Friday, June 29, 2007

Already Behind on Posting

So much for my handy dandy schedule! I got overwhelmed by work/home stuff and haven't posted as planned.

I've started watching Life on Mars, a BBC series that aired 16 episodes over 2006-2007. (David Kelley is planning a remake in the US.) I'd read the pilot script here a few weeks ago and was intrigued, then even more so by John Simm's (Sam, the main character of LoM) appearance on Doctor Who.

LoM is about Sam Tyler, a police detective investigating a serial killer who is hit by a car and wakes up back in 1973. But is it time travel or a coma? Who knows. What I like about the show is the fish out of water story of the 2006 metrosexual Sam amid the misogynist frat party atmosphere of the 1973 police headquarters. I especially love Hunt, the traditional slightly corrupt/ed old school boss.

The scenes of sexism towards the women officers (WCPs, they were called) make you wince. It's not that long ago that such behavior was condoned. It does remind you that Anita Hill started working for Clarence Thomas only 8 years later.

But more importantly, it makes me think about how things I once found funny and remember as funny aren't all that funny any more. Case in point: Eddie Murphy's HBO special, Delirious. My sister and I still quote lines from that show. "Oh my god I'm falling down the stairs!" "Ice cream, I got some ice cream. You want some? Psych!" Wow, that was 1983. But part of that routine is a pretty homophobic riff on how Mr. T would be if he were gay. Years later, my sister and I found a video of Delirious and put it on, excited, only to turn to each other in embarrassment when it came to that part.

So I appreciate what LoM is trying to do--remind us that those days of "fun" humor where people could just joke around without fear of being politically correct, were kind of painful to experience.

I'm sure there's some sort of comparison to be made to SCOTUS's ruling on affirmative action this week, relating to people's capacity for remembering the past far more positively than it actually happened.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Teaching Grammar

For the past two years, I've been teaching a developmental writing course. Oh, let's just call it what it is--a remedial grammar course. The twist on this course is that students take it *after* they've completed their two required writing courses, and pedagogically, I find this approach to be interesting. The students at our university tend to be career oriented, and they don't really "find" themselves as students until they get motivated to pursue a career. And as we all know, I think, once they become involved in a career, working, they start to understand just how important communication skills are. Letting the students work through this first before coming to a grammar class is, I think, a smart move. Starting off students in their first term with a remedial non-credit course can be discouraging.

Most of us learn communication, writing, and grammar through exposure to the language--speaking and writing in it. My 5 year old makes grammar mistakes all the time, but by the time he is 18, I am sure he won't say "I goed outside today, Mommy!" Yes, I correct him (most of the time), but he will learn the right way to say that sentence mainly by hearing and reading it presented correctly.

Today's students, as we all know, seem to be reading and writing less often. But they *do* often know proper grammar. I sit down with students all the time and go over their writing with them, and most of the time, the most egregious errors are ones they can correct themselves--and they do, right in front of me.

So, what's happening?

The students who come into my grammar classes often perceive themselves as bad writers, and I think many of them fear they will not be able to graduate (they have to attain a particular level of writing skill in order to graduate, assessed through a handwritten essay written in two hours). They think their problems are insurmountable.

It's my job to take a different approach. I take advantage of the workshop approach to work as individually as possible with students and figure out what they know and what they don't know. I deal with what they don't know, but then I have to deal with what they aready know but forget to do while writing. This is crucial! Then I try to help them figure out why they do what they do.

Most of the time, it's laziness, pure and simple! Or they have low expectations of themselves. Or they just haven't trained themselves to see details in written language; they're not close readers. I cannot turn these students into writers at the level of A students at an Ivy League college, but I can get them to correct basic grammar errors. What I do is use behavior modification techniques, individualized as much as possible for each student.

For example, I have a student whose first language is Korean. Like many students who speak/write Korean as a first language, he has many difficulties with plural forms, verb forms, and articles. Articles are tricky, so I won't deal with that now. Verb forms require a lot of practice, but again, as I went over more and more writing with the student, I could see what he tended to do wrong and why. What I discovered with T is that he was confusing present perfect and present progressive tenses. Now, this makes sense, in a way. Both tenses involve something that is currently happening. But T kept wanting to make everything into the present progressive tense. The first thing I advised him was to use simple present (and past) whenever he was unsure. Now, we certainly found exceptions, but this trick was helping him simplify his sentence constructions. He also kept wanting to use passive voice constructions (i.e., "As an employer, Disney is being appealed because of its great health benefits"). I explained passive constructions and what they mean. (So often, students are taught that passive voice is wrong.)

When we found a sentence that was especially perplexing for him, we came up with a "model" sentence, a sentence in the same pattern. Then I suggested he memorize the sentence and when he came upon something similar, he could call upon that sentence in his head to remember how to structure the sentence he was working on.

Another example of this is the construction "one of the best movies of the year is Spiderman 3." T kept dropping the "s" on movies because he thought that because he was using "one," the word should not be plural. I went over this construction again and again with him, and we settled on a similar construction as the one above for his "model." And in his most recent essay, he used the structure in a different context, i.e., "one of the advantages of X is Y." I was SO happy!

I do the same kind of thing with sentence structure. If students tend to use commas to try to connect two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb such as "however," I remind them to read through their papers to find the word "however," then I give them a few tricks to figure out if it's connecting two independent clauses.

The thing is that when we tell students to proofread their papers, internally they groan. They become overwhelmed by the prospect of re-reading every single word. And in fact, with computers, they can benefit from spellcheck to find many of those simple errors. But they need to understand that in an essay that is 20 sentences long, it is likely that 15-18 of those sentences are not run-ons or comma splices. They need to figure out why they fuse some sentences and not others, and they are more motivated when they have shortcuts to help them skip over the perfectly fine sentences and find and focus on the sentences that are troublesome.

Now, this approach doesn't address the needs of all students. Some are still struggling with basic communication skills, and some make egregious errors in every sentence. But it does work with many students. The other benefit is that once they see how they can identify and improve some aspects of their essays, they become motivated to catch the other errors. They realize that they *can* change their behaviors, and that, together with the knowledge that they will be needing to enter the working world and communicate effectively, gives them that extra boost in confidence and energy to improve.

I am so excited by the improvement I've seen in T this summer. He is such a smart, hard-working kid, and I'm glad to see him take control of his writing. He has big dreams, and I'd like to see him achieve them.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Cell Phones for Kids

Today WSJ's parenting blog The Juggle is discussing whether or not children should have cell phones.

I want to avoid getting my children a cell phone as long as possible.

My students know me as someone who hates cell phones. Why? Because they take students' attention away from my teaching, and it's rude. Students claim they need the phones for "emergencies," but really, how often is there an emergency? Their concept of what constitutes an emergency is inflated.

As the wife of the original poster on The Juggle pointed out, cell phones are seen as ways for people to connect with each other. In this case, a mother found that a cell phone was the most effect means for connecting with her eight year old daughter. I have an eight year old (well, she'll be eight tomorrow), and I'm pretty flabbergasted by this. My daughter and I share time at bedtime, when I read her a story or we just "talk." When we're doing some sort of chore together or playing a game, she'll start talking about things. Part of the problem is that she won't talk when her brother is around, mainly because once she starts talking, he feels the need to interrupt. What is really needed, I think, is one-on-one time for mother and daughter.

Part of me wants to question the use of cell phones to establish connections; it feels like something is lost without face-to-face contact. But who am I to talk? Most of my friends are on the Internet these days (long story for another post).

I think that if people can talk face to face, they should. The internet and cell phones (and that old-fashion technology, the telephone) should probably be reserved for people whom we cannot see face to face. For example, my sisters and I have been using Writeboard (a free web-based program) to connect with each other to discuss my father's health (and also to share little bits of news about ourselves).

A former boss of mine, when discussing the use of computers in education, once said that computers shouldn't replicate processes that already exist. In other words, online chats shouldn't be used to replace in-class discussion of literature unless the use of the computer could add something to the experience (and it could--some introverted people might be more likely to share their ideas if they could type them out first instead of having to jockey for time in a classroom discussion).

Cell phone technologies should be used in this way, as well.

Another issue that concerns me is that the constant connection breeds dependence. One commenter on the Juggle post explained that he could remember several times when he was stranded after a practice or school event, waiting for his ride home. Cell phones, he said, would solve this problem.

Why is it a problem? Yes, I know we fear pedophiles (why now more than ever, I don't know?), but other than that, is it really a problem for a child to have to use his or her own resources to figure out how to get home and/or get a message to his/her parents? While it would certainly be frightening/scary for a child at first, I'm sure that the sense of pride at having faced something scary and overcome it would be amazing for the child's well-being. We want our children to be independent, don't we?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

I'm going to give this blog a try again over the summer.

I have a fandom-related blog, but I tend to resist posting anything controversial (uh, non-fandom controversial) there. I'm not sure what's stopping me, but I think in part it's because I've already forged connections with my readers there and don't really want to see the differences after so many years. Here on a new blog, I will be able to start over, and the political differences will be more apparent from the start. Of course, it may end up that I attract reality television fans here, and that is just unacceptable!

But it's so hard to go from a readership of 200+ to a readership of ... no one. Well, I'll get posting and see what happens.


The thing about having children is that everything is magnified. If you're having fun, the fun is 100 times greater with children. But anything that goes wrong or isn't otherwise perfect can also be magnified 100 times.

I'm not the most active person in the world, and the sheer effort involved in simply getting out of the house with two children, one husband, and assorted outdoors equipment is enough to send me back to bed in a fetal position.

Today's trip was an outing to the Cape Cod Canal. We brought 4 bikes, the trail-a-bike, panniers filled with lunch, our swimsuits and changes of clothing for the kids. We forgot the towels. We parked at a beach at one end of the canal, unloaded our bicycles, strapped on our helmets, and set off. My 8 year old daughter rides a bicycle she was given for her 4th birthday. She has seemingly doubled in size since then, but she refuses to get a new bike. Also, it has training wheels, and she is scared to ride without them. But she was quite the sight, bicycling with her knees nearly to her chin, her stuffed animals riding in the basket in front of her (Seal, Baby Beluga, Baxter, Melody, and Gizmo).

Meanwhile, my 5 year old, who just learned how to ride a two-wheeler with training wheels and who cried when his tricycle was sold at a yard sale last month, has graduated to the trail-a-bike that attaches to my husband's bike. He did quite well and seemed quite proud.

Halfway through the trip, my daughter got too tired to ride any more (and who can blame her? The wheels on her bike can't be more than 15" in diameter, making her 10-mile ride the most demanding of the four of us). We tried to switch the children, put my daughter on the trai-a-bike to give her a break, but the seat on my daughter's bike was too high for my son, and we couldn't find the hex wrench. Now, I don't know what a hex wrench is, but I'm told it's needed to raise and lower the seat of a bicycle. You'd think that on a beautiful weekend afternoon on a well-known bike path we'd find someone with a hex wrench, but it just wasn't a hex wrench crowd. A hex wrench crowd usually wears bike shorts, and I don't think I saw a single pair of bike shorts the whole afternoon!

Back Before Kids, my husband and I used to ride 30-40 miles a few times a month. BBK, I was also a good 20 lbs. less, coincidentally. I'd like to do 20 miles now, but we managed only 10 this time. The first leg of the ride was into a headwind, which made the riding even more difficult for my scrunched up daughter. The ride back was, in comparison, a breeze.