S-Town from an English Teacher’s Perspective

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As my husband selflessly and singlehandedly drove us to Florida Wednesday, we listened to the podcast “S-Town” and I submitted several pieces of my writing to various contests and publications, as well as worked on some freelance projects.

Wednesday, my husband and I hit the road to visit family in Florida, and to help keep us awake and alert during our ten-hour stint on 95 South, we listened to the seven-chapter podcast, S-Town, by Serial and This American Life. It was thought-provoking, emotional, entertaining, and worthwhile. I laughed, cried, and marveled. It’s the kind of podcast that stays on your mind for days–probably weeks–popping up in your day-to-day when something seemingly inocuous inspires a memory of an emotion, thought, person, or question brought up in S-Town. It brings up big questions, like: What is fulfillment? How do different people achieve it? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How can people achieve meaning in their lives? Do familial relationships trump relationships with friends, though in some cases, the friends are closer than family? Should familial relationships be given legal priority in every case? I could compose an entire post consisting solely of questions S-Town makes me ask myself, but I’ll spare you (listen to it yourself, if you haven’t already, and find out what questions it brings up for you). Besides, this post isn’t actually about the effect S-Town had on me personally; it’s about the connections I can make between it and my career as a writer and English teacher (though to be honest, the personal musings are far deeper than the professional ones).

The Mad Hatter

As a child, I enjoyed the cartoon version of the story Alice in Wonderland. As an adult, in a children’s literature class for my graduate degree, I had to read the full-length book–and I enjoyed that, too. Like me, you’re probably familiar with the story and its characters, including the Mad Hatter. You might also have heard the term, “mad as a hatter.” In listening to S-Town, I learned where that phrase comes from: In the 1800s, hat-makers (hatters) used a dangerous chemical compound to turn fur into felt for hats. Inhaling these chemicals on a regular basis caused many of them to go crazy, and even die prematurely.

“A Rose for Emily” and “The Masque of the Red Death”

One of the short stories I read with my students during our Gothic literature unit is William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” one of John B. Mclemore‘s (only click that link if you don’t mind a spoiler alert) favorites. The theme song of the podcast, “A Rose for Emily” by the Zombies, which I’d never heard before, alludes to the story and helps elucidate the meaning of the title, and the story, to a degree. I’m currently working on the best way to use it to A) enhance my teaching of the story and B) boost my students’ understanding of the literary device, allusion. In addition, my honors students complete a Literature Portfolio project throughout the course of the semester, requiring them to write short essays (Connections Essays) connecting a work of art, a piece of music, a work of literature, or a current event to the work of literature we are reading in class. Connecting the song “A Rose for Emily” to the story by the same name would perfectly exemplify the expectations for this assignment, as would connecting the short story to S-Town itself.

On a similar note, another Gothic author mentioned in the podcast is Edgar Allan Poe. One of his stories my students and I read is “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which the hourly striking of a large, black clock in a room of crimson and ebony provides a constant reminder to a group of revelers that their time is running out, and their hours are numbered. John B. Mclemore was an antiquarian horologist who built sun dials and restored old clocks. Herein lies more potential for a stellar Connections Essay.

Paradox

At the risk of spoiling everything for you, I will just say that S-Town also provides an excellent example of paradox: time as both a punishment and a gift. (In addition to spoiling things for you, I risk going way too far into my musings on the concept of a lifetime and time if I continue!)

New Words

At least three new words jumped out at me as we listened:

  1. proleptic
  2. mellifluous
  3. peregrinate.

Zora Neale Hurston

Although some might see the sometimes racist characters in S-Town as the farthest possible thing from anything relating to Zora Neale Hurston, two similarities stood out to me. First, Hurston lived part of her life in Eatonville, Florida, which the earliest residents helped build from the ground up. Janie, the protagonist in Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (which I read each year with my students), also lives in Eatonville, and is there for its incorporation, her husband having become the mayor and working hard to incorporate the town. John B. Mclemore played an integral role in the project of

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During our visit, I spent lots of time building Florida snowmen (sandmen) on the beach with my niece, who has taught me many valuable lessons and inspired many of my personal narratives, availabe at richmond.com.

putting Woodstock, Alabama (originally North Bibb), on the map as an actual town. Second, Hurston had a deep appreciation for folklore, and for spoken language and culture. While many African-American writers were attempting to create characters and narrators that sounded like, well, white characters, narrators, or writers, Hurston’s characters spoke in the vernacular of the people she knew, to the chagrin of many of her contemporaries, who perhaps saw her as proliferating negative racial stereotypes. Hurston, though, seemed to see herself as advocating for the beauty of these speech patterns, rhythms, and nuances. To learn more about this (and then some!), check out this audio guide by the National Endowment for the Arts. Like Hurston’s characters, the people in S-Town often speak in artful and unique phrases–without even realizing it; it seems to come naturally. They speak in clever metaphors without consciously crafting the comparisons, and use figurative language without even trying or, perhaps, realizing. Consider these two examples:

  1. “He may have had a little sugar in his tank” as a way of saying someone might be gay.
  2. “He’d drank enough Wild Turkey to make anyone gobble” as a way of saying he’d had enough alcohol to make absolutely anyone drunk.

These aren’t direct quotes, but they’re pretty close, and good examples of phrases that stood out me as particularly unique, amusing, or clever. Hurston’s characters, too, often express themselves in equally eloquent and creative terms.

Making Connections

One of the surest ways to support retention and critical thinking is helping students make connections between what they learn in the classroom, and the outside world. I found that as I listened to S-Town, I was experiencing what I hope my students experience when we read, discuss, and write: direct parallels between my own experience and education, and the real world.

 

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Expand your Vocabulary: Read

Recently, I got to spend some time with my niece from Florida, who, just having reached the age of five, will begin kindergarten in about two weeks. She knows my husband and I collect sea glass, and as we were walking down a sidewalk in town, she picked up a broken glass bottle and held it up, exuberant.

“Look! I found some glass for you!” she exclaimed, impressed with her find.

My sister, her mother, quickly told her to put it down.

“But she gathers glass,” my niece said, clearly confused about the difference between sea glass and any old glass you might find in the street. After we cleared up the confusion, and her protest echoed in my head, I thought, “‘Gathers?’ What five-year-old uses a word like ‘gathers?'”

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Because sunset and twilight are two of my favorite times of day, one of my favorite recently-acquired words is “crepuscular,” a word I came across in my reading, and that could be used to describe the scene in the above photograph, which I took in the Outer Banks of North Carolina earlier this week.

Other words I heard her use over the course of the next day or so included “scurry,” “scuttle,” “scamper,” and “scepter,” all of which she would casually and correctly use–just as if she were using the word “run” or “walk.” I started keeping a list. My niece knew about this list, and a few days after she returned home, I got a call from her.

“Hi, Aunt Amanda,” she said. “I have another word for you to add to your list.”

“Oh, you do?” I said, amused–and touched that my list had made such an impression on her.

“‘Glimpse,'” said my niece.

“‘Glimpse,'” I repeated. “Can you use it in a sentence?” My niece knew that in order for one of her words to qualify for the list, she had to use it correctly in a sentence. A few days prior, I had denied the inclusion of “humiliated” on the list, because although she had used it in a sentence, it hadn’t made any sense. (Though I must admit, I was impressed at her attempt, and told her as much.)

“I could barely see the bunny–I only caught a glimpse of him,” she said.

“Very good! You’re right–another one for the list.”

My sister’s voice came over the phone.

“Where does she get all these words?” I asked her.

“Well, we read to her all the time,” my sister said, matter-of-factly. And of course she’s right–the regular reading sessions every night and at various points throughout the day, as requested, no doubt play a significant role in my niece’s impressive and ever expanding vocabulary.

Read. If you want to learn, read. If you want to escape, read. If you want to relax, read. But, most especially, if you want to write, read. Words are the most powerful tools we writers wield–and we can acquire more of them simply by opening a book.

My niece’s enthusiasm for her growing vocabulary reminds me of my own experience with words. I can remember in third grade learning to use and spell the word “conservatory.” I felt so important, possessing such a large, polysyllabic word. Later, I can remember encountering the word “alabaster,” specifically in the phrase “her alabaster brow” (I think it was in an Anne of Green Gables book), and using it in my own writing every chance I got. It was exhaustive, really. The number of times you’ll find that phrase in my early writing is laughable.

When I first started this blog, I was rather good about composing a weekly Word of the Week post, and though I haven’t been very consistent with that recently, I still keep my eye out for new words, many of which I find in my reading. Currently, I’m (still) reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and in my last sitting alone, I became acquainted with the following new words:

  • epigones–inferior imitators
  • impecunious–habitually poor (a word I can, unfortunately, employ regarding my own circumstances!)
  • philatelic–having to do with the study of postage stamps
  • crepuscular–relating to or resembling twilight (which might be my favorite of these newly acquired words),

just to name a few.

And, as it past my bedtime (my niece might say I should have scurried to bed long ago; I might say I should have started my crepuscular routine before allowing myself to grow this tired and the night to grow this old), I’ll wrap this up simply by saying: Read. If you want to learn, read. If you want to escape, read. If you want to relax, read. But, most especially, if you want to write, read. Words are the most powerful tools we writers wield–and we can acquire more of them simply by opening a book. The stronger our individual words are, the stronger our overall writing, and the more striking our impact, will be.

 

Much vs. Many

To follow up on my last post regarding when to use “fewer” and when to use “less,” let’s briefly discuss when to use “much” and when to use “many.” Although the latter two seem to be confused far less frequently than the former two (largely because we seem to have an inherent sense of which one simply “sounds right”), people still sometimes mix them up.

Use “much” with singular nouns and “many” with plural nouns. For example, you didn’t eat much cereal, but you did eat many muffins. “Cereal” is a singular, mass noun, whereas “muffins” is a plural noun. There is one box or one bowl of cereal, but there are several muffins.

You would ask, “How much chicken did he eat?”, but “How many eggs did he eat?” (This would be different, of course, if you were dealing with an extremely hungry person, in which case, you might actually need to ask, “How many chickens did he eat?”)

You can talk about how much milk you drank, but how many cookies you dipped into it. You might describe how many sundaes you ate, but how much ice cream.

(Side note: Apparently, I am the aforementioned extremely hungry person. I started this post with breakfast examples, moved on to dinner, and followed with dessert–not deliberately! For more examples of how to correctly use “much” and “many,” click through the slideshow of (food!) photos below.)

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For further explanation of the relationship between “less”/”fewer” and “much”/”many,” click here.

 

 

Fewer vs. Less

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Above, my friend and I show off our paintings after a recent paint night. If we had used fewer colors, we would have used less paint. Use “fewer” for countable items, and “less” for one, mass item.

It’s research paper season in my world right now, and as I read page after page of student work, one mistake keeps surfacing: confusion regarding when to use “fewer” and when to use “less.”

Most of the time, people probably aren’t even aware that they are getting it wrong. After all, saying something like, “I should have eaten less cookies” really doesn’t sound that bad (unless you know better, which you are about to). But it is wrong. What the regretful victim of the sweet tooth should have said was: “I should have eaten fewer cookies.” Now, if she had been talking about cake, she would have been correct in her use of “less.” “I should have eaten less cake” is correct.

So why is “I should have eaten less cake” correct where “I should have eaten less cookies” is incorrect? Well, whereas “cookies” are several, countable items, “cake” is one, mass item. If you eat less cake or less pie, you eat fewer slices of cake or pie. The cake and the pie are singular, mass items, but the slices are individual, countable pieces.

Basically, you use “fewer” when discussing a number of individual items that you can count–crackers, cookies, hours, vegetables. You use “less” when discussing one item that can be larger or smaller in size.

For example, when you have fewer minutes, you have less time. Time is one thing made up of a bunch of minutes.

Similarly, when you eat fewer pieces of cake, you eat less cake. The cake is one baked good made up of several pieces.

For one final example: If you eat fewer meals, you might eat less food. Food is not a countable item, but the number of meals you eat in a day is.

Hopefully, you now have fewer questions and less confusion about the English language! 😉

Word of the Week: Etiolated

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Despite fewer hours of sunlight during the winter months, my pineapple plants never become etiolated, instead remaining lush and vibrant in the greenhouse.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of acting as a juror for the Scholastic Art and Writing Award. In my reading of the dozens and dozens of phenomenal short stories and essays produced by students across the country, I came across an unfamiliar word: etiolated. Not only, then, did I have the pleasure of reading so many thought-provoking, hope-inspiring stories and essays–but I also learned a new word.

“Etiolated” falls in the bottom 40% of word popularity, and, according to Merriam-Webster, is basically an old-fashioned term for “blanched,” as in blanching vegetables (deliberately growing them to be pale by depriving them of light). Figuratively, the word can be applied to people who are weak, pale, or ill.

Dictionary.com provides some examples of “etiolated” used in various works of literature, reproduced below.

  • His voice was hollow, etiolated like a flower grown in darkness. — The Jewels of Aptor, Samuel R. Delany
  • And he had a kind of sickness very repulsive to a sensitive girl, something cunning and etiolated and degenerate. — The RainbowD. H. (David Herbert) Lawrence
  • Pauline surrendered, and they went across the etiolated lawn toward the entrance. — Guy and Pauline, Compton Mackenzie

Now, go forth! You have been linguistically empowered!

Recent Words of the Week:

Oneiric

Macerated

Lacuna

 

 

 

Word of the Week: Oneiric

I am (still) reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666and during my sofa session Friday afternoon, came across this sentence on page 323:

“The oneiric wind whipped grains of sand that stuck to their faces.”

The word “oneiric” (oh-ny-rick) was a new one for me. The “Look Up” feature on my nook told me it is an adjective that means “of or relating to dreams; dreamy.” Merriam-Webster confirmed the definition, and informed me that the word rests in the bottom 50% of word popularity (what a shame). What a whimsical word to add to my vocabulary.

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The oneiric landscape and atmosphere of this beach along the shores of the Potomac River, near its blending with the Chesapeake Bay, makes it one of my favorite places. I snapped this photograph on my smart phone Saturday, December 17, 2016, after spending an hour at the water’s edge with my husband and dogs, hunting for sea glass and watching the sun set.

In addition to its inherent whimsy, the word applies to my own writing experience: The oneiric state I find myself in just before sleeping or just before waking seems to generate my best writing ideas. The only problem? Whereas I often remember my dreams, I only rarely remember the words I wrote during the course of them.

Other contexts in which I can imagine this word:

She waited impatiently for the oneiric effects of the medication to wear off.

He thought about the oneiric nature of his earliest memories, which might be memories, but might just as likely be imaginings based on stories he’d heard from his parents and grandparents and siblings hundreds of times, his imagination indistinguishable from reality.

The sight of the couple walking arm-in-arm down the cobblestone street summoned an oneiric sense of a life he felt he had never lived, though the photographs he had not yet removed from his walls told him otherwise.

She stepped off the plane and into the oneiric landscape of paradise.

“Oneiric” is also the perfect word to describe Lana Del Ray’s “Young and Beautiful,” as featured on the soundtrack for The Great Gatsby film released in 2013, as well as for the music that corresponds to the green light.

Lastly, I am quite sure that the male protagonist of my current writing project, a novel in its seventh draft titled Goodbye For Now, feels an oneiric sensation at waking up in a stranger’s body, and viewing his life as an outsider.

A part vs. Apart

For some reason, the confusion between “apart” and “a part” has been surfacing in my professional and personal life with increased frequency over the course of the last week or so. I noticed it in at least a third of the essay tests I finished grading just before winter break began, and it has appeared on my Facebook feed more often than I’d like to remember. Due to its recent, rampant presence, I thought the error merited some attention. Let’s get the difference between “a part” and “apart” all sorted out.

When “apart” appears as one word, it is an adverb that means “separate,” as in, “Take the toy apart” or “His feet were spread far apart from each other” or “He lives apart from his parents.”

When “a part” appears as two words, you have an article (“a”) and a noun (“part”), as in “one piece,” or one involved party.

The most common error I see is the use of the adverb “apart” where what is actually needed is the article “a” and the noun “part.” For example, one might write, “I am so glad to be apart of your special day,” when what one really means to say is, “I am so glad to be a part of your special day.”

If you think of it in this context, “He stood apart from the crowd” means something very different than “He stood, a part of the crowd.” In the former, he stands out. In the latter, he blends in.

Apart

A Part

Adverb Article paired with noun
Means: separate Means: one piece
He lives apart from his parents. He is a part of the high school band.

Board Games for the Bookish

My initial intent was to save this post for a blizzard, or at least a snowy day, good for cozying up inside, but then I got superstitious and started thinking that waiting for snow might jinx the weather, and no snow would ever fall this winter. In an effort to prevent that horrible eventuality, I decided to move this post up. It’s timely enough now: Lots of families gathering for Thanksgiving next week will likely play board games together, right? Here are four that are perfect for the literarily-minded among us.

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One of my favorite board games described below is LIEbrary. The die, shown here on the left, features various genres of literature, plus a wild-card option.

4. Scrabble

This one is pretty obvious,  but it had to make the list: It’s a word game. Literary types love word games. We’re walking dictionaries and thesauruses, after all. To excel at this game, one must be good at spelling, and have an impressive vocabulary. Some Word of the Week posts on this blog might prove helpful for this game!

3. Bananagrams

I like to think of this game as a sort of Scrabble,  Jr. As with Scrabble, players should possess a talent for spelling and an unlimited vocabulary. Also like Scrabble, players use letter tiles to spell words, but there is no board for this game. Instead, each player draws a certain number of tiles from the pile, determined by the number of players, and uses them to spell as many interconnected words as possible. Once a player has used all of his letters to correctly spell real words, all of which connect, he yells, “Peel!” At that point, everyone draws one tile from the leftover, face-down tiles. This continues until all tiles have been drawn, completely depleting the leftover pile. The first player to use all of his tiles to correctly spell as many interconnected words as possible once all tiles have been drawn from the leftover pile, yells “Bananas!” and wins.

2. Balderdash

When my siblings and I were children, we referred to this game as “the lying game,” because it requires players to make up fake definitions to real, though obscure, words. To play, one player draws a word card. The other players create what they believe to be plausible definitions for the word, even if they have no idea what it might mean. Any player who writes the correct definition moves ahead (if I remember correctly). The player who writes the definition that fools the most fellow players also gets to move ahead. Players who identify the correct definition, as opposed to being fooled by fake ones, move ahead, as well.

1. Liebrary

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Above is one of the genre cards The Librarian would read to his fellow players, who would then craft a fake first line to the book the card describes.

I. LOVE. THIS. GAME. It’s similar to Balderdash, but centers on literature instead of vocabulary. Players are asked to compose phony first lines of books as opposed to phony definitions of words. Not only is it an excellent and hilarious game to play around the dinner table with friends and family, but I have also played with my students in high school English classes. It is especially pertinent when we talk about how to write a hook, and the types of first lines that are most effective. In Liebrary, each player gets a game piece of a certain color. Players take turns rolling a die labeled with five genres: Classics, Horror/Mystery/Sci-Fi, Fiction/Non-Fiction, Romance, Children’s, and a wild-card option that allows the die-thrower, also known as “The Librarian,” to choose the

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Above is an example of a genre card from which The Librarian would read. The other players would use this information to compose their fake first lines.

genre. The Librarian then draws a card from the rolled genre, and, withholding the fist line, which appears at the bottom of the card, reads off of it the name of an author, the title of the work, and a synopsis of the book.  Then, the other players are given time to compose a phony first line. They turn these in to The Librarian, who reads them, along with the actual first line, aloud to the group. Players are then asked to choose which first line they believe is the real first line. The phony first line that gets the most votes wins that round, and the player that wrote it moves ahead on the game board. Players who identified the correct first line also get to move ahead.

I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving!

 

Cord vs. Chord

This is a story of mistaken identity.

Today in class, my students were working in groups, playing a review game to prepare for their upcoming test on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The game platform, called Kahoot! (I learned about it at a VDOE conference and highly recommend it; the students love it), is online, so I had procured one of our school’s mobile laptop carts for my students’ use. As I was passing out the machines, I heard one of my students exclaim, “They used the wrong cords!” I had used the cart the previous block, and noticed nothing about the cords that seemed out of the ordinary. I examined the tangled mass of chargers in the cart to see if I could discern the problem.

“What do you mean, they used the wrong cords?” I asked, addressing no one in particular. “They look fine to me.”

The same student who had proclaimed the error in the first place explained, “They used the music chords!”

Still puzzled, I continued to wordlessly examine the charger cords in the cart.

“I mean,” I said, “all the laptops seem to be charging just fine. How are these the wrong cords?”

“Cord” without an “H” refers to an electrical cord, such as is part of a charger for, say, a laptop. “Chord” with an “H” refers to musical chords, as in, “Play me a few chords, Maestro!”

After another minute or two of beffudlement, one of my students realized where the confusion originated: I was looking at the actual cords in the cart; my student was reading a sign on the front of the cart, which said, in part:

“Please be sure all chords are neatly stored inside the cart.”

Ah! My student had noticed and was perturbed by something that would, had I noticed the sign in the first place, also have perturbed me: the misspelling of a homophone.

“Cord” without an “H” refers to an electrical cord, such as is part of a charger for, say, a laptop. “Chord” with an “H” refers to musical chords, as in, “Play me a few chords, Maestro!”

No doubt the fact that the student who pointed this mistake out is one of our band students played a role in his quick discernment of the error. Still, as his English teacher, I was proud of his sharp eye.

 

Word of the Week: Macerated

I don’t know where I first saw this word, but three months ago, I added it to my list of potential Words of the Week, and it seemed a fitting one for Halloween. According to Merriam Webster, “macerated” falls in the bottom 40% of popular words, and means “to cause to waste away by or as if by excessive fasting.” When used with an object, Dictionary.com defines it as “to soften or separate into parts by steeping in a liquid; to soften or decompose (food) by the action of a solvent; to cause to grow thin.” Used without an object, it means to waste away, or grow thin and emaciated.

Lucy Westenra, the chaste victim of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, macerates into a shell of herself, weakening with each visit from the blood-thirsty beast, who sucks at her life force, draining her of blood, energy, soul.

Perhaps the spooky holiday is coloring my perception of the word, but, for today at least, it conjures images of vampires’ victims, rotting zombies, and werewolves gnawing on human remains.

“Macerated” is the perfect word for the likes of Lucy Westenra, the chaste victim of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Each visit from the lusty, blood-thirsty beast weakens Lucy, sucking at her life force, draining her not only of blood, but also of her vivacity, energy, and soul. Her friends watch as she macerates into a shell of herself, ultimately becoming a demon they are forced to hunt down and kill.
The word also precisely describes the disintegrating corpses of the undead, as they wander the world, decomposing–macerating.
And of course we cannot leave out the masticating jaws of the werewolf, capable of severing limbs to macerate the bones and muscle tissue with the aid of thick, dripping drool.