I’ve recently turned a longtime dream into a reality: I’ve published a book of lesson plans for teachers who use Sin and Syntax in the classroom. This is something I have been working on since 2008. I kept adding to the lesson plans, teaching more workshops, expanding my dream, and imagining the day when I would stop tinkering, seriously edit them, find a copy editor, and put the materials into some more credible form than a Word document. This material is now an e-book.
I recommend Sin and Syntax to my seniors and freshman honors English classes. And we used it in class to demonstrate the contrast between flat, dull writing and writing that makes use of a full range of techniques.
I have used the exercises in “Constance Hale’s Lesson Plans for Teachers” as daily warm-ups. There’s one additional exercise I’ve developed that I’d like to share: I teach my students to identify Greek and Latin morphemes in English words throughout the year.
On November 13, 2017, my friend and colleague Matthew Zapruder started a thread on Facebook seeking ideas for teaching poetry to kids. Matthew is not just a writer of most-memorable lines, but also the author of Why Poetry (Ecco, 2017) and a veteran teacher of verse—but not to elementary school students. His friends delivered in spades, brainstorming, sharing tips, and showing their own offbeat creativity. It all made for a bracing palaver about poetry.
I recently sent a letter to teachers who subscribe to my “Miss Thistlebottom? Not!” newsletter. It included a link to a recent blog post on digital dictionaries. In the letter, I asked teachers how they use dictionaries in the classroom, and whether there are activities or exercises they use to help students engage with word books.
I usually use this section of the Web site for guest posts by teachers, but I’m doing a little cheat here. Nick Ripatrazone recently wrote an essay called “55 Thoughts for English Teachers,” for The Millions, an online magazine offering coverage on books, arts, and culture since 2003. (The New York Times called it an “indispensable literary site.”)
Ripatrazone has written six books of fiction and poetry. Despite his delicious Italian name, he teaches English, and has for 10 years. In the essay he shares his inspiring reflections on the profession.
The first day of Fundamentals of Grammar for Academic Writers has met. No chalk in our room (or any others on the same floor). No administrative assistant in the office to get some from. And a pedant in the front row trying to engage me in discourse about the display of well-worn style manuals, which he has fanned before him like certificates of pedigree. (“I write reviews,” he tells me, “for Amazon.”)
But, all things considered, the day has gone well.
To recharge from a rough day of teaching, I read poetry. There, I can wrestle with something provocative, but concise. In “St. Francis and the Sow,” Galway Kinnell, imagines an exchange between St. Francis of Assisi and a sow whose fourteen piglets deplete her energy and esteem. St. Francis helps the pig to see that in her obligations as a mother, she fulfills her purpose. St. Francis is the sort of teacher I once strove to be—kind, unflappable, and gentle. However, the beneficent teacher I hoped would thrive has not survived; a crankier part of my persona has emerged.
A few years ago I was on a plane, flying home to Arizona, when I noticed a Mexican teen and two burly white guys that seemed to be his escort. Coming from Arizona, I found this picture all too familiar. I was watching an undocumented immigrant on the first leg of a deportation to Mexico, escorted by two ICE agents.
When the seat belt light went off, I got up, walked over and asked the ICE guys if I might talk to the young man. They allowed it. The 18-year-old had been brought here by his parents when he was three. America was his home, he was a good student with good grades, and he never broke the law.
I teach ninth grade English at Dominguez High School in Compton, California. In June, I completed my first year as an English teacher, and it was no small feat. Prior to my English gig, I taught music for nine years. The leap from music to English, from elective to compulsory, frightened me. My fear morphed to frustration as I tried teaching my students how to write. I didn’t know how to help them improve their writing. Then the rookie English teacher gods knocked some sense into my head and said, “Ebony, you have to teach them grammar—explicitly.”
Not long ago a family friend asked me, “What is it that allows you to do what you do?” Without hesitating I told her that I felt teaching was my calling. Shortly after I started working at the inner-city school where I have taught for the last ten years, I realized that my love of literature alone would not be enough to sustain me. My students struggle to maintain basic skills; sustained critical reading happens sporadically in my classroom. To prevent quitting altogether, I needed something else to keep me curious. So I asked myself another question: “How can I help my students grow into their best selves?”