Sunday, August 14, 2016

An article, a book, a life-changing conversation

This  article from The Atlantic was one I assigned to my students several years ago--merely as an extra piece to read toward the end of the year, a time when we were done with the usual curriculum.  

I enjoyed Emily Esfahani Smith's piece, "There's More to Life Than Being Happy." I got a lot out of it, and I hoped my students would, too.

They did. 

The article started a huge, school-wide conversation about the reason we're alive.

I've now taught Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, which this article refers to, for several years. This book changes lives. Honest.

Viktor Frankl, famous psychiatrist
At the end of the year, half the supply of paperbacks is always missing; no one wants to return this book. That's how powerful it is.

Share an article with your students--maybe this article. Start a conversation. See where it leads. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

World MS Trend Day 2016

Today is ‪#‎WorldMSTrendDay2016‬. You may notice a flood of social media posts with ‪#‎curems‬ or ‪#‎MultipleSclerosis‬.

I have MS, unfortunately (I think I got it because I had a particularly beastly mononucleosis infection as a teenager; there may be a connection).

So I’ll do my part today to spread awareness of what MS is and what it does, and why we aren't getting a cure (hint: money). And then? I will try not to think about MS--because doing so, I find, is a downer.

What is MS? Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a real disease, and a real and increasing problem. Its name refers to numerous scars on the brain that occur when myelin, which is the outside coating of the pathways between neurons in the brain, is eaten away by an overzealous immune system. Scars, or lesions, of worn-away myelin can result in spasms, pain, trouble walking, speaking, seeing, swallowing, using one’s hands, etc. MS usually flares when lesions are new and active, and subsides as other lesions heal.

MS is a neurological illness—and neurological illnesses are particularly frustrating because they can make us feel pathetic, helpless. After all, our brains control us, so we are SOL when our brains betray us, as we realize when MS, or ALS, or Parkinson’s, or any other neurological disease strikes.

Alarmingly, MS is increasing: stats have jumped from 400,000 people worldwide with MS in the 1990s to nearly 4 million now. Most MS patients are from England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and the northern USA, but more people from all regions are getting MS now. No one knows why.

No cures or even good medicines exist for MS. New meds have been released in recent years, making it seem as if progress in treatment is being made. In reality, however, these meds are almost all old, re-purposed drugs with their price tags jacked up 5,000% to take advantage of the desperate MS market, or else these meds are interesting new poisons—very expensive poisons: $65,000 a year for near-constant fatigue, nausea, etc.

Maybe that's the point of these MS awareness and calls for a cure days: we need to be aware that Big Pharma rips off niche markets like MS patients…and Parkinson’s patients…and cancer patients…and diabetes patients. If you can fight the power, please try to do so.

We also need to be sure that, in our upcoming elections, we vote in ways that will protect health insurance coverage for people with chronic illnesses. Thank God for the ‪#‎ACA‬ (Obamacare); it is the reason why I have health insurance that pays for my MS treatments. Seriously!

Although all chronic illnesses deserve our attention and awareness, MS can be an especially difficult disease because it’s usually not obvious to outsiders, except for vague symptoms that may appear to be other problems. Example: I’ve been bumping into some walls lately, as I walk around corners, because my proprioception is off: my brain isn't correctly perceiving distances between my body and nearby obstacles. I’ve also been occasionally tripping and falling for no reason whatsoever. And lately, I have had a few speaking issues that really embarrass me, and, I fear, make me look stupid, which I am not. All of this is MS--not drunkenness (I don't drink) or slow-wittedness.

The good news is that all MS symptoms are usually temporary or fleeting. So, for me, a few days a year, MS is horrible; many days, I can actually believe I don't have it at all; and the rest of the time, MS is just slightly annoying background chatter, invisible to anyone but me.

I’m doing pretty well, all things considered, and in comparison to many others, so I should feel grateful. "You look so good!" is what neurologists tell me.

Nevertheless, I am just about to start a new MS drug. I wish I could say that I am hopeful that the medicine will make me “better,” but in fact, I am worried that it will make me feel worse. Still, I have to try it, just to say that I did, so I can show that I've tried the protocol treatments and so that I can be eligible, later, for the new chemo-type drugs, immune system-blasters, or stem cell treatments that are risky but that may actually be cures. (I'd like a serious treatment that will stop the threat of progression, which always looms, like an ominous shadow.)

So there it is. Only a few days a year are MS awareness days, but people every day are coping with MS.

If you’ve read this, now you might know a little more about MS—for whatever that’s worth. Don’t worry that MS will come after you next, but do consider, perhaps, how precious your brain is. Protect it. Cherish it.

Also, if you're an American, be sure to cherish and protect health care coverage for yourself and for your fellow citizens.

Keep healthy and be well,

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Summer Reading: Think Like an English Teacher

It has begun: Summer reading...and, for me, summer tutoring.

I have lots of new clients right now, all of whom are juggling their summer reading demands with other summer activity schedules such as work, sports, camp, trips, etc.

Their summer reading books, I am happy to see, are not the same-old, same-old fare, but include lots of world lit, and contemporary lit, and balanced mixes of fiction and non-fiction. (It always makes me happy to see teachers revising their book lists, keeping current, and branching out--while helping their students do the same.)

My job is to help my students stay on track, and learn how to read more effectively (and, perhaps, read more quickly) and to remember what they've read, taking useful notes.

But the most important thing I do as a summertime tutor is to help my students learn how to think like an English teacher. That is, I try to teach my clients how to anticipate what their regular English teacher will want to hear and read from them about their summer reading.

English teachers, I explain, what to know what students were left with after reading their assigned book(s). What did students think about and learn during and after reading? This question applies to both content (themes, historical and current connections) and to the author's writing style.

Whenever we read--as I've said before and will likely say again and again--we should ask ourselves, what is this book saying about human nature, about how people lived, and/or still live? 

I'm really asking, what fundamental truths can readers consider and grasp after reading a certain book?

ALSO--if we're thinking like an English teacher, here--we must ask ourselves, how do these books COMPARE? 

All students should expect some essays to write just as soon as school reconvenes in the fall. What will the essays be on? Summer reading, of course--either the books separately, or compared to one another.

To get ready for the early fall writing/testing onslaught, students should:

  • Keep notes on major themes in the books they read. 
  • Notice how characters complement each other (protagonists and antagonists). What does each character (if we're talking fiction) want, and why?
  • Pay attention to time period and setting.  This can have an important connection to the theme.
  • Do some light research, as well: Google the questions you are being asked to answer, but don't just copy some Yahoo Answers response; read a variety of sources, both lit crit and reader blogs or reviews, and synthesize to create your own, more meaningful and nuanced answer.
  • Conduct some quick outside research (I emphasize "light" and/or "quick" so as not to scare kids off; I also model how easy and fast it is for me to do this sort of research, thus teaching my clients how to do it themselves next time), This can also go a long, long way to helping refresh students' memories in the late summer or early fall; plus, this research is also a great way to come up with interesting, meaningful points for discussion at the point when students are discussing or writing about summer reading assignments.  
  • Note questions that came to mind while reading. Contributing questions to a class and explaining how s/he found the answer (whether in the book itself, or through outside searches) models intellectual curiosity, and is a great way to participate in and energize literature discussions.

Teachers (especially English teachers--but also History teachers) LOVE when students can contribute serious, insightful comments in class.

What better way to make a great first impression on your new teacher than to raise your hand and have something interesting to say that both helps the teacher conduct a lively class and helps your fellow students understand another layer, another reason why we read?

Summer reading should first be enjoyable, however. Read just to read, I tell my clients.

Then, we'll go back and we'll get the answers to the list of questions you were given. Or, we'll prepare for deeper thinking and future writing assignments.

Anything we truly want to understand needs to be read more than once, of course.

Happy summer reading!

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 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 and in drama.

Why is this? 

Maybe because we are all going to die in real life. 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.