On Teaching Well

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This Thursday, I asked five educators to bring a sample of their writing to a professional development session so that we could do some writing exercises.  I gave them a handout on passive verbs and another on the 19 most common grammatical errors, and started by asking them to circle their passive verbs and change the sentences.  When I introduced this exercise, I was as careful and gentle as I am with students:  with students, I do not want to further injure their already low confidence.  With educators, I must guard their egos.   So I told people to take their time, to ask me for help, that whatever work they produced was perfect.  Several people, including a man who has challenged me frequently in the past, could not change their sentences.  We discussed it briefly, and then moved on to identifying subjects and verbs, and then identifying clauses.  Again, people struggled.  Again, I gently encouraged, made corrections, joked a bit.  But as people started to gather their papers to leave (probably with a good amount of relief), I said, imagine how our students feel.


Imagine how our students, who have been failed again and again by an educational system that sees them as numbers and teachers who fear to roll up their sleeves and interact with them, feel.  Teaching is not supposed to instill fear, shame, or humiliation.  Students are not supposed to learn alone, or never make mistakes, or fear that making a mistake will lead to humilation.  But too often, that is exactly what education means.  Too often, a well meaning teacher brings in a worksheet, passes it out, and tells students to follow the directions.  But often, there is never interplay, room for error, or freedom from fear.


When I teach someone something, I create an organized, structured, exercise.  I tell students what and why we are doing something:   Sometimes I use what others have done, sometimes I make it up.  I know if I want students to learn, I must immerse them in an experience.  I do not say, fix your passive verbs.  I discuss how changing passive verbs can enliven writing and eliminate error.  I do some examples from the students own work, showing them that I too fumble and need to think and scratch out words to do the exercise.  Then I ask them to try, and walk around, and help people when and where they are stuck.

To do all this, I need to ensure students feel safe–no safety, no learning.  This is done with my body language, the words I use, allowing mistakes without penalty, and assuming that my students are trying as hard as they can.  Students respond to safety.  Students respond to praise.  Students respond to someone saying, see, look what you did here!  That’s great!  Now apply what you did to that sentence to this sentence.   Students respond to questions:  so who or what is the actor?  If you are writing, hip hop artists are doomed, who or what is dooming them?  Oh, the desire for material wealth?  Ok, so try that:  the desire for material wealth dooms hip hop artists.  This exchange is gentle, kind, but passionate and engaged too–and students need and deserve our full engagement with them.


When I show patience, kindness, enthusiasm, encouragement and passion, students learn, and find learning relates to what they need to know.  The magic ingredient of teaching is not knowledge although knowledge is critical.  It is not organization although this too is critical.   It is to judge all students as deserving of respect and caring, and giving it to them, day by day, in my interactions with them.

Although I am gentle with students, I am not adverse to asking hard questions or pushing against resistance.  But if a student resists, I don’t force my way through it; I address that instead.  Why do you hate writing?  Who told you you could not write?  Just this week, a resisting student related she had been held back in 3rd grade because her 3rd grade teacher would not help her write well, and she has hated writing and resisted ever since.  So I suggested she write a letter to that teacher, expressing all the fury and rage and humiliation she felt, and then burn it.  Or show it to me.  So then, we could get on with the business of learning writing.

I think this strategy is similar to Japanese philosophy:  the rod breaks while the reed bends.  I try to be the reed, but to never, ever, be the teacher who simply surrenders on a student.

No one taught me to be this way.  Honestly, I do not know why I am this way.  But it is my best trait as a teacher, and I dearly wish all teachers had this.  It seems the great ones do.  My tutors, for example, in their very different styles, show this same level of engagement and caring–whether through joking, prodding, passion, fury on behalf of a student because of a knuckle-headed teacher, intensity, or force of personality, have created what some would deem miracles of learning.

But we know better:  we know it is the engagement with our students wherever they are that leads to trust, and trust leads to learning.  It is ineffable, this quality, and shows many faces:  but the results are always the same–smiling, encouraged students who have learned something today.


The Grocery Store Diaries: The Death of my Shopping Experience

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I was never a huge fan of grocery shopping, but it wasn’t the worst household chore. Sometimes (if the list included beer) it could even be fun. Sometimes I didn’t need a list and sometimes it was scribbled on the backsides of empty envelopes or written on my hand.

When I first started working at the grocery store, I started to find grocery lists charming. I thought there was a kind of beautiful simplicity about the grocery basics: milk, bread, eggs. My mind flashed back to classic Americana – very I Love Lucy –every time I found a handwritten shopping list someone dropped during their visit. I loved helping a lost husband translate his wife’s chicken scratch or decide what kind of cookie dough she was talking about. I started making more grocery lists myself – proper ones with legible handwriting.

Now that I’m six months into management training, the romance of grocery shopping is officially ruined.

I am incapable of scribbling down a simple, elegant grocery list. Now my list has to be itemized according to aisle and department. Then the aisles are listed in order of flow-of-traffic so I can get in and get out in one swift, well-crafted circle.

Forgot the eggs? Too bad, I’m not going back.

And it doesn’t stop there. The grocery list must now be very specific. Considering my huge 10% employee discount on “grocery store brand” items and whatever specials are going on, my items have to be listed according to brand names. Gone are the days when I  could glance down at my ill-crafted list, spot “peanut butter” and spend a good two minutes deciding whether or not I wanted to travel into the world of “chunky” or stay safe with “smooth.”

Color-blocking: Using like-colored items stocked in rows (be they vertical or horizontal) to create color striping that is pleasing to the customer’s eye. Think about it: you’ve never seen a pile of green apples, then red apples, then more green apples. It’s all red apples then all green apples then yellow, etc.

I reminisce about how many times I just reached up and grabbed what I wanted off the shelf without a second thought. Now I can’t pick up an item without pulling the one behind it to the very front (let’s not forget our “conditioning” lesson), not to mention straightening up the nearest three items while I’m at it. And this goes beyond the grocery store. I’ve caught myself straightening bottles and magazines while waiting at the gas station or leveling out a restaurant’s pile of kids menu crayons into neat, color-blocked sections.

It’s sick, really.

So restore my faith in grocery shopping and share with me what your quirky lists (or lack thereof) look like: is it a note in your Blackberry? A piece of paper torn from the side of class notes? The backside of receipts? Do you write it and hand it off to someone else? Either way, I hope your lists forever remain charmingly disorganized and significantly less anal than mine.

Trust me, you don’t want my hell.

The Grocery Store Diaries: ‘Tis the Season


It was just another day in the grocery store, only a couple hours into my shift when my friend and fellow “management trainee” John grabbed my arm in passing. At the end of his shift and in a hurry to leave, he explained that a woman called in requesting a large order he wouldn’t have time to fill. He asked our bosses about filling the order and they had already told him “we don’t have the time.”

There are multiple things wrong with this situation.

  1. I may only be a trainee, but I do know one thing: we have the time. In my own head I’ve likened working at the grocery store to being in prison (a la Crime and Punishment for all you literary nerds). There are only so many things for you to do in ten hours – do them one at a time and do them slowly.
  2. As corporate loves to brainwash into us over and over and over and over again, the customer comes first. You’d have to be an idiot not to realize making this lady happy is only going to mean one giant order ($), great word-of-mouth ($$) and repeat visits ($$$). That’s just good business. Apparently, I work with idiots.
  3. It’s f-ing Christmas. Have a freaking heart.

So I took her name and phone number and the reporter inside me took over. I ended up on the phone with this lady for a half hour while she explained that her husband was recently admitted to the hospital with a potentially fatal issue. She felt the overwhelming inspiration to just plain do something good for the world – hoping a little good karma would put her soul at ease for a while – and her church just happened to be running a food drive for needy families. They were creating holiday baskets and had a wish list the congregation had picked over; they were still lacking lots of items before the baskets were complete.

She had decided to finish off the list herself and a hefty list it was: 48 boxes of pancake mix, 25 packets of gravy mix, 32 bottles of vegetable oil, 29 cans of frosting…It took me two hours to fill two baskets with her order. I had two checkers pre-ringing her transaction in a separate lane when I was paged to customer service. I’d never met this woman and she knew me as soon as I saw her – she was already waving from across check lanes as I was approaching the desk.

“Desiree? We have a little something for you.”

I glanced down and noticed tiny people (children, not midgets) glaring up at me and each handed me an ornament: small rustic-style angels.

“This is because you were my angel today.” This is the part where I started to tear up a little.

“With three kids and a husband in the hospital, I would’ve never had time to come in and do this myself. I can’t thank you enough.” That day, working in the grocery store was worth it.

Merry Christmas.

The Grocery Store Diaries


Recently, I read an unfortunate post from Gage about just plain not feeling the inspiration to write. I have say Gage,  I feel for you. As my numerous (and overwhelmingly popular) posts to your blog can prove, I haven’t had the inspiration to write much lately either.

So in an effort to give my favorite Phreelance Writers a few well-deserved days off (and keep myself from getting rusty) I present to you:

The Grocery Diaries:

Part I: “Signage”

It had been three months without a journalism job and I had given up. The bills were looming and the thought of moving in with my mom made me queasy. It was officially time to settle. So my master’s degree and I decided to accept the job at the local grocery store.

Thirty minutes into day one and I realized I was too smart for this job. My first big lesson? How to “condition.”  Now follow me here, this is where it gets confusing. Move two products from the back of the shelf to the very front edge. Still with me? Make sure the labels are facing towards the front. Repeat for every single product on the shelf. In case you didn’t understand, let me make it perfectly clear:

Bad "Conditioning"

Good "Conditioning"












Six hours later, as I “conditioned” the cereal aisle,  I was nearly tearing up at the epic failure I’d become. Ten years of journalism experience boiled down to whether or not the Frosted Flakes lined up right.

By the time my ten hour shift was over, I wanted to shoot myself.

I wondered how the hell I was going to make it through tomorrow’s ten hour shift when it came to me: smoke  weed.

The next morning, after smoking a bowl on the way to work, my manager posed a question: “Do you have good handwriting? I need you to make a sign.” Ecstatic at the prospect of not having to touch canned vegetables for a precious few minutes, I was immediately on board.

Now, when you ask most people to make a sign, it’s probably no big deal. You write a few words (i.e. “Springdale Milk”), maybe in block letters if you’re feeling real fancy. But for a stoned journalist with a former studio art minor, it’s just not that easy.

When I asked if my manager wanted the information left-justified or centered and I received a blank look in return, I realized I was on my own. My first grocery store sign was no masterpiece, just simple, centered information. I even got fancy and put a solid line around the edge just to give it a little “pop.” But when I started walking it back to the seafood department, I had to stop in my tracks. There hung a sign advertising free items with a specific purpose and in the corners, someone had written “WOW!” in big bold lettering.

I've just been raised a "Wow"

Oh hell no. It’s on.

I immediately headed back to the office, picking up a pack of multi-colored sharpies from the shelf along the way. Outdo me, will you? I have a G-D master’s. Before I knew it, I was surfing YouTube for “how to draw farm animals” and well, let’s just say my signs are now legendary.

check out those flawlessly executed 'grocery store nines'

It’s the small victories, right?

The Grinch Drives a Bus


The latest from our creative and personal essay Saturday series.


“You’re too late,” said the bus driver.  “We’re leaving in five minutes.”

I had my ticket in hand and my bags were waiting on the curb next to the bus.  All he had to do was tear the ticket stub and stow my backpack in the luggage compartment like all the other bus drivers had done every single time I’d ridden this route.

“That’s all right,” I said.  “I have everything I need.”

I handed him the ticket.  He looked at it closely, like he was inspecting a forgery.  I waited for him to say something, but he just sat in the driver’s seat, not making eye contact with me.  I started moving towards the back of the bus, but the second I started to walk away from him he spoke up.

“Don’t you want your bags, young man?”

He drew out each word, making sure the inflection was pitched just so – to show he was in control here, not I.  I started to tell the driver that I was hoping to leave my suitcase in the luggage space, since it wouldn’t fit in the overhead bins, but he cut me off.

“You’re not going to leave without it, are you?”

I stepped off the bus, wondering why this was becoming so difficult but not wanting to aggravate the driver further.  I grabbed my bag and heaved it up the steps and towards the nearest open seat.  As I passed the driver he gave me a snaky smile and said, “You’d better hurry.”

I fidgeted with the bag, trying to cram it into the space above the seats, but to no avail.  The driver beckoned me towards the door.  I couldn’t believe what was happening.

“You can’t leave that in the aisle,” he said.

I stared at him for a second or two, trying to find some indication he was joking.  The lights on the dashboard reflected red in his eyes.  He was toying with me.  He handed me back my ticket, stub still attached.

“You’re too late,” he said again.  “You missed this bus.  You can get on the next one.”

We both knew there was no next bus—that this was it; after midnight, you were out of luck.  I knew pleading with him would get me nowhere.  I descended the steps and walked back towards my car, beaten.  I didn’t look back but I knew he was watching me, enjoying the slouch in my shoulders, the slowness of my step.

When I told my family about my encounter with the bus driver, they said the guy was just having a bad day.  They refused to accept that the driver just had it in for me, and that he was wholly cruel, that he probably treated his own mother the same way.  I badmouthed him for hours and finally convinced myself that some people were just terrible, day in and day out.  I thought up witty one-liners that would put him in his place if we ever crossed paths again.

Over the next few months, I rode the bus back and forth many times without issue.  I had all but forgotten the incident until one afternoon, as I waited in line to board the five o’clock northbound home for Christmas, I saw him.  The faded memory quickly regained all its former color, and for a moment I thought about turning around and waiting for the next bus.  But then he spotted me, and from the look he gave me I could tell he knew exactly who I was.  It was too late: turning back now would give him another victory.

I waited in line, confident that there was no way he could turn me away this time.  I rehearsed the comebacks I’d prepared months ago.  When I handed him my ticket he took a long time inspecting it.  Too long.

“This is almost expired,” he said.  “You cut that pretty close.”

He tore the stub without breaking eye contact.  I tried to conjure up a biting remark to counter with, but none would come.  As I climbed the steps, I reached into my pocket and took out the Snickers bar I’d bought for the ride, and I set it on the driver’s seat.

I’m still not sure why I did it.  Maybe it was a test, to see if he’d accept my peace offering and apologize.  Maybe some part of me felt guilty for the hours I’d spent telling his story to friends and family, using him as a way to make myself feel morally superior.

When I exited the bus, I noticed the candy bar wrapper in the trash bin along with the empty water bottles people had thrown away after the trip.  He pulled my suitcase out from the luggage compartment and handed it to me.  I thanked him, and he gave me a curt nod.  As I walked off towards the parking lot, I heard him wish me a good night.  I wished him the same, and drove home.