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Bird's Blog

Poetry, musings, observations, commentary, rants, confessions...and who knows what else!

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Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Teacher, writer, poet, grandmother, lover, wine-drinker, chocolate eater, beach comber, hiker, traveler, Giants fan, San Franciscan. All work on this blog is copyrighted material.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

To Be or Not To Be: IS that the Question?

One of the surefire techniques to teach students how to sort through their sometimes grammatically (and often semantically) tortured sentence structures is a study of sentence focus. Yes, sentence focus. Just as a photographer focuses a picture on a particular object, a sentence must be focused on its subject. But the subject isn't the only important element; the verb plays a vital role. Two basic principles of sentence focus are:

1.whenever possible, have a clear concrete subject and
2.use vibrant, strong verbs.

Under those two guidelines, specific rules apply:

Make what you're writing about the subject of your sentence.

Whenever possible, if a human agent is present or implied in the sentence, use that human agent as the subject.

Avoid the automatic use of forms of to be (the most over-used and mis-used verb in the English language).

Avoid empty subjects and clutter (there is, there are, there were and the ever popular the reason is because).

Determine who or what is really doing what.

To demonstrate some of the above principles and rules, let's unpack the following sentence:

Darlene is a teacher in Mexico.

Darlene acts as the clear, concrete subject. We can't get any clearer than that.
But what is Darlene really doing in that sentence? Is she really ising? Or is she really teaching?

She really is teaching; she is not ising.

Darlene teaches in Mexico.

We now have eliminated the flabby verb is and replaced it with a much stronger, vivid verb, teach.

Before submitting a final draft essay for grading, my students must assess their essays for sentence focus. Though a painstaking process, if students hold their feet to the fire and do the work, they not only find wildly unfocused sentences and correct them, they also find numerous miscellaneous errors and sentences that appear to be experiencing some sort of linguistically psychotic break (sentences with which even nerdy English teacher-types sometimes struggle to untangle and make sense out of). To recast those sentences, students (at least those who really work the process) engage in word-smithing – finding the precise subject and verb that suits their needs, sculpting their sentences, finessing their language – an English teacher's hallucination turned reality.

One of my students, in the process of eliminating her automatic and abundant use of forms of to be (which by the way, students often cannot even articulate: they use the forms, but cannot identify those forms when asked – to be: is, am, are, was, were), came up with a ingenious idea: simply contract the form of to be, joining it to the subject with an apostrophe. Thus, in this student's essay analyzing political ads, I tripped over such sentences as:

The ad's showing McCain standing at a podium, speaking to a crowd.
The ad's sending the message that Obama's the best candidate for President.

And my favorite:

The voter's viewing the ad never knowing how manipulative it's.

Every time this student came across a sentence which used a form of to be (primarily is – which she used in almost every other sentence) she would simply contract it. As we discussed her paper and her process in conference, she told me, “Yes, I really wanted to eliminate my overuse of to be. That seemed to be the easiest way I could do it. It worked pretty well, didn't it?”

Yet she had not eliminated her use of to be – she had merely disguised it – and in the process, created confusion for her readers. Her incessant use of apostrophes to contract the verb and join it with the subject made for a huge distraction as I read and effectively clouded much of the meaning of her sentences.

Initially, I felt her struggle with and resolution of her sentence focus problem revealed an alienation and disconnect from her native tongue. But she is not as disconnected and alienated as one might believe. She is actually beginning to appropriate the language of our classroom, the language of a working, thinking writer (though she does not quite understand what all that language means). She is constructing herself as a writer, engaged in the analysis and craft of writing. Her approach tells me that to some degree, she pays attention, for she clearly received the message that sentence focus matters. And her process also brings to the fore some of her finer qualities: her creativity and ability to problem-solve and her willingness to push through a time-consuming, mundane process to achieve her goal.

Now, how many times did I use a form of to be (as part of my sentence, not in an example sentence)? And can you recommend a way to recast those sentences using a strong, vivid verb?

(Of course, sometimes the use of to be IS appropriate. But IS this one of 'em?)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Shiny Band of Gold

Today, the rainbow flag at the corner of Castro and Market hung at half mast, with a small black flag hanging slightly above it.

Last night's joy was muted, dampened by the passage of Proposition 8, which codifies discrimination into our state constitution.

How is it that a scarce majority can use the power of the ballot to legally discriminate against a minority?


How is it that one group of people can feel justified in discriminating against another group of people?


Though Proposition 8 passed,the battle is not over.

Challenges to Proposition 8's passage were filed early this morning.

Sooner or later, this tyranny will be overturned, overcome. And all of us will dance in the streets yet again.


(Posted 12:31 AM, Wednesday, Nov. 5th)

Joy. Dancing in the streets - literally!

I danced in the streets tonight with hundreds of people. Youngsters, Gen. Xers, Gen Yers, baby boomers. Black and white, Hispanic, Latino, Asian - we were all dancing in the streets chanting "USA! USA!" and "O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA!"

No arrogance. Just joy. Relief. Strangers hugging strangers. As though we had come through a tough time, a hard-fought war that we thought we would lose. Only to find, we won. And won not with arrogance, not at the expense of our neighbors, but on behalf of our neighbors.

All of us caught up by it all.

I have been stressed and depressed so far this semester. Feeling as if I make no difference. As if my work is too hard for too little impact, for too little money.

But tonight, I thought, if we as a nation can do this - then I as a teacher can keep doing what I do.

Yes. Hokey. I know. I am a mixture of cynicism and idealism. And thank God - idealism wins out tonight.

For yes we can.
Yes I can.
Long hard road ahead. But we have a chance now.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Chatting with my sister the other day about the long lines at the polls, I was struck by her attitude (and the attitude I've seen in many others): she had no pity or concern for people who might have to stand in line for hours on end, or who might not be able to do so because they could not take time off from work. "There's personal responsibility involved here," she said. "They should have planned better. I had to stand in line, I had to give up time - why shouldn't they?" This year, for the first time in her voting life, my sister stood in line for an hour to vote. Normally, she stands in line for about 10 to 20 minutes. Her polling place is two blocks from home. And although she works two jobs, one her own business and the other for a major casino, she has a lot of wiggle room during her work days - it's pretty easy for her to slip away from her business and vote.

Imagine if you will: your job is a two-hour bus ride from home. Your shift starts at 6PM (before the polls open) and you normally work a ten hour day - you pick up the extra hours whenever you can because you need the money. You don't make much - in fact, you're not even sure how you're going to pay the electric bill this month. Although legally, your employer must allow you time off from work to vote, you can't afford financially to take the time off and besides, your boss is a real you-know-what. Times are tight, you don't want to do anything that might make it easy for him to lay you off. Yes, yes, he can't technically lay you off without good cause, but last month, he laid off one of his better workers, just like that. The guy was due for a raise. Two weeks later, he hired someone else as a replacement - at minimum wage.

Yes, you could have voted absentee. When your voting materials arrived in the mail, you didn't really pick up on that option. The booklet was thick. You wished you had realized you could do so - and you know it's your own damn fault for not reading the booklet thoroughly - front to cover. But working ten hours a day, picking up after the kids, helping with the homework, you're pretty darn tired by the end of the day and usually crawl into bed exhausted.

You could have taken advantage of early voting. But your polling place was only open between 10 and 2PM on the weekdays during early voting - you can't take time off from work in the middle of the day.

You sigh. Yes, you're responsible for this. You should have figured out a way. You accept personal responsibility: guess your vote won't count this year.

We say voting is a privilege. But it's not. We are a democracy. And voting is NOT a privilege. Voting is our RIGHT.

Maybe when this election is over, we will demand that our elected officials review the way we vote in this country and make substantive changes. Here we are, supposedly a shining example of a democracy and voters are tricked into staying away from the polls, voters are expunged from the voting rolls (without cause), and are deterred from voting because there are not enough polling precincts, not enough voting booths.

For those of us who are privileged enough that we can take advantage of our voting rights: GO VOTE!

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Voting San Francisco Style

I cast my first vote in 1976. A strange time in our country: The US was fighting inflation and on the horizon, though many Americans were happily unaware, energy woes were as ships at sea, out there on the horizon, big tanker ships drifting slowly to dock, yet carrying no oil to pump through pipelines into the refineries. Just a few years earlier, we watched spellbound as our legislative branch grappled with the executive branch's usurpation and corruption of power. The major networks preempted their regular daytime programming to broadcast the Watergate Hearings to the American public. I remember Sam Ervin, and his big, bushy white eyebrows, his gravelly southern drawl and the gavel he banged with gentility, yet command. I remember watching Halderman, Erlichmann, Jeb Magruder and James Dean, testifying to the committee. Some were cocky and arrogant. All were out to save their skins. Yet some were also keenly aware of the damage they had done, the fissure they had helped create in our democracy. I can still hear Senator Baker, querying with that now famous line: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” And I can recall the utter hush in the room, when Haldeman and Ehrlichman's lawyer, thinking the microphone was off, spoke in annoyance to his clients about one of the committee members, “that little Jap,” Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a decorated World War II hero who lost his arm in the war. With grace, dignity, and elegance, Inouye put that two-bit lawyer in his place.

Politically innocent despite having watched several years before the assassination of Bobby Kennedy on television in the wee hours of the morning, despite having watched,again on television, the turmoil and violence of the 1968 Democratic Convention, despite Watergate, I was excited to vote, to participate. I cast my vote nervously and left the voting booth in pride.

Yesterday, I voted at San Francisco's City Hall. I took Muni downtown, got off at the Powell Street Station, pulled my coat hood over my head and walked in the rain through the United Nations Plaza, the Civic Center Plaza, and into the gold-domed City Hall. For the first time in my life, I stood in line and waited over an hour to vote.

The line was long, but the voters waiting their turn were happy and friendly. We joked that someone could make a killing selling pastries and coffee to us; that San Francisco's famous Tamale Lady could wrack up the sales – if only she came by with her twinkly little bell and cartful of tamales. Parents stood in line with their children, lovers stood in line holding hands. Grey-haired ladies with large bags sat in camp chairs,and one young fellow, seeing an old couple moving quite slowly, gave up his spot in line for them – giving them a ten minute wait while he went to the end of the line – to wait another hour. Students stood with ipods plugged into their ears, books in their hands, and their feet tapping out a beat on the tile floor. One woman worked the NY Times crossword puzzle. I brought papers to grade, but scarcely looked at them. We laughed and smiled. We exchanged tidbits of information and gossip: Steve Young, former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers and a Mormon, has a No on Prop. 8 sign in his yard. The mayor, Gavin Newsom, will be in the Castro in the afternoon, reminding folks to vote. But we delicately danced around the topic everyone had foremost in their minds: the reason we were all standing in line – the historical nature of the election and the man truly responsible for the large early-voter turnout. No, we didn't speak of Barack Obama, but why else would so many people, old and young, happily wait in line to vote on a dreary, rainy day in San Francisco?

I went through the state and local ballots first, following my little cheat sheet prepared at home. I drew my line across the ballot for my congressional representative. And then I paused, to savor the moment, to say a little prayer, before I cast my vote for President with trembling hands. I tell my students: don't vote with your heart, vote with your head. But I voted with both. How could I not? And I walked out of City Hall with my “I Voted Sticker” securely plastered on my coat lapel. The rain came down harder than before. But I skipped through the heavy sheets of rain, splashed through the puddles. Pretending I was Gene Kelly, I danced my way back to the Powell Street Station, ran down the stairs, through the closing doors of the M line car, and smiled my way back home.