Thursday, January 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger Passes Away at 91

According to News Source, NPR:

The famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger has died at his New Hampshire home, his literary representative said in a statement. He was 91 years old.

Jerome David Salinger retreated to a New Hampshire farmhouse in 1953, a few years after he published the high-school classic The Catcher in the Rye. And there he stayed, for the next 50-plus years, scowling at photographers who dared snap his picture.

'I Refuse to Publish'

Salinger's published works include Nine Stories, a short-story collection, and Franny and Zooey, a novella about one of his favorite fictive subjects, the sensitive Glass family. His last published work was a short story that took up almost the whole New Yorker magazine in 1965 — though rumors have Salinger stashing reams of unpublished fiction in a vault.

Salinger rarely explained himself, though the interview requests never ceased. In 1980, reporter Betty Eppes sent her picture along with her request. She was granted one of the only interviews the author ever gave.

"He said, 'I refuse to publish,'" she told NPR in 1997. "'There's a marvelous peace in not publishing,' he said. 'There's a stillness. When you publish, the world thinks you owe something. If you don't publish, they don't know what you're doing. You can keep it for yourself.'"

Catastrophe in the Background

Salinger came from a Jewish-Scots-Irish New York family who imported meat. In the 1930s, he worked briefly as a cruise-ship entertainer. Then came World War II.

"He was a writer formed by the 1940s," says Andrew Delbanco, director of American Studies at Columbia University. "He participated in D-Day and in the Battle of the Bulge. There's a sense to my ear in The Catcher in the Rye and stories [of his] that catastrophe lies in the background of everything he feels and writes."

One of his most popular stories, "For Esme — With Love and Squalor," deals with a soldier on leave who finds solace in a conversation with a 13-year-old English girl. Many of Salinger's shell-shocked heroes click best with children, an allegation that was thrown the author's way as well.

Salinger "celebrates their innocence and beauty in a way that to our sensibility is almost unnerving," says Delbanco. Another favorite, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," is about a troubled honeymooner who plays with a little girl in the ocean before killing himself. The protagonist of "Bananafish" is Seymour Glass, the Glass sibling featured most often in Salinger's stories about that peculiar family. Published stories about the Glasses had already established Salinger as a minor literary star by the time he published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951.

'Holden's Indignation ... Struck A Nerve'

The Catcher in the Rye, starring the disaffected adolescent Holden Caulfield, was an instant success, though it puzzled some reviewers. Long before it became a staple in American high schools — and ever since — screenwriters, novelists and actors begged for the rights to adapt it. Salinger seemed appalled by the attention and withdrew to New Hampshire shortly after its publication. He steadfastly refused to sell the rights to anything he ever wrote.

But the book's popularity soared out of sight as counterculture became mainstream culture in the 1960s, according to Delbanco.

"Holden's indignation, his sense of the world, really struck a nerve," he explains. "Everybody carries with them the impulse to say no. [It's] the dissident impulse that is powerful in American culture and literature."

Delbanco traces that impulse from America's first immigrants through Emerson and Thoreau to the Beat writers who were Salinger's contemporaries. He says Salinger empathized with young people as outsiders, and romanticized their straightforward, "non-phoney" impulses.

The title of the book comes from the protagonist's dream to keep everyone from growing up — to preserve the childhood grace Salinger idolized and resist falling headlong into adulthood:

I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in a big field of rye and all. ... Thousands of kids, and nobody big at all, nobody big but me. And I'm standing on the edge of this crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to come and catch them. If they start to fall ... and don't look where they're going. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.

The Catcher in the Rye inspired censors, assassins and innumerable ordinary readers, who found in Salinger's hopeful yet disillusioned heroes an uncompromising kindred spirit.

Semicolon: The Most Feared Punctuation on Earth

Another gem has popped up on The Oatmeal — this time touching on the difficulty of using a semicolon. Although a bit silly (and perhaps a tad too gross for classroom use), we figured teachers would get a kick out out of this tutorial. Click here to view the whole article at The Oatmeal.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Literary Quality and Merit

by Douglas Grudzina

In a few short weeks, Thursday, May 6, to be exact—you do realize that we’re already at the end of January, don’t you?—many of your students will sit in a locked and quiet room and take a three-hour exam (for which they will have paid $86). First they’ll read several selections—poems, short stories, passages from novels and plays they may or may not have ever heard of—and choose the “best” answers to approximately ten multiple-choice questions per selection.

Then, they’ll have to write three essays. At least one of those essays will introduce a topic of literary significance—Many characters in novels and plays are normal schlubs who find themselves facing extraordinary circumstances. The essay will invite the student to think about and write about that topic—Choose a novel or play in which a nebbish or a schmendrick must save the world and write an essay in which you …

Finally, the student will be offered a list of such novels and plays with a notification not unlike the following:

You may choose a work from the list below or another novel or play of comparable literary merit.

This raises the question of what, exactly, is “literary merit”? Of course we—I happily confess to being a retired AP Lit and Comp teacher—assume (hope?) that our students will be able to expound brilliantly on one of the plethora of novels and plays we studied in class. Certainly they should be able to find something to write about from everything they studied in high school!

But what if the topic is that obscure? What if—as has happened—the student’s mind goes blank and the entire year’s reading, writing, and discussing are gone? What if our students really are pressed with selecting their own title to write about? How will they know whether The Life and Adventures of Such and Such has “literary merit” or not?

And how will they know to dismiss those works that—sorry, but—simply don’t?

I think we can (must …) ask ourselves the same questions when we decide which titles to include in our school and district curricula, which to include on summer reading lists, and which to approve for student independent-reading activities. In short, what is worth precious instructional and homework time, and what is not—and how do we tell?

One of the most basic elements of “literary merit,” is character. “Good literature,” they say, “is character driven.” Think about Charles Dickens. All of his books have plots—intricate, suspenseful, and exciting plots—but, beyond the plots what we love about Dickens are his characters. Young Pip isn’t invited to play at any rich, old lady’s house, it’s Miss Havisham. David Copperfield doesn’t seek refuge with merely a relative, he runs to Betsy Trotwood. And people know the character of the hapless orphan, Oliver Twist, who haven’t a clue about the plot.

That’s what we mean by character-driven. A novel or play must have a plot, a sequence of events that begins with some conflict, gets more exciting as the protagonist fights an increasingly difficult series of challenges, and then finds closure as the challenges are met and the conflict ended (for better or for worse). We’ve all read, however, those awful books (and we see them in movies a lot) in which the storyline is entertaining enough, but the characters are bland, or clichéd, or superficial, or just plain dumb. And we sort of know instinctively that those books and movies lack that something that may as well be called “literary merit.”

Think about it. What are the books you love to teach? What are the books that lend themselves to real discussion?

Why does Jane Eyre appear in so many reading lists and Shirley (written by Bronte two years later) does not? It’s character! I have a colleague who absolutely hated Jane Eyre when she listened to it on audiobook. Her reason? She could not stand Edward Rochester! (How cool is that? To hate a book because you have such a strong reaction to one of its characters?)

Why Pride and Prejudice and not Emma? (Hint: it’s character!)

As we expand the canon, why do we find Their Eyes Were Watching God more frequently than Invisible Man? My guess is that Janie is a better-developed and more fascinating character than the unnamed narrator of Ellison’s novel. A lot happens in the Ellison book, but do we really care about the man to whom they happen?

Why The Kite Runner and not any one of a number of similar books with similar themes and almost-equally-shocking plots? I would submit the secret lies in the characters of Amir and Hassan and their powerful friendship.

Plot is plot, and plot is fun; many novels, plays, movies, and television shows are completely plot-driven and are very entertaining. Many plot-driven stories are commercially very successful.

What lingers with us, however, what haunts us for years afterward and actually changes the way we view our lives, the world, and other people is not the fact that some haughty girl turned down a proposal and regretted it, but that Elizabeth Bennett learned how unjustly she had misjudged Mr. Darcy. We don’t necessarily care that some kid halfway around the world was molested by a bully while chasing a kite, but it breaks our heart that the perennially happy Hassan is utterly betrayed by his closer-than-brother, who allows the rape to occur.

The plots of literature are unlikely to mirror our lives—when was the last time an escaped convict made a fortune and sent it to you so you could join the ranks of the independently wealthy? But the unrequited loves, the nagging doubts, the haunting shames, and all the other emotions our favorite characters experience while they lead their nothing-like-ours lives is what makes the story transcend mere entertainment.

The plots exist to reveal the characters. The characters control the plots. And I submit that it is this element of character that finally determines the “literary quality” of a work, and whether or not it’s worth your students’ spending their twenty minutes essay time on.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Tuesday Trivia

  1. Which famous writer is buried in the Fluntern Cemetery, Zurich, Switzerland, and is so close to the Zurich Zoo that the zoo's lions can be heard from his grave.
  2. Who did Herman Melville dedicate his great novel Moby Dick to?
  3. S.E Hinton, author of The Outsiders, made a cameo in the movie version of her book. Who did she play?
  4. Which British playwright dabbled in property development before discovering his love for plays?
  5. What does the T stand for in Booker T. Washington’s name?

Last Week's Answers

What famous American's 1952 autobiography is entitled From Under My Hat?

Hedda Hopper chose this title for her autobiography because she was well known for her exotic hats and juicy Hollywood gossip.

What famous writer born in 1867, was raised by a former slave, never knew who his father was, lost his four front teeth to scurvy was forced to educate himself in the public library because he could not afford to attend primary school?

Jack London.

Which author, after battling tuberculosis and attacks of pleurisy for almost fifteen years, uttered the words, “I am better now,” before dying in a tuberculous retreat in Southern France?

D.H. Lawrence

Which author supported her family during lean times by writing lurid pulp adventure stories under false names or anonymously?

Louisa May Alcott wrote quite a few pulp novels during her lifetime, all of which were discovered many years after her death when references to strange book titles were discovered in her journals.

Which famous children’s author also wrote various academic works that include A Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry, The Formulae of Plane Trigonometry, A Guide to the Mathematical Student, The Dynamics of a Particle, An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, and The Fifth Book of Euclid Treated Algebraically.

Lewis Carol

Plain English: I'm Just Sayin...

“I’m just sayin’ . . .” has become a stock phrase on the blogs and a kind of official sign-off on Twitter. I’ve had several questions from readers, including “What does it mean?” and “Where does it come from.”

“I’m just sayin’ . . .” is related to the phrase “all’s I’m saying.” The phrases are used to convey innuendo and opinion which is not supported by fact or eyewitnesses. It’s a subtle way of disagreeing with what someone else has said. The phrase sends the message that the person making an editorial comment doesn’t want to be held responsible for the consequences or the proof to support his opinion. Here are some examples of how the phrase is used:

Office workers are gossiping about a colleague. One says, “He left his wedding ring at home last night, I’m just sayin’.” (Translation: The co-workers think the man is cheating on his wife.)

“If you paint your house purple, people are going to think you’re weird, I’m just sayin’ . . .”
(Translation: If you paint your house purple, everyone including me will think you’re nuts.)

“I’m not sure if those guys smoke dope, but they do seem to giggle a lot after lunch, I’m just
sayin’ . . .” (Translation: Those guys are doing drugs on their lunch hour.)

The origin of “I’m just sayin’” is not clear, but most paths trace it back to Yiddish humor. “I’m just saying” was the way some Jewish vaudevillians ended a joke. The phrase was popularized by two comedians in the 1980s: Paul Reiser and Eddie Murphy.

An example of Reiser’s use of the phrase: “I’m not saying you’re fat, I’m just sayin’. I don’t think it or even mean it, I’m just sayin’ it.” Eddie Murphy’s routine substituted ugly for fat.

The Simpsons used the phrase in an episode that involved a disappointing family road trip. Homer says, “This never would have happened if we’d gone to Macon, Georgia.” When the family members give him the stare, he says, “I’m just sayin’, is all.”

An episode of Seinfeld analyzes “I’m just sayin’” in the same way the series put the phrase “yada, yada, yada” under the microscope. Jerry Seinfeld’s point with “I’m just sayin’” is that you can say just about anything negative or critical to another person as long as you follow it with “I’m just sayin’ . . .” It’s similar to Seinfeld’s tagline “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

“I’m just sayin’ . . .” has even been elevated into dialogue in the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire. The play tells the story of grieving family members’ attempts to console each other. When they try to comfort each other, all they can say are words that fall flat because great sorrow is beyond words. The author showcases some of the most meaningless language that we as Americans use awkwardly in attempts at serious conversation. The characters utter clichés like “I feel your pain,” then to indicate that what they’ve said is a cliché, they add “I’m just sayin’ . . .” At the Broadway premiere of Rabbit Hole, the audience wept.

Now that “I’m just sayin’ . . .” has made the rounds of stand-up comedy, prime time TV, and literature it’s last life as a catchphrase is in text-messaging. There’s something about American culture that detests conformity. The more popular a phrase becomes, the more we want to move on to the next catchphrase. I predict that “I’m just sayin’ . . .” will bite the dust soon as more and more Americans realize that using it classifies them as inarticulate and (I’m just sayin’) they will switch to a new cliché.

Image copyright 1987 Business Week


Mary Jane McKinney is the creator and owner of LLC, publisher of grammar, style, and proofreading exercises that use sentences from literature. She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. LLC, P.O. Box 299, Christoval, TX 76935,, 325-896-2479,

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Mystery All Insoluble: What Has Become of the "Poe Toaster"?

According to a variety of resources including Yahoo News, the famous "Poe Toaster" has failed to show up at the graveside of Edgar Allan Poe for the first time in over six decades. Annually since 1949, the "Poe Toaster" has appeared in the wee hours of the morning on January 19th, toasting the writer's birth and leaving roses and a half empty bottle of cognac behind.

According to Yahoo:

The visitor's absence this year only deepened the mystery over his identity. One name mentioned as a possibility was that of a Baltimore poet and known prankster who died in his 60s last week. But there is little or no evidence to suggest he was the man.

Poe was the American literary master of the macabre, known for poems such as "The Raven" and grisly short stories like "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Pit and the Pendulum." He is also credited with writing the first modern detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." He died in 1849 in Baltimore at age 40 after collapsing in a tavern."

In the history of the Poe toaster, little is certain.

The annual tribute began in 1949 — unless it started earlier, or later. The first printed reference to the tribute can be found that year in The Evening Sun of Baltimore. The newspaper mentioned "an anonymous citizen who creeps in annually to place an empty bottle (of excellent label)" against the gravestone.

Every year since 1978, Jerome has staked out the grave at the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground. Year after year, he said, he and various friends and Poe enthusiasts would watch from inside the Presbyterian church as a figure dressed in black, with a wide-brimmed hat and a white scarf, would leave three roses and cognac and steal away.

There is an alternative tale of the toaster's origins, one that Jerome vehemently disputes. Sam Porpora, the former historian at Westminster Hall, claimed in 2007 that he was the original Poe toaster, saying he came up with the idea in the late 1960s as a publicity stunt. But the details of Porpora's story seemed to change with each telling, and he acknowledged that someone had since made the tradition his own.

In 1993, the visitor began leaving notes, starting with one that read: "The torch will be passed." A note in 1998 indicated the originator of the tradition had died and passed it on to his two sons.

In 2001, as the Baltimore Ravens — named in honor of the bird in Poe's most famous poem — were preparing to face the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, the toaster left a note that praised the Giants and said the Ravens would suffer "a thousand injuries." Then in 2004, amid tense relations between the United States and France over the invasion of Iraq, a note said Poe's grave was "no place for French cognac" and that the liquor was being left "with great reluctance."

Beyond Porpora, no one ever stepped forward to take credit for the tradition. But one name emerged Tuesday as a possible candidate: David Franks, a Baltimore poet and performance artist who died last week.

Franks was a Poe aficionado and an outrageous prankster who dressed with a "19th-century literary flair," said Rafael Alvarez, a friend of Franks and president of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.

Franks once photocopied his private parts on a Xerox machine at a Social Security office and put the images on display. Decades ago, he posed as a disabled poet in a wheelchair, solicited donations from the crowd, then thanked everyone and got up and walked away.

Jerome said he doubts Franks was the toaster: "I looked at some images of him, and he doesn't look at all like the person we've seen over the years."

Alvarez also said Franks wasn't a sports fan, and "his politics were more French than American."

The toaster's annual appearance has become a pilgrimage for Poe fans, some of whom travel hundreds of miles. About three dozen stood huddled in blankets during the overnight cold Tuesday, hoping to catch a glimpse. At 5:30 a.m., Jerome emerged from the church to announce that the toaster had not arrived.

As the longtime guardian of Poe's legacy in Baltimore and the occupant of a prime viewing spot, Jerome has often had to respond to skeptics who believe he knows the Poe toaster's true identity — or is the toaster himself.

"If I was doing it, that is fraud, pure and simple. I could lose my job," Jerome said.

Jerome said the only thing he has kept secret is a signal — a gesture the toaster has predictably made each year at the grave — that even now he is not willing to reveal.

As for why the visitor didn't show this year, "you've got so many possibilities," Jerome said. "The guy had the flu, accident, too many people."

Jerome said that perhaps the visitor considered last year's elaborate 200th anniversary celebration of Poe's birth an appropriate stopping point.

"People will be asking me, 'Why do you think he stopped?'" Jerome said. "Or did he stop? We don't know if he stopped. He just didn't come this year."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tell Me a Great Story

I’ve been thinking about story. Not a specific story but the concept, the notion of story. And this notion has rattled around my cranium for some time. In a forthcoming book, I write:

"The human mind frequently thinks in terms of stories, communicates in stories, and converts new learning into stories. By framing experience, stories provide a structure for exploring and making sense of experience.”1

A couple recent publications have further stoked these thoughts. In Think Better, author Tim Hurson suggests thinking in terms of a “target future,” an “imagined future” so “powerful and compelling” that it generates motivation to achieve it.2 In other words, think of the future as a story waiting to be told, one with a climax so exciting it propels you toward its achievement.

This idea gets an extended treatment in Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years:

If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers…Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo.

But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to feel meaningful. The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either….3

Great stories inspire. They allow us to imagine ourselves as the victorious protagonist, or they come close enough to our own experience that they feel like our own stories. I like how Jason Flom recently expressed this: “Well-constructed literature can, like a prism, bend the light of experience to reveal the kaleidoscope of colors that make up real life.”4

Stories provide a frame, a way of looking into past experience or perceiving the future. These ideas prompt me to wonder what kind of influence could framing learning as a story could have on my teaching. Research suggests that students achieve more when they are overtly aware of a teacher’s objective of a lesson. Would letting students see themselves and their learning as parts of a story have similar results? I’m going to test this out!

Beyond that, what narrative guides current educational reform efforts? It seems we hear much about data, but data alone is not an “imagined future” so “powerful and compelling” that it generates motivation. We hear shouts about technology and teachers falling behind. But by themselves, these seem like shouts of “Volvo!” as pedestrians watch cars drive by. Then there are the heated arguments over “alternatives,” such as charter schools—we need them to improve education; they are the wrecking balls of education. Here we have conflict, but still no narrative, no frame that provides meaning, guidance, and inspiration.

Have you ever started a book that had some but not all the parts of a story—a story that became mired in a character’s state but never progressed? Did you finish the book? If so, it was probably out of a sense of duty rather than a desire to turn the next page. This is where I see many of our conversations about education. We’re carrying around parts of a story, but no one has given us a frame that drives us to turn the next page. We lack a compelling climax to push ourselves forward to achieve.

Sure, this is a somewhat simplistic view. Education is complex. Within education there are schools based in communities. The schools have teachers and students, and the communities have parents and voters. We have a myriad of characters that look somewhat like a two-page spread from Where’s Waldo?, and often our efforts seem as scattered as the crowds who obscure Waldo’s location. Yet when we’ve had compelling narratives in the past, we’ve accomplished the seemingly impossible: “That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.”

Here’s the challenge: what narrative could move education forward? Most importantly, what would the climax of this narrative be? What vision would be so compelling that it motivates us to overcome the conflicts we’ll face?

Come on, tell me a great story!

  1. Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010), 240.

  2. Hurson, T., Think Better, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), 127-141.

  3. Miller, D., A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), xiii.

  4. Flom, J., “Guest Blogger Jason Flom: Unique Reading Experiences,” Prestwick Cafe (January 15, 2010),


Special thanks to Kevin D. Washburn for his contribution to the Prestwick Cafe Blog!

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of Clerestory Learning, co-founder/owner of Make Way for Books, author of the Architecture of Learning instructional design model and its training program, the Writer’s Stylus instructional writing program, and co-author of an instructional reading program used by schools across the country.

He’s also the author of The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain and a member of the International Mind, Brain & Education Society and the Learning & the Brain Society.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tuesday Trivia

  1. What famous American's 1952 autobiography is entitled From Under My Hat?

  2. What famous writer born in 1867, was raised by a former slave, never knew who his father was, lost his four front teeth to scurvy was forced to educate himself in the public library because he could not afford to attend primary school?

  3. Which author, after battling tuberculosis and attacks of pleurisy for almost fifteen years, uttered the words, “I am better now,” before dying in a tuberculous retreat in Southern France?

  4. Which author supported her family during lean times by writing lurid pulp adventure stories under false names?

  5. Which famous children’s author also wrote various academic works that include A Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry, The Formulae of Plane Trigonometry, A Guide to the Mathematical Student, The Dynamics of a Particle, An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, and The Fifth Book of Euclid Treated Algebraically?

Which author began her famous suicide note with the words, “I am certain that I am going mad again ..."

Virginia Woolf wrote in her final note that she could not bear to go through the ordeal one more time and ended her life shortly afterwards.

What do P.G. Wodehouse, Ezra Pound, and William Joyce have in common?

They all made broadcasts for the enemy during World War II.

Where does the pen name “Mark Twain” come from?

“Mark Twain” was the river call used by boatmen on the Mississippi to signify two fathoms of water.

What is the only novel to top the best-seller lists fro two consecutive years?

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Back in 1972 and 1973

What classic gothic novel of 1818 was subtitled The Modern Prometheus?


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Plain English: You All, You Guys, and Y'all

“You guys” and “You all” are in a tight race for second person plural pronouns these days. The southern contraction “y’all” counts as a “you all.” Of course, there are millions of Americans from Brooklyn to Chicago who say “yous guys,” which hasn’t caught on elsewhere. According to informal Internet polls, “you guys” and “y’all/you all” are in a dead heat as the preferred usage.

The correct usage is simply “you” whether one is addressing an individual or a group. Like a lot of grammatically correct constructions, “you” has fallen out of use and usage ultimately determines correctness. So when Barack Obama tells a room full of reporters, “I’ll see you guys later,” or President Bush tells the same group, “I’ll see you all later,” both are correct.

The last time the English language experienced such a big shift in pronoun usage was sometime roughly 400 years ago. Somehow, for reasons unknown, English-speakers abandoned the singular “thou” and the plural “ye” for the single word “you.” The grammar books finally caught up with the usage and established “you” as both second person singular and second person plural.

Two forces are at work on current pronoun usage in America. First, Americans like to play with the English language, in some cases going against the grammatical rules. As a culture we like to break the rules and re-invent them. The other force at work is the last bit of anger at male pronouns left over from the Feminist Movement of the 1970s. Bowing under pressure from feminists, many churches reprinted their hymnals, eliminating male pronouns in lyrics. Both “he/she” and “him/her” became common constructions used in magazines, newspapers, books, and official documents. The gender neutral title “flight attendant” replaced the feminine “stewardess.” “Congresswoman,” “chairperson,” and “salesperson” replaced male nouns ending in “man.” It became politically incorrect to address adult women as “girls” or “gals” and adult men as “boys.” The word “lady” fell out of usage, as did “gentleman,” surviving for the most part in the stock show-biz introduction, “Ladies and Gentlemen.”

Cultural change always has its inconsistencies and contradictions. While some words were declared sexist, others were ignored. Somehow the words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” weren’t touched in the feminist purge. Women of all ages still say they are getting together with “the girls” or going antiquing with some “girlfriends.” Men still play poker or go hunting with “the boys.” The expressions “girl’s night out” and “boy’s night out” remain securely in usage. Somehow in the confusion restrooms are still marked “Ladies,” and we say we are going to the “Ladies room,” but restrooms marked “Gentlemen,” have been replaced with the designation “Men.”

In the midst of this muddle, the word “guy” in the singular still refers to a man. In the plural “guys” refers to either an all-male group, an all-female group, or a group of both males and females. Example: “Welcome to Chili’s. Would you guys like something to drink?” Teachers address their classes as “you guys.” Mothers address their carload of boys and girls as “you guys.” Bosses address their staffs as “you guys.” Why did the male word win out over a gender neutral construction? Nobody knows. It just did and once it’s embedded in the culture, a word in usage is hard to stamp out.

The most surprising development in the pronoun competition is the widespread use of “y’all” and “you all” outside the south. It’s no secret that people in other regions of the U.S. have negative attitudes about southern accents. Informal Internet polls show that “y’all/you all” is running neck and neck nationally with “you guys” as the second person plural pronoun. What sweet revenge after hundreds of years of ridicule of southern speech! Maybe there’s hope for “fixin’ to,” southern for “about to” as in “I’m fixin’ to take a nap."

Image copyright 2009


Mary Jane McKinney is the creator and owner of LLC, publisher of grammar, style, and proofreading exercises that use sentences from literature. She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. LLC, P.O. Box 299, Christoval, TX 76935,, 325-896-2479,

Friday, January 15, 2010

Guest Blogger Jason Flom: Unique Reading Experiences

Like a costume, well-written books allow the reader to don a cloak and become someone new.

Or, like a webcam, they invite the reader to become a voyeur and witness the intimate details of a character’s life.

Or, better yet, perhaps literature is like a J.J. Abrams’ flick, providing an escape from reality by hurling readers into someone else’s problem for a spell.
Or not.

Perhaps it is like a museum, introducing readers to knowledge of a far flung landscape or foregone era.

Or none of the above, or a smidgeon of them all, or even something entirely different. Perhaps quality writing is a teacher. Or perhaps not. Perhaps, it is just fun. (Though sometimes it is a toil, as I saw Faulkner as an undergrad.)
The magic and lure of literature is that it is as diverse as the kids we teach and the lives we lead. Even a single volume can mean myriad things to separate people. Take Elie Wiesel’s landmark Night, for example. Millions of readers have woven threads from its narrative into their lives. Yet, while there are many similarities between people’s reactions to it, no two are exactly alike. (And some are disparately polar.)

We all take something a little different away. And thank goodness for that.
Well-constructed literature can, like a prism, bend the light of experience to reveal the kaleidoscope of colors that make up real life. As readers we see the spectrum of ideas, concepts, and connections in the hue of our own knowledge or past experience.

When we share reflections with others, though, we enrich not only our insights into the reading; we expand our ability to relate to the world, ourselves, and ultimately each other. In this way, we transcend the story being told by cultivating empathy, tolerance, and understanding.

For these reasons (among many others), literature can be one of the most valuable assets for teachers seeking to provide relevant, meaningful, and personalized learning opportunities. The collection of thoughts, memories, feelings, and understandings (or assumptions) students bring with them stand to shape how other students see the world. At the best of times, their perspectives and reactions can transform the learning environment, making it more collaborative, constructive, and cohesive.

More than that though, reading quality works offer a safe forum for opening discussions about tough topics. Students of all ages grapple with somewhat universal topics – insecurity, social dynamics, tough choices, home troubles, racism, fairness, misunderstandings, and antagonism, among many others. As characters wrestle with these issues, the astute teacher can draw out those themes without calling out or embarrassing students.

While the outcomes of such student connections with literature and each other are less quantifiable than some highfalutin politician might like, those connections lay the groundwork for a lifelong love of reading. And for me, that’s okay. I want students eager to dive into our next chapter book, to get lost in the story, and to find something of themselves in the text.

Or, perhaps, down the road, a bit of the book in them, in whatever form it may take.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, Joseph Kavelier is on the ice and troubled, and I can’t wait to escape back to him.


Special thanks to guest blogger Jason Flom for his contribution to the Prestwick Cafe Blog.

More about Jason Flom - Sustained by coffee and fueled by students' passions, Jason teaches 5th grade at Cornerstone Learning Community (a private school with a public mission) in Tallahassee, FL. While earning his bachelors and masters degrees in education at the University of Florida he found that a curriculum driven by student interests resulted in less behavior problems, both for himself and for his students.

In several years of working in the outdoor/environmental education industry with such organizations as The Mountain Institute and North Carolina Outward Bound School, he learned that experience is the quickest route to student success. These days he works to combine these two philosophies toward empowering students to apply skills and knowledge in service learning projects. In his 9 years of classroom teaching, his students have averaged over 100 hours of community service per year per student. His favorite part of teaching continues to be getting paid to get schooled.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Schooling Through Video Games

"The experimental Quest to Learn School in New York City opened last September. In the hopes of preparing students for high-tech careers, it teaches students almost entirely though video games:"

"This year’s 72-student class is split into four groups that rotate through five courses during the day: Codeworlds (math/English), Being, Space and Place (social studies/English), The Way Things Work (math/science), Sports for the Mind (game design), and Wellness (health/PE). Instead of slogging through problem sets, students learn collaboratively in group projects that require an understanding of subjects in the New York State curriculum. The school’s model draws on 30 years of research showing that people learn best when they’re in a social context that puts new knowledge to use. Kids learn more by, say, pretending to be Spartan spies gathering intel on Athens than by memorizing facts about ancient Greece."

"Most sixth-graders don’t expect to ever need to identify integers, but at Quest, it’s the key to a code-breaking game. In another class, when creatures called Troggles needed help moving heavy objects, the class made a video instructing how long a ramp they should build to minimize the force they needed to apply. “They’re picking concepts up as well as, if not better than, at other schools,” says Quest’s math and science teacher Ameer Mourad. Beyond make-believe, Quest is the first middle school to teach videogame design. Salen says building games teaches students about complex systems, which will prepare them for growing fields such as bioinformatics."

Read the complete article from Neat-o-rama here

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

ASC is "Gaga" for Claimant to Shakespeare's True Authorship

According to a shocking revelation from the American Shakespeare Center, "Rigorous study and research has unearthed a shocking revelation regarding the authorship of the works commonly attributed to William Shakespeare. Archival findings prove beyond any doubt, pop icon Lady Gaga penned the famous works treasured by western culture. What follows here is a truncated summary of the evidence."

Below is some of the "evidence" presented to support this claim.

This excerpt from Timon of Athens, IV, iii reads like a Gaga manifesto outlining her "Love Game":

"Hadst thou, like us from our first swath, proceeded
The sweet degrees that this brief world affords
To such as may the passive drugs of it
Freely command, thou wouldst have plunged thyself
In general riot; melted down thy youth
In different beds of lust; and never learn'd
The icy precepts of respect, but follow'd
The sugar'd game before thee. But myself,
Who had the world as my confectionary,
The mouths, the tongues, the eyes and hearts of men
At duty, more than I could frame employment,
That numberless upon me stuck as leaves
Do on the oak, hive with one winter's brush
Fell from their boughs and left me open, bare.
Timon of Athens: IV, iii"

In The Taming of the Shrew, III, ii, she describes her own sense of style and how important fashion is:

"with a linen stock on one leg and a
kersey boot-hose on the other, gartered with a red
and blue list; an old hat and 'the humour of forty
fancies' pricked in't for a feather: a monster, a
very monster in apparel, and not like a Christian
footboy or a gentleman's lackey.

In this quote from Hamlet, V.i, isn't the Melancholie Prince really saying that he can't read a poker face?

"Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar?"

The Winter's Tale, IV.iv, reiterates what Our Lady Gaga has said numerous times regarding how she likes to play:

"if it be rough, it will please plentifully."

Sonnet XX is reminiscent of and mirrors her "Bad Romance"––it's clear as day!

But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

In Hamlet, I.i, Lady Gaga points out an integral component to looking good and encourages all women to follow suit:

"God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another"

Beautiful, dirty, rich––this Merchant of Venice, I.i, line has Gaga all over it:

"I owe the most, in money and in love."

In A Comedy of Errors, V.i, Lady Gaga describes her liberation and her meteoric rise to success:

"gnawing with my teeth my bonds in sunder, I gain'd my freedom, and immediately Ran hither to your grace."

In Cymbeline, I.i, she even talks about the tattoo on her wrist.

"Peace, dear lady daughter, peace! Sweet sovereign."

And the number one reason why we think Lady Gaga is the true author of the work commonly attributed to William Shakespeare is...

In Much Ado about Nothing, II.i, she comes right out and reveals her identity:

"Troth, my lord, I have played the part of lady fame."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Featured Product: Puzzle Packs from Teacher's Pet

Puzzle Pack teaching guides are filled with puzzles, games, and worksheets related to the work of literature, and are the perfect complement to our Teacher’s Pet LitPlan Teacher Packs! Using vocabulary words from the book, this packet, containing over 50 activities — including everything from word searches to magic squares — is great as a review, reinforcement, as a quick plan for substitute teachers, and much more.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tuesday Trivia

  1. Which author began her famous suicide note with the words, “I am certain that I am going mad again ..."
  2. What do P.G. Wodehouse, Ezra Pound, and William Joyce have in common?
  3. Where does the pen name “Mark Twain” come from?
  4. What is the only novel to top the best-seller lists fro two consecutive years?
  5. What classic gothic novel of 1818 was subtitled The Modern Prometheus?

Last Week's Answers

Which of author was sentenced to ridicule in the town’s public stocks as a punishment for libel?

Daniel Defoe.

The epitaph 'Under the wide and starry sky, dig the grave and let me lie' belongs to whom?

Robert Louis Stevenson

What is Stephen King’s middle name?


What is a “Lake Poet”?

The "Lake Poets" including Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, lived in the English Lake District at the turn of the 18th to 19th century. They were a group of writers who followed no particular line of poetic thinking or practice, but happened to inhabit the same area.

Who said that Robert Browning, “has plenty of music in him, but he cannot get it out.”?

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote this of Browning in his 1897 work “A Memoir by his Son.”


Reposted from Larry Knox's personal blog, peripheral visions.

My daughter, a sophomore in college, just took her first Philosophy class. The teacher assigned a recently published book entitled The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love Death, and Happiness. She loved it and thought I would too. Lending me her copy, complete with highlights and margin notes, I must admit she was correct. It's a remarkable story about the bonds between human beings and beasts, our differences and our similarities.

Discussing the beauty of wolves with my daughter, I reminded her that I had the fortunate experience of photographing a couple of them for a book cover 4 or 5 years ago. It was for the Prestwick House Touchstone Classic Edition of Jack London's classic The Call of the Wild. (I also used a photo from the shoot to create their The Call of the Wild Spotlight Edition cover).

It wasn't but a few days after our conversation that I learned Warner Bros had requested permission to use the Touchstone cover as a prop in an upcoming Clint Eastwood film starring Matt Damon.

What I remembered most from the photoshoot, besides their beautiful, expressive faces, was the manner in which the wolves would walk back and forth, circling and pacing their immediate area. There seemed to be no perceptible movement of the back or shoulders, as you would have expected from a large dog. Instead, they seemed to almost float above the ground, silently, intently gliding. Was it me? I tend to visually enhance movement and settings in my mind, especially over time, but in this instance it wasn't my imagination. The author of the The Philosopher and the Wolf, Mark Rowlands, describes his pet wolf's movement in a very similar manner. Remarking how struck he was with his wolf's movement when they ran together he goes on to describe the beast as if he was "floating an inch above the ground." Apparently wolves use their ankles and large feet to propel themselves forward when walking or trotting. It's an amazing display of grace and stealth that is as unnerving as it is beautiful.

View more photos from this shoot here.

Plain English: Drinking the Kool-Aid, Jumping Shark, and Nuking the Fridge

Politicians are “jumping the shark” and “nuking the fridge” while voters “drink the Kool-Aid.” If you are puzzled at some of the modern idioms political analysts are tossing off these days, you are not alone. I used “drank the Kool-Aid” myself recently while discussing an issue with someone who had no idea what I meant. No one – not sociologists, psychologists, or linguists – knows how and why certain pop culture words and images take hold of the American psyche and bore their way into everyday speech. Here are the stories of three expressions that have captured the American imagination.

Drink the Kool-Aid. In the late 1970s a religious cult leader named Jim Jones convinced his 1100 followers to move to Guyana. In 1978 Jones convinced his flock to commit mass suicide by drinking grape Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. In blind obedience to their leader, 913 followers drank the Kool-Aid and died. The Jonestown Massacre was recorded on a surveillance camera inside the compound. Today the expression “drink the Kool-Aid” means to go along with the crowd or to wholeheartedly embrace a philosophy or point of view without question. If people become true believers and totally buy into an idea without thinking it through for themselves, we say they “drank the Kool-Aid.”

Jumping the Shark. On September 20, 1977, the first of a three-part episode of the TV series Happy Days aired. The plot involved Fonzie (Henry Winkler) and a daredevil feat. Fonzie claimed he could perform a water ski jump over a penned-in shark. The plot was considered far-fetched, outrageous, and inconsistent with the high standards of the award-winning sitcom. Happy Days lost credibility with viewers who felt that the three episodes devoted to jumping the shark were ridiculous and an insult to their intelligence. The episode became synonymous with high quality (Happy Days) corrupted by mediocrity. In current usage “jumping the shark” means something that was once great has gone downhill in quality and is in decline. Some “jumping the shark” moments include Tom Cruise hopping up and down on Oprah’s couch, Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment on the aircraft carrier. Recent speeches on economic recovery by government officials and politicians sound like “jumping the shark” with their proposals to solve the current economic crisis.

Nuking the Fridge. Similar to “jumping the shark,” this expression refers to a scene in the movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull released on May 22, 2008. Indiana Jones tries to survive a blast from a nuclear weapon by squeezing inside a refrigerator lined with lead. When the explosion occurs, every building and object in the scene is obliterated while the fridge is hurled through the sky, and finally hits the ground hard from a great height. Jones emerges from the fridge unharmed. Fan reaction ranged from “C’mon -- you’ve got to be kidding,” to “How dumb do you think we are?” to “That’s ridiculous, man.” Current usage of “nuking the fridge” translates to “an impossible assertion or proposed solution.” “Nuking the Fridge” has shown up recently in Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal referring to economic bailout/rescue plans.

These colorful expressions may seem trivial in the face of overwhelming national problems. Their very existence, however, is evidence that everyday speech is a powerful weapon. To say our leaders have “failed us” doesn’t feel nearly as good as saying they have all been “jumping the shark” and “nuking the fridge.” This time the American public is refusing to “drink the Kool-Aid.”

Image copyright 1988 Kraft Foods Inc


Mary Jane McKinney is the creator and owner of LLC, publisher of grammar, style, and proofreading exercises that use sentences from literature. She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. LLC, P.O. Box 299, Christoval, TX 76935,, 325-896-2479,

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski

For those of you who are fans of "The Dude," drink Caucasians, and knows that a great rug can really tie a room together, Mr. Adam Bertocci has written your perfect version of Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Titled The Most Excellent Comedie and Tragical Romance of Two Gentlemen of Lebowski this piece takes "inspiration from Mr. William Shakespeare and the Brothers Coen."

Read the full story here, or check out an excerpt below.


The Carpet Staining Scene

WOO: Rise, and speak wisely, man--but hark; I see thy rug, as woven i'the Orient, A treasure from abroad. I like it not. I'll stain it thus; ever thus to deadbeats.

[He stains the rug]

THE KNAVE: Sir, prithee nay!

BLANCHE: Now thou seest what happens, Lebowski, when the agreements of honourable business stand compromised. If thou wouldst treat money as water, flowing as the gentle rain from heaven, why, then thou knowest water begets water; it will be a watery grave your rug, drowned in the weeping brook. Pray remember, Lebowski.

THE KNAVE: Thou err'st; no man calls me Lebowski. Yet thou art man; neither spirit damned nor wandering shadow, thou art solid flesh, man of woman born. Hear rightly, man!--for thou hast got the wrong man. I am the Knave, man; Knave in nature as in name.

BLANCHE: Thy name is Lebowski.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

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