Archive for the ‘self-responsibility’ Category


If Confusion Is The First Step To Knowledge, I Must Be A Genius* Or Mournful Teacherish Whinges About The Ambiguity Of Unclear Reference

November 13, 2010

I pretty much try to stay in a constant state of confusion just because of the expression it leaves on my face.
• Johnny Depp

Pronouns are extremely handy. They protect a writer from endless repetition of nouns: “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny Lorac’s crayons so Mij and Lenny could color” is much less cumbersome when it’s “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny her crayons so they could color.” Unfortunately, this kind of sentence can drift into ambiguity: “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny their crayons so they could color” is an altogether different box of crayons indeed. And a level of complexity is added to the whole thing because, after all, we are probably wondering if generous Lorac is going to color with M and L. If so, this probably should read “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny her crayons so they could color with her.” Sentences are tangled webs just waiting to wrap writers in the sticky web of confusion.

For clarity when you’re writing, you need to be certain that it’s evident from the progression of your sentence to whom–or what or where or other-noun-wise–your pronoun makes reference. Here’s an example taken from The Big Book of Confusing, Vague, and Uncertain Tales Desperately in Need of Clarification Created for the Edification of Children Everywhere (Algernon P. & Merrypat E. Prindlesnap, 1884)**.

Once upon a time there were three little pigs named Oink, Grunt, and Squeal, and a big bad wolf named Gotcha. They had an even littler brother too and he called him Scaredyhoof for he was afraid of just about everything and often ran away at the first hint of danger. He was particularly afraid of him. This is their story:

Houses needed to be built. Immediately. He didn’t know what he was going to do. They didn’t know what he was going to do. None of them knew what they were going to do. Even the people in the town knew that something had to be done about the situation, and fast, but they didn’t know what they were going to do either. He was uncertain too. And everybody was frightfully scared of what loomed ahead.

Certainly there was danger and they had reason to be afraid. They knew it would soon be winter and they needed shelter from the cold as well as food to eat once the endless snows of winter descended on the valley where they lived. There were other dangers too. So they separated and each went their own way, looking for what was needed. One of them took their most recent acquisitions down to the meadow to the woodchopper’s shed where they often stored such things. He often used it for storage too.

He wasn’t happy with this hiding place. They didn’t want any of them to find the bricks and sticks and straw and stones and didn’t know what to do with them so they couldn’t find them. And they needed to hide him too.  So he took them instead to a cave in the woods. There, he thought, they would be safe, and if he were careful, he wouldn’t be able to find them.

He decided to build a house for them and asked him to help, but they couldn’t find the materials. They weren’t around to tell him where to look, so he asked him to help find them. They weren’t anywhere they looked and while they were looking, he came looking for them.

Well, that’s aplenty. You get the picture, I’m sure, but just in case, answer the following questions:

Who hid the materials?

Who was looking for the materials?

Who came looking for whom?

Always check your writing to make sure that pronouns such as he, she, it, they, that, which, and who that you’re using to replace another word refer clearly to the word they are meant to replace. This word is known as the pronoun’s antecedent. The antecedent should precede the pronoun in the current or previous sentence. Once other nouns intervene and too much distance develops between the pronoun and its antecedent, the waters of clarity become muddied (or the web becomes stickier–take your pick). Beware as well of creating problems because you are referring to a word that is implied rather than explicitly stated. (You likely know what you’re talking about, but your reader may not.)

In an effort to avoid the awkwardness engendered (pun intended) by non-sexist language, some speakers and writers replace constructions like she and he or hers and his with them and they and theirs. This can lead to ambiguity. “The student turned in their fundraising money,” for example, is unclear. Whose money did the student turn in? There’s no way to be certain from this sentence whether the student was handing in her or his contribution or was in charge of the contributions of the entire class.

When you’re done writing something—emails to essays to everything else—what are your strategies for making sure you’ve said what you intended to say?

There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.
• Thomas Reid

* Thanks to Larry Leissner for the title quotation.

** The Prindlesnaps were a brother and sister whose works were well-known in the schoolrooms of late nineteenth century England. Their opus, Commas, Periods, Semi-Colons, and the Odious Exclamation Point: A Study of Punctuation Abuses in Fairy Tales (1897), is no longer in print, although almost any reader would benefit from its study. Should you locate a copy of this rare tome, consider yourself fortunate indeed!


If I Were Queen Of Education, There Would Be Only Two Grades: Cares Or Doesn’t Care

July 1, 2010

There is, in the act of preparing, the moment when you start caring. • Winston Churchill

Whether you are a student or a teacher or an employee or a parent or a partner or any one of thousand other roles that each of us plays daily, you have to care about what you do if you want to produce good work. You have to love your work—not in the sense that every moment of your engagement with whatever it is that you have to do will bring you unbridled joy—but with an acceptance and a level of involvement that acknowledge its importance in your life.

I’m a teacher. I can tell when students hand in done-on-the-bus work, the kind of stuff that’s cobbled together at the last minute with little thought given to its creation. I’ve written about this before. It brings me no joy to receive this kind of work and even less joy to assess it. Sometimes this worth•less work even meets all the requirements and thus, my assessment can’t be too harsh. The work is likely to pass. But it still makes me sad.

I understand that there is meaning•less work distributed in classrooms all over the world. I understand that students don’t see the point of many things that they are asked to do. Sometimes there are assignments that don’t seem to have much of a point, although if you asked the teacher, there may well be a rationale. As a student, I’ve been asked to do some things that I consider hoopjumping, but I’ve also turned many of those hoops into opportunities to expand the possibilities of exploration in ways that please me and that make what might seem to be an empty exercise into something I cared about and was proud of when I finished.

You can do this too. School or work or parenting or whatever it is that you must do in life is always offering you the opportunity for authentic and enthusiastic engagement. Most teachers won’t tell you this explicitly, but they’re hoping you’ll get it. It’s the secret at the heart of lifelong learning. So your teachers create activities and assignments, design scoring guides, and try to provide helpful guidelines, but they’re also imagining that at least some of you will see beyond these things into the real purpose of education: making your life better, richer, more meaningful.

I’m teaching summer courses and in my on-campus courses everyone is completing a complex yet useful assignment as a major part of the requirements, a plan for their first five days of school. The class includes students who’ve had courses with me before and those who haven’t. Those who haven’t are nervous. What do I want? What will please me? One of the students who’s had other courses with me articulated my philosophy better than I could have. Here’s the essence of Jim Janousek’s comments to the class:

Read the assignment, get the gist of it (what’s the purpose of what you’re being asked to do?), and then produce something that you can use in your classroom (I am teaching teachers right now, but this applies to other student experiences as well—I’ve used much of my undergraduate work as the basis for my professional work). I stress: do something that you can use!

This takes away the anxiety of the assignment and makes it more fun when you’re thinking about implementing those ideas in your own classroom. (There are times when I have very specific goals for students and I am explicit about them, but often the guidelines I provide are simply meant to be helpful for those who don’t have ideas yet about how they want to proceed. I always welcome thoughtful alternatives and suggestions from students.)

What works for you, works for Zinn! (If your intentionality shines through, it’s likely that I will be delighted.)

As long as you put thought and time into your assignment, remember Zinn’s grading scale is cares or doesn’t care. (You got it, Jim!)

What do you need to care about?

We are all functioning at a small fraction of our capacity to live fully in its total meaning of loving, caring, creting, and adventuring. Consequently, the actualizing of our potential can become the most exciting adventure of our lifetime. • Herbert A. Otto


There Is Some Pleasure Even In Words, When They Bring Forgetfulness Of Present Miseries.*

May 29, 2010

Our ability to delude ourselves may be an important survival tool.
• Jane Wagner (1985),
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Work is a comfort when you’re worried about someone or something. It is possible to occasionally become so immersed in a task that you forget—perhaps just for a moment or two—that there are sharks in life’s waters and that sometimes they bite. They circle. They lurk, awaiting their moment. You know they are there. You know they are waiting. You know their attack will come. And the distraction of work can help. Or not. Sometimes I distract myself with poetry about the act of distraction:

These Are The Things
by W-OZ

These are the things I do
in the hours
when I do not
think of you:
seventeen essays graded
scribbled with
apostrophes please
spellcheck won’t catch everything
cite your sources.

While  all I do not say
floats in the air around my head,
pen sharply bitten
never leaking out
its cranky inky admonitions:
What are you thinking?
Are you thinking?
This makes no sense!

And then it’s back to
watch your run-on sentences
and subject-verb agreement.

These are the things I do
in the hours
when I do not
worry about you:
Read three chapters of a
U.S. history text circa 1939.
Write fourteen quotations
onto blue-lined white cards,
a favorite this from Austen.
Mansfield Park.
“A watch is always too fast or too slow.
I cannot be dictated to by a watch.”

And papers sorted
this pile into that and
then into their folders.
I’ve seen some of this
too many times before
and yet
they were not ready for their place.

These are the things I do
in the hours
when I am afraid
to think of you:
Straighten out the closet.
Put the shoes into their boxes,
stack them high.
Fix the dresser drawer
that hasn’t shut for many months.
I found three socks,
a scarf,
and a red beret
I thought I’d lost last winter.

Untangled silver chains and
paired my earrings
into little plastic bags.

These are the things I do.

I do these things,
a dozen others and
then a dozen more,
inventing ways to fill the hours
I dare not think of you.

And still my mind returns
all ways
to you
of whom I cannot think.

But do.

It is difficult to think clearly when you’re distracted by worry. If you’re in school this can be particularly challenging since it’s seldom possible to stop the clock of school and take a worry break. Regardless of what’s happening in your life, papers come due and finals week approaches. At times like this, compartmentalization and distraction are useful skills to develop.

What do you do to distract yourself?

At painful times when composition is impossible and reading is not enough, grammars and dictionaries are excellent for distraction.
• Elizabeth Barrett Browning

* Title wisdom is from Sophocles.


I Am Behind. I Am Really Behind. I Am So Far Behind That I Cannot See The Light At The End Of The Tunnel Right Now. How About You?

May 28, 2010

Desperation is a necessary ingredient to learning anything, or creating anything. Period. If you ain’t desperate at some point, you ain’t interesting. • Jim Carrey

Goodness knows I’m definitely on the trail to interesting because I’m definitely desperate. Without going into details, I will just say that I am trying to finish up one quarter and get ready for the next while also getting ready to present papers at two conferences in Washington, D.C. I’ll be leaving in a couple of days for a train trip across the country (and will be writing, but only sporadically posting what I’ve written as I get connected).

I have not procrastinated at all in the past months. I have made lists and set goals and stuck to them. I am, however, almost out of time. Will I make it? I always do. Things may not be perfect, but they get done. That’s the advantage of having had lots to do and having gotten it all done multiple times. I have faith in myself. I know that if I keep pushing through, the other side will eventually appear.

It’s close to the end of the term for lots of folks whether they’re students or teachers. I hope all of you will get it all done too.

What do you need to do? How are you going to get it done?

One may go a long way after one is tired. • French proverb

Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it.  The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use. • Earl Nightingale


Something To Ask Yourself: Are You A Donkey’s Behind?

May 27, 2010

I never had a policy; I have just tried to do my very best each and every day.
• Abraham Lincoln

I recently had an unpleasant encounter with a stranger who was supposed to be providing assistance. S/he-who-shall-remain-anonymous was being paid to provide said assistance. I was a customer. I’m supposed to be right, right? And really, there wasn’t anything to be right or wrong about except that I wanted a bit of attention from the person who was supposed to be taking my hard-earned cash in exchange for the goods s/he was selling.

The right to do something does not mean that doing it is right.
• William Safire

This was too much to ask. I was an unwelcome interruption in a fascinating three-way cash register conversation involving a co-worker (on a break–s/he said so in a brief aside to me, as though to explain her/his lack of attention to my needs) and someone named Lee on a cell phone. Beer was involved. How much and who was bringing it. Tacos too. A houseboat. And much more, unfortunately too banal to report here. Had their three-way been interesting, I’d have gladly waited pretty much indefinitely.

Laws control the lesser man [or woman]. Right conduct controls the greater one.
• Chinese proverb

Instead, I waited patiently for several minutes before asking if it would be possible to exchange my money for their goods. The phone talker asked me if I couldn’t see that s/he was busy. Well, yes, I could see that s/he was otherwise occupied, but I could also hear that it wasn’t work-related.

You do not wake up one morning a bad person. It happens by a thousand tiny surrenders of self-respect to self-interest.
• Robert Brault

Mark Twain said that “be yourself is about the worst advice you can give some people.” I used to have this quotation framed and hanging in my classroom. I believe in personal authenticity, but I also believe that if you are a donkey’s behind in your dealings with others, you might want to consider creating a nicer, more considerate self for public presentation. This is important at all times, but it’s especially important if you’re being paid to pay attention to the needs of others.

Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other “sins” are invented nonsense. (Hurting yourself is not a sin – just stupid.)
• Robert A. Heinlein

I’ve written before about common sense and how I believe that it is misnamed because rational problem solving doesn’t always come naturally to people. Neither does considerate behavior. These things and many others need to be taught, and yes, I do know how busy schools already are. In my fantasy world, every child would learn many of life’s useful lessons at home before s/he ever entered a classroom and would arrive at school ready to learn and ready to be a delightful and productive classroom participant.

Every wrong seems possible today, and is accepted. I don’t accept it.
• Pablo Casals

I also know that there are crucial basic skills students need to leave school with, like the ability to figure out what ten percent off the regular price is if the calculator isn’t working (another important customer service attribute). Still, consideration for others is a basic skill of successful living and if we want to rid the world of donkey’s behinds, everyone’s got to help.

Goodness is the only investment that never fails.
• Henry David Thoreau

So. Are you a donkey’s behind? If you are, what are you going to do about it? If you aren’t, what’s your secret to maintaining civility in a world that seems to be increasingly uncivil and how can you share it with others?

If everyone were clothed with integrity, if every heart were just, frank, kindly, the other virtues would be well-nigh useless, since their chief purpose is to make us bear with patience the injustice of our fellows.
• Jean Baptiste Molière,
Le Misanthrope (1666, when, apparently, the good old days were not always good)


Clean Up Your Own Damn Mess! And Clean Up Someone Else’s Too When You See It.

May 23, 2010

Imagine how much cleaner the world would be if everyone who left their house every day picked up at least one piece of litter and threw it away in a trashcan. We could clean up the world in a hurry. • Dr. Pauline Wayne

I mentioned my public messiness rant recently, but it really deserves more attention than just a couple of sentences. Admittedly, I do not shop at high end boutiques where ever-vigilant salespeople keep the floors clean, but I’ve been shopping today and I was reminded of my pet peeve because in every store I entered there were clothes on the floor and people were walking on them.


If you were at home and something fell on the floor, would you walk on it? Probably not. If you did, you’d also know that if whatever it was on the floor got ruined, you’d have to buy a new one and that could get expensive fast. You’d pick it up or even if you didn’t, you’d probably take a detour around it. If you had a shopping cart at home, you probably wouldn’t drive it right across that sequined tank top nor would you try to push it over a denim pencil skirt or a pair of tie-dyed pajamas.

I pick things up when I see them on the floor. This has led to my being mistaken for a salesperson at multiple venues from Goodwill to Target to Piggly Wiggly. Who would be replacing goods on shelves and rehanging clothing unless she was getting paid for it? But we all have to pay for careless shopping behavior. If you wouldn’t consider shoplifting, why take away a merchant’s profits by destroying their goods?

In the classroom, this care•less irresponsibility translates into leaving your leavings for someone else to clean up. You’re the folks who leave bottles and cans and sunflower seed husks and candy wrappers and plenty of other detritus behind as you exit the classroom. I know you’re probably indulging in the same kind of behavior in coffeeshops and fast food eateries. I hope you’ll stop it.

I feel better now.

Do you clean up your own messes?

Mom’s (yours, mine, and nature’s) rule: I don’t care who made the mess. I asked you to clean it up, so get busy.


You’re Awesome! I’m Amazing! This Post Is Awesomely Amazing! No, Wait! It’s Amazingly Awesome!

April 26, 2010

Awesome: inspiring awe, admiration, or wonder. Amaze: to affect with great wonder, to astonish.

Don’t be afraid to be amazing. • Andy Offutt Irwin

Several weeks ago, I read Ann Handley’s post “9 Business Buzzwords I’d Like to Ban Because They Make Us Sound Like Tools (Part 1).” Her April Fools’ Day post was no joke. I am an educator and we are particularly prone to the dense and often incomprehensible use of meaningless jargon and overused buzzwords. Here’s Handley’s list (see for her wisdom): impactful, leverage, learnings, synergy, revolutionary, email blast, proactive, drilldown, 30,000 foot level.

I’ve never used some of these, but there are two I’m fond of. Proactive is one. Students need to be and yet they sometimes sit in class and wait for fate to happen to them rather than asking questions if they don’t understand something or aren’t certain what course requirements are. Waiting until it’s too late to do anything seems to be the opposite of proactivity; I’m not sure what I’d replace that word with. And then there’s synergy.

I’d like to make a plea to retain the use of the word “synergy,” using it when it cannot be replaced by Handley’s offerings of “cooperation,” “help,” and “joint/pooled/combined effort.”

I’ve worked on many committees. I’ve team taught and presented at conferences with other educators. Despite many opportunities to work with others, I have seldom experienced synergy, where combined efforts produced something that was greater than the sum of the parts. Indeed, I have sometimes found that combined efforts can lead to a kind of anti-synergy as creative energy is sucked from the group by endless wrangling and sub-committee-ing and nay saying.

Finally, forget dumping business words. I’d just be happy never to have to hear “awesome” or “amazing” being used to describe anything, except, of course, when I use them.

What words would you do away with because they are overused? What words would you keep even if they are overused because, frankly, they’re just so awesome and amazing?

Always and never are two words you should always remember never to use.
• Wendell Johnson