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

A Clatter of Collective Nouns

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The English language has over 1000 names for groups of things.  My Dad, who as a former English Professor and current Attorney cannot be slighted for his lack of word knowledge, hates this particular game, calling it an activity that stupid people engage in thinking it’s smart.  He prefers a somewhat more streamlined method of referring to groups of things, i.e. a “s**t-load” of bears, bees, birds, or even animals not beginning with the letter “b.”  My brother prefers to refer to things as “bunches.”  Meanwhile, I am of a similar mind to my father and often find myself saying “that’s a s**t-ton of. . .”

Clearly the actual terms appeal to people more for their whimsy than for their utility, and after a sounder of beers my brother and I found ourselves trying to come up with a few.  Sadly, the only clever collective noun I could call to mind at that moment was a “murder of crows.”  First, because “murder” seems strangely apropos for sinister gatherings of black birds, especially for anyone who has seen Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and also because it was referenced in the Simpson’s episode Weekend at Burnsie’s where Homer explains to Marge, “It’s a murder, honey. A group of crows is called a murder.”  Thus it covers at least two distinct branches of trivia.

There are many websites dedicated to collections of, uh, collective nouns.  Some, are familiar like a “gaggle of geese” and a “school of fish,” while others, such as a “harem of seals” and an “implausibility of gnus” border on the ridiculous and sound as though they were made up on the spot.  While the aforementioned examples can be corroborated, I’m sure others *are* fabrications, as I’ve yet to find a site that cites its sources. The following list of 20 collectives, contains many that I like, along with some originals.  Can you tell the difference?  Comment with your favorites, real or speculative.

knot of toads
plague of pigeons
kettle of finches
dray of squirrels
murmuration of starlings
leap of leopards
bale of turtles
cuteness of koalas
exaltation of larks
sounder of boars
shrewdness of apes
unkindness of ravens
serendipity of sea lions
sloth of bears
muster of storks
zeal of zebras
labor of moles
sedge of cranes
parcel of penguins
grim of wolves

Literary Schizophrenia

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Lately I’ve spread myself a bit thin on the reading front. I’ve been reading several things at once: books on Lewis and Clark, experimental cabins on ponds, species seekers, and war at the same time as books about wizards, bloodthirsty cowboys, mythological Olympians, and adiposity. Add to that various magazines and anthologies, story collections from Poe and Bradbury, and a dose of screw-turning ghost stories, and you’ve got me feeling a bit of literary schizophrenia. The problem is, I’m a one-book-at-a-time guy, despite all appearances.

I can’t help but wonder what this is doing to my ability to retain essential elements of what I’m reading. I have no problem alternating between different mediums—narrative books, magazines, books of poetry. Alternating between narratives leaves me disoriented. Generally, when I sit down with any given book that has a running narrative, I can immerse myself in that world enough to block out other narratives intruding on my mind from other pages. But I have noticed a difference in how I experience those books. When I read one story at a time, no other extended narratives competing for attention, I have the whole of my literary mind engaged with that story. I’m more involved with the characters, themes, excitement. I get into it. Lately, though, my literary mind is distracted.

When I was reading about Lewis and Clark’s epic expedition, then switching to a Percy Jackson book someone gave me, only to turn pages in what I heard was Cormac McCarthy’s best damn book, I couldn’t appreciate any of it. Often I couldn’t even decide which book to read at any given moment, and I’d waste time figuring out what kind of mood I was in. The best Cormac McCarthy book? Didn’t particularly care for it. Partly, I think that was due to timing. Some books you aren’t ready for; they need a distinct mood. But more importantly, they need your undivided attention. To be honest, I didn’t know what the hell was going on because I didn’t give it respectful consideration. I found myself reading just to finish it, appreciating well written sentences but feeling zero attachment to story or character. And I thought that was a damn shame.

So I’m going back to my old ways. Why the change to a divided self in the first place? Partly a necessity of my work at a magazine, maybe a more fractured mood from upheavals and life changes, partly a sense that time is short and reading lists long. In any case, I’m done with it.

These books deserve my attention, or I’ve missed the point of reading. So excuse me while I go lose myself in a young wizard’s struggle against the darkness. The snow leopards will have to wait.

Wordplay: Scrabble

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Yesterday, we writing consultants indulged ourselves in some board game activity during one of our slowest days in the writing center. The game of the day was Scrabble. I’ll assume you’ve heard of this game. If not, stop reading, look it up, play a game or two and come back. Now, I must confess that I am not a rabid Scrabble player. Despite my voluminous lexicon, I only dabble in the game occasionally. Gage and Ori are the players. Ori is even a part of the National Scrabble Association.

Because I don’t play Scrabble regularly, I had several starts and stops as the first game began. Sure, I fell behind quickly, but the nature of the game is such that you are never truly out of it as long as you use the board efficiently and get decent letters. The words you can make are up to you. You are only limited by your vocab and the seven tiles in your possession. Any turn can be the game winning turn.

La/Fax/Ore/Axed in the bottom right is worth 55 points

I feel like the game of Scrabble is on par with telling riddles. There is an innate desire among the well-worded to show off our skills and Scrabble allows us to do just that. Not only does the game help increase and display one’s vocabulary it also helps build vocabulary by forcing players to build off of words already laid out on the board. I felt great when I turned Ori’s “Jo/To into Jot/Toy and then followed that up with Goy, a triple word score.

As the first game went on, skill and board efficiency won out. Even though I got better, I was not much of a match for Gage and Ori. They were gracious, the reality is that I was a no more than an interesting strategic wrinkle. But I’m OK with that. I took as much pleasure from playing as I did watching Gage and Ori use their tiles to see the possibility of words on the board. Ori dropped Mink which Gage turned into Minks/Shiv. Of course, the coup d’etat was Ori’s final gambit. His 55 point score, a wicked combo of La/Fax/Ore/Axed, would have won the game had I not played Clean/In off of one of his previous plays. My play allowed Gage to put down Ice for a triple word score and seal the deal.

That is how the game works. Each player brings his own knowledge to the game board and augments how other players see and play the game. Honestly, I can’t wait to play again.

No Topic Assigned

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I’ve taught writing courses–freshmen composition, argumentative writing, teaching writing, business writing, technical writing, narrative writing, writing about literature, to every shape and size of college student for nearly twenty years:   ESL students who had been in the US less than a year college freshmen ready to quit, seniors ready to graduate, graduate students in biophysics, kinesology students, law students, social workers, even students on the U of M football team.  I’ve assigned rhetorical forms: a classical argument, a narrative, a business proposal, a story, a lab report, a legal rebuttal, a social services report.  I’ve never assigned topics.

If my students learned nothing else in my courses, I wanted them to learn that writing belonged to them, that the power and magic of writing is most deeply enmeshed with the ability to express thoughts about the topics about which people feel the most passion.  I wanted my students to see that writing is a form of expression that belonged to them, that they could possess so that they could go through their lives with this incredible craft at their disposal.  I would ask my students, “How many times have you written about topics that professors assigned?”  They would respond with groans and rolled eyes.  “How did you feel while you were writing those essays?”


Well, I would tell them, “if you are bored writing in this class, I will be bored reading it.  So let’s not be bored.  Write about topics you care about!  Write about topics that infuriate you, or engage you, or fill you with joy, or stimulate you, but do not write about topics that bore you.”  Writing is one of the seven great arts; can you imagine a musician in a composition course being told to create a composition about Mozart?  An art student told to paint an interpretation of one of Kant’s theories?  A journalist told to write a story on yesterday’s news?  All of these types of artists are told to create according to the structure or form of the art itself.  So part of my reasoning is I wanted to teach in the way of all the great arts.

But more importantly, I wanted my students to create.  Creation is mysterious–we do not understand it.  I myself do not understand the process of how I am creating this essay right now.  All I know is that when I write, at a certain point, I am taken away from myself.  I am part of a greater consciousness than just the me that is separated from others by the barrier of my skin.  I am tapped into a great force, a great welling of creativity.  And all artists experience this, and scientists and mathematicians do too–read Einstein when he discusses the process by which he created his theories and formulas.  He did not understand it.  This is awesome.

I wanted my students to experience even a second of the awesome experience of creating, where the words flew faster than they could type, where they knew exactly what they were saying but could not believe they had written something that grand when they read it.  I wanted them to experience creation; I wanted them to be creators.  I wanted them to be artists.  I wanted them to experience the awesomeness of this process we do not understand, and I wanted them to feel reverence for it, and I wanted them to know that this creativity could be reached at any time they chose to sit down and let the muse take them away from the boundaries that keep us separate.

That is why I became a writing instructor.  I wanted my students to fall in love with writing just like I had.  I wanted  writing to save their lives, just as it had saved mine.  I wanted them to feel the urgency to create in whatever field they went in.  Assigning topics destroys that possibility.  Quite frankly, often assigned topics  interest only the instructor, or instructors chose topics so the student can exhibit knowledge.  But writing is not  meant to merely exhibit knowledge.  It is meant to engage us in the great creative process that has existed since before the beginning of time.  Creation–whether of an essay, an invention, a mathematical formula, a painting, a musical composition–creation is the finest activity in which we humans engage.  It is the closest we get to experiencing what it must be like to be the grand creator of the universe.


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If you’re a Phreelance reader, you know by now that we like to do our “forum” posts on Wednesdays.  Guess what today is.

In my freshman year of high school, I learned about literary devices.  In the interest of avoiding confusion, I’ll explain what that means.  It doesn’t mean a pens and erasers.  It means things like metaphors and similes and allegory – things that make groups of words more than just the sum of their parts.

I don’t consider myself literary, but I sure do love literary devices. As a result, today’s forum is less of a question than it is a compilation.  We’ve put together a list of our favorite devices, and we invite you to share you own.



People diagnosed with synaesthesia experience stimuli different than most.  They might experience sadness as a flooding of green, or say that the number 9 has a dark, tall, gracious character. They experience these connections across senses vividly, so much so that it is often a constant occurrence, not contextual or sporadic.

Literary synaethesia is only a little bit less amazing than the real kind. It works on creating intriguing sensory descriptions that make the reader think.  In forms like nonfiction you’ll mostly get some simpler synaesthesia, like a describing a color as hot or cold, or if you refer to a “heavy silence” or some such thing.  These are more common than you’d think, and more often than not we don’t even think twice about them.  It’s when you push the boundaries a little further that you get some phrases that make you have go back over the words and think about them.  What does green sound like?  Taste like?  Does hate have a smell?  It’s interesting to think about.

I personally think a porcupine would taste like a migraine.


Ever since freshman year of high school, I’ve been a fan of allegory. Prior to that, I was a fan of metaphor, which is like allegory’s kid brother. I just used a simile there, it’s related too. Maybe a cousin…

My love affair with allegory commenced when I read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Upon reading and learning about allegory and its use in literature I felt like one of the people in the cave, watching shadows dance on the wall and thinking them the truth. As my knowledge of allegory grew, my chains fell away and I was able to stand and see that there was more than just shadows dancing around a fire.

I like the idea that one thing can symbolize another. Allegory uses this idea and takes it to its full extent by creating a story that allows a reader to enter into a separate space to plumb the depths of meaning in an idea, or concept. As a writer, I think it is an excellent thing to be able to create a story within a story and have both stories be replete with meaning and symbolism.

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