Memes, Movies & Memorability

A year ago I had the fun opportunity to write three articles for the English Department at Salt Lake Community College, where I teach. Last month those articles finally went live, and I wanted to share about them here because I’m thrilled with how they turned out. Click the article titles if you’re interested in reading them for yourself.

“Punctuation, Memes & Choice”

punctuation is powerful

As any of my former or current students could attest, I’m a big fan of punctuation. So when I teach it, I try my best to help students catch on to its power. In this article I felt like I succeeded, thanks to a colleague’s suggestion to use memes. The humor they provide enlivens the whole topic. Even better has been hearing responses from students who read this article and say, “Wow! All of that makes sense now!” Read more


Woefully, Thoroughly, Embarrassingly Spaced: A Case for Adverbs (and Swears)

If you stopped by on Friday, or Saturday, you may have wondered what happened to me this past week. Is she still alive? Is everything okay? Has she collapsed into postpartum depression?

Everything’s fine except my brain.

(Thursday was rough with the babe, but that’s because he was almost six weeks old. This is my third kid, and with all three I thought to myself right before six weeks hit, “Damn it! I can’t do this anymore. I can’t hold a baby this many hours a day. I can’t feed him this often. I can’t handle this much crying and fussing.” And then six weeks hit and they magically became good babies. So really on Friday I didn’t have an excuse anymore, other than recovering from Thursday, which I’ve dubbed Day of Massive Tears. Anyway.)

On Saturday, I began typing a tweet about spacing the post so thoroughly that “spaced” needed extra adverbs, but then my brain must still have been out to lunch because I couldn’t think of any clever adverbs to add to the tweet, so I deleted it.

But it made me think about adverbs in general, which IMHO have gotten a bad rep. Writing teachers love to rant about them and circle them with red pens: “No -ly words!” And really, what have the adverbs done to deserve this?

Now, granted, I do understand the point. I am a writing teacher, and I have cringed at plenty of “-ly words” myself. But maybe just because I love adding a new perspective to debates, I’m going to throw out the idea that it’s not the adverb itself that is bad; it’s the usage.

For example, think of the words we label as “bad” words. Go ahead. Think of a few of them. It’s sort of fun to let them roll through your head. They have a pleasingly rough sound to them, a hard consonant ending that stomps down to help us feel a little better just by slipping them out. I mean, when you’re upset, it’s natural to feel like you want to punch something, and an expletive is the verbal equivalent of that punch.

(My favorite is the mild-but-still-explosive “damn,” which I justify by only damning the pronoun “it,” never “you” or “him” or any other undeserving pronoun; somehow “it” just seems to ruin my life often enough to merit the curse.)

Anyhow, now I want you to think of a scenario where one of those bad words is really the only word that could possibly fit.

Maybe it’s because that word sums up a load of misery the size of a landfill; maybe it’s because that word perfectly fits the person/character saying it; maybe it’s because that word is just ironic enough in the context to shock everyone present into much-needed laughter.

(We named our baby after his great-great grandfather, and asked my husband’s grandparents to tell us about the namesake, and one of the first things Grandma Mantyla told us about her dad was that he loved to swear. I asked her if it was in anger or in jest, and she laughed and said it was always to be funny, because he was that kind of a character.)

See where I’m going with this?

I think there could potentially be a place for adverbs.

We try to avoid them on the principle that if your verb needs an adverb, you’re not using a strong enough verb — and therefore the issue is word choice. A writer’s job is to choose the best word possible for every situation, and that’s a challenge.

So maybe that’s why I bristle a little at the idea of being limited in my choices. I want to have every word at my disposal without being limited by ones that are supposedly “bad.”

Today I want to celebrate adverbs and give them the credit they are so often denied.

To the words “magically,” “thoroughly,” “pleasingly,” “perfectly,” “potentially,” and “supposedly” that slipped unintentionally into this post, thank you for adding that touch of emphasis I wanted in each place. (Note: There are more adverbs than that in this post, but these are the most obvious culprits that would offend certain past teachers of mine the most.) Sure, there might be a better verb that could eliminate the need for you, but since this post is already two days late and is written in your honor, I’m going to let you stay.

And perhaps we’ll make a game of it.

I’d love to hear your ideas. What words could I use to ditch the above-mentioned adverbs, or which of them do you think fit best and don’t need ditching? What are adverbs you’ve groaned over upon encountering and how would you have replaced them? What are your favorite adverbs and when could you justify using them? And best of all, what are some funny situations that just beg for a great swear word?

Leave a comment!

UPDATE 8pm: Okay, Hubby and I were chatting and suddenly realized that this movie clip below absoluteLY had to be part of this post. You might not understand at first, but you’ll hear it when you get to 1:37 and 2:56, and it’s awesome (IMHO). The movie is 1776 (the musical), and this is Ben Franklin and John Adams sending Richard Henry Lee off to convince Virginia to initiate the vote for independence. Enjoy!

UPDATE 5/2011: Sadly, the clip is gone and I can’t find another one from the movie, but you can find stage play versions on YouTube if you search for “1776 Lees of Old Virginia.” 😥

He Said; She Said

Every couple of semesters I get an idea in my head of some new way to “make grammar stick.”

This term, the word “stick” is more literal than ever. I’m having them use paper strips and glue sticks, like a cut-and-paste version of Mad Libs, to get a firmer grasp on semicolons, colons, em dashes — all of it.

Tuesday night was the trial round. I passed out two strips to each student: one blue strip and one red. And when I asked if anybody’d ever played or even heard of the game He Said; She Said, I got blank looks.

What? Did nobody else play M.A.S.H. and T.R.U.E. L.O.V.E. and He Said; She Said and all those other crazy paper games in middle school? That was like our number one entertainment at slumber parties. Okay, except Yoshi games on the Super NES (I just dated myself, I know).

Anyhow, He Said; She Said, as we used to play it, goes like this:

Everyone has a sheet of paper and a pen/pencil. The idea is to write the line of the story indicated, fold over the paper so no one can see what you wrote, and then pass the papers clockwise so that a different person contributes each line as follows: 

1.   A boy’s name
2.   A girl’s name
3.   Where they met
4.   What he said
5.   What she said
6.   What happened in the end

Take turns reading the stories by filling in the blanks like Mad Libs: “Once upon a time ___1___ met _____2___ at ______3________. He said, ‘_____4_____.’ She said, ‘_____5_____.’ And in the end _________6________.”

In my mini-grammar-lesson version, I only used lines 4 and 5 and opened it up to not just “said” but anything they wanted him and her to do. It could be that “he hot-air ballooned to work” and “she pretended to be a horse.”

Then I had them swap all around so that they had a red strip and a blue strip that didn’t originally go together. These they glued in their notebooks and drew a semicolon (;) in between. I had them share some funny ones, and we got things like, “She nagged at him about never listening; he dove into the lake.” Pretty good, as Mad Libs go!

But the point was that I needed them to realize that (a) semicolons are used in places where you want to make some kind of comparison and (b) each side has to be able to stand alone. Only time will tell if that sunk in.

For colons, I’m hoping it worked even better. This time, they had to write a sentence — a complete sentence, one that you could plunk a period onto — that suggested a list to follow. Then, on a different-colored strip, they created a list. Same as before, they swapped around and got funny stuff like, “There are several things you need when you go camping: a manicure, a high-speed internet connection, a course catalog, etc.”

And this time I think the strips really stuck. In the past, I’ve noticed students’ tendency to use words like “including” right before the colon, no matter how much I rail against it. But when the sentence was literally broken into two strips, they saw that it had to stand alone because they dealt with each piece separately.

Tonight I’m going to use paper strips and glue sticks to try and adhere em dashes and parentheses to their brains. If it continues to work and show results (though I should note that this is in conjunction with the assignments they do on Real Grammar, not an alternative to those), I’ll post the mini-lessons in my Teaching section for other teachers to try out as well.

And even if you’re not a teacher, try the He Said; She Said group game with your roommates or your kids or something. If you get a funny story, please share it!

Leave a comment!

Change the World

Yesterday was the first day of spring semester for Salt Lake Community College, and while I’ve never considered myself to be one of those movie-type teachers that inspires and changes lives, last night I decided to give it a shot — because the more I thought about it, the more it fit with the curriculum for my intermediate class.

When they came in, I had them answer three questions. The first two were just “warm-up” questions to get them primed for the third, but I didn’t tell them that:

  1. something nerdy about you
  2. your claim to fame
  3. one issue you’d tackle/change

(Originally, question three read “one thing you’d change about the world,” but I tested it on my intro class, and half of them said “war” or “world peace.” Oops. A little too broad.)

My answers were (1) I have my library card number memorized but not my bank account number, (2) I have students who like me enough to take both the intro and intermediate courses from me (about a third of the class last night), and (3) I’d change how English teachers teach grammar.

And my students had awesome answers. They’d change CEO overcompensation or disability awareness or put more reform in the healthcare reform or more initiative and inventiveness in education reform or stop the ways we put third-world countries into debt. I wish I could remember all the ideas.

Then I showed this clip from Pay It Forward:

Best of all, it’s not only possible to have one idea change the world, it happens all the time. In the newspaper over New Year’s I read about “People to Watch” in the next decade, and they were all working on different things: studying stem cells, mapping Down Syndrome genes, saving the Jordan River here in Salt Lake County, using saliva as disease diagnosis, running cities, serving in the senate, drawing alternative energy from waste lagoons, writing plays.

That’s how the world changes. You decide on the thing within your reach you want to tackle, and you tackle it.

My dad is part of the 29th Street Weed & Seed Coalition in Tucson — a neighborhood group that unites residents, schools, and businesses in working to reduce crime and build community. They’ve had some amazing success, including a 43% drop in crime compared to 15% in Tucson in the same period.

Also, my dad gets grants of all kinds to help improve the education of his middle school students and the lives of their parents. Last year he started teaching a weekend/evening workshop for parents that focuses on how to have stronger families. The course is free for those who are selected because of the grants my dad applied for. And it helps end cycles of domestic abuse, neglect, poverty, etc.

That’s how the world changes.

For my students this semester, they’ll be changing the world with a website. I showed them some of the ones from last semester, how one student’s site worked to educate people about the connection between drug abuse and gang violence, how another helped families of people diagnosed with a particular form of sclerosis learn how to cope, how one student used his experience working at a credit union to set up a site teaching people about avoiding debt, how another focused on finding happiness by avoiding consumer mentalities. (There are links on my English 2010 page for anyone who wants to see the sites.)

Now that I’ve taught one semester of this class, I realize that it is exactly like that Pay It Forward clip. It really is about changing the world and teaching students how, through writing, they can make things happen — the way my dad writes proposals and gets grant money.

Writing can change the world, and I like that thought a lot.

What about you? What’s something nerdy about you? What’s your claim to fame? And what would you tackle? How would you change the world?

Leave a comment!

Grueling Greats: Grading and Grammar

Some of my community college students once asked me how long it takes to grade one set of papers, and I shrugged and told them I wasn’t sure. Usually I try to spread it out over a few days, so I’d never really added up the hours.  

Well, now I know the answer. This week I did something stupid and left it all for the last day. I made awesome progress on my WIP during the days I should have been grading, but then of course I was cursing myself all day yesterday as I spent six and a half hours reading and marking 19 eight-to-ten-page student papers. The only breaks I took were to pick up my son from preschool, to make both boys a sandwich, and to microwave myself a burrito.  

It was grueling.  

And that was just for the beginning comp class. I don’t even want to think about the twenty-something websites I still need to read and grade for my intermediate class this week.  

On my students’ end, writing the assignments is also grueling, of course, but in my course they have the added “joy” of what I’ve termed The Grammar Project. It’s a twice-weekly assignment that covers twenty grammar concepts over the course of the semester. Each web page has a long list of professional examples of the concept, then explanations, then student samples, then a place for students to write their own analysis or definition and their own sample sentence.  


What surprises me every semester is how much I get out of grading papers and how much they get out of The Grammar Project.  

When I grade their papers, I get to benefit from all their research and life experiences. I learn about the latest trends in technology, about the current arguments in bioethics, about diseases I wasn’t aware of, and also about my students. I learn about the experiences they’ve already had in their 20–30 years of life and how those experiences have made them passionate to share about education, marriage, home buying, depression, therapy, alcoholism, drug abuse, gang involvement, and so much more.  

Honestly, I love that my students can teach me so much.  

This time around, the real stand-out paper included this image in its appendix:  

Just one of thousands of examples of how alcohol companies make beer attractive to children

The paper was about the crime of alcohol companies appealing to young kids, and the student backed it up with not only excellent research but also his own experiences of being persuaded by ads that alcohol was cool, which led him to become an alcoholic by the age of 20. On top of that, he told about friends of his and also the experience of talking with his seven-year-old nephew after a beer commercial came up.  

(He made a video presentation to go along with the paper, and it was incredible, with his nephew and niece narrating about how many images of alcohol fantasies a kid will see growing up as hundreds of ads like the frog one flash across the screen too fast to count.)  

Can I even tell you how cool it is as a teacher to see students creating that level of rhetoric, being that passionate and persuasive about an important issue?  

It’s definitely a major highlight for me.  

And on the flip side, when I asked last night, at our final class (the “exam” that was mostly about eating pizza while writing letters to next semester’s class), what the most beneficial part of the course was, they said The Grammar Project.  

One student even went ahead and admitted that they’d all probably complained as they were doing it, but it was still incredibly helpful.  


I would have expected comments about the video clips we watched and activities we did in class, or about making websites or visual projects. You know, something that was fun and educational at the same time.  

Funny how the grueling parts of life and education are also often the most worthwhile.  

Leave a comment!

Punctuation Repertoires

Dreamt I was the new word bubble grammar fairy. I was responsible for . , : and ;

This was a recent tweet from my friend Diana, who has a super cool webcomic called Sweet & Sour Grapes. Her tweet made me laugh so much that I warned her I’d end up quoting it some time, and now I have. I can’t quite imagine word bubbles with colons or semicolons in them, but I like the funny image of a fairy who dispenses those marks!


Sometimes I feel like the grammar fairy in charge of ; : — ( ) , etc. Only not for speech bubbles. For student writing.

My own experience learning all the punctuation marks was horribly inefficient. I was still picking up random things in college. I can remember exactly which professor went off on a quick tangent to show us about hyphens, and which professor pointed out to me in grad school that my ellipses needed to be spaced apart. If somebody had fed it to me all at once, efficiently and effectively, I would have eaten it up! I didn’t want to look stupid with my ellipses scrunched.

So when I got hired as a graduate instructor, I was totally dismayed when they told us we were pretty much not allowed to teach grammar. They showed us this quote about how it took away too much time from other instruction, and they gave us handbooks that we were supposed to have the students read and take quizzes on.

Can you guess how effective that was?

Anyhow, ever since then I’ve made it my personal mission to find an effective way to give students a repertoire of ; : — ( ) , ” ” ‘ . . . [ ] -, etc, all in one semester. I’ve had successes and set-backs, but I’ve learned a lot about what makes certain teaching methods effective.

I’ve just added a whole section on my teaching page full of pdf files and other useful links about grammar pedagogy, and tomorrow I’m going to show it to college instructors from Idaho, Utah, and Arizona–well, at least any who stop by my session at the TYCA-West conference. Hopefully someone will find the information useful.

I’d love comments about successes others have had–whether as a teacher or a learner–with mastering these conventions.

And if you could be a punctuation fairy, which mark would you dispense most often? For me, it would have to be an em dash. Gosh, I love those things. And a colon would come in a tight second.