Saturday, December 9, 2017

Create Your Own Literature Awards

Now is the time when all the big literary awards come out.  The National Book Critics Circle AwardsThe National Book AwardThe Pulitzer PrizesThe Man Booker Prizes.  (Actually, the National Book Critics Circle Award comes out in March, but it's the exception that proves the rule.)

Three guesses: Why do you think they almost all are announced in December?  My answer: Marketing!  For harried holiday gift buyers, nothing spells safety better than a bright, glittering seal on the cover of a book in a bookstore.  "He's got to like this one; it won the National Book Award!"

My neighbors gave me the National Book Award winner for Christmas every year for years.  And, truth be told, it rarely disappointed.  The best of these books was Mating by Norman Rush, which won the National Book Award in 1991.  (It had so many hard words--I had to ask a Classics professor what "uchronia" could possibly mean (since it wasn't in even the big dictionary)--that I would announce my new words for that day every night at dinner.  My friend Adam said I had the rate of vocabulary acquisition of a two-year-old, but it was all Norman Rush's doing.)  Buy Mating here.

(All right, I'll tell you.  Professor Rick Griffiths of the Amherst College Classics Department opined that "uchronia" was a word akin to "utopia."  If "utopia" meant "no place," and by that "some perfect place," then, by analogy, Griffiths reasoned that "uchronia" meant "no time," and by that "some perfect time."  Thank you, Rick.)

Well, teachers, why let all these muckety-mucks of the publishing world have all the fun?  Have a book award contest of your own.  You can choose to make awards in a variety of fields--fiction, nonfiction, poetry--or just choose one big winner.  You can solicit nominations, hold a vote (and by doing that teach something about the nature and process of elections), and design the award (which would be an opportunity for a creative response to literature).  Students could be asked to provide written rationales for their votes, which gives you, ready-made, a book evaluation assignment with built-in authenticity.

Your award might look humbler than this, and be made of paper.  It doesn't matter.

If you have the time and inclination, compare awards from the classes of other teachers.  Students will be gratified when the same text win awards as those in the classroom across the hall, and intrigued when different texts win.

One caveat: Be leery of holding award contests for student writing.  That might turn into a popularity contest and would certainly result in hurt feeling for those student writers that did not win.  You don't want a disincentive for students to produce their own writing.

But as for reading assigned in class, judge away!  Isn't evaluation the pinnacle of Bloom's Taxonomy?  (Am I showing my age?)  You could even have a Raspberry Award for Worst Thing We Read This Semester.  I'm sure any class of readers would love choosing the winner for that.

The Room 231 Literary Awards (and Holiday Buying Guide)?  Will you produce something like this with your classes?  Let us know in the comments section, below.

The English Avocado

Sunday, November 12, 2017

worship - ESL vocabulary - with paintings!


Today is Sunday, and that means that for many Christians in the world, today is a day of worship. But “to worship” often has other meanings aside from “to honor (a) God.” The OED gives two definitions for worship, one being more religious and one being less religious:

(more religious definition)
  • To honour or revere as a supernatural being or power, or as a holy thing;
  • to regard or approach with religious veneration.
(Note that the OED, being English, uses the English, not the American spelling, of “honor.”) 

(less religious definition)
  • To revere as a being or power regarded as supernatural or divine;
  • to regard with extreme respect, affection, or devotion;
  • to adore.
So the more religious definition envisions people worshipping as people treating a supernatural power with veneration (great respect). But then there are, as there are so often, a range of strengths, if you will, of worship. Look at the second definition, which provides three differing levels of honor: First, the treatment of a being or power as a divine thing; then, more general and weak, to treat with extreme respect; then, simply, “to adore.”

(Trinity Church in the middle of  Boston, Massachusetts—a house of worship.)

What about a “house of worship”? The Free Dictionary tells us that this is anyplace that “congregations gather for prayer,” but this seems beside the point, as the term is “house of worship,” not “house of prayer.” And to pray is very different from to worship. Are Jewish synagogues houses of worship? What about Muslim mosques? Wikipedia says yes: “Temples, churches, synagogues and mosques are examples of structures created for worship.” But my experience tells me that the phrase “house of worship” is usually reserved, in America, for Christian churches.

This fabulous 1921 oil painting by Charles Demuth, the American Precisionist, is called “Incense of a New Church.” You will note that it is clouds of industrial steam—although perhaps religiously stylized—that perfume the church building. And what is the church building? It is not a church at all, but instead an industrial cityscape. Demuth (and his pal, another Charles, Charles Sheeler) were American painters who portrayed the beauty they saw in industrial landscapes and factories. The United States in the 20’s was undergoing a rapid transformation to an industrialized society. Things were being built, things were being automated, people were at work, and money was being made. Demuth is saying, with his beautiful clouds of steam, here, that industrialization had become the spirituality of the era. Were industrialization, mechanization, and automation becoming the new objects of worship for American society?

And what do we worship now? Certainly, lovers have always worshipped each other. Look at this painting, by the Austrian Gustav Klimt, of only thirteen years prior, entitled “The Kiss”:

(This painting is located at The Klimt Museum.)

Are these two lovers, engaged in a kiss so deep their robes even seem to intertwine and come to have the same pattern, indeed worshipping each other? Yes and no. The man is taller than the woman, and bends her head back almost uncomfortably; is the kiss something he is inflicting on her? No. If we look more closely, we see that the worship is reciprocal. His hand is cradling her cheek, but her hand lies on top of his worshipping hand, as if to say, “Yes, now.” And her body is pressed into his so tight it’s as if she wants all distance between them to disappear.

So—whom, or what, do you worship? Whom do you worship by yourself, alone? And whom or what do your worship along with your families and communities? Whatever the case, be advised: Worship isn’t just for deities.

The English Avocado

Monday, October 23, 2017

ELL vocabulary - island

Because of the islands in the Caribbean Sea getting devastated by hurricanes in the fall of 2017, today's word is island.

An island, according to the OED, is "a piece of land completely surrounded by water."  The largest island in the world is Greenland:

See how the Atlantic Ocean completely surrounds Greenland?  One of the smallest islands in the world is Bishop Rock, off the coast of England:

Islands are isolated from the rest of the land by the sea that surrounds them--or perhaps I should say the water, because there are islands in freshwater lakes as well as in the ocean.  One common trope (or idiom) in English is the idea of being "marooned on a desert island."  This does not mean being left on an island that gets very little fresh water:

Here the word "desert" means deserted, as in "Forsaken, abandoned, left desolate."  The idea of being marooned on a desert island is to indicate that one is isolated from all human civilization, not that one is slowly (or quickly) dying of thirst.  So a common question to someone might be, "If you were marooned on a desert island, what three books would you bring with you?"  

Remember, this is all you will have to read until the end of your days or until you're rescued, whichever comes first:

I know I would bring The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the Norton Anthology of British Literature, and then some third, as yet un-named book.

If you were marooned on a desert island, which is to say marooned on a deserted island, what three books would you bring with you?

The English Avocado

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Mood and Anxiety Disorders in Our Kids -- On the Rise?

An article in the New York Times Magazine by Benoit Denizet-Lewis dated October 11, 2017 has been among the Times's most-emailed.  The article is about the seeming rise in anxiety disorders among United States adolescents.  The article describes the struggles of a number of teens with anxiety, including those of this young man:

Jake, at UNC-Chapel Hill, suffers from anxiety.
The Higher Education Research Institute has found that incoming college freshmen reporting that they "felt overwhelmed by all I had to do" had risen last year, to 41% of those surveyed, up from 18% in 1985.  See the report here.

The Mayo Clinic has listed several warning signs that young people may be suffering from mental illness.  Those include:

  • mood changes (sadness, withdrawal, or severe mood swings)
  • intense feelings (such as overwhelming fear for no reason)
  • behavior changes (including dangerous or out-of-control behavior, or frequent fighting)
  • difficulty concentrating
  • unexplained weight loss
  • physical symptoms (such as headaches and stomachaches)
  • self-harm
  • substance abuse
Many people with depression and bipolar disorder, including myself, first experienced symptoms of anxiety.  Dr. Susan J. Bradley, a child psychiatrist in Toronto, has written that "anxiety disorders precede mood disorders in most situations."

I first started experiencing severe anxiety in my second year of law school, at the age of 23.  I was doing everything I could to manage my feelings of panic, my muscle tension, sleeplessness, and constant worry.  (I went running so often and for such long periods of time that I was in the best physical shape of my life.)  But things got worse, instead of better, and I contacted a psychiatrist, who prescribed lorazepam, a tranquilizer, and propranolol, a beta-blocker, which reduces symptoms of panic.  The relief came right away, but soon my feelings morphed into depression.  I later learned that this is common.

lorazepam tablets
It used to be commonly accepted that the age of onset of mental disorders was usually in a patient's early twenties, but psychiatrists are revising that opinion.  "Roughly half of all lifetime mental disorders in most studies start by the mid‐teens and three‐fourths by the mid‐20s" write Kessler et al.

Parents and teachers should keep an eye out for the warning signs of mental illness in their children and their students.  Whether the prevalence of anxiety and mental disorders is truly rising or not, it is vital that people who are suffering get treatment.

Do you feel overwhelmed by all you have to do?  Do you have phobias, or obsessions mixed with compulsions?  Do you feel depressed?  Do not accept your suffering.  Seek treatment.  First, you are not alone.  And second, relief is out there.

The English Avocado

Friday, October 6, 2017

ELL vocabulary - stranger

"Stranger" is a noun that means a person you have not yet met--someone you have not been introduced to.  The OED definition is:
An unknown person; a person whom one has not seen before; also in wider sense, a person with whom one is not yet well acquainted. 

A stranger can also mean someone who comes from a foreign country or region, but today I'll concentrate on the first definition--someone whose name you don't know; someone whom you have not yet met.
A handshake.
In the United States one usually shakes hands when formally meeting someone for the first time.  One does this with everyone nowadays--bowing and kissing the hands of women have passed out of fashion.  Shake with your right hand.

The word stranger gives me the opportunity to introduce Richard Renaldi's "Touching Strangers" project.  As his website says, "Since 2007, Richard Renaldi has been working on a series of photographs that involve approaching and asking complete strangers to physically interact while posing together for a portrait."

Here's one of my favorite images in "Touching Strangers":
One of Renaldi's "Touching Strangers" images.
Here's the image on the cover of the Touching Strangers book:

Touching Strangers by Richard Renaldi.
Another one of Renaldi's Touching Strangers images:

I love the idea of asking strangers to interact so intimately and then pose for the camera.  For me, a wonderful energy arises from these images.

How do you deal with strangers?  Do you observe the advice, "Don't talk to strangers"?  If you see a stranger who is begging, do you give money?  Have you ever helped a stranger cross the street, or held open a door for a stranger?  What do you think of the way we treat strangers in the United States?

The English Avocado

Saturday, September 30, 2017

ELL vocabulary - temperature

Temperature means how hot or cold something is, but the OED definition is extensive:
  • The state of a substance or body with regard to sensible warmth or coldness, referred to some standard of comparison; spec. that quality or condition of a body which in degree varies directly with the amount of heat contained in the body, and inversely with its heat-capacity; commonly manifested by its imparting heat to, or receiving it from, contiguous bodies, and usually measured by means of a thermometer or similar instrument. (Now the ordinary sense.)
Sometimes--today--the OED gets hyperactive.  My Apple computer gives this simpler definition of temperature:

  • the degree or intensity of heat present in a substance or object, especially as expressed according to a comparative scale and shown by a thermometer or perceived by touch.

The source of the word is interesting and complicated, having to do with the sense of hot and cold being mixed, or tempered, but what concerns us today is the pronunciation of the word.  You don't pronounce it as you read it.  It's not temp-er-a-ture; it's temp-pra-ture.  (Like comfortable, which is not com-fort-a-ble, but com-fter-ble.)  Three syllables.

You might ask a friend, about the weather:

"It's hot.  What's the exact temperature?"

Or, if you're feeling scientific, you might say, 

"Water boils at the temperature of 100 degrees Centigrade."

Or you might tell a sick child, 

"You have a fever.  Your temperature is 101 degrees Fahrenheit."

(Yes, I know; the United States is one of the last places on Earth to use the old, Imperial measurements.  We use Fahrenheit as opposed to Celsius or Centigrade, used by most of the rest of the civilized world.)  I think I remember that the Fahrenheit scale tries to put 0 degrees at the freezing point of salt water (that's way off; it's more like 28 degrees F) and 100 degrees at human body temperature (human body temperature is 98.6 degrees F.)  

Celsius is more rational.  Zero degrees is the freezing point of fresh water, while 100 degrees is the boiling point of fresh water.  Boom.

Kids having their temperature taken today have it easy.  Those digital thermometers register a temperature in a few seconds.  When I was a boy, mercury thermometers were used.  They looked like this.

Old-fashioned, mercury-based oral thermometer.
You had to hold them in your mouth for three to five minutes, which was hard if you had a stuffy nose.  Worse, my mom liked to use the rectal thermometer, which went into your bum.  She used Vaseline to get the thermometer in there, but it still felt uncomfortable and invasive.  Why my mother used rectal thermometers instead of the (much more common) oral thermometers is a lively topic among my brothers and me.  She claimed it was more accurate.  We didn't always believe her.

It turns out she was right.  A 2011 study of about 500 adults in the Emergency Department found that oral thermometers are inaccurate by over one degree:

The oral and tympanic temperature readings are not equivalent to rectal thermometry readings. Oral thermometry frequently underestimates the temperature relative to rectal readings, and [ear] values can either under- or overestimate the rectal temperature. The clinician needs to be aware of the varying relationship between oral, [ear], and rectal temperatures when interpreting readings.  

(Barnett et al.  Oral and Tympanic Membrane Temperatures Are Inaccurate to Identify Fever in Emergency Department Adults.  West J . 2011 Nov; 12(4): 505-511.  doi:  10.5811/westjem.2011.2.1963)
But this isn't the only debate about temperature.

  • There is an argument about whether the temperature of the Earth is increasing, a process scientists called "global warming," which was renamed by politicians to the easier-to-swallow phrase "climate change"
  • Some people believe that heat is good for muscle strains and cramps, while others prefer cold
  • If you sleep in the same bed or in the same room as someone else, you know that the temperature that makes you feel just right will often be impossibly hot or intolerably cold to the other person

So what about you?  Which do you prefer, a sizzling summer day or a bitter cold winter day?  Would you rather have to use your air-conditioning or your heat?  Do you run warm-blooded or cold-blooded?  Let me know in the space below.
English Avocado

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

ELL vocabulary - library

I am posting from the library today, as my computer is broken and is currently being fixed by the good people at Apple Computer.  So today's word is library.

Definition: a building or room containing collections of books, periodicals, and sometimes films and recorded music for people to read, borrow, or refer to.

   Public libraries, owned and operated by local governments, are usually free and open to the public.  Private libraries, such as those owned and operated by clubs or universities, are only open to their own members and groups of students.
Widener Library at Harvard University.  A private library.

Boston Public Library.  A public library.

Andrew Carnegie had a special role in the development of free, public libraries in the United States.  He was a Scottish-born industrialist and philanthropist who made millions of dollars in railroads and steel.  He established 1689 Carnegie libraries in this nation alone.  He also established Carnegie Mellon University, publisher of the poems of Caroline Finkelstein, mother of The English Avocado.

What sort of libraries are available where you live?  Are they free and public?  Or costly and private?  Or somewhere in between?

On a related note, here's what I remember about having a poet for a mother.  On Wednesdays she would drive the carpool, to pick up the families of Findlay, Finkelstein, Logan, and Roberts.  All of us lived in Rochester.  Sometimes she balanced her notebook on the steering wheel, making notes as she edged forward along with all the other families picking up their children.  I was proud of that.  I was even prouder when, rarely, she would take us all to get food at McDonald's!
Boston Public Library - main reading room
Anyway, spend some time in a library soon.  It's good for you.

The English Avocado

Create Your Own Literature Awards