English and Grammar

A lot of people (myself included) bemoan the fact that kids today – and adults too – cannot spell and have terrible grammar. Some call it laziness. Some say it’s because of social promotion. As an educator, to me the issue is more complex.  Here is a short piece that I wrote in 2009 in reply to someone on another blog site.

     I am a “grammar guru” so the misplaced apostrophes and misspellings that have become commonplace are very irksome to me.
     As a teacher, I see another side of it also. First of all, “invented spelling” has become the norm – it’s what kids do in Kindergarten & 1st grade when they can’t spell correctly yet. In the later grades, most schools have a spelling program which generally comes with workbooks of lists and activities to do. I have tried to do more with a spelling program than this, but there isn’t enough time. It’s more important for students to be able to express themselves coherently and have them correct their spelling as they go along. In an hour and a half, I’m expected to teach reading which includes shared reading (students read with teacher and discuss the reading), guided reading (students receive instructional reading at their level) and independent reading (students read books on their own, with set goals and monitoring necessary); spelling & grammar, and writing (it’s a process and very time consuming). 90 minutes a day may seem like a lot of time to do this, but believe me it isn’t! Guess which is the first thing that doesn’t get taught enough? You guessed it – spelling and grammar. It’s hard to teach these things in a vacuum but unless you tailor your instruction to each student’s needs (which is very time consuming), that’s what you end up doing, and students don’t always apply what they can easily do in grammar and spelling workbooks.
     With my students (English Language Learners), there’s the issue of phonics. Many of them don’t know the rules of English phonetics, but in the intermediate grades (3-5, which I teach) there is little emphasis on phonics in the curriculum because the people who write the curriculum assume it’s been taught in 1st-2nd grades! So we have to do it on our own as well as try to fit in all the grammar instruction as well.
     My experience is that, with many children, the more the read, the better they can spell because they see the words over and over again while reading. Others don’t make the connection. Still, good readers are in general better spellers than poor readers. So the emphasis is to help students read more and use strategies that good readers do.
     Another problem – and this is one I don’t have an answer for – is that in most school districts students are promoted to the next grade whether they are ready to go to that grade or not. We keep kids with their age-group peers. Why do we do this? It has a lot to do with lawsuits, I think. You fail a child, their parents may sue the school for “not doing its job” in educating the child properly, even though this is usually not the case. High stakes testing, even more important now with No Child Left Behind, has added to this problem. In the writing tests for these standardized assessments, there is less emphasis on spelling and grammar (conventions) than on focus, content, organization, etc. So we don’t emphasize these things either. (I say “we” in a broad sense, not necessarily what I or any individual teacher does).
     If we think a child should repeat a grade, we have to jump through hoops to get it done. There is a lot of paperwork, everything must be done far in advance to give parents fair warning, then we have to present documentation showing why the student is not passing and all the strategies we’ve tried to get him/her to succeed, etc., etc. It’s so difficult that most teachers don’t even attempt it. In some schools, principals don’t even allow it! (My husband taught in a school with a principal like this – it was very frustrating to watch kids graduate from high school when they hadn’t even gone to class for half the year).
     What is in place, therefore, is differentiated instruction, meaning that at each grade level, students are supposed to get the kind of instruction that is appropriate for their level and meets their needs. So they may be grouped in the main classroom, they may be pulled out for extra reading or writing instruction, there are special ed classes, ESL and bilingual classes, etc. Even so, there are plenty of kids who “fall through the cracks” – partly due to lack of funding so that class sizes are increased and you have to “meet the needs” of every one of your 25+ students in a 5 1/2 hour school day!!
     Teachers are some of the most caring, compassionate, dedicated professionals in this society. They get paid less than most professionals and often are not even treated as such. But it is a labor of love – we do it because we want to help kids grow and succeed. I am only saying this because many people think we aren’t doing our jobs, because kids seem to come out of school as semi-illiterate. This is not true for the majority. Teaching is a very complex and often frustrating profession, but as I said, we do it because helping students is our main concern.

Memories of my father

The Farmer’s Almanac

My father was a calm and gentle man. He was an intelligent and successful attorney, as well as a good husband and father. I hardly ever saw my father get REALLY mad. My mother was a yeller, and we often argued, but my father was slow to anger. I remember once he chased me brandishing a hairbrush, a memory that has carved itself on my mind as the angriest I ever saw him get. What I did to deserve his wrath has been completely forgotten! (By the time he caught me, however, he had calmed down enough not to use the hairbrush!)

As I said, my mother and I often argued. Both of us are possessed of a opinionated and passionate nature and a fiery temper, so we argued about anything that we felt strongly about. My father didn’t understand the need for these frequent arguments, since his temperament was the opposite of ours, and when we started in on one of our shouting matches, he would first try to mediate and get us to stop. Usually that didn’t work, however, since we were both so into our argument that nothing could stop it from accelerating. Exasperated, he would give up and leave the room. Upon returning, he would shake his head uncomprehendingly as he witnessed us, near tears, hugging each other, apologizing, or having a calm and pleasant conversation.

It didn’t always end that way, however. Often, my mother and I would simply go our separate ways. After one particularly loud argument about politics or some point about world affairs, (this being the cause of a great many of our arguments once I became more aware of such things during high school), my dad once again was forced to leave the room. These arguments really distressed him and he could not stand to see us fighting, the harmony of our household so disrupted.

When he returned still holding a section of the newspaper – no doubt he had gone upstairs to read it, and once the noise had died down decided to return to his more comfortable chair – he found me sitting alone in the living room, quiet but still agitated and irritable. I thought he was going to say something about the argument, tell me not to fight with my mother or to control my temper or something like that, which he sometimes did. Instead, after a few minutes silence, he said, “Have you ever read the Farmer’s Almanac?”

I looked up at him. He was standing in front of a small bookcase on which were stored an odd assortment of reference-type books – the National Geographic world atlas, U.S. road atlases, a dictionary and a thesaurus, Field Guides to birds and other animals, booklets about the lakes and fishing of northern Wisconsin, and a Farmer’s Almanac.

“No, not really,” I replied.

“It’s really quite interesting,” he said, taking it off the shelf. He got a new Farmer’s Almanac every year, or every time a new one was issued. He brought it over and sat down next to me.

My dad enjoyed facts and statistics – sometimes he would quiz us by asking if we knew what the largest lake in the world was, the longest river, the largest city, etc. The Farmer’s Almanac had this type of information, and a lot more. We started looking through it together, and I found myself quite engrossed. There were a lot of weather statistics – temperature, climate fluctuations, tornado data; and many population statistics and short articles about hog farming, wheat futures, etc. Eventually, while I was examining a table of statistics that were especially interesting to me, my father got up and left. I stayed there reading the Farmer’s Almanac for quite a while, and found that it had a calming effect on me. I forgot my anger, my political passions, and my mother’s old-fashioned opinions as I thumbed through the atlas and stopped to read more closely whatever caught my interest.

Later I reflected on what had happened and realized that perhaps my father had done this on purpose, although it had seemed quite spontaneous. Perhaps he had been looking for something on that bookshelf that would calm me down, or perhaps he was looking for a statistic he had become curious about while reading the newspaper. He found something that he thought might distract me and cool my temper, and it worked! After that, I often looked for the Farmer’s Almanac when I visited my parents’ home. There was always something interesting to read, some fact to learn, when I had a few moments and nothing in particular to do.

My father enjoyed playing with his five children, and had no preference in terms of gender. He had four daughters and one son, and enjoyed us all equally.

What I remember most about my dad was playing games with him. He loved to play board games, games that were competitive but also stimulated the mind. We had a lot of board games and often played Parcheesi, checkers, Scrabble, Anagrams, The Flag Game (put out by the United Nations, it had all the flags of the member nations), Game of the States, and others. Because of these games, I increased my vocabulary, learned a lot of countries’ flags and where they were located in the world, and all the state capitals – when I took a test on this in elementary school, I got all 50 correct!

Dad thought the competition and good sportsmanship promoted by these games was important, but it was also important to have fun and be fair. Because I was the youngest, my siblings often had an unfair advantage over me, especially in word games. When we played Anagrams, I had a hard time guessing other people’s scrambled words, but they could always guess mine. Once I got really mad about this, and asked my dad if I could find a word in the dictionary. He thought about this and decided it would be fair, since my vocabulary was not as advanced as the others’.

I found an unusual letter – X – and looked for a good, long word. I found one – xanthochroid. No one knew this word or what it meant, but I did, and I remember it to this day! Xanthochroid = a person of fair hair and complexion. This in fact described several people in my family, including myself.

My dad loved the challenge and kinetic aspect of Charades. He was so funny to watch as he acted out various words or parts of words. Somewhat klutzy and not an improvisational actor by nature, he was however, quite a ham! Once he was acting out the word “Christmas” and no one could get it! He divided the word in two and for the first syllable, Christ, he walked slowly and pensively up and down and made a pulling motion under his chin with his fingers, coming together in a V – it was supposed to be Jesus’s beard! For “mas” he tried to imitate a Catholic mass, which he did by waving his arms – I think he was supposed to be the priest holding up his hands or the communion elements, or maybe swinging a cup of incense, I’m not sure! Anyway, no one could figure out what he was doing!

Bad jokes were another hallmark of my father’s personality, and we got used to the groaners he would often tell. We knew when Dad had a new joke to tell because he would get this big grin on his face – he couldn’t wait to tell us! After a particularly bad joke or one my mother considered bad taste, I remember the look on her face – a half-grimace as she tried to suppress a smile or chuckle.

After I married my second husband, also a punster (and far worse taste than my dad’s), his coworkers made a dollar bet that our marriage wouldn’t last for more than six months due to his bad jokes! After six months, they extended it to a year, then they gave up. They didn’t realize that I had grown up with a man who told bad jokes!

Map Folding
There were certain things in life that my dad considered necessary life skills. One of these was learning to swim. Another was driving. It fell primarily to my dad to take each of his kids practice driving. Mom couldn’t do it – she was too nervous. The cars we had to learn on were stick shift because, Dad reasoned, even if we had cars with automatic transmissions, you never knew when you would be in an emergency situation in which the only car available would be a stick shift. Dad had a pragmatic way of thinking.

I remember going to the high school parking lot to practice driving. He would make me practice parallel and lateral parking, every type of turn, parking on hills, and driving up and down hills using a stick shift. He found out how many four-letter words I knew during those sessions, but always remained calm and didn’t scold me for using them. He was very understanding in that way.

When it came time to go for my driving test, my dad’s car had a little problem: it would sometimes stall after slowing down or stopping, but my dad knew what to do – there was a loose connection and it was easily dealt with by opening the hood and wiggling a couple of wires. He showed me how to do this, which I learned to do with some trepidation. Well, of course, it happened during the driving test! I had been parked on a hill, and was pleased with myself because I had not only parked well, but had remembered to turn the wheels toward the curb before stopping. Coming out of the space, the car stalled. I told the examiner I knew what to do – it was just a matter of wiggling a couple of wires, but he wouldn’t let me get out of the car to do this. He told me I needed to take my test in a car that worked properly and flunked me!

Six months later, when I was home from school, I took the test again on a different car (my grandmother’s this time – automatic transmission!) and passed. Having been the passenger for the first 16 years of my life, I was already somewhat adept at being a navigator, reading maps and telling the driver – especially my mother – where to turn. When I was 18, I got full use of my grandmother’s car because she couldn’t drive anymore and I had a summer job that I had to drive to. In my car were an assortment of maps, and it was imperative that I learn another necessary life skill – the art of map folding.

Of course, I had been learning this already, having spent a few car trips with maps spread out on my lap. Dad took it upon himself to show each of us how to get the most use out of a map by folding it carefully, either to display the portion of the map that represented where we were currently traveling to, or to store it neatly in the glove compartment. There were efficient and inefficient ways to do this, and the better you were at it, the longer your map would last before completely falling apart, and the easier it would be to navigate without having to have the map completely open on your lap.

The maps in my father’s glove compartment certainly had had many years of extensive use, and had to be dealt with very carefully to avoid increasing the length of rips along the worn folds. Since his philosophy was, why buy a new one when the old one was still useful, the maps were generally a decade or so old. Even though highways were being expanded, the routes were still the same, and he would sometimes draw in corrections on the maps himself. However, his philosophy would be hard to follow today with new maps being issued every year to keep pace with suburban sprawl and completely new routes being created. Still, I have to say I did successfully pass my father’s course in map folding, even as I now periodically purge old maps from my glove compartment when they become so tightly packed that new ones can no longer fit.

My father died at age 71 when attempts to control his heart fibrillations failed – soon afterwards, new medications and treatments were discovered that allow people to live longer with congestive heart problems. That was in 1988, and I still miss him!

Unexpected realization: May 2009

We’re sitting here, Dale and I, in the empty Room 5 of Mercy Hospital’s emergency department. We’re waiting for Mother to return from having a CT scan. She’d never had one before and was a little nervous. I assured her that it was fine – just lie still in a tube and they take pictures of your head.

 When we arrived, Mother had a blanket folded over, covering her hair. She must have been cold. After all, they had brought her here wearing only a holey nightgown and a short-sleeved yellow bathrobe, which had been her attire for the last two days. She was sure they were going to take her to a “ward” because her nightgown had holes in it! “No, Mother, they don’t do that anymore,” I’d told her.

 The blanket on her head had made her face appear even older and more pale, without the added dimension of the side of her face dotted with freckles and creased with wrinkles. The blanket cast a shadow which obscured that side of her face. As she spoke, I noticed her eyebrows – pure white and wispy, sticking up and brushing against the blanket on her head as she talked.

 Much of her talk was reminiscing, as usual – somewhat rambling, but coherent. I was relieved. She’d been so confused on the phone, insisting she was not in Janesville and thinking she was going to Lutheran General Hospital. In the hospital, she told me that she had thought she was in Wausau. Lutheran General was where Mary had been last week for her knee replacement surgery and Wausau was one of the places where she grew up, the source of much of her reminiscing. The events had gotten mixed up in Mother’s head, as they do in dreams.

 She had been talking about Uncle Jack and Aunt Mary. Uncle Jack had a “square” build, she said; he was very muscular. She asked if I remembered him. I said that yes, I vaguely remembered him but didn’t remember him as being muscular. I remembered Aunt Mary a lot better. Aunt Mary had raised Mother and her sisters, so she was more like an eccentric grandmother to me. Mother was talking about her funeral. Did I remember it? Oh yes, I did – I even remember what I was wearing that day. It had been the first funeral I had ever been to. I was 13 or 14 (Mother said it was in 1966, so I had to have been 14) at the time. I remembered sitting with my cousin Kabee, nearly my age. I thought it was so strange: At the cemetery, where it was cool and dark and drizzly on that spring day, the mood was somber and Aunt Mary’s nieces snuffled and blew their noses, but now that we were back at someone’s house, everyone was talking gaily and laughing. They shrieked with laughter while talking about eccentric Uncle Charlie who had lived in a tree. And the stories about Aunt Mary’s shenanigans flew around the room, cheering everyone up. By the end of the day, most of the adults were drunk on wine and reminiscing and laughter.

 Mother’s reminiscing ended when the nursing assistants came in to take her to her CT scan. First she had to go to the bathroom, so we left and the curtain was pulled so she could sit on the commode. I looked at that commode now, the cover securely on it. Had they emptied it yet? Were we going to smell it while sitting here? But it must have been airtight, or else it had been emptied, because there was no smell. The CT scan was presumably to find out if she had indeed had a stroke. The nurse had told us that disorientation and weakness are typical of people who’ve had a stroke. But Mother also said she hadn’t slept well due to stomach pain and that the only thing she’d eaten that day was a half a piece of toast and orange juice.

I pulled my jacket over my shoulders – it was kind of cold in here. No wonder Mother’s head had been cold. Besides not eating, she’d had little sleep and was worried about Mary and her own decision to move to Assisted Living.

 They’ve brought her back, wheeling her bed into the empty space in Room 5 once more. She said the scan wasn’t as scary as she thought it would be. The orderly that wheeled her in tells her how to use her call button, then leaves. He impresses me as being very young, as if he is in junior high. He even acts that way, but he must be in at least high school to have a job like this.

We wait for the results and Mother talks more animatedly now. Her eyes are bright behind her glasses, but her eyelids are red, I notice. Her bony hands are very cold. The IV she always fears when she is brought to the hospital must be providing her with some needed nutrition, I think, looking at the half-filled bag of clear liquid.

 A young, attractive male doctor comes in. Since everyone wears similar blue scrubs with an ID hanging on them somewhere, too small to read from any distance, I’m not sure at first if he is a doctor or another nurse. He tells us that there were no signs of a stroke on the CT scan. In fact, there are no signs of anything they can treat, so she is free to go.

After he leaves, we wait a little more until a nurse comes to prepare Mother to leave. The clock reads 7:05. A new shift has come on, so the nurse that comes is different than the one before. She pulls out the IV and Mother winces. I wince too, because of the blood. However, the nurse efficiently wraps Mother’s wrist with blue gauze which she says can be easily removed later.

Mother is very tired. I want to take her somewhere to eat immediately but she has to go home and get dressed. She’s so cold, so we give her a blanket to put over her in the car. She has great difficulty getting from the wheel chair onto the pavement and into the car. Dale’s van is too high for her to get into without a stool.

 Back at her apartment, I help her get dressed. She is so tired that she can barely stand. Every time she stands without the support of a walker or cane, she begins to topple over. It’s difficult for me to watch her deterioration. When she’s feeling OK, she can putz around her apartment without too much help. But when she has health issues and worries, she doesn’t eat or drink much, and she gets dehydrated. On days like today, she is totally helpless on her own.

 Since there isn’t much food that I can cobble together for the three of us to eat dinner, we decide to go out. She wants to go to Culver’s but can’t remember what street it’s on or how to get there. She thinks it’s by the Pick n Save. We drive by but there’s no Culver’s. She says it’s on Court Street but can’t remember how to get to Court Street so we drive around some side streets, until Dale gets out his GPS and programs it in. The female voice immediately tells us to “turn right, then turn right again.” We go around in a circle until we’re back on the right track. Instead of being entertained by the GPS voice, as she usually is, Mother is embarrassed that she can’t remember where to go.

 She was on the right track – Culver’s is next to a Sentry, another supermarket in town. By this time it is nearly 9 o’clock. Culver’s and other fast food joints are the only restaurants still open. Obligingly, Mother orders potato au gratin soup AND a roasted chicken sandwich. She eats about a third of the soup and a few bites of sandwich. I ask for a box and we take it back to her apartment for her to eat as a leftover – combined with the leftover salad and the leftover baked potato, she’s got a decent meal, not that she’ll eat all that at once.

 “I don’t eat much,” she explains, “because I don’t get any exercise, so I’m not hungry.” She asks me what I think of Obama’s educational policies.

 As we discuss our hopes for the new president, I see my real mother emerge – the one who talks about literature and debates the political issues of the day. Not the helpless woman who, by the time we return to the retirement home, is slurring her speech rendering her nearly incomprehensible, the one that I have to help undress and hold her up while she washes her hands and face at the bathroom sink. She needs to go to Assisted Living, as soon as possible, I now realize. I had been in denial up until now, thinking she could continue in independent living. Thinking that Donna – the woman she pays to take care of her and a good friend – is enough. Thinking that making the decision to go to Assisted Living will mean a downhill slide, until she dies. But she is already on a downhill slide. And none of us live in Janesville, where she insists on continuing to live.

 On the way home in the car, Dale and I are too exhausted to even converse. I try to read, but soon put my seat back and fall asleep. The next thing I know, we are turning off the expressway and the clock reads 11:45. We get home at midnight exactly. Dale goes to bed immediately while I make coffee, a depressed mood settling in and making my movements mechanical, my walking slow. I’m suffering with pain from sciatica, a nerve being pressed down upon by one of my twisted vertebrae. The car ride aggravated it.

 As I hobble around the kitchen, I think of myself and my mother, getting older, daily life getting more difficult. The pain I feel reminds me of my own mortality. Someday will I be like my mother, depending on others for every little chore? Will I cease to motivate myself to walk because my failing eyesight causes me confusion and depression? Will my primary entertainment be endless news shows on TV at full volume, even when I’m sitting no more than 12 inches from the screen? Will my memory, already poor, cause me to become so disoriented that I get rushed to the hospital because someone thinks I had a stroke? I worry most about my memory: at least Mother has incredible long term memory, the details still vivid in her mind. She remembers places, people’s names and faces and events with utmost clarity. She can reminisce for hours and entertain herself with stories of her past. What will be left to me when (and if) I reach 92? Not even memory. 

 I’m suddenly overwhelmed with exhaustion. I try to read in bed but soon put the book down. At least it got my mind off my depressing train of thought. I’m asleep in no time.


Note: Green is my favorite color. I wrote this piece as a model for my students, whose assignment was to write about a color and why it is, in your opinion, the best color.

Green is the best color because it is the color of nature: plants and trees are green. When it rains, everything looks greener than ever. In fact, “green” is the new code word for environmentally conscious. If you are green, you are committed to recycling and conserving the natural resources of our Earth.

        Green is a combination of two primary colors, blue and yellow, so it has the coolness of blue and the brightness of yellow. There are many hues of green, created by adding more blue for a deeper, darker green or more yellow for a lighter or brighter green.

        Green is everywhere. It’s the color of land on a map of the world. It’s the color of leaves in the summer and the pine trees in winter. It’s one of the colors of Christmas! When I see a stand of evergreens, I smell the aroma associated with them – the sharp smell of pine. Pine candles are green and I love to smell them!

        Green is the color of many good things to eat: lettuce, spinach, broccoli, peas, beans, sweet peppers. These foods are healthy too, so it’s important to eat them every day. Green represents how plants eat: chlorophyll makes leaves green and it is chlorophyll that captures energy from sunlight and converts it into food for the plant. We humans get some of this energy when we eat green foods.

        Humans can learn a lesson from the plants and capture sunlight for our own energy needs. In a greenhouse, sunlight comes in and keeps plants warm as well as provides energy for them to stay healthy. We too can be “green” by eating healthy foods, consuming renewable energy from the sun, and enjoying the beauties of nature: the brown earth, the green grass and plants, and the multitude of colors of flowers, birds, butterflies and other creatures.