Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Symbol of the Horse Chestnut

The horse chestnuts are littering the ground. It's a great time of year.

The other day, I found the spiky whole shells and the half open ones and the glossy chestnuts. I took one of each with me. They are in my car's cup holder--waiting for me to have an opportunity to tell my kids how great these symbols of autumn are.

I adore horse chestnuts.

So did one of my Eastern religion professors at college, Albert Sadler.  

He had a pile of horse chestnuts on his desk. We'd talk about how useful they were.

"They're a beautiful color, and they're nice to touch and hold, and the flowers of the trees smell great in spring," I think he said. 

I agreed.

Professor Sadler used to walk around campus with pockets bulging with horse chestnuts.

He once told me that it was his personal mission to plant as many as he could.

"They were growing; they were saplings, maybe six inches tall," he told me excitedly. "I was watching them from my office window. I was thrilled that I could finally see some chestnuts I planted actually growing into trees."

And then, " come the weed whackers. I watched them go. Ah, well," he said, good-naturedly.

I always thought that was such a Zen thing to say.

This story is one I think about every time I see a horse chestnut.

I am also reminded of Professor Sadler when someone compliments me on my "flawless" Chinese accent (in all honesty, I only know about six or seven Chinese words, but I learned how to pronounce them from you-know-who).

Professor Sadler is dead now, I believe,

But I will always remember him when I see a horse chestnut. 

I think he'd like that.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

"...Struggling to Explain the Concept of a Grapefruit to a Man Who Just Didn't Get It..."

Comedian Aziz Ansari has a great bit on eavesdropping on a conversation in a restaurant, and, long story short (the video clip is below, so I urge you to watch for yourself; it's very funny and only two minutes long), some words and ideas, such as "grapefruit," are hard to explain.

The comedy sketch got me thinking: how do we explain things, and why are our explanations sometimes unclear? 

Almost every little kid has to eventually be told that grapefruit tastes nothing like grapes, and it's a mystery why these fruits were called grapefruit. Unless grapes are also giant, sour, citrus, and yellow/pink, then honestly, there is no rational reason for using the prefix "grape" in the word "grapefruit." It is a ridiculous name for this fruit; the name tells the observer nothing at all, and in fact, the name of the fruit is wildly misleading.

When my daughter was little and asked me, "Why is this called a grapefruit?" I first explained that there is no connection between grapes and grapefruit. Then, I said I thought it was called grapefruit in order to make it sound more appetizing. 

Grapefruit is okay, but it's not the first fruit I'd reach for. How about you? Grapefruit can be bitter and a chore to eat. Plus, it doesn't mix well with many medications (just a little health tip there, but I think it adds to the relative unpopularity of grapefruit--as opposed to apples).

The word "grapefruit" is probably a euphemism--or even a trick, like the way "Grape-Nuts" cereal is called that because this cereal is comprised of very hard, tiny nuggets that don't taste bad but bear a disturbing resemblance to kitty litter. The inventor of the cereal had to print more palatable-sounding (if utterly inaccurate) words onto the box so people would give it a try.

Tricks aside, simply trying to be clear and succinct in our writing is always a challenge. I know that I can be wordy; I can fall back on filler words that ought to be cut--and yes, there must be times when I could be more clear. 

Some ideas are, however,  difficult to explain.

I always come back to Madeleine L'Engle's description of fire in her classic novel, A Wrinkle in Time. L'Engle's main character, Meg, has to explain what "fire" is to strange beings on the planet Uriel that do not share our senses and comprehend life in an entirely different way. Describing fire to them is a seemingly impossible task--and yet, L'Engle does it masterfully.

The point the author is making is that words can be inadequate. I agree, but I'd add that words are our main form of communication, so we need to learn how to use them well.

Still, some concepts have no words. We must appreciate these ideas (or things) for what they are and not try to slap an inadequate label on them. Some ideas are ineffable. Grand, spiritual ideas and even our most basic emotions (such as love or fear) are difficult to explain precisely. We just have to know (and we know through experience, mostly).

I don't believe that grapefruit is ineffable. I think we could do a better job naming and explaining this fruit. 

We should all try to explain a difficult concept in simple words that our listeners will "get." It's a good exercise for writing and for life. Could you explain the concept of a grapefruit? Could you explain the concept of fear? How would you do both of these things?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

My SAT Essay Boot Camp Guide

*Copyright, Elizabeth Collins; feel free to share this guide as long as you credit me. Thank you.

We all want to make our essays better and to make essay writing feel a little less painful. Remembering the point of writing an essay can help us. The word “essay” comes from the French “essaie” and actually means to talk/communicate or to teach.

With an essay, we are talking about what we know. Essays aren’t assigned to torture us. Simply remembering this can go a long way to helping us write.

School assignments as a whole will not be painful or boring if we care about what we’re studying or arguing. That’s why it’s important to find a reason to care. Write what you know; write about the topics that interest you, as a student and writer. Your interest and enthusiasm will be contagious, and your essay and schoolwork will be better.

Finding and building a good bank of examples is the first step to writing a good essay. You should ideally have at least 10 good topics (a combination of literature, historical figures, social events or phenomena, pop culture topics, etc.) that you can write about in response to a wide variety of prompts for the SAT essay. For “real-life” opinion essays, you need to know something about the world—and reading widely and keeping informed about current events will enable you to always have something to say or write about.

To practice now, choose examples that are meaningful and interesting to you, figure out how you can use them and what the examples work to prove, and then let’s get started.

This guide can be used to help you write your SAT essay, AP exam essays, or any timed writing assignment. You can also use the guide to help you draft longer writing projects; all the same issues apply, except that you’ll have more time to research and revise, and you will need to be careful when it comes to budgeting your time and avoiding procrastination.


When you see the essay prompt for the SAT (timed) essay or ANY essay from now on that you may encounter in school or in life, what is the first thing you should do?

Brainstorm examples.

How many examples?

As many as you can think of!

Why so many examples? Why not just think of two or three to get the essay started?

Because those first two or three examples that you think of are probably not going to be as good as the other six you could come up with. Brainstorming always gets progressively better, and you want more examples to choose from, and you’ll want to choose the best, most interesting and impressive examples.

Let’s see how this could work:

Imagine the sample essay prompt is the Human Experience/Morality question: Do people tend to get along better with people who are very different from them or with those who are like them?

If you only spent ten seconds brainstorming, the examples you might have thought of at first could be cliques in school, and the idea that people who date each other want to have something in common. 

Not very impressive. Those examples are obvious and pedestrian.

So what would be better?

Spend a good five minutes forcing yourself to think of as many relevant examples as you can. Make them academic and sophisticated to show that you are a smart, well read person who is aware of the world and history or current events. You also want to demonstrate that you are articulate.

If you try, you might come up with examples such as genocide, religious crusades, racism, segregation, apartheid, societies that remain closed, and orthodox groups that purposely avoid outsiders such as the Amish.

Now, those are big, general ideas. You also need specific examples to back up those broad topics.

How about: the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda (you could use the film Hotel Rwanda to make your point, if you like); the Nazi extermination of the Jews and other people, such as Gypsies, the intellectually disabled, etc., during WW2; the Serbian-Bosnian war that pitted regional ethnic groups against each other; the entire, convoluted “reason” for WW1 (nationalism).

That was just for the genocide example! Remember, you don’t have to mention all of these specific examples, but do mention one or two.

For segregation/racism/civil rights, you could discuss Jim Crow laws, “colored only” issues, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and the history of apartheid in South Africa, etc. You could also talk about the nature of “ghettos” of groups of people driven there by racism.

If you choose to write about insular societies, there are, of course, the Amish. (Please don’t mention Breaking Amish; it’s a pretty trashy TV show). There are also strict religious communities (no need to mention a specific religion) in many cities, where people intermarry, have arranged marriages, and have little contact with those who are not in their group.

Examine the reasons why these communities choose to live this way—that’s where the big, interesting ideas and philosophical conclusions will be found!

Out of all the examples you’ve brainstormed (remember: brainstorming is a deliberate time investment that will pay off for you; don’t neglect the task and don’t begrudge yourself the time it takes; great planning will save you many minutes later), choose the best two or three.

I like to specifically choose unusual examples to make my essay stand out. That means, if many essay writers are going to mention Hitler in response to an essay prompt, then I am most certainly not going to discuss Hitler.  Yes, Hitler works for many essays, but Hitler is, in a way, too easy, too boring, too common.

Choose a more unusual example to help the essay reader/grader remember your impressive essay.


Brainstorming should take up to five minutes for a 25-minute SAT essay. If you do this pre-writing well, you can also craft a thesis (at least a rough one) at the same time and maybe get your body paragraph topic sentences done.

If you’re really on fire, you might even think of some good quotes to use in either the intro or conclusion. (A relevant quote about the essay topic is something that always jumps right to my mind, so I usually start there and see where it takes me.)

An example time breakdown for a really hardcore, 25-minute SAT essay would be:

·      3-5 minutes:  brainstorming and pre-writing/planning.
·      3 minutes: Use intro formula (more on this on pages ahead) to craft a grabby opening that moves smoothly into thesis.
·      Spend 1 minute on thesis refinement.
·      Take 15 minutes to get the body paragraphs done (I like to force myself to write a topic sentence while I am planning)
·      Use conclusion formula to write the last bit in 3 minutes.
·      This may leave you with a minute or two left to self-edit and check for mistakes.

It’s not enough time, I know. It’s absurd to write an essay in 25 minutes, and yet, if there is anything the SAT essay teaches us, it is that we can write a decent essay in 25 minutes if the need arises.

Obviously, an essay that has more time allotted for its writing will be that much better, but being able to bang out a good essay in 25 minutes is a life skill that will serve you well.

Forty minutes is a much more realistic timeframe (as is seen on AP essays), so if that’s what you are practicing for, give yourself 35 minutes to write and up to 5 minutes to check your work.

Whatever your essay assignment, practice frequently under time pressure. This is the way to become a better, faster, more productive writer. It’s also the way to become quicker on your feet and more adept at brainstorming.

Keep in mind that no one expects a 25-minute essay to be perfect. Rather, it’s a skeleton of a great essay. I am a professional essayist, and if I want to write something great, I give myself a month, maybe two. No, I don’t work on the essay all day, every day for a month; I put it aside and come back to it with fresh eyes. I do this because all good writing is re-writing.

To get writing projects done, time yourself and work in sessions. You should make yourself work under time pressure. This is an excellent exercise for self-discipline and a great way to get out that first draft.

Once you get used to doing this and make timed writing sessions your go-to strategy for writing essay drafts, you will find that procrastination ceases to be much of an issue. The reason why this works is because nothing is impossible for half an hour, so, no matter how much you don’t want to write an essay, if you know that you only have to work on it for 30 minutes (at a time), it will be psychologically freeing. Also, once you get some work done, you will feel a weight lift from your shoulders, and you’ll immediately have the confidence to finish and perfect the work.

To help force yourself to work, seclude yourself in a place with no distractions. Set a timer and make yourself write a complete first draft.

If the assignment is a class essay, then give yourself permission to write a NGE (not good enough) first draft. Just write as much as you can.

You may do this writing in 25-minute chunks, or you might do half an hour or an hour at a time.  Do what works for you, but set a timer and do not allow yourself to be distracted by the phone, a person, or the internet. If you get pulled away from your timed writing practice, you must start the timed session all over again! That’s the rule. If you obey this rule, you will become more focused (and it’s like punishment if you have to begin all over again, so after the first infraction, you’ll probably be on good behavior.)

When you finish a timed session, reward yourself for hard, focused work by taking a break.

If your assignment is long-term (i.e., due in two weeks), you will plan to come back to your essay later and make it better. Plan ahead  (work backwards in terms of scheduling) to do this several times, and voila, you will have a painlessly written essay (one that was quickly written—no all nighters necessary, ever again).

THE FORMULAS: Memorize them to make writing painless

The most important parts of your essay (first line, thesis, examples, transitions, conclusion/last line) all have formulas that you should practice so that you don’t even need to consciously think about them when you are writing under time pressure. Save your thinking energy for the brainstorming, not for the essay’s organization; it should become automatic.


Every introduction ought to start with a hook, a grabby first line. The very best essays begin with an intriguing, scene-setter of an opening line (or three). On a timed essay, you simply won’t have enough time to think of something that is mind-blowing. Therefore, because you are under time pressure, you might stick to a quote or a question or brief attention-grabber in your first line.

The second line should be an explanation or expansion of that first line. Try to segue into your thesis with this line (or the next).

Third comes the thesis (which you have refined after your initial jotting down in your brainstorming/planning stage).

Finally, if you can, list some good examples.

To reiterate, the formula is Hook; Explanation; Segue (optional, but useful); Thesis; Examples.

Here is an example:

            “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” This famous saying resonates with people because it expresses the idea that we should learn from our mistakes—for example, when we’ve lost money, possessions, or personal dignity. If we continue to make the same mistakes in life and are fooled twice and lose again, then how have we grown from experience? People definitely learn more from losing than from winning because it is only through hard-won experience, through trial-and-error and open-minded reflection on past mistakes, that we can ultimately learn how to be successful.  Some examples are Thomas Edison’s many failed attempts to create the light bulb, Steve Jobs’ firing from Apple leading him to found Pixar, and the inspiration of those who have lived through great trauma and emerged even stronger, such as Elie Wiesel and Viktor E. Frankl.”

*For an essay that is longer and for which you have more time to write, you don’t have to be so obvious, re: the listing of examples.  But with the SAT essay or a short, in class essay, which may be read quickly, you should do this, if it works (it doesn’t always work if, for example, your examples are hard to explain in a short phrase).

The reason why you should list examples is because you want to guarantee that the essay reader/scorer will know what your awesome examples are—the reader who has a pile of hundreds or thousands of essays to assess may not actually read your body paragraphs in detail (sad, but true).


A thesis is your argument, the main statement that you will prove in your essay. You know this. But on the SAT essay or an application essay, be very sure that you use the wording of the prompt in your thesis, because the readers take everything literally and likely won’t notice (or appreciate) any flowery deviation from this standard.

For example, if the prompt (assignment question) is Does being ethical make it hard to be successful?  How should you respond?

Your response, thesis, etc., using key words or direct phrasing, might be something like: Having ethics does not make it harder to be successful. Indeed, having ethics in life and in business can actually increase success because today’s consumers are far more conscious of environmental and social responsibility than were generations in the past. Some examples are “green” corporations and the good P.R. these companies generate, and consumer demand for responsibly farmed food products.

That was a difficult example because it’s a two-line thesis (you might practice shortening it as a self-editing exercise, but this is what I wrote for a timed essay on the topic).

Here’s another one.

Imagine that the essay prompt is: Are established rules too limited to guide people in real-life situations?

Your response might be something like this:  Established rules can always be found too “limited” in certain complex situations or moral gray areas. Some examples are now-archaic rules or laws against adultery and medical situations that demand mercy killing.

Notice that the thesis is not simply a repeat of the assignment question; it also contains a stance and argument (this is the “because” part of the thesis. Don’t forget the “because”).

You will find the “because” after brainstorming and drafting your thesis. The “because” is the connection between the examples you’ll write about


Obviously, body paragraphs each detail a specific example (or a few examples). For any essay, you will want to begin the body paragraph with a topic sentence. Think of this T.S. as a “mini-thesis” for your paragraph. It is also the only line, or one of the only lines in your body paragraph, that may actually be read by the stressed-out, time-pressed essay scorer. That’s why you need to make the T.S. count. Don’t make it too broad or vague. Draft and hone the T.S, as you would your thesis. Be sure that the topic sentence sums up the entire argument of your paragraph.

Here’s an example. Imagine that the paragraph’s topic is how adultery rules are too limited.  Your T.S. could be:

“The societal and religious rules against adultery make sense from an organizational and/or moral standpoint, yet these are precisely the sort of rules that are the most limited, the most unforgiving of humans’ innate complexities.”

Go on to give precise examples within the rest of the body paragraph. On an SAT essay, this is where you’ll want to “namedrop” impressive, academic examples such as Socrates, or Karl Marx. Throw in some strong vocabulary words, too (but please be sure that you know how to use them). Name-dropping or word dropping in this way tends to work well on quickly scanned essays such as the essay on the SAT. I do not recommend it for longer papers that will be carefully read, unless you can do it well and honestly. There’s not much that’s worse—from an English teacher’s standpoint—than incorrectly used vocabulary words or examples that have no connection to an essay’s thesis.

Please be sure to always end your body paragraphs with a clear connection back to the thesis. You don’t want to just drop off and launch (in your next paragraph) into a totally separate topic. Instead, seize the opportunity to hammer home your argument. This won’t be redundant if you vary your phrasing; instead, it will be effective.


Typically, conclusions are the worst part of students’ essays. This is likely because students are just tired of writing and sick of the assignment (and maybe the student has stayed up all night writing the essay or paper and is brain dead, exhausted, etc.). But conclusions are key—in fact, I always say that the most important parts of an essay are first line, thesis, and last line.

If you are tired by the time you get to your conclusion, use a formula to make it easier to deal with.

Traditionally, students are taught to re-iterate their main points by listing examples again or directly repeating the thesis. Don’t do this. It’s boring, repetitive and annoying for the reader. It’s also very fifth grade.  Instead, if you can muster the creativity, sum up in a new way. Find a universal truth/connection that says what your thesis does, but with fresh words and ideas.

Example—going back to the first essay topic mentioned here (the one about whether we get along best with people who are like us), this is what I wrote as a conclusion. Note the “big, universal ideas.”

In conclusion, we live life in order to survive. If we are lucky, we can achieve more than mere survival and actually contribute to progress and to the expansion of others’ minds. But at heart, we are simply animals trying to let our families, our genetic lines, carry on. Can we be blamed for preferring those who are like us if this is the natural order?

*For the SAT, I go old school and use a concluding transition when I begin my conclusion (such as In conclusion, Finally, Thus, Overall, etc.). I usually do this when I need to make sure it is patently clear that I have written a complete essay. I don’t want to leave any doubt in the mind of a reader who isn’t really reading but, rather, is simply scanning my essay. This “obvious conclusion” is extra-important if your essay looks short (for example, it it’s just over one page long or barely a page and a half long).

Also, notice how I ended my conclusion with a question? This works well as final-line trick because it makes the reader tend to ruminate about the fascinating idea you’ve just broached (and usually, the reader will agree with you, too). It’s a neat little formula to use when you don’t have time to think of a genius final idea.

So, how long should a conclusion be? I am always asked this question.

Conclusions should ideally be about three to four lines long. In a pinch, when it’s a rush-job (such as the 25-minute SAT essay), you can write one great sentence—but please try to write more than this, and please don’t repeat earlier phrases in that single final sentence.

Instead, craft a strong, memorable finish. I like quotes (explained with a universal connection) for this purpose, so don’t forget to try to brainstorm a quote as part of your planning, or when you get to the end of your essay.

The main lesson to take away re: conclusions is that you should sum up your main points in a new way. Find a new (not stated yet) universal conclusion, or point, that you can make. END WITH A BANG—the all-important last line should leave a lingering, positive impression in the mind of the reader.

Just as first lines are read carefully (and the first line is the one that essentially determines whether or not you will get an average score or a better-than-average score), so are last lines.

On the AP essay or any essay that is assessed in terms of pure writing, and not just content, you could earn yourself a top score with a great last line; I’ve seen it happen (the line had to do with the disconcerting, surprising tone of a piece of literature, and the student wrote, “…like a badger on a grand piano” as the final phrase. It was such a creative turn of phrase that the scorer told me, “There was no way I could not give that kid a 9.”

Do the same thing: be so memorable in your final lines that there is no way you can be denied a great score!

As you know, standardized test graders are chintzy about handing out the top scores (the 12s on the SAT or the 9 on AP exam essays) because they might have to prove/argue why the essay deserved such a great score. Make their job easier by wowing readers with your opening and closing.


Transitions (or the lack thereof) are the mark of a strong (or a weak) writer. Transitions are always necessary every time you switch ideas, moving from paragraph to paragraph, or when you change/expand ideas within a paragraph.

Why are transitions necessary? You might be asking this. They are necessary because you never want your reader to get distracted or say, Wait, how did we get here? The writer was just talking about apples, so why did the topic suddenly switch to melons? I’m so confused and annoyed…I think I’ll stop reading now.

Your job as a writer is to make the reader’s job easy! The whole purpose of writing is to communicate, and we can’t communicate if our style of writing is confusing.

Transitions make writing clear and easy to understand. Not using transitions makes writing feel disconnected, choppy, and strange.  If you know you have a tendency to “forget” the transitions—especially the all-important transition from first body paragraph to the second body paragraph (in a shorter essay), then make sure you leave time, and room, to add this transition in during your final check and self-editing.

The point of transitions is to make the reader feel comfortable. The best, most sophisticated transitions reflect what you just said in a phrase while also signaling your reader (in another phrase) and pointing the way to what you’ll discuss next.

An example—when switching from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs (two different paragraphs), I set up the change and then made a solid transition:

…Repeated trial-and-error is necessary, as Edison knew, in order to eventually win-- and success is sweeter when it is realized after hard work.
     Sometimes, despite hard work, we may still lose, and even though this may seem unfair, all loss can be a learning experience, as Apple founder Steve Jobs realized.

Remember, though: not all transitions have to be long and complex. For instance, when switching ideas, use one or two transitional words such as, “Yet,” or “Even though.” 

Example: In the 21st century, we are supposed to be politically correct and accepting of others’ differences. Yet, people tend to get along best with those who are like them because “like attracts like” and what is different from us can feel alien and threatening.

Adding ideas demands only the simplest, most obvious transitions, such as “also” or “and,” “both…and” and “not only…but also.” (Notice how “not only…but also” is more impressive than “and?” Try to make your transitions as sophisticated as you can.)

Completely shifting topics takes the long, serious transitions that I first mentioned (above).

A final tip from me to you: Avoid beginning sentences with “Although” unless you already know where you’re headed and what you are arguing. “Although” as an opener in a timed essay tends to lead, more often than not, to an incomplete and very long and confusing sentence.


Syntax is a fancy term for sentence structure, and specifically, it means (if you see SYNTAX in a margin note written by me or another teacher) that you are starting your sentences the same way or repeating words or phrases to the point where it’s distracting and boring for the reader.

We ALL make the mistake of repeating what works when we are rushed or not thinking clearly. Your job is to be conscious of how you begin your sentences, and leave time to check your work and ensure that you are not simply writing, “Another example…” over and over.

Word repetition (diction) is also an issue. We all repeat ourselves, but try to be conscious of varying your words or not repeating words within a paragraph if you can help it.  If you see the same word five times in an essay, then that is three times too many; go back and edit!


Editing your own work is perhaps the hardest skill you need to learn—at least, it’s the task we never think we have time for, and we usually never bother to do it.

In order to effectively self-edit, you must know how to look for the mistakes that you tend to make. Read your teacher’s margin notes; keep a list, perhaps, of how many “Thesis is not strong and specific” or “Vary your syntax” notes you’ve gotten. Tally them up. See where your issues are. Conferences with your writing teacher are also recommended.

Maybe you tend to run out of time? If so, you need to train harder and do more homework/practice; build up more examples you can write about so that you won’t have to sit in the classroom chewing your pencil, desperate to think of something to write about.

It’s possible that you always forget transitions. If you know this is your problem, be conscious of it and go back and insert transitions, if you can.

Always leave at least a few minutes at the end of your writing session to check your work. Read it sub-vocally, if you can. Reading aloud lets you “hear” repetition that your eye might not register.  Read to someone else if you have a long-term paper (not SAT essay).  But above all, be sure to leave time to go back and see the paper again with fresh eyes (this is literally what “revise” means).

See your work; compare it to other essays. Hear what great writing sounds like. When you understand what good writing is (and you’ll only really get there by reading widely, especially current events and nonfiction), you will be more than halfway to writing great essays yourself.

We learn by observing (reading and listening, seeing), by hearing (read aloud to help yourself absorb the rhythm of good writing), and by doing (practice!).

To write the best essay you can, prepare yourself first by being well read. Pay attention to constructive criticism. Also, read good examples of essays for the SAT or AP exams, and read as many professional essays as you can (Op-eds and magazine articles). Notice what the good essays have in common.

If you pair the knowledge of what good writing is with the specific expectations listed in a rubric, you cannot fail as an essay writer.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Kirkus reviews TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL

Collins, Elizabeth
HBH Press (350 pp.)
$14.99 paperback, $5.99 e-book
ISBN: 978-0985093402; March 14, 2013

A nonconformist—and somewhat melodramatic—teacher fights for her freedom of speech in this impassioned memoir.

Essayist and writing teacher Collins (The Beautiful Anthology, 2012) made headlines when she was fired from her job teaching English at a Catholic girls’ high school outside Philadelphia after Collins criticized an unnamed student’s vehement anti-Obama class speech on her blog, Pretty Freaky. The author’s anguished account powerfully conveys the nauseating sense of betrayal and threat that she felt when the student’s parents—wealthy donors to the school—pushed for Collins’ dismissal and administrators failed to come to her aid. Readers feel potent forces colliding: a teenager’s oversensitivity, her parents’ sense of entitlement, the blogosphere’s power to publicize and inflame, and society’s conflicted feelings about classroom privacy. The book is occasionally overdramatic, as when the author compares her ordeal to the Salem witch hunts and the death of Socrates; she also cites a clairvoyant who diagnosed that the author had been “attacked by the forces of darkness.” She also insists that she was targeted chiefly for being a Democrat and a feminist and rather dubiously holds up her own speech “gently criticiz[ing] the George W. Bush Admin[istration]...for ecological crimes” as a model of conciliatory, nonpartisan rhetoric. Still, she makes a compelling case that she was punished for innocuous commentary because it rubbed overprivileged people the wrong way, and her story raises troubling questions about society’s growing impulse to shield children from criticism and diverse viewpoints. Collins also includes funny flashbacks to her salad days at an insufferable New York literary agency and absorbing classroom scenes in which she strategizes ways to connect with her students. She devotes the book’s third section to blog-post excerpts, which sometimes bog down in rancorous exchanges with trolls, but her best selections offer keen insights on the craft of education, writing and literary analysis.
A stimulating dispatch from the classroom culture war. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Stop Whining. Start Reading.

I have been meaning for weeks now to post about reading--but actually, what better time to discuss reading than right before Summer Reading assignments begin in earnest?

Every summer, I help kids tackle their summer reading, manage their reading schedules, understand the books they are reading, and fill out those dang homework packets or write summer reading-related essays and reports.  

Summer reading is, for many people (and their parents--mostly their parents), a chore. A bad thing. An unfair harshing of a student's blessed summer mellow.

So, all summer long (but especially in August--isn't it funny how that happens?),  I help kids with their summer reading.

I can't do the reading for them, and I wouldn't, anyway--although yes, I do read what they read if I am unfamiliar with the book, which isn't usually the case--but I always manage to work in a sneaky agenda.

It's not the agenda you might think it is.

My agenda is to show kids that reading is Incredible Fun.

It doesn't matter how boring the assigned book may be (and come on--teachers are not trying to purposely torture you by assigning dead boring books over the summer! Give teachers some credit, please!). 

Once you know how to read the right way, and how to remember what you've read, then there will never be a reading assignment that will be painful and difficult.

I am serious.  (The secret is being an active reader and following your own interests to find the point and the magic in everything that you read.)

Why read over the summer? 
  • Because every single thing you read, and I don't care if it's the back of a cereal box or the text on a carton of antacid, teaches you something.
  • The more you read, the more you know...
  • Wide reading makes for good writing...
  • Kids who read the most perform the best on standardized tests.
  • You can never be a smart person without being a well-read person. You just can't.
  • Sure, you might be smart about one thing, but you won't be a truly intelligent, truly literate person, one who is worthwhile for the rest of humanity and able to see the beauty in the world.
  • You won't be able to express yourself well without being well read; without lots of reading under your belt, your ability to communicate will be severely impaired. I see this all the time and it's really scary.
  • The world opens up when you read, so read as much as possible. Read every day. Read a book a week!

Your eyes did not deceive you. I wrote: READ A BOOK A WEEK. 

Read even more than that!

Now that I've given you my reading prescription, the one or two books you were assigned this summer seem rather pathetic, don't they?

Yes, they do. They are sad and pathetic and it's stupid to think that kids should only read one book all summer.

Don't get me started on the appalling lack of reading that is generally happening everywhere.

My own kids get ONE book assigned over the summer by their schools (but don't worry--I supplement like a madwoman). Because God forbid we ask children to read. How dare we?

Guess how many books I had to read over the summers? Try 40 books on the suggested (which really meant you had to do it) summer reading list in the 1980s.

I am not joking. Thank you, Kent Place School. 

I loved all the reading I did. Yes, it was a bit of a race to get the books read in those two and half months we had off, but it was also a joy. 

I read Ethan Frome in the back of my parents' Volkswagen as we drove to Nova Scotia. I read A Separate Peace at the Bay of Fundy.  I read The Outsiders on the way home. 

Thank you, also, to the Madison Public Library, which held uber-competitive summer reading challenges. Maybe everyone I grew up with was a little bit insane, but as children of professors, we already liked to read, and we liked to win.

As a kid, I would sometimes read 70 books over the summer. Again, I am not joking. I am not exaggerating.

I liked to read. I still do.

Even if you think you don't like reading now, try reading a really great book and see how your mind changes.

It's like trying a new food. You're scared, you're hesitant, you're whining and complaining that you don't want to do it, and then you finally give that suspicious new food a chance and you realize it's good.

For me, my whiny food was asparagus; I used to hate it, and now I really like it. (The first time I had asparagus that was grown in a garden, I thought I was going to die, that's how good it was.) I call this my asparagus revelation.

Asparagus will not, however, change the world. Books and reading will.

Have a Reading Revelation! Give reading a chance and open your mind. Change your mind.

Reading is SO much better than the movies, so much better than YouTube or Facebook or any of that other stupid, time-wasting garbage that now eats up our days and nights.

I suppose that if all that stuff existed when I was young (and don't get me wrong, I enjoy social media and use it all the time and need to limit my usage), I might not have read as much, either.

But enough with the excuses.


Suggested reading list coming soon...with new books on it. All new books.

**Also see my book, Too Cool for School: A Memoir, for a list of classics so you can get started. These are for all ages--I don't believe in dumbing down books for teenagers

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Teaching: FInding the New

I remember when--and maybe this still happens--people looked upon a job in education as "safe."

Once you get in, the conventional wisdom went, you'd be safe. Tenure and all that. The payoff after paying your dues. You could plan it out once and be done, and do the same thing in class week after week, year after year. (Some teachers really do this. I personally couldn't live this way.)

What's wrong with doing it right the first time? If it's really right, you never need to change it, do you?

This is what non-teachers probably think teachers do. But it's usually not the case. It should not be the case--not anymore.

In the enrichment school where I teach on weekends, we train students to ace the SAT. "One and done," is the mantra. (There is also, "Hit it hard and get the hell out of there.")

If you've studied your tush off, you can ideally take the official SAT once, score very well, and never take it again. That's how it went for me in high school, and if the work is boring (let's be honest: the SAT is not fun), this is a good tactic. Knowing there's relief and respite makes the hard work tolerable.

Yet even there, in a tried-and-true test prep program, teachers study all the time. We take the tests, too--every week. We develop new ways to help our students increase their scores. "Practice makes perfect" is how the classes go, but even the practice is varied. 

In the normal schools where I teach both high school and college, I have also never taught the same way every year or even every day. I have never had tenure. (I am a private school teacher and adjunct. Why? That's another story.) I don't believe in teaching-as-if-I-were-in-a-factory, and I change it up as much as I can. I do this for myself as well as for my students. 

Teaching is not an assembly line job.

My aim in the classroom, and in life, is to be flexible and able to pivot when necessary. But that's just me. Keeping it interesting is a challenge, and this is one of the things that keeps me on my toes and helps me to be a better teacher.

But a teacher does need a lesson plan, and a teacher does need a script. As I told my college students recently, before they gave group presentations: "You each have to speak to the class for five minutes. How many pages of notes do you need?"

The answer: more than you think. (At least three pages. Possibly four.)

If I have a 40-minute class to teach, how many pages of notes do I need? Many pages. At least seven. Single spaced.

Notes aside--because we are not supposed to lecture these days; we are supposed to flip our classrooms and "have the students lead the class"--teaching takes mucho forethought. Even if you've taught a book before, you still, as a teacher, have to study up again before you begin the novel's unit.

For example, I often teach American Lit, and every year, I re-read Ethan Frome, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter (and more). 

I worked with a teacher a few years ago who'd also taught these classics for a long time (try 25 years). We discussed them. I admitted I've read the books about 15 times by now. At least 15 times. He said he'd read them once, when he was in school, as a lad. "You only need to read the books once," he said, chastising me a bit. "Don't work so hard!"

Read once? Don't work so hard? Nice ideas, but I don't think so. Not if I seriously want to understand these novels--and a lifelong learner finds something new each time she reads.

We need to find the new and share the new or else we are...wait for it...teaching like it's a factory job.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Groupthink: Are Teachers Guilty of It, Too?

I consider one of the most important parts of my job as a teacher to be opening my students' minds to receive and understand more of the knowledge, books, and issues that are out there, beyond the narrow confines of their lives.

There is a danger, of course, to being closed-minded or extremist or just going along with the crowd. 

And if we reflexively stick our fingers in our ears or cover our eyes with our hands when faced with an idea that we don't want to listen to or see, we will eventually and inevitably miss out on what might be the truth. We will also lose an opportunity to learn something new.

Sometimes, in group situations, we will "go along to get along" or just get a meeting over with, but in doing so, we run the risk of making bad group decisions.

As I've written in my memoir, we are meant to grow and change our minds. A truly smart person and an effective persuader can always acknowledge the points of "the other side," so it's important to know what that other side is.

We don't all want to think the same way, after all. I don't want my students to think the way I do, necessarily (despite what those who think differently than I do might assume).

Diversity of thought and experience and life is what keeps things interesting. A balance is what we need.

Teachers--most teachers--inherently know this. We cultivate open-mindedness in our students. We also utter admonitions against the dreaded "Groupthink."

What is Groupthink?

Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment” (p. 9).  Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups.  A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making.

Groupthink can happen with a religious group, or a political group, or any group comprised of people who consider themselves "likeminded," and peers.

This--groupthink--is how we get herd behavior, mob attacks, and victim blaming. Groupthink can encourage people to attack anyone they perceive as a threat to their well-established ideas and way of life, or it just makes people act on autopilot and do what others are doing, without really considering whether that's right or wrong, good or bad. 

Masks make people feel more powerful. This is a fact.

Groups provide a feeling of safety, and anonymity. We all know how people behave when they think their identities will not be revealed: we see this online all the time. From the Ku Klux Klan to askfm to groups on Facebook, people can act like savages when they are wearing a mask, using a gravatar, or simply have the support of their graduating class.

If you hide your identity online, you might find yourself acting like one of these savage jerks.

As a teacher, I am part of a much larger group that generally thinks the same way.

Very few people in this group, myself included, like the way that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have changed our schools. Many of us have complained that these "reforms" are destroying American public education.

For example, I am very against the rampant testing that our kids now face in schools. I am opposed to Common Core standards (the implementation, not the theory). I hate the way Pearson seems to dominate education and makes billions dictating new rules that threaten the jobs of teachers while hurting students and ruining the experience of school. I seize every opportunity to decry how the Koch Brothers (or their foundations) are trying to dismantle public education in order to keep the masses stupid (and voting for the Kochs' preferred political candidates).

Someone recently accused me of "groupthink" because--newsflash!--most teachers agree with all of the above. 

Is this because we've been conditioned to agree with it, or because we see the truth?

What will happens when a teacher goes against the grain and says, "No, all of these reforms are great. Common Core is fabulous" ?

Will other teachers attack that person? Maybe so.

Maybe we are hypocrites.

Or maybe, because I straddle a few different lines (teacher, parent, journalist), maybe I have a broader perspective. And of course, I think I am right. 

Is this the effect of groupthink again?

I raise this topic now because of a recent blogging teacher attack story. The attack has nothing to do with his blog (are you shocked?), but rather, it happened because this teacher dared to point out that Common Core tests in NY state are stupidly difficult for the young children he's teaching.

The tests aren't hard because he didn't teach them enough math; they are unrealistically (as in, just try to answer this math question if you're an adult) difficult. The Common Core tests, as designed, are just plain absurd.

Sure, this teacher, Mr. Ratto, is against Common Core (for the same reasons I am)--and maybe that's the problem. Maybe that opposition--which thousands of teachers share, I am sure, but many are too scared to admit, which is a fine example of herd behavior in itself--has turned him into a "blame the messenger" victim.

This is what went down. It's shocking. It's horrific. It reminds me, in some way, of what I went through. Still, Mr. Ratto works in public school, and even though his school district admin did the wrong thing (groupthink again? Or CYA/lawyerthink?) at the outset, he was cleared and vindicated. He did not lose his job.

Diane Ravitch chimed in (she is an educational powerhouse who is also fiercely opposed to Common Core, which the ultra-right-wing hopes will demonstrate that our children have been receiving pathetic public education, so--wait for it--we should dismantle all our schools and privatize!  Hey, maybe that's why the questions are so hard?).

Teachers everywhere voiced support for Mr. Ratto, who was ratted out (erroneously) by a Common Core designer or architect (or "teacher leader") for allegedly posting a math question on Twitter. 

Mr. Ratto could have lost his job. Despite the protections we think we have in life--such as the First Amendment right to free speech, which I've come to believe is not what we think it is--and despite the "due process" he as a teacher in public education was entitled to (I was not), the man went through hell. For nothing.

For daring to speak his mind.

I told my husband this story. He took it as "Well, that's why no one should ever say anything!"

Groupthink again? Herd behavior? I disagreed with him.

This is exactly why we have to dare to be different, and why we must dare to speak up. If no one ever says anything in protest, then we will all be like those sycophantic morons in "The Emperor's New Clothes."

Groupthink may be inevitable and understandable in terms of survivalism, but if we remain conscious of it, maybe it doesn't have to hurt other people.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Using Lit to Teach Kids Why Rape is Never Okay

Here is a very good blog posting by another teacher of frosh, one who is fighting the good fight and using literature to teach kids what really matters in life. It's so important to connect literature to real -world stories such as Steubenville (it helps to remind people why we read!).

I wonder if Accidental Devotional's author ever gets attacked for being a blogging teacher?  God apparently told this blogger to blog. Hmm. (See below):

As is mentioned in the article, Laurie Halse Anderson's novel, Speak, is a good teaching tool to use to help kids learn about rape (but it's pretty vague, to be honest--and some kids don't seem to get it). 

Still, some people need more--more discussion, more debate, more material to help them understand why rape is always wrong.

Rape is a difficult topic, but novels and news stories like the Steubenville case give us the opening to actually talk in a constructive way, in a dialogue. 

And until every kid "gets" that no, it's not okay to rape a drunk girl, or an unconscious girl, or a girl who is wearing either a mini-skirt or a burqa--it's not okay to rape ANY girl--then we still need to read these works in school. We need to discuss what the literature teaches us about life.

Hiding from the topic because it's awkward is not the answer.

Girls, too, need to understand that it's not acceptable to blame the victim. Anyone who participated in disseminating mortifying pictures of the victim online or commented disparagingly about her basically raped her all over again--and rape, if it wasn't apparent before, is a heinous crime.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Meta Lesson

[I love the term “meta,” so I hope my readers know it. I’d define it, but you know what? I don’t want to be didactic, and you are better off looking it up yourself. You’ll be more invested in learning it that way. But with any luck, you know it. It's a cool word, an interesting concept.]

Today, I read a great article about teaching expertise and meta lessons in HigherEdJobs.

The article, by Bill Smoot, (it’s actually an excerpt from his book, see link above) is about how the real teaching moments come in between the lessons.

This is what I’ve always believed but never actually articulated for myself.

What is the value of taking a class? The human interaction. The different voices sharing and connecting. It’s not being lectured to (we could watch lectures on YouTube in the comfort of our own homes; we don’t need to trudge across a campus to do this), but it is about listening.

What do we remember of the classes we’ve taken, the subjects we’ve studied?

Often, we don’t remember that much. We may or may not remember our teachers’ names (and I am getting to the point where I’ve had so many students I am temporarily forgetting the names of my first students…but it always comes back to me. I think).

What we remember is how we learned, and how we felt when we were learning.

Was our attention held? Were we put off, and if so, why? Did we pick up any choice bits about life?

That’s what I always remember.

I also remember (now, as a teacher) which students helped steer discussion in a meaningful way, and which students contributed ideas and anecdotes that made me think.

I remember the stories. I remember the points of personal connection.

I also remember what I did wrong, and what I could do better next time.

The article I’ve linked to, though, is also about how great teachers DO, and don’t just talk. The best teachers have done what they are teaching you now.

Let’s be honest: I could teach Geometry if I had to, but I have never used Geometry in real life. Hence, why would you want me to teach you Geometry?

I could teach French, maybe, but my own experiences with the language have to do with learning it in high school and eating French cakes my teacher used to make that I thought were pretty bad (sorry—just being honest. They were bland, buttery, dense bits of sponge that make me feel a little ill in the recollection, although it was very kind of the teacher to try to win us over this way). My biggest “real life” experience with French was the two days I spent in a train speaking in French-English hybrid with a guy I’d just met. That, and trying to have a conversation with my friend Capucine who finally told me,  in perfect English,“It is way too annoying to speak French with you. I cannot possibly speak slowly enough.”

So the point is, I know what I can do well, and I know what I can’t. I expect my teachers to know the same and to teach what they can do, not just what they’ve practiced.

That’s where the best stories come from , anyway—from the things we’ve done.