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The Semi-Colon - what is it???

Posted on November 26, 2019 at 10:08 AM Comments comments (19003)
I've been teaching writing for so long that I take it for granted that my students understand the ways in which punctuation is effectively used. 

However, I recently read a piece that contained no punctuation other than periods. When I was young, we learned rules for  grammar and punctuation; however, these rules are generally no longer taught. So, now I read essays that have only periods  telling me where to stop and breathe. Oy. 

The lack of punctuation leads to all kinds of misplaced modifiers and unclear or jumbled thoughts.

Today, I happened across one of my favorite web sites,  to find not only the word of the day, but also a post about how to use the semi-colon.

I love punctuation; the dots, dashes, lines, and other marks add spice and character to the written piece just as cardamom, pepper, turmeric as character to a curry. I hope you will enjoy the information about semi-colons as much as I do. 

PS Can you find the semi-colons?

Keeping Thoughts, Events, Memes Private

Posted on June 5, 2017 at 10:06 AM Comments comments (2594)
It is summer and time for high school juniors to begin writing the common app essay, not to mention all the supplementals for the myriad schools to which they will apply. 

Over the years, I've taught my own child to be very careful what she posts to social media. Most material on the Internet is cached (retrievable) and can never be truly erased. You know that adage "I can't unsee this?"

This means that college admissions officers or future hiring managers can and will dig to find any hidden material that they might find offensive and not representative of their educational institutions or businesses. And rightfully so.

So this happened at Harvard University...and it should serve as a lesson to parents who don't teach their children the important fact that not all thoughts and actions need to be documented via social media.

Gap year?

Posted on October 19, 2016 at 3:04 PM Comments comments (1983)
Recently, there has been quite a bit mentioned about taking a gap year between high school and the beginning of college. I've been lucky to work with very focused students who know where and (generally) what they want to study. However, many high school graduates are not so sure about college. They aren't sure what to study. They aren't sure about to which schools they should apply. They aren't even sure they are ready for college. I was one of these students.

The gap year has long been around; however, many parents pooh-pooh the idea. But for those students who are unsure, a gap year spent working/volunteering in a structured program allows time to mature and reflect.

Here's a link to but one of many articles out there about gap years

The Gap Year

Posted on April 27, 2016 at 9:22 AM Comments comments (1451)
I've long thought that taking a gap year is beneficial and am advocating it for my own daughter, a sophomore in high school. In the gap year, a student can meaningfully explore the world and experience life. This time, if well planned, allows a person to mature and learn make better, life-changing decisions.

A new book by Jeffrey J. Selingo, “There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow," explores the benefits of taking a gap year. More on this book and why taking a gap year is good for students can be found in this article by KJ Dell'Antonia in the New York Times.

My Middle Schooler MUST be a Perfect Writer

Posted on April 4, 2016 at 10:26 AM Comments comments (3637)
Over the past several years, I've had quite a few middle school students come for writing help. Rather, their parents want them to get writing help. Rarely have I worked with a middle school student who actually needed help because their child was making poor or mediocre grades in English. Apparently, a B is considered a poor grade by many parents.

In middle school, children (and they ARE still children) are beginning to learn the process of writing. This involves the organizing of ideas, supporting those ideas and then explaining them. But some parents insist that their child be an excellent writer, even at the tender age of 12. However, what many parents fail to understand is that "luke-warm student motivation, apathy, and lack of ownership of their learning may be contributing factors. Likewise, if they are disinterested, do not put in sufficient effort, feel a sense of entitlement, or are not receptive to teacher instructional methods or styles, learning may be compromised."

The Common Core Standards were created to provide a framework to prepare students for college and the real world. The Standards are very concrete with regard to the expectations and what students should master in each grade level. These Standards are based on what is developmentally appropriate at the various ages and stages of education.

So, when a parent decides after a length of time to stop the tutoring process, I realize that the parent has unrealistic expectations, and I'm left feeling sorry for the child. The message the child receives is that because he/she is not an excellent writer after six or eight months of tutoring, he isn't worth the continued effort. This is demoralizing to a student; it does not help to build the confidence that is so important to strong writing skills and having a voice. No child will become the next Hemingway or Trillin while in middle school, much less high school or college. Writing is a process that takes years to master.

So, for you parents that expect excellent, college level writing from your middle (or high) school student, I suggest you do your own research about what is developmentally expected and don't add stress to your child's life by telling him or her that she should be making As in English and writing publishing-worthy texts.

Can every student earn an A?

Posted on October 18, 2015 at 8:41 PM Comments comments (1265)
I recently had a student’s parent become very upset when her son didn’t get an A on his first writing assignment of the year. When I take on a new client, I always explain to the parent(s) that I can’t promise that his/her child will make an A on every assignment, much less as the final grade. Making that promise is impossible for several reasons. First, I am not the class teacher and am not in control of the grading. What I see as being a competent essay the teacher may decide is not to her liking. Secondly, promising that a child will suddenly become an A  student is like predicting the future or being a fortune teller. Both of these are highly suspect.

If a child makes a solid B or B+ as the final grade, it’s likely that the child isn’t going to make an A the following year. Being a solid B student somehow has become the equivalent of failing in our very upper middle class, highly competitive town and parents can’t stand the thought of their dear, brilliant child earning only a B. 

 If a student consistently makes Bs on all assignments, this indicates that she is somehow slightly struggling to either understand the complexities of literature or struggling to analyze and synthesize pieces of the reading assignment into a thoughtful essay. What adults need to understand is that not every student will be adept at discerning the moral of a story or showing how a particular event caused a character to change.

And, if a solid B+ student was thought to be strong in her English class, the teacher would likely recommend that she move up to an honors or AP level class for the next year.

However, it is odd when a student, who was a B+ student one year, begins earning lower grades the following year, even after working with a tutor for 1.5 hours. Is it because the student is struggling to comprehend and analyze a literary work? Is it because no two teachers grade exactly the same? Is it because the expectations increase with each advancing year in high school? Is it because the student didn’t carve out enough time to work with the tutor in advance of the assignment due date? Did the tutor purposely aim to weaken the student’s performance? 

Which of the above scenarios seems most logical? It is not the role of a tutor to force a student to change topics. Nor is it the role of a tutor to write the student’s essays. Sometimes, the best way to learn is from mistakes, and that includes academic missteps.

So, is it fair to demand that your tutor makes sure the kid gets an A in his class? I think not. I think it’s the parents’ unrealistic expectations of the tutor as well as of their child. 

Really, it’s ok to earn a B in class. Not every student is going to earn an A in his/her English classes, just as not every student will earn an A in all the math classes during her high school career.

College Admission Madness

Posted on March 13, 2015 at 1:37 PM Comments comments (1976)
If your town or city is like mine, then the four years of high school are both highly stressful and highly competitive. The majority of students have their sights set on a top tier university. 

The reality is that not all 600 graduates will end up at the Ivy League schools. Parents and their children need a reality check and need to understand that a top student at a mid-level college can end up working for the same consulting firm as the Yale graduate.

Frank Bruni writes a very informative piece in the New York Times that I hope parents and students will read and take to heart. A reality check would help reduce quite a bit of disappoinment in my town, for sure.

College Essays - What to Write and What to Avoid

Posted on November 25, 2014 at 10:34 PM Comments comments (1792)
In preparation for the first College Essay Boot Camp, I did a bit of research into what students should and should not write about as they attempt to impress the college admission officers who will read their essays. 

Repeatedly, I came across the same general list of topics that should most definitely be avoided. Not so long ago, CBSNews listed 10 topics to avoid when writing college application essays, and based on my conversations with some connected colleagues, an applicant will immediately be rejected if an essay is about one of the verboten topics.

And those supplemental essays? It is the student's job to show he or she has done the homework and researched the university, the department, the notable professors. It is absolutely not enough for a student to state that she wants to attend Georgia Tech because it's located in a warm climate and in an urban setting.

The best essay I've read was written by a young woman who took some time to look inward and examine her own Asian-American identity. It was a beautifully written essay, complete with metaphor and sparkling imagery. 

Not everyone can write a beautifully crafted essay, but the college application essay is an opportunity to define one's self and briefly make a pitch for why he should be admitted to a specific university.  And this is where a writing coach can pull important bits of information from a student that will help illuminate facets of the personality and character, both important for success.

The Importance of Feedback

Posted on October 1, 2014 at 8:30 AM Comments comments (2408)
From the time we are babies, we experience new textures, situations and objects that offer us opportunities to experiment and grow from the learning that takes place. From an early age, we learn by doing and then by receiving feedback, either positive or negative. If babies don't receive feedback, they don't learn right from wrong, safe from dangerous. In any case, feedback is a "consequence of behavior" (For more information, see

As we grow older and enter school, the feedback becomes either positive or negative - what's also known as constructive criticism. Constructive criticism may at first feel like a slap to those receiving the criticism, even when it's presented in a positive manner. Feedback, if presented correctly, fills a learning gap by "restructuring understandings, confirming to students that they are correct or incorrect, indicating that more information is available or needed, pointing to direc- tions students could pursue, and/or indicating alternative strategies to understand particular information."

I've had many parents ask me about group writing lessons. In fact, I once taught an in-home class of nine students whose abilities ran from talented to below grade level due to learning issues. A group lesson isn't much different than the public school setting; not much individual specific feedback is given. The goal of group classes is to have the group perform at a certain level; some will naturally move above that level simply because they have a propensity for the subject. Others will perform at the minimum level of acceptance.

Opportunities for one on one feedback, both positive and negative, are what allow for growth. Hence, in the workplace we have a private, annual review meeting  with a supervisor who highlights our strengths and areas for improvement. Who wants to be told his or her weaknesses while sitting in a room of people? For teens, this can be mortifying.  

If parents want to see improvement in their child's writing, the best way to achieve the result is to find a setting in which the student can receive very specific, individualized feedback that is communicated in an appropriate setting that encourages learning.


America's Love Affair with Football

Posted on December 10, 2013 at 9:12 AM Comments comments (379)
Whether I am teaching a first year writing class or privately tutoring a student, I always instruct on the difference between the written and spoken word. Sure, it's fine to use slang and colloquialisms in spoken communication as well as in texting. And, it can be used in informal writing once a person has developed his or her own style. But, please, do not use informal words or phrases in more formal written communications such as graded essays, college applications, or business memos/letters/emails.

Today, as I drank my mocha latte, I came across this very timely piece in the New York Times that supports my philosophy of the written word. The author highlights the current trend in using football (and other types of) jargon in the business world and in communications. Also illustrated are other no-no's for writing.

We'll punt it over to the sales team…The effects are kicking in…We scored the mega deal! 

What do you think?  Do you use it in your day to day communications? Can you identify when and how you are using jargon, slang and colloquialisms?