5 Poetry Sites to Enjoy

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First American edition of T.S. Eliot's The Was...

First American edition of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“April is the cruellest month”
— T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

. . . But we’ve no reason to fret here in cyberspace, as it yields a rather fruitful land of poetry – the opaque, the classic, the heartbreaking, the comic – by which we may celebrate National Poetry Month. Behold:

http://www.poets.org/index.php
Poets.org from the Academy of American Poets. Definitely visit “Poetry 101” if you’re a beginner (see Poets & Poetry/On Reading). On this site, you also may sign up for the Poem-A-Day email, read interviews and essays, watch videos, and even download free poetry ringtones!

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/
The Poetry Foundation’s website has an intriguing Search feature: you may browse for poems by Occasion, Holiday, School/Period, and more. This site also features audio and video resources; and be sure to check out the Learning Lab, which “encourages teachers, students, and learners of every age to immerse themselves in poetry.”

http://www.favoritepoem.org/index.html
Favorite Poem Project: “Americans Saying Poems They Love.” On this site, you can read about the project (which documented Americans of all walks of life discussing and then reading their favorite poems); you also can watch 50 of these documentary videos.

http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/home.do
The Poetry Archive (recordings of poets reading their work). Click the “Links” tab for a nice list of even more poetry sites.

http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/
Poetry 180: Housed at the Library of Congress’ website, this is a collection of poems selected for high school students; the program originated with Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States.

These Sentences Contain No Harmful Fillers

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plate with forkWritten by a professor to professors, this article, “Diss ‘Like’” (Ted Gup, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/8/12), eloquently explains why usage of the verbal filler “like,” and perhaps worse, our general acceptance of it, significantly harm all of us.

The fine piece certainly is worth reading in its entirety. Notable excerpt:

“[Like] is a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, relieving the speaker of accountability. It tells students that the world is so intrigued by what they have to say that it is willing to clean up after them, to sift through the verbal refuse for the nuggets concealed within.”

As an English teacher myself, I’ve noticed a common retort to such arguments: “who cares?” But to dismiss this criticism of flabby, inexpressive language with a shrug is, it seems to me, to be complicit in the erosion, or “corruption” as Gup says, of language as a whole.

One could argue the erosion has been happening for awhile now. The extraneous “like” has been a problem since at least the early ‘90’s, when my own high school English teacher interrupted an offensive “It’s, like, really hot outside” with “Is it LIKE hot, or is it INDEED hot?” Prof. Gup in his article explains that he notified his students of their uttered “likes” by holding aloft a “LIKE” sign at each offense. Both methods call attention to use of verbal fillers on the spot, and emphasize slowing down and thinking about what we’re saying: that is, speaking with deliberation. Don’t expect the listener to “clean up after you,” as the quote above has it. This idea, of course, also applies to written expression; as Strunk and White’s venerable Elements of Style says about writing a paragraph,

“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

So this year, consider working toward making your communications more concise and eliminating bad habits from your speech. A well-spoken college graduate more easily commands attention and, perhaps, credibility and respect; and speaking with grace and purpose is a significant personal accomplishment as well as a valuable, versatile life skill.

Image via mrg.bz / gleangenie

English Pronunciation & My Schoolhouse Time Machine

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Forestdale Schoolhouse, RI

Linger a moment in schoolhouses past

A couple of enjoyable weblinks on English pronunciation crossed my path this week. The first is an intriguing poem, “The Ultimate English Language Test,” posted at Edudemic.com, and the second a pronunciation dictionary, howjsay.com, featured as refdesk.com’s “Site of the Day.”

These got me to thinking: how much do native speakers of English learn about pronunciation at any level of schooling? I know it must be covered to some degree, but I admit I am skeptical of how well it’s working. In part because, I believe, of the jettisoning of phonics in elementary education, I taught some community college students for whom I was embarrassed when they tried to read aloud a few lines of Shakespeare. It is no exaggeration to say they couldn’t sound out the words and thus could not read them. This is, of course, a tragedy in itself, and I felt sorry for the students. While these were not the best students in the class (and that may have been due to their early reading instruction or lack thereof), I don’t think it’s radical to argue that any high school graduate should be able to read.

And thus I ponder literacy and K-12, and at times like these I consult my little time machine, my 1889 fourth-grade reader (Indiana School Book Company), for a blast to the curricular past.

That small book puts a great deal of emphasis on pronunciation and the spoken word. Phonetic symbols are used, and scattered through the reader at regular intervals are drill exercises in pronunciation. Kids had to recite words “in concert”; they also were introduced to poetry such as that from Longfellow and Wordsworth, and sometimes were instructed to memorize and recite verse.

Aaaaargh!, today’s education establishment would cry. Drills! Memorization! What could be worse? But this reader demonstrates that an emphasis on teaching pronunciation and recitation goes hand in hand with expecting a fairly sophisticated level of reading comprehension and vocal performance.

For instance, the book gives “Hints to Pupils” about “Vocal Training.” It advises

Think about the meaning of every sentence you read. Try to enter into the spirit of what you read, and read it so as to convey that spirit to those who hear you.” 

and

Try to form the habit of occasionally lifting your eyes from the book to look at the class or the teacher. In order to do this, as you draw near the end of a sentence or a paragraph, run your eye ahead of your voice, take in the words, and then repeat them while looking directly at those to whom you are reading.”

This encouragement to consider meaning, and inviting the child to consider audience, seem to be excellent ways to build confident, articulate young readers (and speakers). And I have to think young people of that era would be able to handle the Bard.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Spelling “Success”

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Content: Well-known C19th pangram The quick br...

Image via Wikipedia

A site on college prep, a piece on spelling. Is the state of our education so dire?

Yes, I do believe grade school kids should master spelling rules, and high school, much less college students, should not misspell words on formal assignments. While that may be ideal, the reality is spelling errors crop up everywhere: in college-level essays, but also on signs in public places and notably, on the web (ever read comments on YouTube?).

Another reality is that many intelligent adults don’t find proper spelling to come easily; but rather than shrug and continue to spell badly, such people (if they are mature) recognize their weakness and live with a dictionary close at hand.

So, as the t-shirt saying goes, “Bad Spellers of the World, Untie!”, and behold the tips below to help conquer your spelling demons:

1)      Don’t over-rely on Spell Check. It’s a handy tool, but beware: it can’t think for you. It only recognizes whether a word is in the language; it doesn’t check for usage. Do a web search for “Spell Checker Poem” and you’ll find a humorous but powerful example of Spell Check’s serious limitations.

2)      Do print your document and read it aloud slowly before turning it in (or presenting or sending it). This is just as important in the professional world as it is in the student’s world, by the way. No one wants to make silly errors, and we catch errors more frequently on paper than we do on screen.

3)      Do use a dictionary when you aren’t sure how to spell a word. Let’s face it: foregoing the dictionary with a “close enough!” attitude is just plain lazy. Using online dictionaries may seem easy, but don’t let your old-fashioned paper one get dusty. Personally, I find the “old school” dictionaries much faster to use (plus, no annoying ads!).

4)      Do (re-)learn spelling rules if necessary. Check out a few good links to get started:

http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/spelling.htm
“Some Rules and Suggestions about Spelling”: a wonderful page with interactive quizzes at the bottom. From the Capital Community College Foundation’s Guide to Grammar and Writing.

http://www.englishclub.com/writing/spelling.htm
“English Spelling Rules” from EnglishClub.com.

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/660/01/
“Spelling: Common Words that Sound Alike” from the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL).

http://iteslj.org/links/ESL/Spelling/
What a page of resources: “ESL: Spelling” from The Internet TESL Journal.

3 Must-Reads for College Prep Writing

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Image by jaubele1 via Flickr

What’s the best advice I can give to those who’d like to improve their writing skills? Read. Read voraciously. Read material that challenges you. See here and here for more specifics.

For that frequently asked question, particularly by those who have been out of school for awhile, “Do you recommend a good book for general brushing up on my writing skills?”, oh, yes — but make that a handful of books:

1)       Strunk, William Jr., and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2000.

A classic now in its fourth edition, this is a slim, concise volume that will help you with any form of college (or professional) writing.  It offers rock-solid advice and is destined to become a frequent reference, but it’s also charmingly written and definitely readable in a day.

2)      Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham, 2004.   

A best-selling, entertaining book that outlines the history and proper usage of punctuation marks in the English language.  If you fear your own punctuation skills may be deteriorating with every text message you send, this book is for you.

3)      A writer’s handbook of your choice.

Two very good ones to which my own English Comp students have responded positively:

Hacker, Diana and Nancy Sommers. A Writer’s Reference. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.

Raimes, Ann. Pocket Keys for Writers. 3rd ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2010.

*I’ve listed the most recent editions here…certainly, older editions are still floating around and most of the basic information will be the same.

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