Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Teaching of Writing

This entry has been a reaction to a writing center listserv e-mail, in which an erstwhile sociology professor pointed out that he would resist teaching his students "the basics of writing," because (if I'm understanding his argument), it's someone else's job: It's the job of the middle school or high school English teacher and/or the job of the Freshmen Writing professor - and something the students should already have learned. Clearly that doesn't always work, for many reasons. (Yet another potential follow up blog entry...) But if for some reason a class of students writes terribly, I believe it continues to do the students a disservice in not teaching them at least a thing or two (i.e., how to fix a comma splice). Trying to teach students what happens if one isn't professional in one's work is a really broad job - and something I do think all teachers should touch upon.

There are a lot of different types of English teachers out there; we come from a lot of different backgrounds. There are the creative writers, the dramatists, the literature folks, the theorists, and the compositionists/rhetoricians, although I'm sure there are other self-defining groups as well. Each group teaches writing based on individual background, interests, etc. I'm part of the last group - the compositionist - being in progress to get my M.A. in English with a concentration of the teaching of writing (although the name of the concentration has officially been changed to writing and rhetoric). 
Having tutored in various writing centers since January 2004 - and having taught since then at a variety of levels (middle school, high school, and college) since then - I've encountered different writing styles from a many different students who study different academic disciplines (the hard sciences, the medical sciences, the social sciences, arts, humanities - really, the entire gamut); I've had students ranging in age and education (middle school, high school, undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral); and  I've worked with students from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds (native English  speakers as well as non-native English speakers).

I've come to the conclusion that the reason students have such a hard time learning to write is that teachers across the disciplines make it complicated, even outright convoluted. I'm convinced there's no one way to teach writing, just as there's no one style of writing. But in order to teach any type of writing, what still needs to be taught is clarity. But students are given so much information as a means of explanation, they become befuddled. I'm not talking about teaching students less; I'm talking about the timing of when we teach students this extraneous information. I'm not convinced it's necessary to teach students how to diagram sentences and names of each verb tense - not right away. (I know that the
pluperfect is the same as the past perfect subjunctive and how to explain it - if I can look it up first. And of course, as a native speaker, I also have the luxury of not needing to memorize the names of the verb tenses. The politics of this is a blog post for another time.) I've had an easier time teaching verb tenses by drawing a timeline than I have trying to memorize the different verb tenses and making my students memorize them. I recognize the value of teaching such specifics in the case of ELL (English Language Learner) students, who might find it helpful to learn the names of the verb tenses, but I question the helpfulness of teaching native English speakers if that's the only method being used to teach verbs. And likewise grammar at large - it's difficult to teach unless students are doing a lot of reading. The hopefully larger vocabulary that a native speaker has is at least as helpful in explaining grammar. (Insert another disclaimer: I know not all native speakers have the same levels of vocabulary. Again, reading will help this.)

Knowing (or not knowing) the names of different grammatical syntaxes is one thing, but I find the inability to explain grammatical and linguistic syntax dismaying. A shocking number of writing tutors and English teachers, I've learned, do not understand grammar and syntax well enough to teach it; I've discovered this firsthand, and I find this disconcerting. I myself have never been taught how to teach grammar, and while I have a solid understanding of how to teach it (I had other tutors come to me to help them teach their students grammar), I still wish I had been made to sit through some training in how to teach it, if for no other reason than to see how others teach it.

Misplaced Emphasis

I was reading PostSecret today, and I read this secret:

I'm reminded of the director of the English Teacher Preparation Program at Stony Brook University; in his office he had a sign that read, "It's the students, stupid!" So, note to self: Don't put so much emphasis on grammar that it interferes with the recognition of value.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Stella's Wedding, &c.

Today Chris and I went to Stella and Dave's wedding:

We had a good time, mostly because it was a simple affair - maybe 50 people were there; we were seated with people who were friendly and chatty; the food was good. (The wedding and reception were at City Hall Restaurant, in TriBeCa.) Stella looked beautiful; she and Dave tangoed, which was nifty. Chris and I did not tango, or do any dancing of any kind, which was probably for the best.

In other news, and more of the same, I need to start going to the gym on an actual schedule, not just once a week. And I still need to start eating better. I've been sending out resumes; I have an interview for a caretaker/homemaker position on Monday.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Weak in the Knees

I recently joined a gym in an attempt to get more physically active. I went through their orientation last week, which included being shown how to use all the equipment by one of the personal trainers; and the manager had us go through a sample exercise class so we could experience a few minutes of each type of class. This past Monday I met with their dietitian/nutritionist, but I was disappointed at the meeting: I was told that as a new member I would get a free meeting with dietitian, who would help me plan a menu, etc. When I in fact met with the dietitian, she told me about their $299 12-week plan, which obviously right now I can't afford. I feel misled in that regard, to say the least.

In any case, today was the first day I went to the gym for an actual workout. I really just want access to the elliptical trainers. (I'll get to strength training in the future; right now I just want to start moving, and something low-impact.) I lasted about 10-15 non-consecutive minutes, which was pretty dismal, but I planned badly, too. I went without having eaten or drunk anything beforehand; I didn't bring water or a towel with me. I was going to try for 30 minutes but just didn't have it in me so I wobbled home. (This is the first time my knees actually wobbled; I didn't know that being "weak in the knees" was an actual thing that could happen. I hurt my left knee pretty badly a few years ago, and any hard exercise exacerbates it; today I definitely hurt that knee again, so I have to be careful.)

I've been tracking some of what I eat on SparkPeople. I like it; they have a lot of resources and a rather large community (and a free iPhone app). I'm not getting all my meals on there - hard to do if you go out for a meal - but I'm just looking for broad trends at the moment. One of the big problems I have is during the day I tend to eat well; I'm measuring food, watching portions and calories, and choosing healthy foods. At night, though, I just go overboard. I don't really know why this happens, and I don't quite know how to fix that pattern. It's worse with junk food and desserts. I may just have to cut out all chocolate and sweets for awhile.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Big Apple BBQ 2009

Today Chris and I went to the Big Apple BBQ, an annual event held in Madison Square Park. We inadvertently made a wise decision and bought the Fast Pass, which allowed us to skip the incredibly long lines (and stand in much shorter or non-existent lines), and not have to worry about bringing extra cash, sine the Fast Pass served as a means of pre-paying for all that delicious BBQ. Most of what we had was pretty darn good, although we didn't get to everything, and one or two of the items we had were just outright poor. (Pictures here.)

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Dangers of the Internet

I'm watching an episode of Oprah, an episode in which Oprah is warning parents about the dangers of the Internet, namely in terms of young teenagers who are abducted by strangers. It's an absolute danger that has been around since I first started playing around with chat rooms and social networking sites, maybe 15 years ago at this point. I was a teenager in high school, and knew more about the Internet than my parents; I made a lot of friends online and was regularly going to conventions. My mother was especially nervous, password-protecting her computer so I couldn't get online, and regularly showing me articles or telling me stories about the dangers of the Internet, but I brushed off these warnings, partly because I was a teenager, but also partly because I was tired of so consistently hearing about all the dangerous people in the world. My parents were especially nervous because although they used the Internet themselves, they had no real experience with the Internet prior to my using it as extensively or easily.

The argument I still hear from many adults whose teenagers and children use the Internet is that they're concerned with the possibility of their children getting hurt. And the stories of child abduction and sexual abuse are absolutely horrible. "Safety" is a big buzzword; adults are encouraged to keep their kids off social networking sites; they're advised to keep their computers in living rooms or kitchens (which actually I think is not a bad idea). But what I don't see these parents doing is talking to their kids about acceptable behaviors of people online, mostly because I don't think they consider anything other than the danger.

In all the interaction I've had with kids in my limited experiences in teaching, the younger the kids are, the more likely they are to share everything with you because they have the experience that everyone is interested in what's going on. As a teacher, I really enjoyed this because I'm interested in my students' lives and how I can help them become more intelligent adults. The older the students get, though - and the older we get as adults - the less likely we are to tell everyone everything; we become more selective and cautious. In real life and in person, kids have to be taught not to tell everyone everything, not only because is it not always appropriate, but because you have to learn how to judge the situations in which information is applicable. So, then, why aren't kids being taught what's appropriate to discuss online? The default answer is to not tell anyone anything online, but that's not really a good answer either because kids have a natural tendency towards chattiness and openness.

I believe the better way to teach kids to differentiate between dangerous people and those who aren't is to discuss the behaviors that are applicable to different online situations; how to differentiate between someone who's just being casually chatty; what information can safely be shared vs. what information should not be shared; and when it's all right to begin to open up more. There's always the chance that someone isn't who he says he is online, but that's also just as true if relationships are developed in person. Kids need to be taught how to respond to different people in different situations in person, as they now also need to be taught online, but only warning of the danger is one-sided, and it frustrates me to see adults who have little experience with the online social world immediately and only react out of fear instead of using this as a means of exploring interpersonal relationships and how to distinguish acceptable behaviors.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Back Home

Nothing really to update at the moment. Still looking for work - any kind of work - preferably on Long Island, since I don't have the money for the LIRR tickets (but I still have gas in my car, so I can drive locally). Took my car to Pennsylvania to get inspected; hung out with Mom and Dad for a few days. Saw the new Star Trek movie, which successfully dragged me back into Trekkie status (which surprised me because I'm not such a big fan of the original show). Finally got to admire Mom and Dad's new piano. Dad has been learning to play for a few months now, but I haven't heard him play before, and he's quickly learning and practicing daily.

I've been reading a lot lately, mostly nonfiction (mostly about such light topics as exorcism and forensic anthropology) to start, but I've checked out some fiction (Jorge Luis Borges) as well. Also discovered Heroes, in which I had previously been unable to maintain any interest, but have begun watching the first season via Netflix. I'm enjoying it so far, and have not had the trouble keeping track of the characters as I had in my previous attempt to watch. (I suspect having watched it from the beginning was helpful.)