ready for these big, final questions.

  •            General strategy for overall questions is to know “yes” or “no”—but beware of hidden traps in these answer choices. Often, what comes after the yes or no is either wildly incorrect, or partially incorrect. MAKE SURE YOU READ THE ENTIRE ANSWER CHOICE.

  •             Re: Process of Elimination (POE). Always use this strategy for reverse questions, and for any questions that ask you style-related questions that have to do with relevancy.

  •            Style questions—you must read the entire paragraph to “get” the style (how things have been written and described). Often, simple answer choices are the best here.

  •             Occasionally, diction errors are tested. An example of this is the error “would of.” Many people do not know this is an error because it sounds almost exactly like “would’ve” (would have.) To avoid these traps, make sure you are familiar with how words sound and how they look (how they are spelled). You will also see questions that ask the difference between “than” and “then” or “could of” and “could have.” Be conscious of the fact that the ACT tests this.

  •              English passages can vary in terms of difficulty, but you will always be good to go if you have read and understood the passage.


One thing you might (and should) notice about ACT Critical Reading passages is that the excerpts might not immediately get to the point. The first few grafs may NOT be the about the primary subject or argument. 

Just keep reading and looking for the purpose, the point, the reason why the passage was either written or included on this exam.

Prose Fiction

This section (the first part of Critical Reading) might either seem enjoyable and easy or relatively difficult. You really have to use your skills of inference to know what’s going on, what is being said.

Ask yourself (to check your understanding), ‘What was this piece about? Can I write a one-sentence summary?” If you can do this, then chances are that you really understood the passage.

Be sure to pay special attention to descriptions about a character’s  reputation, thoughts, actions, etc. These are usually fodder for inference questions, so learn to anticipate this. (The ACT Prose Fiction section is testing your skills of inference; can you understand something that isn’t explicitly stated?)

On reading questions, you will be able to use POE for many of the questions.

Social Sciences

·        The purpose, the point of the passage, may not be apparent until mid-way through. Clearest purpose/argument is often found in the final paragraph or two, so, like a shark in the ocean, keep moving (keep reading), always hunting for the argument.

·        Pay attention to shift words and questions.  These will alert you to argument. For example, if a passage seems to be about one thing but you then see a “while” or “although,” you can expect a shift in argument.

·        Sometimes the questions are confusing. To get around this problem, know that you can always paraphrase. I often paraphrase difficult quotes or concepts and write my paraphrases in brief margin notes.

·        When you’re selecting answers, beware of partially correct answer choices that use exact words and phrases from the text. Read the entire answer choice because what looks good at first may include a false phrase or word by the end (or an extreme, absolute word that is not quite right). 

Remember: the correct answer may be an odd paraphrase; it likely will NOT use exact words from the text.

·        Once you’ve whittled your answer choices down to two, check the wording of each choice and eliminate one. Often, just one word or a few words (usually, toward the end of the answer choice sentence—be sure to read the ENTIRE sentence—will render that choice incorrect).


·        This section can either be akin (similar) to Social Sciences or to Prose Fiction (it’s really like a hybrid of the two, and your approach to this passage demands both attention to detail AND inference).

·         Brief margin notes may help—or may not be necessary.

·         BE SURE that you test yourself on Purpose and Tone. Make notes about each and expect Purpose questions.

·        POE can be your best friend here, too.

·        A few “detail” questions will force you to hunt in the text. Look for the keyword noted in the question…making margin notes about the subject of each graf can help save you time when you’re detail hunting.


·        Margin notes are your best friend here.

·        This section is often rife with little details you may need to find.. Making margin notes that at least address the subject of various grafs will help you to hunt for details later.

·         You might also look at questions, too, to get a sense of what you will need to know and find later.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Teach your Class How to Stop a School Shooter

As a mom, I have been anxious (frequently) about having my kids attend school--as paranoid as that sounds--because all too often, there is a senseless, devastating school shooting.

As a teacher, I have experienced scary lock downs and "mad shooter on the loose" situations.  The rules say to lock the door and hide in the corner. But is that really what we should do? I never thought so, and now I know more.

School and workplace shootings do not just happen here, in the U.S. (although our absurd lack of effective gun laws--thanks, NRA! /sarcasm--certainly doesn't help). But this is not to say that America does not have a huge problem with mass shootings. Obviously, we do.

I hate that my children live in a time when this is a commonplace event.

The San Bernardino shooting yesterday is yet more proof of the need to ban assault weapons, if not all guns. Agree with me or not on that issue--but no one can disagree that there is a disturbing gun violence problem in the U.S.

Wherever or whenever a shooting happens, people ought to know what to do, or not do.

This excellent, short video by Israeli security expert, Alon Stivi, will teach you and your students so much.

It's not about being sitting ducks and passively cowering under desks. It's about fighting back, but quickly, effectively, and intelligently.

Take a look--and thank you to Men's Health editor, Eric Spitznagel, for running a great interview with Stivi that includes this clip.

Learn how to stop a shooter before he or she can hurt anyone in your classroom. It's really very easy, and practicing now will prevent tragedy later. No guns or martial arts required. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

It's Personal Essay Time!

Get excited! It's time to write that all-important personal essay for your college applications!

Note: I tutor/advise students for this essay. I'm not trying to be a show-off, but I am an award-winning essayist. It's what I do. 

No, I won't write the essay for you, but I will coach you and help you to write the best possible essay for your application. This essay is your story, but I will help you see how to present it in the best possible way.

Here are some personal essay writing tips:

Before you begin writing a personal essay, you should plan the impression you want to make. I like to tell my personal essay students to jot down a short list of five adjectives that they hope apply to them. Examples: persistent, thoughtful, compassionate, daring, curious. (Avoid the obvious terms such as “hard-working” or “intelligent.”)
   Knowing the impression you want to make before you begin writing can help you shape your writing without reverting to “telling” instead of “showing.” The trick to the personal essay is that you must convey these adjectives without stating them outright.

Choose the strangest story you have. The key to writing a memorable personal essay is to be memorable. Show your readers something surprising.
 You might brainstorm a list of the weirdest things you’ve ever seen, done, said. Think in terms of extremes (terrible, wonderful). Also consider what is oxymoronic about yourself (how can you be terrified of eating fish, for example, yet one time you willingly drank liquid charcoal?).

Stay focused. Try to limit yourself to one meaningful anecdote, one succinctly described life-changing event. Don’t worry: we can learn everything we need to know about you based on that one little story.
   Also, limit your story’s timeline as much as possible. No one can really write a great five-paragraph essay about her entire life. Even a slightly narrower topic such as your junior year is too much to cover in one little essay.

Write using your five senses. If you want to write a good personal essay, it needs to be bursting with vivid, true-to-life, specific images and sensory details. To help with your planning and writing, you might start by brain-storming  a "memory list" of sensory details that you remember about the event you’ve chosen to describe. You might try to recall what the weather was like, what the house smelled like, what your mother said to you and what you responded. How did your voice sound to you when you spoke? What were you thinking about, remembering, seeing?

Keep the point in mind. A personal story should always demonstrate growth and insight without overtly stating those points. Be sure to explain how you recovered, how others reacted, and what you learned. That's the point of the essay in a nutshell.
 It does take skill to do this in a subtle (not heavy-handed and obvious or maudlin) way.

Get creative with organization of details. You might immediately get to the tension in the story. You might start at the climactic point and then flash back. 
   If you want to tell the story about the time you accidentally ruined  a holiday dinner you had tried to cook, begin with an image of a turkey carcass on fire, move on to the scorched potatoes no one could choke down, and tell us about the rest of the failures; don't try to build up to them and then suddenly end. (Strict chronology is usually not the most effective organization, and your essay won't feel fresh.)

Be humble. Better yet, be self-deprecating. Remember: we are most inclined to like and believe people who aren’t afraid to show us the imperfect truth of their lives.
   When you're thinking of topics to write about, give some thought to parts of your life that you wish you could re-do. Avoid personal essay clich├ęs such as kicking the winning goal, going on a mission trip, or remembering deceased grandparents. While these can all make for excellent essays if done well, it's difficult to stand out telling a story that many readers will feel they’ve read before.

Consider your impact. What are we supposed to be noticing about this story that you're telling us? How should we feel by the time we finish reading your essay?
   Don’t tell the reader what to think or how to feel, but try to imagine how your reader will think of you, the final impression you will leave.

If you’ve done your job as a writer, then an objective reader will be able to use the same adjectives to describe you as the ones you hoped to convey when you first planned this essay.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

New SAT has problems

About eighteen months ago, when College Board first announced it was creating a new version of the SAT that would be more “relevant,” more closely linked to curricula, people were intrigued, excited.

Re-invention is always necessary. Complacency is a killer. Everything changes. Adapt or die.

People were happy that the powers-that-be were bringing back the good old 1600 score. They were getting rid of the trick questions, saying sayonara to the guessing penalty--which was always a wee bit unfair.

College Board was also making its quite dodgy essay section (dodgy because it isn't always graded fairly) optional—whatever “optional” really means. The firm is now crafting essay prompts as responses to reading passages, not as generic yet blindsiding topics. (Hooray! Now, students don’t have to keep dusting off Gandhi and MLK, Jr, as their standard examples--and they certainly won't need to follow current events in order to have things to say or connections to make!)

It is much better that students will now have twice as much time for the essay (50 minutes. The old 25 minutes was ridiculous--too short).

I believe Geometry is largely off the updated exam --though because I don't teach Math, I am not 100% sure. The Geometry-heavy angle of the SAT has always bothered me. By the time students take the SAT, Geometry is a distant memory. So what was the point of making the bulk of the math section about Geometry?

Part of the purported reason for the revamp is to level the playing field and put a stop to cries of socioeconomic unfairness.

Everyone knows that a vast test prep industry (of which I must admit I have been and still am a part) has built up around the SAT.

Assuming that the new SAT would negate (some of) the need for protracted, intense, expensive prep programs, people cheered.

Egalitarianism in action, right? No longer will a student need to be rich to earn a good score.


Or, maybe not. It's too soon to tell.

Here’s the problem: it wasn’t until a month or so ago that we even saw a full-length practice test for the new SAT.

In collusion with Khan Academy (free, DIY online tutoring), College Board finally released some samples.  See link here:

It took over a year to see this full-length practice test release. That's a dang long time.

All we’d seen before then were a few sample questions and—full disclosure here—I thought those looked rather brutal. Not that they were brutal, once attempted, but the visuals, the layout, the choice of reading passage (a snippet of a Congressional speech taken out of context) was, I think, meant to make people believe this exam revamp was going to be serious.

As in, seriously boring?

As in, seriously challenging?

My first impression was, “Oh, snap…” 

If I, as a veteran test prep teacher, as a practice test writer, and occasional actual exam writer, thought the samples looked daunting, imagine how kids felt (if they ever looked at them).

Looks can be deceiving, however. 

Despite the hellacious passage (an odd choice for a reading, I thought—too technical, too political, too dry), it was not that bad. 

When I attempted that first little sample, it was after midnight and I was exhausted, but I answered the questions no problem. No P.O.E. (process of elimination); no guessing. The answers were pretty clear, though much going back to the super-boring passage was required.

"Boring”  passages on the sample SAT do not negate the need for test prep. The prep industry will remain; I expect there will always be a market of some sort--just to teach students how to take this test. Just to give the anxious parents some reassurance.

The big problem for College Board, I think, is that all the schools where I work are steering students to the ACT now. Educators nationwide, worldwide, are deeming it “too risky” to subject 2016 test-takers to the new, untested, unknown SAT.

Cloning the ACT seems to be the biggest part of the new SAT's plan. But the difference is: we know how the ACT works.

For example: Science on the ACT is actually rather easy reading comprehension; readings are slightly more interesting than those on the SAT. There were never too many traps. P.O.E. can, however, still be used.

What the College Board needs to do to help reassure teachers and test-takers is to release some more actual exams

But they can’t—because they haven’t given any yet. The first new SAT examinees will be guinea pigs. So will the next few batches of hapless kids. I wouldn't want to be one of College Board's guinea pigs.

Peronally, I am not happy with the new SAT, from what I've seen. Why? There's been some significant dumbing-down, I think.

Yes, some of the strategical traps are gone--and that's not a bad thing; that's nice.

There are no vocabulary questions anymore. The absolute lack of vocab floored me. Seriously: NO VOCABULARY questions (I don’t count, “What does ‘fold’ mean in this passage?” as vocab).

The layout and design of the new SAT are, I fear, HUGE problems, according to what I saw on Khan Academy's practice tests.

Because I take the SAT all the time and I've been teaching it for years (and also because I'm an English teacher, and a grown-up), I don’t get questions wrong.

The practice test wasn’t hard (in fact, I thought much of it was stupidly easy)—and yet the layout confused even me and I did make some errors. Silly errors--made because I didn't understand which lines were being referred to.

You see, there are line numbers all over the place, plus weird bubble numbers (fat, bold, shadowed) hovering on top of the text.

At first, it was hard to know if the line numbers refer to the line before the number or after it. (Line numbers should be on the margins.) Plus, the fat, bubble numbers on top confused the situation.

I thought the new reading passages with their numbers all freaking everywhere looked like a potential Butterfly Ballot design disaster; here's hoping the exam gets cleaned up.

All in all, the difference between what I am doing right now for test prep (it's very intense; it's tons of work for the kids, but they learn so much--not only vocabulary words, but also logic, reasoning, all the critical skills) and what students will need to do later is laughable.

Once we all get the lay of the land, and once the layout stops being so cluttered and confusing, it seems that we won’t actually need to know much of anything, content-wise, to master the new SAT.