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.


2010 in review

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The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 12,000 times in 2010. That’s about 29 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 131 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 58 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 13mb. That’s about 1 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was October 29th with 243 views. The most popular post that day was Big Hunnid: Phreelance Writer Favs.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, rickdashiell.blogspot.com, twitter.com, reddit.com, and en.wordpress.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for phreelance writers, are e-mails and text messages destroying the language, phreelancewriters.wordpress.com, texting, and flowery language – phreelance.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Big Hunnid: Phreelance Writer Favs October 2010


Double Space After a Period? September 2010
14 comments and 3 Likes on WordPress.com


Writers July 2010


Are Text Messages Destroying English? September 2010
4 comments and 3 Likes on WordPress.com


About July 2010

Dumb it down


Over the weekend I had the following text message conversation:

Her: Maken sure you got home safe

Me: Yeah, I’m home safe. Thanks for the check-in. You get home safe too.

Nothing here to draw the eye… except maybe the the grammatical mistakes. In the exchange she uses the word “safe” when the correct grammatical word is “safely.” The adverb is used to describe the form in which I am to get home. In my response message, I used the same incorrect form. After I sent the message I paused to think about what I had just done. I couldn’t think of a good reason as to why I hadn’t used the proper form and it bothered me. It still does, even now.

Occam’s Razor states that the most obvious answer to a problem is usually the correct one. In this case, that answer would be that I wanted to fit in and not have this girl judge me as odd for my proper use of grammar. But that can’t be it. At my age, I’m not concerned with being judged as odd by females. I’m confident in myself and who I am such that I don’t need to seek approval from strangers. However, the reality is that this wasn’t the first time I “dumb-down” my use of language, and it won’t be the last.

My command of English grammar puts me in a rare group. It’s a group of people that appreciates witty wordplay and unique turns of phrase. It’s also a group that bristles at a lack of verb tense agreement and superfluous adverbs. I’ve been called a grammar snob. I’m not. I’m just elitist.

Be that as it may, it doesn’t keep me from wanting to fit in when I meet new people. We all have an innate desire to be liked, and in the pursuit of that, we hide those things that might make us unlikeable. I was no different; when responding to her text message, I made a choice to mimic her use of language because it sounds familiar. Plain and simple.

I’m a little ashamed. I should, at my age, be confident enough in myself that I’m not concerned about seeking the approval of strangers. But I’m not. These things still concern me and, in some instances, affect my behavior. I think it’s a way of life. I guess I have to accept the fact that I sometimes am embarrassed by my knowledge of English grammar. Once I do that, it should be easy to get over.

Big Hunnid: Phreelance Writer Favs


the inspiration for our lingo.

Dear Readers,

In case you haven’t been keeping track, this is our 100th post.  It’s kind of a big deal.

We’ve have many notable milestones so far.  We’ve been jobless, we’ve applied to jobs, we’ve been ignored by jobs, we’ve gotten jobs, and in between, we’ve written about some other stuff as well.  Like any self-respecting publication, we’ve recruited contributors to work for free for us, and we’ve used social networking to our advantage to gain readership.  We’ve missed our self-imposed deadline of daily content maybe once or twice, and we feel that’s pretty damn good.

We’ve looked back over our work and felt that some posts have risen above others. Below, we’ve listed our favorites in four categories: Dash’s favs, Gage’s favs, favorite guest contributor posts and favorite collaboration post. We invite you to add your favorite posts in the comment section. After all, you are just as much a part of the blog as we are.

Dash’s Favs

Job Search Depression – This post was great for several reasons: It contains video, numbered bullet points and a metaphor. It really doesn’t get better than that.

Back to Square One – This post was excellent because it gave Gage a chance to flex his journalism skills by writing the beginning of a full-length feature. It’s a pleasant return to form.

The Other Travel Writer – This post epitomizes the essence of blogging. I think blogging is the ability to see something and comment on it in a public manner. Gage wrote this post on a bus while traveling across the state in such a way that the reader feels as if they are sitting next to Gage on that bus. The photo enhances the feeling.

Gage’s Favs

New (Old) Jobs – This one is great because Dash is exercising his all-too-capable wit.  There’s a lot going on here, some riddle, some social commentary.  See if you get it! If not, no problem: we figured out how to put our answer upside down, like on a cereal box!

Of Mice and Music – Dash is a trained journalist, but that doesn’t mean the man can’t write some poetic prose.  This post is great because it uses journalistic observation as well as creative style and language.

Teachable Moments Part II – At our jobs we need to individualize our teaching strategies.  Dash is a master of motivation, but sometimes we have to let the students motivate themselves.  This is a well-told blog story that captures Dash’s character and some of our workplace environment at the same time.

Favorite Guest Contribution

Top Five Reasons I’ve Ignored Your Job Posting – We lament that Dez hasn’t written for us in, well, a long time. We miss her. But when she did sling words for us, they were razor sharp and full of wit. She was the aggressive voice shouting those things we were all thinking but were too timid to say.

Love and Art in Handwriting – Even though Nick is the newest guest contributor, he’s made his mark early. When you hand write a blog post like he did, you have to respect his work ethic and commitment to the craft of handwriting.

Favorite Collaboration Post

Come On! (8/28/10) – This post makes me laugh because of the what went into writing it. I wrote the first blurb about Marcus Evans at 3:30 a.m. after being out all night with Gage and some other friends. My ire was fueled by massive inebriation and fatigue. The next morning, I reviewed what I had written previously and found it to be quite accurate, so it stayed.

Stuff We Don’t Miss –  Who doesn’t love top ten lists? Furthermore, I dare you to show me someone who has completed an undergrad degree who doesn’t miss any of the top three. If you do, I’ll show you someone who is lying through their teeth!

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you down the road for Big Two Hunnid.

Teachable Moments

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One of the supreme joys of teaching is watching a student when a specific concept you’ve been teaching them suddenly clicks. Their eyes light up and it is clear that they have reached an understanding and can now apply this new knowledge to their work. It’s a bonus when said student can turn around and teach this concept to one of their classmates. As a writing tutor we don’t get to experience this moment often.  The very nature of our job is to offer supplemental support for a brief time. However, the other day I was able to to see this understanding reached.

Several of the students I and my fellow tutors work with at our job are foreign students who are also ESL/ELL students. This means that teaching them how to write well in English involves the explanation of some grammar rules that native English speakers take for granted. One student, we’ll call her “Tina,” was having issues with the use of articles in the English language. Her difficulty stemmed from the fact that her native language treats articles differently than English. Her issue manifested as an inability to properly place articles; sometimes she would omit them when they were necessary, and other times she would add them when they weren’t.

Now, it bears mentioning that I was not working directly with Tina when this moment occurred, but we tutors feel that the writing center is a communal place where we all work together to help students. To that end, Andy, who was working with Tina, asked me to help him explain how to double check proper article use so that Tina could do it on her own. Even though I’ve never thought of myself as a grammar maestro, I jumped at the chance to explain this because it’s an important part of grammar.

To explain to rule to her, I wrote two sentences on the chalkboard and showed her how the articles were used in each one. The visual helped her grasp the concept. As I explained, I watched her go from a slightly confused look to one of comprehension. As she looked at my examples on the chalkboard, she took notes and began to apply the rule to her essay. I felt a swell of pride to watch her put her new understanding directly to use on her work. It let me know that she actually learned something new and had incorporated it into her base of knowledge.

I’ve spoken before about why I like my job. This is just one of those reasons. Working with the same students over the course of a school year will allow me and my fellow tutors to witness those moments when a students “gets it.” We’ll be able to see our skill in teaching and writing manifest in these teachable moments. I look forward to the next one.

Are Text Messages Destroying English?


As Gage so aptly pointed out, the English language is a fickle beast. It is ever changing and growing to fit the needs of those who use it to express themselves. These types of changes are not unique to English. The Royal Spanish Academy, a nearly three-century-old institution in charge of regulating the Spanish language, is currently considering the elimination of accent marks on widely used words such as “este” (this), “aquel” (that) and “solo.”

While accent marks are not an issue in the English language, there are evolving forms that present new and interesting challenges to those who make a living using and teaching the language. The past few days, at work, have been spent reading student essays based off several articles that speak to the potential positive or negative outcome of a sudden increase in various online and hand held technologies.

After comparing notes and philosophies, a question was raised: Is the language of the “text message” destroying the use of grammatical English? We, here at Phreelance Writers, appreciate diverse points of view. Please consider our thoughts and submit your own as comments.



I think the emergence of a “text message” language is proof positive that the English language is alive and well. Sending text messages or “IMing” is a type of language that is read and understood by a specific set of English language users. When a subset of language users develop their own version of that language it’s called a dialect. The language of the text message is becoming a dialect and should be respected as such.

Moreover, the text message language allows for greater expression of ideas and emotions. While writing “I love you” is standard and accepted, writing “I ❤ you” is also acceptable in the text message language. The ability to use visuals to communicate harkens  back to earlier forms of language. I think it is great that this type of modern language is able to incorporate older forms and make them relevant and useful.


First and foremost I use texts when I need to commnicate small amounts of information, whether urgently a la “pick up toilet paper on your way home!” or topically, “I just saw ?uestLove at starbux.”  You’ll notice that those are sentences in the quotes.  I don’t use text-speak.  I rarely abbreviate words.  Why not?  1) I’m a writer and I’m simply neurotic about using words.  Plus, I like people to feel as though my communications are thoughtful.  I write out the extra letters because I care and 2 ) because some text-speech is just dishonest.  How often have you actually laughed out loud while or just before using “lol”?  This does not mean I disapprove of all text-speech: while I don’t use it and I frown upon its use in formal settings, such as for academic papers, I think text-speech is an amusing language evolution.

In particular, it has instantly streamlined acronyms.  I used to feel that with exception of acronyms that have entered the lexicon as words such as “scuba” (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus), “snafu” (Situation Normal All Fucked Up), and “laser” (Light Amplified by Salubrious Egrets Recreating) could be spelled without entering a “.” between each letter, text speak eliminates this convention. Ultimately, I’m in favor of streamlining language, and admit that there are other elements of text-speech I could benefit from using in certain settings, and while I fear that over-simplification can lead to the dilution of detailed expression, I believe communication is resilient and flexible enough to withstand and perhaps even benefit from an increase in text-speech conventions.


Destroying is a strong word, but yes, text and instant message lingo are certainly detrimental to learning formal English language.  I’m not against creativity with language, coming up with new words and changing the meaning of words, but like my boss always says, you can start breaking the rules only after you know them.

I think my concern with the prevalence of text-speak has to do with the ways that people learn.  It’s obvious that the things we do often become habits, so if people text “ur” twenty times for every “you’re*,” that’s what they’ll learn and become good at.  I don’t want to sound like a conservative language snob, but I do believe that standard English is more valuable than text slang.  It’s more widely applicable in all writing situations, and aside from the emerging “cell phone literature” niche, it’s the way that all writing is done.  If you want to read and write, learn the regular way first, then mess around with it.

*Side note: The fact that “ur” can become “your,” or “you’re” is a problem in itself, and overuse of “ur” can only lead to more homonym confusion when it comes to writing real English.


Texting is certainly altering grammatical English.  When I text, (at least several times each day), I break every grammatical rule I know: e.g. I do not use capitals, I write sentence fragments, I do not use formal language, I leave out apostrophes, and I frequently use ellipsis instead of laboring to express my full point.  Why?  The keyboard is tiny and frustrating.  Rather than deal with a tiny, frustrating keyboard, I do all of the above because it saves me time.

However, I know each and every error I commit.  My concern is for those who do not have a command of grammar and syntax.  The language we use shapes the language we will use.  A perfect example of this comes from earlier lessons; e.g.; in the 1980’s, an ad campaign misused the word “it’s,” using it as a possessive pronoun, and viola!  Suddenly every student was confused about the difference between “it’s” and “its.”  While it is true many people made this error before this ubiquitous ad campaign, it seemed the problem mushroomed.

I think texting has that same potential–to make error appear correct.  Although I realize language is alive and tends to simplify, it is that simplification of texting that most alarms me.  Complex language structures enable complex thought.  In an era of simplicity in thought, it is hard not to see that simplicity lead to, quite frankly, stupidity.  It is hard not to fear that texting, as another form of multitasking, creates even more distraction and contributes to the inability of people to concentrate over a reasonable length of time, or enjoy the privacy of their own complex thoughts.  One of my closest friends, a published author, told me she realized texting, chatting, and constant distractions had diminished  her ability to sit and read for two or three hours at a stretch.  If this woman, middle-aged, educated, and literate, finds herself diminished in ability to concentrate, what does that portend for those who do not have the background and experience she has?  Are we destined to become a bunch of twittering fly-by-nights who cannot think complexly enough or long enough to solve the enormously complicated problems we face, or even the enormously complicated lives that we live?  Can we fulfill the purposes of our soul or contemplate our individual place in the cosmos if we cannot slow down enough to think a grammatically correct, complex thought?

Week in Review 9/20 – 9/25

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It was quite the week here at Phreelance Writers. In fact, I think it’s safe to say this is our best week of content to date. Gage and I suspect that it is only a matter of time before Word Press notices the awesome that is Phreelance Writers and we are “fresh pressed.” In case your week was taken up by trying to understand Christine O’Donnell’s position on evolution, or figuring out which Comedy Central political rally you plan to attend here is the recap of what was, on Phreelance Writers.

On Monday, Gage and I introduced a new type of post. We call it the forum. In these forums we will discuss a particular subject from the various topics we write about the most. We will then invite our guest contributors and friends to weigh in on the subject. We hope they will spark conversation. This week, spacing after a period. Much thanks to those who stopped by and left their opinions in the comment space.

On Tuesday, I couldn’t come up with a topic, so I wrote about it. From time to time we like to go “meta” on the blog to see if you’re all paying attention. Wednesday allowed Gage to, in a sense, expound upon, and thereby ridicule, the form within which academics utilize verbose sentence structure. Confused? Read about it!

By Thursday, my frustration with a particular assignment I was seeing at my job had mounted to the point of eruption. I’ll reiterate, teachers, don’t make tutoring harder than it already is. On Friday, Gage left on a trip. He blogged his journey until his computer died. I haven’t heard from him since…

Saturday brought forth your regular installment of Come on! We have been accused of becoming jaded while searching for employment. I cannot deny that the process does alter one’s outlook, but we try to temper this by giving props to job posts that do a good job of relaying information. We just hope those jobs read our applications, right Gage? Gage?

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