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Favorite Books – The Handmaid’s Tale

I have always been a fan of dystopian novels and stories. I actually started with the Utopia by Thomas More in high school, which is an old classic that considered what a perfect society might be like. After that, I started devouring any kind of Utopia/Dystopia I could find: Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, The Giver, the list goes on. The dystopian novel that has really haunted me, however, has been The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

I was 19 and overconfident in my knowledge of feminism. Despite this, I had only ever read the “classics” (focused on white male dystopias).  This was assigned reading  in my Women in American Society class(I dove into the deep end of critical theory and struggled greatly). Besides the other challenging, mind-blowing revelations in that class, this book focused on the fragility of women’s rights and how easily rights can be taken away. Reproductive rights, property rights, the right to not be sold as property in marriage, the right to participate in the same virtues and vices as men (jury duty, smoking and drinking in bars, running marathons, etc). Not only this, but also that many of these rights were only granted within living memory. I remember the novel mentioning  women not being allowed to have credit cards without a male co-signer up until the 1970s. At first, I thought this was an alternative history timeline until I asked my mother about it and then proceeded to research it. This is the truly haunting part of the book, especially for those not the most well versed in recent history.  I recommend this book for everyone, but especially young women, as often we can take for granted rights and liberties that were fought hard for.

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Fractal Power of Learning English Words’ Definitions in English

The fractals of natureI often find my students using translators in class. When students are low level, this can be a boon. Instead of asking the teacher constantly for the definition, this is the next best step. But as students move into more advanced ESL and onward to mainstream classes, it is vital that they understand the fractal power of learning word definitions in English. Here are 3 major reasons why:

Words do not always have a 1 to 1 correspondence from one language to another.

English in particular has many ways to say one thing, and while many translators give the student peace of mind there are many things to consider when learning words such as register, collocation, connotation v. denotation, frequency, etc (ESL teachers, do yourself a favor and read Word Knowledge).

Translators are security blankets that can hinder fluency.

Again, I have seen this over and over again in my classes: advanced students that cling to their translators (bonus points if Google Translate). Besides the lack of complete accuracy, the overuse of translators can cripple a student’s confidence in themselves. This lack of confidence can cause students to miss out on practice because they feel that they are not up to the challenge. My goal as an educator is to move students towards independent learning. Thus, in this case, if I see that a student is advanced enough that they can learn English definitions in English, I heavily discourage the use of translators (students should only use translators in case they really don’t understand the definition of the word). Also, they lose out on the biggest benefit of using an English dictionary.

Learning English words’ definitions in English will increase your vocabulary dramatically.

I know vocabulary learning is frustrating. I experienced this when I was learning Italian. At first, it was easy to just translate word for word. But as I studied more, especially since my upper level grammar classes were all in Italian, I had to learn a lot of metalanguage words in Italian (like, grammar terms such as noun, passive voice, etc). I just gave up my translator and started just accepting the fact that I needed to read in Italian even though it took me forever. The thing is, I got a lot better with my vocabulary and a lot faster with my reading.

I like to tell my students about the fractal power of this approach. If I don’t know a word in English, I go to the dictionary and I find two more words that I don’t know the meaning of. I then have to go look those words up. What if I find words I don’t know then? You must persist, especially in the beginning. Keep going until you can unlock that chain of words that you don’t know. The reward outweighs the time. Instead of learning one word, you may have learned 5 words. Now think what happens if you keep pursuing vocabulary in this manner. It creates a fractal, much like the plant pictured above. It grows from one stem and splits into many many more leaves and stems. Imagine your vocabulary like this plant.

The next step:

Now that you’ve moved on from translators, what dictionaries should students use?

I will answer that in another blog post.

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Recommended Texts for Composition

They Say, I Say- Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein

https://www.amazon.com/They-Say-Matter-Academic-Writing/dp/0393935841

This book is a well-written, boiled down approach to academic writing using the metaphor of “joining the conversation.” I still use many of their chapters in my English composition classes including the Naysayer chapter as well as the templates for introducing direct quotes from authors. The templates alone are worth the money– these signal phrases are chunks of language that are highly frequent in academic writing and are invaluable to the aspiring native and non-native speaker of English that wishes to improve their academic writing skills.

Norton Field Guide to Writing with Handbook –

https://www.amazon.com/Norton-Field-Guide-Writing-Handbook/dp/0393919587/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1484772253&sr=1-4&keywords=norton+field+guide+to+writing+3rd+edition

I used this book for my students at the university level for Freshman composition. The text is multimodal and includes etexts and related videos. The addition of the handbook is also invaluable as many native speakers struggle with grammatical problems although their meaning and organization is on point. This is a very strong textbook for composition and it breaks down a variety of different rhetorical modes for students in an easy to understand manner.