Archive for 2009|Yearly archive page

Happy Thanksgiving – and the official start of Crunch-Time

In Tools, Uncategorized on November 26, 2009 at 9:00 am

Photo by Espen Klem

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope you’re having a great time celebrating this most American of holidays — and taking an important respite from the busy pace of school. If you’ve studied in the states for a while, you know that Thanksgiving is all about eating a huge turkey dinner, hanging out with family, and being grateful for all the good things in life. The day after Thanksgiving is the official start of the December holiday season, including shopping, decorating, travel planning, and general hustling and bustling.

Many of my memories of Thanksgiving have to do with school, actually. When I was in high school, we had a week’s worth of Thanksgiving vacation each year, and usually, our teachers assigned a large research paper, due as soon as we returned the following Monday. I remember procrastinating over many of these Thanksgiving weeks, then rushing to have everything finished by the deadline.

Thanksgiving is still like that for many of us, since the start of the holiday season is often the start of end-of-semester crunch-time, as you realize that final exams are coming up and research papers are due in nearly every class you’re taking at the same time. This is when I see students stumbling around the halls, with red eyes and papers everywhere. It’s no wonder. There’s a  semester’s worth of knowledge for students to synthesize in a short amount of time. At the same time, you might be planning trips home to see your families, gathering gifts to give friends and family, and registering for your classes next semester. It’s a stressful time, and it’s easy to accidentally let something fall through the cracks.

I’m testing out a service that I’d like to offer to help you get through the next month. If it’s a hit, I’ll offer it again in January, to help you over the entire semester.

Custom Crunch-Time Helpfrom Thanksgiving through December 24th. With this service, you’ll get study tips, pep talks, and motivation strategically placed around deadlines for your classes — tailored to your class schedule and your study habits. An important note is that this is not tutoring or hands-on help (which I do plan to offer, actually, in the new year). Custom Crunch-Time Help is mainly for motivation, strategies for studying, and support. Here’s how it works:

1)      First, you’ll email me a copy of your syllabus for each of your classes (up to 5)

2)      Next, you’ll make sure that I have your email address and a phone number where I can leave voicemail messages for you. You’ll receive both voicemail messages and email reminders from me to help you plan that research paper, study for that test, and take a rest in the midst of it all.  A special note: I hate spammers, and I promise not to share your information with them (or anyone else, for that matter). In fact, you won’t even be added to the Student in the States mailing list, unless you make a separate request.

3)      Third, send me an email to let me know a little bit about how you study. Do you cram the night before a test? Do you study on the weekends, or every afternoon? I’ll ask you about your biggest challenges. Do you always procrastinate? Do you have test anxiety? Do you have trouble concentrating during class? I’ll time my messages to help you when you need it most – and to help you overcome your biggest challenges.

4)      I’ll use the deadlines,  the description of your study habits, and information on your syllabus to send you messages to help you get started on that paper or study for that test. I’ll send pep talks before test day and reminders to relax and get good rest, and I’ll send messages to give you tips on concentrating for an 8am class, staying calm during an essay exam, or conquering procrastination. Hopefully (if I do a good job!), you’ll feel supported, encouraged, motivated, and ready to get through crunch-time as easily as possible.

Cost: $40 (messages during crunch-time only)

If you’re interested in trying it out, visit the page here. I’ll be taking sign-ups until November 30th (midnight). After that, I’m not sure there would be enough crunch-time left for you to get your money’s worth of messages.

Monday Grammar & Teacher Journal

In Grammar, Uncategorized on November 24, 2009 at 3:48 am


Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be talking about some specific punctuation rules for research papers. Last week, we talked about how to use punctuation with quotation marks. This week, we’ll talk about how to use punctuation when citing sources within your paper.

In-text citations is the official name for what happens when you cite sources within your papers. In-text citations are the references you use after a quotation or paraphrase from your research. In MLA citations (for English and other humanities classes), you’ll include the author’s surname and the page number in parentheses, like this (Obama 46). Here’s what an in-text citation would look like after a direct quotation and after a paraphrase:

Direct Quote: “I don’t waste time thinking about things more than once” (Allen 22).

Paraphrase (when you put it in your own words): It’s not efficient to think about things repeatedly (Allen 22).

We’ll talk more about how to quote and paraphrase in future posts, but for now, I want you to look at the punctuation. Notice how, in both the quotation and the paraphrase, the period at the end of the sentence doesn’t come until after the citation is finished. The idea is that, when you cite a source, the citation is part of the sentence. Also, it looks neater, doesn’t it? Try it next time you’re citing sources for a paper.


I’m sorry I missed my post last Thursday! I owe you all an apology. The truth is that the end of the quarter is just as busy for teachers as it is for you. We’re grading papers, planning classes, getting all the assignments ready to explain to you. I’ve also been working on something for our website, though. I’d like to start offering more tools to help you as students, and I’ve been busy at work, preparing the details for you. I’ll unleash the full plan in my Thanksgiving post on Thursday. In the meantime, thank you for being so patient with me!

Monday Grammar & Teacher Journal

In Grammar on November 16, 2009 at 10:23 pm


Over the next couple of Mondays, I thought we might talk about some specific punctuation rules for research papers. First, let’s talk about how to use punctuation with quotation marks. If you learned British English, you might be a bit confused about how we punctuate quotations in the US. In British English, you have to think about the sentence as a whole, and you use punctuation differently, depending on the quotation’s role in the sentence. In the US, it’s a bit simpler. The punctuation for a quotation goes, 99% of the time, inside the quotation marks, like this:

Dylan Thomas said, “Someone’s boring me. I think it’s me.”

In this example, the period at the end of the quotation goes inside the quotation marks. There’s also a comma after the word “said,” where the quotation is introduced. Here’s an example that’s flipped, with the tag (the part of the sentence that identifies the speaker) at the end:

“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal,” Albert Camus said.

Notice that there’s a comma instead of the period at the end of the quotation — and also that it goes inside the quotation marks. Pretty easy, right? Here’s an example with a quotation that’s broken into two parts:

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” George Price once said, “but hasn’t the fine line between sanity and madness gotten finer?”

The first part of the quotation has a comma afterward. Then we have another comma after “said” and finally, the question mark (still inside the quotation marks) to end the sentence. In this instance, the quotation is all in one sentence. What happens, though, if the quotation is broken into two — but it’s also made up of two complete sentences? Take a look:

“Interestingly, according to modern astronomers, space is finite,” Woody Allen said. “This is a very comforting thought– particularly for people who can never remember where they have left things.”

Can you see the difference in how this is punctuated? There’s still the comma at the end of the first quotation, but there’s a period after the word “said.” This is because the sentence is complete at this point, and the following part of the quotation is also a complete sentence, so it can stand on its own.

Next week, we’ll talk about what to do with quotations when you also have APA or MLA citations to add. Happy punctuating!

Read the rest of this entry »

An End to Proofreading (once and for all)

In Grammar on November 12, 2009 at 10:19 am

Photo by Bichuas (E. Carton) -- Thank you!

The trick with working on grammar is not to get a good proofreader who can catch every single mistake. It’s not to go over your paper 57 times until you’ve caught each punctuation mark that’s out of place. I’m going to say something that’s going to sound shocking, especially coming from an English teacher. Learning grammar is not about learning perfection. It’s about establishing good grammatical habits.

Let me tell you about the one time I took a dance class. I’m not a very tall lady, and I thought taking a ballet class would help me get good posture — and maybe even help me make the most of all 5 feet of my height. I found an adult beginner’s ballet class in town, and I signed up. The first day, I arrived in class, ready to soak up the knowledge and learn how to move gracefully. When I arrived, though, it was clear that the other “beginners” weren’t quite as beginner as I was. They had all the cool gear: the fancy ballet shoes with ribbons, those special little skirts that dancers wear on TV. My shorts and T-shirt looked a bit silly in comparison. Once we started dancing, it was obvious. I had no natural talent for this stuff. While the other students gracefully moved about on the floor, I jerked left and right, just trying to figure out how everyone else knew which direction to go. The teacher quickly learned who I was, and she started giving me lots of advice, all at once: “Kathryn, don’t forget to point your toe. Keep your arms relaxed and open. Keep your leg straight. Don’t bite your lip. Smile, Kathryn!” Of course, once I started trying to follow her directions, things got worse. While I tried to smile and point my toe, I ended up going in the wrong direction and falling down. Not a good start!

The problem was that I was concentrating on too many things at once, so I could never really focus on any of them.

This happens all the time when students try to improve grammar. You’ll be working on getting your verbs in the right form, figuring out articles and prepositions while trying to adjust your sentence structure and improve vocabulary. When you try to work on all of these tasks at once, you end up remembering nothing, and your habits don’t change. This means that, every time you write a paper, you have to go through drafts and drafts of revisions for your grammar — every single time. It’s exhausting!

The solution is to focus on one grammatical problem (strategically chosen), and work on learning how to improve this one thing. Read the rest of this entry »

Monday Grammar & Teacher Journal

In Grammar on November 10, 2009 at 12:00 am


Last week, we talked about the first use of the semicolon. This week, we’ll talk about a second (and more common) use for a semicolon. A semicolon can create a legal run-on sentence. A run-on sentence is when you have more than one sentence punctuated as if it were one. Sometimes, though, you really do want that run-on, because you want to emphasize that the ideas in each sentence are closely related. In this case, the semicolon can come to your rescue. Here’s an example:

I sold my car last June; now I ride my bike everywhere.
He dropped the class the second week; I can see why.

In each of these instances, you have what could be two full sentences on either side of the semicolon. That’s exactly what you want. There is one catch with using a semicolon this way, though. The ideas in the two sentences that you’re joining must be closely related. If they’re not, you’ve misused the  semicolon.

One great trick about semicolons is that you can use them at the last minute too. If you’ve printed your paper and are just about ready to hand it in but notice a run-on sentence, you can often just create a semicolon with a black pen and fix it right then and there. Very handy.


I spent the weekend working on my own reading and writing. In the classroom, I’m often telling my students to read lots and write regularly. It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t do the same in my own life, would it?

Right now, I’m reading an amazing book about goats. I know. It’s a strange topic. The author, Brad Kessler, talks about his experiences moving from the city to the country to live a quieter life — with goats. Kessler is one of my all-time favorite authors, and his writing (even — or especially — about goats) is beautiful, haunting, and unforgettable. Here’s a link to information about the book, if you’re curious: Goat Song, by Brad Kessler.

I’m reading this book on my iPod, using the Amazon Kindle app. More and more books are available digitally this year — and it’s downright convenient to be able to carry Goat Song in my pocket or my purse. I can read while in line at the grocery store, while waiting for a bus, or while waiting for a meeting to begin.

How do you read? Let me know in the comments!

Perfect Writing

In Uncategorized, writing on November 5, 2009 at 10:05 am

Video 49 0 00 01-10

I hear the word “perfect” a lot in my line of work, and every time I hear it, a little rebellion happens inside me. Students want to learn perfect English and perfect grammar. Students want to get perfect grades, perfect scores on tests. Perfect, it seems, is where so many students set the bar for themselves. I think this is a dangerous practice.

A student once told me a story of taking her final secondary school test. She had perfect grades and was the most perfect student in her class. She was so frightened on test day, though, that she buckled, and she failed the test. Her life changed after that. Another student told me about her fear of tests, how students in her country who didn’t score well enough were not even allowed to attend university. She was terrified of not doing perfectly.

Stories like this are common — especially in countries with high stakes examinations before university. I know that, to some extent, this is the way the world works. We’re tested in school, and the goal is a perfect score. Still, the idea of perfect often paralyzes us. There’s no way to achieve perfection — especially when it comes to English and writing.

Striving for perfect writing assumes that there is one right way to write — and that all other ways of writing are somehow wrong. There are times in life when there is a definite right and wrong. There’s a right answer to that algebraic equation or the multiple choice question. Writing isn’t as clear-cut, though. Writing is basically putting our thoughts and ideas on the page — and there are many ways to do this. There are many ways to organize our thoughts, and there are many ways to write. Pretending that there is only one right way limits our choices, limits our critical thinking, and ultimately, limits our thinking.

Instead of thinking of writing a perfect paper, you might try to think about communicating your ideas clearly. Working to get your ideas across will help you avoid thoughts of perfection — and hopefully, make the writing at least a little less stressful.

Monday Grammar & Teacher Journal

In Grammar on November 3, 2009 at 12:50 am

stack of books ONE WAY TO USE A SEMICOLON ;

One of the most misused forms of punctuation is the semicolon (;). For some reason, students love to use the semicolon. They’re cute, and they seem so sophisticated. I think because so many students see semicolons as cool, they’re often misused. Students use them instead of commas, instead of colons, or at odd places in a sentence. Really, there are only two uses for semicolons. Below, I’ll describe the first. We’ll talk about the second use for a semicolon next week.

The only time that you absolutely must use a semicolon is when you have a list of things AND when the things in your list have commas within them. Usually, when we write a list, we separate items in the list with commas:

I went to the store and bought a flashlight, a bicycle helmet, fancy shoes, and a stick of gum.

What happens, though, when the things in your list have commas in them?

I have been to New York, New York, Chicago, Illinois, Madison, Wisconsin, Atlanta, Georgia, Seoul, Korea, and San Francisco, California.

It gets confusing, doesn’t it? The solution is the semicolon. Here’s how we’d fix that last sentence:

I have been to New York, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin; Atlanta, Georgia; Seoul, Korea; and San Francisco, California.

Voila! The list is organized.


This week, I’m settling in to do some serious paper-grading. I made the mistake of having major papers due in each of my classes the same week (silly me!), so I have quite a stack of papers to get back to students. It’s no small thing, to comment on a student’s paper: to be fair and challenge each student to grow as a writer, while also being kind, respectful, and considerate of the student as a writer and a human being.

As I’m commenting on papers, I know that writing is a very personal thing. When you write for a class, you’re putting your ideas on the page and waiting for your teacher to grade what you come up with. That’s a risky endeavor, and many students have been discouraged enough by an English teacher’s critical comments to give up writing altogether. At the same time, it’s important to be challenged to grow as a writer (I never want to stop growing myself). It’s a weighty job, this commenting on papers. No matter how many times I do it, I feel a tremendous responsibility.  Here I go, diving into the stack…

The Fright of Test-Taking

In exams on October 30, 2009 at 4:29 pm

Photo by D Sharon Pruitt (thank you!)

This Saturday is Halloween, when we dress in costume, eat more candy than we dare at any other time of the year, and dare to be frightened. If you’re new to Halloween, check out The basics of Halloween. In California, many people also celebrate  el Dia de los Muertos, as a way of remembering those who have died.

In this season of fright, my mind wanders to one of the most frightening parts of the school year for students: test time. As a teacher, I’m not a big fan of tests. Depending on how it’s written, a test may or may not be a good measure of how much you learn, and if you get particularly nervous when you take tests, a test could be downright unreliable in showing how much you’ve taken in from the class. Still, tests are part of student life, and having a strategy for studying and for taking tests is important to life as a student.

As a student, I had a system to study for tests. I gathered all my notes (concentrating on what the teacher  emphasized most in class) and took them with me on a walk around the neighborhood. As I walked, I looked at my notes, reading them over and over. During the test, I kept my pace slow and steady, to help keep calm. I never loved tests, but when I used my little system, I didn’t mind them so much.

As you get ready for midterm season, you’ll want to get your own system for studying and test-taking. Here are a few ideas:

6 Ways to Ace Your Next Test,” by David Pierce of Hack College – This article includes some practical test prep and test taking tips, from getting enough sleep the night before the exam to studying by reading your notes out loud to yourself.

How to Ace Essay Questions Using the Three Minute Rule,” by Study Hacks – This post is from the archives of Study Hacks, but I think it’s worth looking at even almost a year later. It focuses on essay exams, and, as someone who has read a lot of student essay exams, I love the advice Study Hacks gives on how to calm down, focus, and get the writing done in a stressful situation.

How to Prepare for the TOEFL,” by University Language Services – The advice here is practical and may not be anything you haven’t heard already, but I think it’s still useful and worth repeating.

Monday Grammar & Teacher Journal

In Grammar on October 27, 2009 at 4:55 am

stack of books SPELLING

Spanish is my second language. I grew up in the middle of the country, and there weren’t many native speakers of Spanish, so as I learned Spanish, I learned from my American (English-speaking) teacher and from textbooks. I read in Spanish. I wrote in Spanish. I struggled in Spanish! Although we spoke and listened to Spanish in class, I never really heard Spanish. I learned mostly through reading and writing. The result is that while my grasp of Spanish grammar was okay, my ability to speak and listen to Spanish never really developed. If you learned English in similar circumstances, you might struggle with the courage to speak and understand spoken English.

Sometimes, though, language learners learn first by speaking and listening to English. Students who learn this way often speak and listen clearly and have a strong instinctive sense of grammar, like a native speaker would. If the speaking and listening isn’t combined with exposure to written, English, though, there can be challenges with spelling. Often, students who learn English only through speech will sound words out. This makes a lot of sense. The problem is that much of written English and spelling doesn’t make sense.

If spelling is a big challenge for you, the solution is to listen and read along as someone reads out loud. This way, you’ll be able to put together the sounds of the words with the spelling. Thankfully, there are tools that can help with this. You can get audiobooks (either downloaded from a website like Audible.com or through your local library, for free). Get an unabridged version of the audiobook — and also get a written copy. When you read, listen to the book at the same time. This will help train your eyes and ears to work together.


This week, I taught a little workshop at my school on study skills. I talked with students about keeping a calendar, staying organized, beating procrastination, and using strategies when reading tough material. Study skills are one of my favorite topics to talk about with students, because it deals with the phyical realities of everyday life. I love learning about where and how students study (with friends? in a library?), and I love hearing about how students keep information close at hand for classes. These details, I think, can have a pretty big effect on the workload you’re able to tackle, your stress levels, and the quality of your work.


The Research Paper: How to Spot a Good Source

In research on October 23, 2009 at 1:40 am


If you land on a website or article while doing research, how do you know it’s a good source? In the ’90s, we might have been able to judge a website by how professional it looked (cool photos and nice fonts), but today, anyone can set up a website that looks at least decent. It also might seem that, if the writing on a site sounds official — or if it seems to have what you need, the information must be good, but this isn’t necessarily a good measure either. There are a few things you can look at, however, to know whether the source you’re using is reliable:

Step 1: Look at the author — Look for a person or organization taking responsibility for the article. If there is nobody taking responsibility for the information, be wary of it!

Step 2: Look to see what expertise the author has.  Look for degrees, titles, other past experience. If you’re on a website, you can click the “about us” link (if there is one). You can also Google the person’s name and see what pops up. A degree doesn’t automatically make a person a reliable source, but it can be an indicator.

Step 3: See if you can make a good guess about what motivations the author might have for writing the article. If the author is a politician up for re-election, his motives might be to get votes. If he’s selling vitamins, he might have written the article to get you to buy medicine. If he’s writing as an educator or in a journal, he might just be trying to educate. Think a little about the author’s possible motivations. If someone wants to sell something or get votes, this motivation could influence the information.

Step 4: Where is the article published? If you found the article on a friend’s MySpace page, you’ll probably look at it differently than if you found it on your library’s database.

Looking at these four things can help you weed out a surprising number of articles that are biased or may not be reliable sources of information. Try it, and see how it goes?