Category Archives: Words and Language

When Our Bustling Democracy Fails Us


The bustle just didn’t work the way it was supposed to. Eleven days after the most disheartening election of my lifetime, all I wanted to do was to forget for a few hours that democracy hadn’t worked the way I thought it was supposed to either. I wanted to focus fully on the joy of my daughter and her fiancé as they exchanged marriage vows. I wanted the celebration to be perfect.

But the bustle didn’t work. Continue reading When Our Bustling Democracy Fails Us

Are Trump Supporters Dumb?



As a native of West Virginia who took the last name of a husband of Polish descent, I’ve been subjected to my fair share of jokes about my intelligence.

Just before one of my early Christmases in Maryland, a colleague asked this question at the lunch table: “Why wasn’t the baby Jesus born in West Virginia?”

Several pairs of eyes glanced furtively at me before looking back to him. I’d earned myself a spot as an English teacher in one of the most renowned school systems in the nation—a system that, at that time, usually hired intellectual teachers from prestigious schools. Though I’d graduated both high school and college at the top of my class, I’d earned my degree from a little-known state college, and I sometimes felt out of my league in a department largely made up of intellectuals.

I sensed the punch line before he delivered it with a snort and a laugh: “Because God couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin.”

I frowned but said nothing.

He raised his hands in a gesture of apology and said, “Present company excepted, of course.”

Of course.

When people default to a stereotype, they seldom recognize the disconnect when they know someone who defies the stereotype. And that is precisely the problem we face in moving forward on many of the issues that face us. Continue reading Are Trump Supporters Dumb?

Is Your News Source Credible?

Go to the author's English Teacher's Page for a lesson package of resources to teach this skill.
Go to the author’s English Teacher’s Page for a lesson package of resources to teach this skill.

We teachers have failed to prepare our students for the digital age. After watching the most recent events of the presidential campaign unfold, I’ve reached the painful conclusion that I didn’t do enough to help my students master one of the most important skills for a literate person in today’s world: how to recognize whether a source is credible and objective.

Continue reading Is Your News Source Credible?

Agree with Rubio? Never! (Well, maybe…)

Press release on Rubio's Senate web page
Press release on Rubio’s Senate web page

This might be a first for me, but here’s something I think you should read—on a Republican senator’s web page. Whenever I think of Marco Rubio, I cringe a little and remember the “small hands” comment that embarrassed even his own family and ultimately led to his exit from the presidential race. At that point in this election cycle, it would have been unthinkable that I or anyone who shares my political views would visit his Senate web page to read his remarks on a current event. But I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with almost everything he said on Friday at a press conference in Miami: Continue reading Agree with Rubio? Never! (Well, maybe…)

The Key to Education?

Graduation 74

As I look toward retirement in a few days, I’ve been thinking about the most difficult class I taught in 30 years in the classroom.   I was about 20 years into my career when I was hired to lead the English Department in one of three schools that made up my district’s first experiment in choice. Our school was the new one—the one many students didn’t want because it had no history and no ties to the community.

The boundaries for all three schools were redrawn, and our school opened with only ninth and tenth graders. If students didn’t get their first choice, they were guaranteed a spot in their new home school. Because of our signature program in the arts, many creative students chose us. We also had a large number of students who didn’t want to be there, as well as some students who had problems in their home schools who came to us to get a fresh start. Those in the second group created the perfect storm that shook my confidence to the core and gave me a dose of humility that I’ve never forgotten.

Continue reading The Key to Education?

The Reading Quiz as Buzz-Kill


Every English teacher I know chose our subject because, at some point, a great writer got us just a little drunk on words. For us, it’s intoxicating to read a well-turned phrase. We buy coffee mugs with famous first lines and tee-shirts with our favorite authors’ quotations. We get students to paint murals of book covers with insightful book excerpts on walls in the English hallway.

If words are the grapes in the hands of a skilled vintner, then reading quizzes have to be the ultimate buzz-kill. No English teacher became one because her own English teacher gave a multiple choice assessment on every homework assignment.

Tenth grade is my only year of high school that I don’t remember a single work I read with fondness. In fact, though I recognize as a teacher that some of the greatest speeches in Shakespeare sing from the pages of Julius Caesar, it remains, to this day, my least favorite of the bard’s plays.

Why? My tenth grade teacher gave a multiple choice quiz on nearly every reading assignment. And one day he announced to the class, “I’m going to keep making these quizzes harder until Estelene fails one.” I remember his toothy smile in that moment as the closest grin to Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat’s that I’ve ever seen on a human face.

My friends begged me to take a bullet for the class. But knowing that I needed scholarships if I wanted to attend college, I refused. Each time the teacher handed out new paper, still smelling of chemicals from the mimeograph machine, the class erupted in a collective groan. To my classmates’ credit, they never bullied me as the teacher did, and after a few weeks we all sighed with relief when he pulled out quizzes that had clearly been handled by many grubby hands before ours.

After that experience, I wonder now why I ever gave a single reading quiz when I became a teacher myself. But I did. And when, with the advent of an ever-expanding menu of cable television channels, students became less interested in reading, I did what many teachers did: I gave more frequent reading quizzes to hold students accountable.

I remember the exact school year when I realized that reading quizzes were having the opposite effect on my own tenth graders than the one I wanted. I had broadened my reading list to a more diverse group of authors that I thought might interest my students. It helped, but it didn’t solve the problem. Faced with a large number of failing grades early in the marking period, I told students that if they hadn’t read, they’d be dining with me for lunch until they did. I enlisted the support of their parents and the administrators, and their grades came up.

But two things happened that changed my thinking about English teachers as reading police. I looked up from my desk at the sea of miserable faces jailed in my classroom at lunch while their friends were enjoying the fall weather in the courtyard below. My students were reading. But they weren’t getting a buzz from the literature I loved.

That afternoon in one of my honors classes, a few of my students displayed far more courage than my classmates and I had. “Ms. B.,” one pleaded, “I swear I read. But who pays attention to how Holden is dressed? Let me come in after school, and you can quiz me face-to-face, and I know I can prove to you that I read those chapters.” And she did. And when word got out, I had a line of students asking for the same opportunity.

The next day, I asked students to write down four or five quotations from the reading that they found interesting or that raised a question for them, and I had them write about one of those passages. I rarely led whole class discussions of books, preferring instead to give small groups topics and have them lead the discussion. But that day, I had them begin their group discussions with what they wanted to talk about. Their discussions were lively, and the surprising thing to me was that they were drawn to all the things I would have pointed their attention to had I been leading a whole-class discussion.

I never gave another multiple choice reading quiz. After that fall, I tried to find creative ways to make whatever happened in class meaningful and engaging, both for the students who had read and for those who had not. I gave choices of books more often, and some students would finish one and ask for another and then join the discussion on the one they liked best.

As I let go of policing the reading, I experienced more of what I’ve always considered my favorite moment in the classroom—when a student has an insight that has never occurred to me.

I’m certain that some students didn’t read the books I assigned, even though I never stopped expecting them to. But I’m equally certain that once I gave up demanding that they pay if they hadn’t read, I saw more students discover favorite authors and get a little tipsy as they sipped the words on the page.

So as long as we’re having a national conversation about the assessments that are imposed on us from outside, let’s also think about what we ourselves are doing either to kill or instill a love of reading and writing and learning.

How do we share with students our love of the great writers?

Is Gay Marriage Compatible with Christianity?


In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage this week, my husband and I have found it interesting that the justices on both sides used the Constitution to explain their votes. Much has been said about Anthony Kennedy’s eloquent opinion for the majority and about John Roberts’ first opinion read from the bench, both of which cite the Constitution to justify their stances.

That, of course, is their job as justices on the nation’s highest court—to interpret the laws in light of the Constitution.

Using the same text to come to different conclusions also holds true for religious leaders who have commented on the Supreme Court’s decision. Continue reading Is Gay Marriage Compatible with Christianity?

Are We to Blame for Brian Williams?

Brian Williams

Pre-recorded and edited, the Today Show aired Matt Lauer’s interview with Brian Williams on Friday morning. I heard the promo for it as I sat at the vanity, putting on make-up. I left for work before the segment aired and made a note to self to watch the segment later. I was certain that the timing was deliberate—the Friday before a summer weekend, designed to get it done and to have people largely forget about it over the course of the weekend. Much as I sat at the vanity and put on make-up to cover my mottled skin, NBC was attempting to cover Williams’ vanity in the best possible veneer. Continue reading Are We to Blame for Brian Williams?

Misunderstandings about Your Religion (Part 2)

FPC Lent

Religion is a man-made construct. Merriam-Webster defines it as “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.” In our quest to understand the nature of the universe and our place in it, we turn to others who are like-minded, decide together what we believe, and find strength and community among kindred spirits.

Faith and spirituality spring from within the human soul. In our quest to connect with the unseen Spirit that inhabits us all, we cling to what we believe. Sometimes, in our worst moments, we attack the validity of the beliefs of those who see God through a different human lens. And even in our best moments we are often confused by why anyone would believe what others believe.

Today’s post is the second in a series that will explore what I think people misunderstand about the religion I’ve chosen to help me understand my own spirituality, my own place in the universe. I don’t pretend to be a theologian. These posts will simply offer my own thoughts and my own understanding as I’ve come to see God through Christianity—and, in particular, through Presbyterianism.

I invite you to respond—to help me understand what I might not about your own religious community and practices.

Part Two: “How can you support a religion that oppresses women?”

If it weren’t asked so seriously, this question would amuse me. If I supported only those human institutions that began with equality between men and women in mind, I wouldn’t support a single institution that society has to offer. Continue reading Misunderstandings about Your Religion (Part 2)