For K-12 Teachers: Three Things You Can Do Now to Help Prepare Your Students for College

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I wrote the following post at the request of my friend Cambria Tooley, a teacher at an elementary school in Southern California who was looking for a guest blogger on her own site.  You can find her at

Statistics show that in spite of rising tuition rates, a college education is becoming more and more necessary. Yet fewer and fewer of the incoming students I meet every fall are adequately prepared for the rigors of college-level thinking and writing. I hope these few tips will help K-12 teachers as they work to prepare their students for a successful college experience.

1.  Encourage Creativity, Confidence, Individuality, and Courage. Almost all of my incoming first-year students are good at memorizing and parroting back what they’ve read and been told, but most of them are severely deficient in their ability to form and defend their own positions or opinions. That is, most of them don’t know how to come up with original ideas, and the few who can are often fearful of expressing them. Too many have been told that “Nobody cares what you think.”

In college, we do care what they think. What they think, in fact, should be the whole point. I know it’s cliché to say this, but today’s children really are tomorrow’s leaders. They need to believe their ideas matter. They need to have confidence, at an early age, that they can change the world. Not the whole world, of course, but a little piece that they care about.

Questions that disrupt your lesson plan can be frustrating, but the paths these detours can take may wind up providing the most valuable “teachable moments” of your day—and theirs. If a student brings up a topic that you know is going to derail your whole day, tell her you find her idea very interesting and that you’ll make a note to come back to it later. Keep that promise.

2.  Grammar matters. Every year I get at least one student who tells me he got A’s all the way through school and nobody ever cared about his grammar. But in college, we do care. My students are often dismayed to learn that I will not give an A to a paper riddled with grammatical errors. A paper with extreme grammatical weakness will receive an F.

(An aside: My students are frequently astounded to find that it is possible to receive an F on something they worked hard on. I don’t grade a paper based on the amount of effort that went into it. I grade it based on its success as a focused, well-supported argument.)

If your own grammar is sketchy, work to improve it. This is something you and your students can do together. You already know that the best way to learn something is to teach it!

3.  A Note on the Five-Paragraph Essay.* On the first day of class, I ask, “How many of you have spent the past four years perfecting your five-paragraph essay skills to prepare for college?” Usually all but one or two hands go up. The students whose hands are not in the air swivel their heads around in panic, thinking they are not prepared and that they don’t belong here.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Here’s the thing. I spend my life un-teaching the five-paragraph essay. It’s a valuable tool, no doubt—there’s no disputing that the “training wheels” it provides can help younger students learn to recognize and eventually master the basics of essay writing—that is, the importance (and the benefits) of keeping an essay focused on proving a single clearly-stated central idea.

But nobody ever won the Tour de France using training wheels, and college writing is no different. The 5P structure simply doesn’t allow for the complexity most college-level assignments demand.

By the time they leave high school, whether they plan to go to college or not, students should know that there are as many ways to structure an essay as there are topics to write about. An essay should be organic. Content should determine form, not the other way around.

College has become almost universally necessary, and the time to start children on the road to a successful college experience isn’t somewhere in the distant future—it’s now.

Can you think of anything to add to this list? What do you do now to help your students prepare for college?


*A five-paragraph essay is one that begins with an intro containing a three-part thesis. The intro is followed by three body paragraphs corresponding to and developing the ideas contained in the three parts of the thesis. The essay then concludes by reiterating the thesis and main points.

Histoire Through Histoires (reblogged)


When the evening news came on last night, Brian Williams was standing in the American cemetery in Normandy, France.  Somehow, as he rattled off the evening’s headlines, my ears went deaf.  As I sat safe and warm in my living room and stared at the lines and lines of white crosses behind him, an unbidden image of the young soldiers buried under each one, and thoughts of the families who lost them, consumed me. I found myself crying real tears for all those thousands of men I never knew. With those images still weighing on my mind this morning, I’ve run across an outstanding article written by Evelyne Holingue in honor of the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Outstanding enough to share.

Here’s an excerpt: Both my parents grew up in small villages in Normandy, an hour away from the coast. Children during WWII, they understood early on the meaning of the words “enemy” and “occupant” and the need to be resourceful, but they remained children, acting like children, despite the war. My dad and his friends invented their own coded language that they used when passing German soldiers on their way to school. With polite smiles and nods, they were in fact insulting them. When school closed because of the frequent bombing, they wandered around and got to know some of the soldiers who having left kids at home missed them and . . . Read the rest here: Histoire Through Histoires.

Women’s Equality Achieved! Oh wait.


It’s raised its ugly head again.  The one thing, aside from winter, that I really detest about living in Northwestern Wisconsin.


I’m a capable woman.  I was raised to be, by a dad who had no fear of teaching me how to use power tools and a mom who instilled in me, from a very early age, her firm belief that a woman could do absolutely anything she wanted to do.

I spent more than forty years living in Southern California, where absolutely nobody ever questioned my ability to do whatever needed doing.  I could do minor household repairs, care for the yard, and service my own car.  I checked my own tires, my own oil, my own tranny fluid.  I could (and did) change my oil, replace an alternator, and change a radiator hose, all by myself, all the time humming “I am woman, hear me roar” under my breath.  Once or twice I even belted it right out loud.  I know how to pull a dent and mix, apply, smooth, and sand body filler.  Anything  you could do, I could do too.  Maybe not better, but I could do it.

Sexism was not on my radar.  Ever.

Ah, but then I moved to Wisconsin.  One of my favorite things about Wisconsin, ironically, was the fact that it really felt as if I had travelled back thirty years through time to a much less complicated world.  Life was slower here.  It wasn’t quite Mayberry, but in many ways it was close.

But of course there is a downside to all things, and I found very quickly that there was a big (and unanticipated) downside to moving back thirty years in time.  When the furnace needed repair, I called the repair people— and they asked to speak to my husband.   Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, well diggers, ditto.  Car dealers, boat dealers, home improvement and sporting goods store employees, ditto.  “You want a barbecue?”  The eyes scan nearby customers.  “Isn’t your husband here?”

To say this took some getting used to would be an understatement.  I was freshly amazed every time.  I asked my husband, “Is it just my imagination?” and he assured me, “Nope, it’s for real.”

It didn’t just happen on the home front, either.  Even in a place where one would think sexism would have no home at all—a university—it was alive and well.  When I had a bit of a problem with a student in one of my first years teaching out here and approached the then-chair of my then-department to discuss it, he told me the student clearly had no respect for me because I was female.  “Female professors often have trouble maintaining control in their classrooms,” he said.  “It’s not your fault,” he added, more than a little condescendingly, like a pat on the head.

What?  How does one even respond to that?  I smiled and thanked him for his help.  Oh yes I did.  I was too stunned to even be able to think of any other response.

In recent years, I haven’t had to deal with repairmen of any kind, and I’ve also since changed jobs (and there are no such issues where I work now, I’m happy to say).  On the home front, as long as I stay in my proper realm, which includes grocery stores and not much else, the problem is more or less nonexistent.

Well, in the winter, anyway.

But in the summer, I do not stay in my proper realm, because summer means car shows.  And every year, without fail, I am re-exposed to the problem that I’ve once again somehow managed, over the long winter, to forget.

Cars are a guy thing.  And guys do not want women cluttering up their car thing.

Tom and I both have classic cars.  That’s our hobby.  Mine’s a 1974 GTO.  This is my car:


People who like my car often have questions about it. They want to know whether we did a frame-off, ground-up, rotisserie restoration (yes), what size engine it has (350), whether it’s “built” (only a little), if it has air shocks (yes), what kind of transmission it has (started with an M20 manual, now it’s an automatic with a shift kit), what kind of carburetor (4bbl; I had a Holley, but we just replaced it with a Rochester), how many horses (about 400), and how the ram air works (I won’t bore you).

My point:  I know all those things.

But nobody, and I mean NOBODY, wants ME to tell them any of it.  One of two things will happen every time I try:  1) Their eyes will glaze over and they’ll just walk away, or 2) Their eyes will glaze over and they’ll shift the conversation over to Tom.

I love my car.  I would really like to be able to talk about it with people who also love it.  But I can’t.  It seems there is no man anywhere on the planet—OK, anywhere in Wisconsin—who wants it to be known that a woman might know more about a car than he does, even if it’s HER CAR.

To give him his due, Tom is sympathetic—but he really doesn’t understand the degree of my frustration.  He can’t.

And it’s not just my car.  If I try to talk to anyone else about their cars, I meet varying degrees of politeness and amusement—and sometimes downright boorishness and hostility.

For example:  Tom and I were at a small local show this afternoon, and we admired a car we’d never seen before—a black, chopped ‘30s coupe with a gleaming, flawless paint job (black is hard to do well).  We’d seen it arrive and had commented to each other about the way the man’s wife stood silently by for a good twenty minutes while her husband talked about his car to a couple of other men who had strolled over to look at it.

I mean, she stood like a statue a few steps back from the conversation, dead silent, with her hands politely folded in mute support of her husband’s achievement.  Nobody asked her anything.  Nobody invited her into the conversation.  She just stood there.

Tom asked me what I’d do if he did that to me.  I said, “I’d pull a Kitty.”  He didn’t know what that meant until I reminded him of the That 70’s Show episode in which Red takes Kitty to a car show.  “I’d buy a funnel cake,” I said, “and shake the powdered sugar all over your interior.”

He laughed.  Tom totally gets me.

A little later, we wandered over to the black car to get a closer look.  It really was absolutely beautiful, and it was with more than a little reverence, and with a complete failure to remember the way the owner had treated his wife earlier, that I admired the paint and asked him who’d done it.  He answered fairly curtly—a local body shop we know and have done business with ourselves—and I started to say something complimentary about them when without any warning at all, he literally turned his back on me and addressed himself to Tom, even though Tom was all the way over on the other side of the car and I was in mid-sentence.

I always forget how rude people can be, and it never ceases to amaze me.  You’d think by now I’d be used to it, but honestly, this afternoon, I was so furious that I was just about ready to quit the whole shebang.

But then I thought of all of the thousands of women who have been fighting this fight for well over a century.  This car show thing is not news.

If you ever think the women’s movement is over, that the fight has been won, go to a car show.

I will be there. You can’t stop me.

I am woman.  HEAR ME ROAR.


Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, “She doesn’t have what it takes.” They will say, “Women don’t have what it takes.”

~Clare Boothe Luce

Z is for Zarecze


Ah, the last day.  We’ve made it!  Congrats to all!

I may have been stuck on Y, but I’ve known from the very beginning what I wanted to do for Z.


Because Zarecze is a mystery, and I’m hoping someone will be able to offer some clues.

Here’s what I know:

My grandfather, Josef Urynowicz, traveled to America on the Pretoria, which sailed from Hamburg, Germany and docked at New York Harbor on November 15, 1907.

Here’s his line from the ship’s manifest (the text version, since the handwritten original is almost unreadable):

0005. Urynowicz, Josef M 24y S Russia, Polish Zarecze, Russia


Reading from left to right, it tells us he’s #5 on the manifest list; it gives us his name and tells us he was male, he was 24 years old, he was single, he was from Russia but ethnically Polish, and he was born in Zarecze, Russia.

Problem #1:  Russia’s on there twice.  According to the manifest, he was from the Russian partition.

I have no problem with that except that it’s in direct conflict with what my mom and other family members have told me, which is that Grampa was from Krakow.  The problem is that Krakow wasn’t in the Russian partition—it’s in the southern part of the country, which was the Austrian partition.

Problem #2:  There’s no town called Zarecze anywhere in the Russian partition.  Nor is there one anywhere near Krakow.  It appears, in fact, that there’s no town called Zarecze anywhere at all.

However,  Google is happy to provide me with an alternative spelling.  It’s not Zarecze, according to Google.  It’s Zarzecze, with an extra Z (perfect for today, right?).  And as it turns out, there are lots of Zarzeczes, including one near Krakow and one near Vilnius (a major city in what was the Russian partition, now the capital of Lithuania).

So now I’m stuck.  What I’ve just given you is the sum total of all the information I have about my grandfather, so when it comes to tracking down my great-grandparents or any other relatives (none of whose names I know), I’m pretty much looking at a brick wall.  Was he from a town that no longer exists, or was it just spelled wrong?   And if it was actually Zarzecze, then which one?

And there’s nobody left to ask.  My mom, who passed away in 2010, was the last of her siblings.

Incidentally, my mom always told me my grandmother was from Krakow, too, but Grandma’s ship’s manifest says she also was from the Russian partition, specifically from Kaunas (Kowno), which is also in present-day Lithuania.  I don’t know any of her parents’ or siblings or other relatives’ names, either.

Any ideas?

Y is for . . .


Y is for . . .

yabber yacht yachtsman yack yagi yah yahoo Yahweh Yahwist yak Yakima yakitori y’all yam yamen yammer yang Yangtze yank yanked Yankee yap yappy Yarborough yard yardage yardarm yardbird yardman yardmaster yardstick yarmulke

yarn yarrow yashmak yataghan yaw yawl yawn yawp yaws yclept ye yea yeah yean year

yearbook yearlies yearling yearlong yearly yearn yeast yeasty Yeats yech yegg yell yellow yellowback yellowbacks yellowbellies yellowbelly yellowcake yellowhead Yellowstone yelp yen

yenshee yenta yeoman yep Yerba Buena yerk yes yeshiva yesterday yesternight yesteryear yesteryears yestreen yet yeti yeuk yew yid yiddish yield yielding yikes yin Yinglish yip yipped yippee yippees yogurt

young youngberry younger youngest youngish youngling younglings youngly youngness youngster youngsters Youngstown younker younkers your yourn yours yourself yourselves yourt yourts youth youthful youthfully youthfulness yow yowie yowies yoga

and yurt


And I can’t think of anything to write about any of them.

Yesterday I had no trouble coming up with an X word.  Why is Y so hard?

The Youth in the Yellow Yarmulke Yawned.  He’d been Yearning for Yeast all Year.

“Yes,” she Yelled, “this is my post for Y.”

X is for Xmas


Ah, the letter everyone’s been dreading.  I was briefly torn on Saturday, deciding whether to do Weddings for W, or Wigilia.   As you know, I opted for Weddings.

That was because of the looming spectre of X.

Wigilia is the Polish Christmas (ahem, Xmas) Eve celebration.

So yeah.  X.

The Chris Xmas Eve celebration starts at dusk with the children going outside to watch for the first star, which of course represents the Star of Bethlehem.  Once it’s been spotted, Wigilia (the direct translation is Eve, but it means Vigil) begins.

The meal consists of a set number of courses, but the number may vary depending on the region.  It’s often set at an odd number—seven, nine, or eleven—but in my family, it was customary to have twelve, I assume for the twelve months of the year and/or the Twelve Disciples.

Twelve courses is a LOT of food.  And it’s all supposed to be meatless.  One very traditional dish is “rollmops” made of herring.

I was never able to spend a Christm Xmas with the whole family in Michigan, but I’ve been told that at those Michigan Wigilia vigils, the meals were indeed meatless, and that the children were required to have twelve different foods on their plates.  As my cousin Judy put it to me recently, “There were 9 of us cousins and we would divide one ‘glue ball’ … we felt that the gb’s were the lesser of 2 evils. The other one was herring! Raw fish just didnt make it!”

When my grandmother started spending her winters with what my mom called “the California contingent” of the family, we stuck to the twelve courses but threw the “meatless” requirement out the window.  There was always a Christmas goose, and often a turkey and a ham, and golabki for good measure.  The California contingent were rebels.

The California bunch also skipped the hay, which is traditionally placed under the white tablecloth and also in the four corners of the dining room to remind everyone that the Christ child was born in a manger.  I recall my mom telling me that when she was growing up, she always felt like Grandma was “bringing the barnyard indoors,” but I actually think it’s a pretty cool tradition.  I wish I’d known about it back then because I’m sure I would have insisted on it.

One tradition we didn’t skip was the sharing of the Christmas wafer, or oplatki, which looks like the wafer distributed during Mass but is pressed with a Christmas design, and which my aunt would take to the church to have blessed beforehand.  In California, my grandmother was always the master of this ceremony, but traditionally, it’s the man of the house who performs this rite.  He says Grace, then breaks off a piece and gives it to his wife, and from there, everyone gets a piece and shares it with everyone else, always with expressions of love and appreciation.  The oplatki ritual is among my favorite Chris Xmas memories, but unfortunately, I never continued it with my own family.  I now wish I had.

(I found a great article about the oplatki ritual, which you can read here if you’re interested.)

It’s customary to share the wafer with livestock as well, because of the belief that animals can speak with a human voice at midnight.

There’s always one more place setting at the table than there are people, so there will be room for an unexpected family member, friend, or other guest–and at the California parties, someone unexpected almost always did show up, usually one or more of my cousins’ friends.  The Poles are very welcoming to visitors and even have a saying that goes, “Gosc w dom, Bog w dom,” which means, “a guest in my house is God in my house.”

When the meal was finished, we’d clean up the kitchen (OK, everyone else would clean up the kitchen while a few of us hid) and then we’d migrate into the living room to open gifts, and then, if there was time, we’d play poker until midnight approached, at which point it was time to go to Midnight Mass.

This was another of my favorite traditions.  Just being allowed to stay up so late was an adventure, but there was something about the Mass itself, during which we all sang Christmas carols and there was a special, magical radiance cast over everything, that was different from any regular Sunday Mass.  Even though I was never baptized a Catholic (a story for another time), Midnight Mass always made me feel especially happy and warm with the glow of good tidings.

I’m sorry to say that nearly all of my family’s Polish traditions died with my grandmother, who passed in 1977.  But the more I recall them, the more I think it’s high time someone brought them back.

Do you have any special Chris Xmas traditions?

W is for Weddings


Everybody has heard of Polish weddings.  If you’re into partying, you might want to consider marrying a Polish person, because when it comes to getting married, nobody on the planet does it like the Poles.

Traditionally, the ceremonies began when a young man approached a girl’s father to ask for her hand.  He would bring an intermediary with him—usually his godfather or an older male friend—and also a bottle of vodka decorated with ribbons and flowers.

While the young man asked the girl to go get a glass for the vodka, the intermediary would discreetly and euphemistically ask the parents if they were interested in selling a particular cow or goose.  If the girl went to get a glass and didn’t come back (or declined to get one at all), or if the parents denied that they had anything for sale, then the young man and the intermediary would leave, and that would be the end of it.  A denial of any kind meant no.

But if the parents expressed polite interest in selling a cow or goose, and the girl returned with a glass, then the intermediary would fill the glass with vodka and give it to the father, who then gave it to his daughter.  She would drink a little and then give it to the young man, who drank down the rest, which signified that a binding agreement had been made.

This binding agreement didn’t mean they were officially engaged yet, though.  The official engagement involved the whole family.  In the presence of all of the relatives, the couple’s hands would be tied together with a scarf over a loaf of bread while the family was asked three times if they approved.

Other interesting details:

  • The night before the wedding, the girl would literally let down her hair. The “unbraiding” was also a very important family affair.
  • Even today, the bride’s veil is often trimmed with rosemary leaves, or she wears a crown of rosemary, which (as Ophelia so famously tells us) is for remembrance. The rosemary is a promise that she will never forget her friends.
  • The placing of the veil is another important ritual; the mother of the bride places the veil on her daughter’s head as her final duty before her daughter becomes a married woman.
  • The unveiling occurs after the wedding ceremony, representing the new wife’s entry into womanhood. It’s also roughly equivalent to throwing the bouquet (which they also do), since it promises good luck and future marriage to the members of the wedding party. The bride’s mother removes the veil and gives it to the maid/matron of honor, who dances with the best man and then passes the veil to each bridesmaid in turn, until all the bridesmaids have danced with all of the groomsmen.
  • The parents of the bride and groom also present the newlywed couple with bread, salt, and wine. The bread ensures that they never go hungry; the salt reminds them that there will be difficult times and they must learn to weather them; the wine ensures that they have plenty of friends, prosperity, and joy in their lives.
  • Food. Lots of it. This is because of–
  • Polka. All night. In fact, a Polish wedding can last for two whole days (but don’t worry—everyone goes home, gets a good night’s sleep, and then comes back for the second round).
  • Liquor. Free-flowing and often free. The first time (and actually one of the only times in my life) I ever got drunk was at a Polish wedding. I was fourteen.
  • A Polish married couple wears their wedding rings on their right hands. (This practice is actually very common throughout the world. It’s not them who’s different—it’s us!)

Did you do (or do you plan/hope to do) anything “different” or “traditional” at your wedding?

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