One of the pleasures of English for me is searching for the exact word or phrase to sum up a concept that is difficult to describe.
Finding the words to describe people is particularly challenging. After all, human beings are unpredictable, unique and sometimes erratic — yet always intriguing. Do you agree?
Here are some nouns or noun phrases to describe human beings. Which would you choose to describe yourselves? Do you have other suggestions?
a cynic • a gamer • the life of the party • a musician • an optimist • a pessimist • a dreamer • a realist • an athlete • a reader • an introvert • an extrovert • a party animal • a comic • an advocate for others • a critic • a fighter
Words are the ultimate intellectual playthings. You can appreciate their shades of meaning, rearrange them like objects in a still life that you are about to paint, and dance within to their music and rhythm. You can employ them to make a declaration of love, to give an explanation of your eccentric behaviour, or to convince others that your beliefs are justifiable and not to be denied. If you are a wordsmith, as are all of the people whose speeches or songs are embedded below, you can sway your hearers, touch their hearts and influence them to view the world as you do. That’s what persuasion means.
For thousands of years, people have been experimenting with words in the hope of winning others over to their position. This task is your chance to do just that. Before you begin, here are some inspiring examples of powerful words that have been woven together in unforgettable ways.
Long ago in my laborious and unremarkable teaching career, I had a lovely colleague called Helen who had a creative idea for teaching apostrophes. She invented a character called “Agatha Apostrophe”, who suffered deeply when people misused these tricky little punctuation marks. Since apostrophes are one of the nightmares of English usage, Agatha experienced a great deal of fastidious pain. She was just that kind of woman.
Not to be outdone, I borrowed Helen’s idea and created a character of my own. I called her Mrs Humpty.
Perhaps I invented Mrs Humpty so that there would be someone older than I am in the school. In any case, she was always saying “Humph!” whenever anyone used an apostrophe in the wrong place. She liked respectful students, carefully placed semicolons and bracing cups of tea (brewed in a proper teapot). In addition to being older, she was plumper and more pedantic than I am. Hard to believe that anyone could tick all those boxes, huh?
Sometimes I worry that I’m morphing into my own character. After you’ve worked through all the advice and admonitions in this post, you’ll think so too.
Warmest regards from
Here are Mrs Humpty’s rules for apostrophe use. Read them carefully or risk her pained displeasure:
1Letters that are missing are replaced with an apostrophe.
They’re coming to the party.
2Show possession by placing an apostrophe before the “s” when a single owner possesses something.
The woman’s cries were heart-rending.
The puppy’s toy was quickly torn apart.
3When the owner is a plural noun and the word is a regular plural, the apostrophe is placed after the “s”.
My two brothers’ rooms are a dreadful mess.
All the ladies’ dresses sparkled in the bright lights.
4Irregular plurals like “men”, “women”, “sheep” and “children” require you to place the apostrophe before the “s”.
Irregular plurals are those that have no “s” at the end, but rather a change within the form of the word itself. Sometimes the word does not change at all, but is still a plural, as in the case of “sheep”.
The men’s fascination with fishing is surprising.
The children’s music was deafening.
5Possessive pronouns like hers, his, their, theirs and its do NOT require an apostrophe.
Problem Word: The word “its” is possessive, but it requires no apostrophe. The word “it’s” always means “it is” or “it has”.
6 Plurals that don’t possess anything require no apostrophe.
Plural nouns only require an apostrophe when they own something, as in the sentence: “The boys’ football gear stank to high heaven.”
The head, heart and hand are the source of numerous expressions and metaphors in our language. For example:
She wears her heart on her sleeve.
He can’t get his head around this idea.
I have my hands full at the moment.
Can you explain each of these and think of others?
These three domains of human thought, emotion and action are also central to the ideas of a Swiss educational reformer, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.
In the task detailed below I would like you to reflect on the symbolic meanings of these three words and on the varying roles each domain plays in your personal and educational life.
In the table below, there are some words and phrases that you will be discussing and classifying in class. Many of the words in the lists will be familiar, while others will be new to you.
PS Don’t forget to continue creating your “i-Want” with its satisfying mix of death-defying and frustration-defeating new-tech tools for a more manageable existence. You might have a/n —— -overrider (Nathan’s contribution), generator, organiser, activator (Ryan’s suggestion), delayer, muter, rewinder, dispenser, teleporter, remote, changer, interpreter, vaporiser (Emma’s contribution) or robot.
1 Draw a simple picture of the human body (just in silhouette, no need for detail!) and write some more examples of expressions to do with parts of the body around your drawing; for instance: sticking your nose into someone else’s business, giving someone a hand, having one foot in the grave, etc.
2 Classify the words in the table by drawing little icons next to them. Use the handout (downloadable below) to do this.
3 Rank the three icons (head, heart, hand) from your strongest to weakest. Write two to three sentences to justify your choice.
4 Choose at least five words and phrases that describe you well in your strongest area.
5 Choose at least three words or phrases that describe you well in the other two areas.
6 Write them on a small concept map.
7 Develop a little self-description, with reference to your character, talents, interests and achievements.
Use as many of the words you have chosen as possible.
Utilise some words and constructions that trigger subordinate clauses in your paragraph: for instance: although, when I…, whereas I…, while I…, etc.
Employ as many words from the table as you can. Focus on describing your strengths and be honest, thoughtful and incisive!
7 Once you have completed your paragraph, show it to me. When I am content with your style and expression, you can then add it as a comment to this blog, so that your classmates can read it and respond to your ideas.
Phrases to help you get started – or feel free to think up some of your own:
I would describe myself as…
I find it difficult to categorise myself, but…
I believe that I am ruled by…
My greatest talent is…
One of my best qualities is…
My friends tell me that I am good at…
I believe that I have a gift for…
The driving force in my life is…
What matters most of all to me is…
At school I may appear to be ruled by rational ideas, but on the football field I…
Status swaps are the bread and butter of fiction writers. A change of status is the standard situation from which an author or film-maker can weave a story that fills the reader or viewer with empathy, dread, hope and ultimately a sense of relief or triumph.
Consider these examples:
Poor, deserving, beautiful girl escapes from a miserable fate, dons sparkling (if impractical) shoes and marries a prince.
Skinny boy with horrid family discovers he is actually a famous wizard.
Hungry, poverty-stricken boy inherits a chocolate factory.
The supposed fool of his family rises to the position of Roman emperor, despite his tendency to stutter and drool.
Young girl who loves reading saves her family from a vicious psychopath by conjuring a character out of a book to defeat him.
Homeless boy with athletic talent is adopted by a kind family and drafted by a top football team.
Brilliant young girl with neglectful family and criminal father manages to get rid of the school bully (who also happens to be the headmistress)
Prim and proper hobbit goes on a long journey and in the process becomes an adventurer who rubs shoulders with wizards and elves and comes home with a fortune.
Four working-class boys in Liverpool start a band and become musical superstars.
Child in Serbia survives a dangerous childhood in a war-torn land and becomes the number 1 tennis player in the world.
Horrible teacher gets her comeuppance when one of her students denounces her cruelty at a dazzling ball.
Not all of these are fiction, but all of them sound like fiction. Can you identify each story?
As Oscar Wilde once memorably said: “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”
Sad to say, real life doesn’t work like that. The poor grow poorer, tyrants seize power, and leaders often treat their people with callous disdain: life is anything but fair. Perhaps that is one reason why, through fiction, we revel in a fantasy world where the people with merit, courage and resolution win the day. They turn the tables on the bad guys. In these other worlds created from ink, paper and celluloid, there is some hope of justice, at least after the heroes or heroines have proven their steel and their resource and have prevailed.
Can you think of other instances of status changes in fiction? Add your own example from a film or a book in a comment below.
Then continue to contemplate how you can turn that human fascination with such turnarounds into a simple story encompassing just one such status change. Add photos to emphasise how the significance of your principal character changes throughout. Vary your angles, lighting and types of shot. You will be following the great traditions of the human story.
Examples of Status Swap Situations for this Creative Task:
Your teacher makes mincemeat out of you at Parent-Teacher Night. While he shreds your character, scorns your work ethic and describes your tendency to fall asleep on Friday afternoons, you sit there sweating and wishing that you could slide under the table. All the other parents and students who are waiting for their next interview listen with a certain malicious pleasure to your teacher’s strictures. Just at the moment when you are contemplating flight through this throng of curious onlookers, your teacher’s computer is attacked by a virus. With a few nonchalant movements of your fingers, you effortlessly save all his files. He thanks you and promises you anything that your heart desires on your next report…You reply that reports don’t matter to you; you have already been offered positions by Apple and IBM and can’t decide which one to choose.
The school bully steals other students’ lunch money each morning as everyone arrives at school. Only one student, Raymond, seems impervious to the bully’s actions. Raymond is startlingly strong, despite his diminutive size. One day you see him carrying a bookcase. Then he saves everyone from the bully simply by…
Bess is fed up with Emily for boasting about her boyfriend Harvey. “He’s tall, handsome and masculine,” says Emily. “I simply cannot stop stroking him. You wouldn’t believe how fine his hair is.”
One day Emily invites Bess over to meet the love of her life.
Harvey turns out to be…
Blake is the kind of sensitive, caring boy whom other students sometimes tease. Then, unexpectedly, the most beautiful and talented girl in the school asks him to take her to the formal. Suddenly, all the boys who used to tease him want to know his secret.
A modest and self-effacing boy, Joseph never admits to anyone that he is a mathematical genius who can do equations 5 times faster than Mr Fitzgerald and 10 times faster than everyone else in 8B. But one day, he has no choice but to reveal his brilliance…Scientific American asks to interview him. The Mathematical Journal for Distinguished Nerds asks him to submit a paper…
Part 1: Will 8B get revenge on the wicked Mrs Grun?
Once upon a time there was a cruel and heartless teacher called Mrs Grun. She taught in a pleasant school in the eastern suburbs and her students, a quiet, obedient class known as 8B, were modest, hard-working and well-mannered. Despite this, she was intent on making their lives a misery. They never had any fun in class, never went on any excursions and only rarely were allowed to visit the library. They could have borne all this without a murmur of complaint, but when Mrs Grun refused to let them go to the Year 8 Formal, the social event of the year, they were especially downcast.
Their predicament was made even more painful by the fact that Mrs Grun’s other class, 8U, a bunch of cashed-up bogans and rednecks who were coarse, vulgar and thoroughly unpleasant, had been told at once that they would be able to go to the ball. “Of course, my darlings,” Mrs Grun had said to them, cooing and smiling in her peculiarly repellent way, “no ball would be the same without you. I’ll be there in my turquoise and orange evening dress with shoulder pads and a bustle. I wear it every year. Perhaps we can have a photo together.”
When the students of 8B, however, begged to be allowed to go, Mrs Grun laughed unpleasantly. “You can’t go,” she said, and they could tell she was enjoying their distress and chagrin. “You have to stay at school and clean the quadrangle with old toothbrushes.”
“What?” they cried. “Why?”
“Because you are low, unworthy and undeserving,” Mrs Grun cried. “Because even if I were to let you go to the ball, you would have nothing to wear. You are all too poor, too ragged and too pitiful for words. Why, even your uniforms are threadbare. I daresay none of you have anything you could wear to such a special occasion, in any case.”
It was true. The students of 8B were all dreadfully poor. The allocations to classes always worked that way. The richest students were in 8U and the poorest in 8B. Most teachers were too kind to draw attention to this fact, but Mrs Grun was too nasty to overlook it. She mentioned the impoverished state of the 8B students at least five times every lesson. Continue reading “S is for Story”→
On the way to school a few weeks ago, my sixteen-year-old daughter gave me a new insight into the life of students that, despite about 25 years in the classroom, had passed me by.
My daughter Sophie helps me to understand how teenagers feel, yet even with her aid, I sometimes fail dismally. That’s one of the hazards of growing old.
During the drive to school, she mentioned to me that she doesn’t always understand what her teachers have just explained. I asked her, perhaps a little impatiently: “Why on earth don’t you just ask the teacher to explain it again?”
My daughter replied: “I can’t do that. I don’t want everyone to think that I’m stupid.”
And there was the answer to the question that I’d always asked myself: why is it that the students who could really use advice shy away from asking for it? Conversely, why do the students who hardly require any help at all nevertheless request it?
Sophie had made the reasons clear with that simple statement. If a student already understands, there’s no shame involved in asking for clarification; those who are all at sea, however, would rather preserve the appearance of being on top of the subject.
I suggested that she couch her request in such a careful, precise way that everyone in the class, including the teacher, would be impressed by her probing questioning technique. There would then be no danger than anyone might find her foolish.
Here are a few ways of asking for help – or at least showing that you might need it. Can you classify them according to the options provided?
AFTER THE QUIZ
No teacher, on hearing the most precise and probing questions presented in the quiz above, could doubt the power of your intellect or indeed your eagerness to learn, develop and improve.
Of course, some teachers are neither particularly patient nor sympathetic. They may even assume that if you question what they’ve said, you simply haven’t been listening. A precise question permits you to demonstrate that you have indeed been paying attention; the onus is then on the teacher to explain the topic more thoroughly.
Teachers are not mind-readers. With the years, we gain some insight into what students find difficult and we gradually learn to address some difficulties even before they become evident. All the same, we sometimes assume that students understand better than they do in reality.
That’s why you should try to ask precise and probing questions, even if this seems awkward and embarrassing at first.
Profit from your teachers’ expertise. Let us know when we need to explain something better. Put us to work for you.
(a) Can you suggest another effective way of asking for help that might lead to precise and useful feedback? You need not only refer to the subject of English. How could you ask for help in your other subjects?
(b) How would you describe yourself in this regard? Do you ask for help easily or do you tend to go it alone? Do you think you are sometimes wary of asking for help or feedback?
(c) Other students are often the best helpers, because they have already dealt with the same difficulties as you have and managed to work out solutions of their own. Can you recall a time when you have helped someone else or another student has helped you? Describe this experience.
I first met Kate Mitchell in the 1990s, when our school was shrinking and the government in power wanted to force its closure. The principal at that time, Robert Jenkin, refused to cave in to the demands of that government. Mr Jenkin was not an easy man to intimidate. He had worked as the president of the teachers’ union and he was used to resisting the pressure of politicians.
Mrs Mitchell took over from Mr Jenkin and she has worked with the utmost dedication and resolution, ultimately making the role of principal her very own and putting her stamp on our school. In the process, she has had to withstand considerable pressure herself, just as her predecessor did. Two decades later, our school has 1300 students and is highly regarded in the community.
Although she began here as a regular teacher, Mrs Mitchell rose rapidly through the hierarchy, becoming the year twelve coordinator, then the deputy principal and finally the principal. In this position, she has worked tirelessly to improve the school environment, to appoint committed and highly competent teachers, and to ensure that the school retains its friendly and welcoming nature. This is a school where teachers and students can simply be who they are: those who love reading can sit in the quadrangle and read; those who are gamers can go on a camp together; those who love the arts can display their talents; those teachers who have a special dream or a wild idea can follow it and realise it.
We tend to take these daily wonders for granted until the people who make them possible leave us. This week we say farewell to Mrs Mitchell. How can we express our gratitude to her?
Please write a comment in which you describe what you most appreciate about Mrs Mitchell or about the school where we work, learn, make lifelong friends and pursue our varied endeavours.
For instance, I am deeply grateful to have worked for two principals whose kindness, integrity and decency are beyond question. I am particularly thankful that Mrs Mitchell allowed me to travel to Germany on two occasions to complete courses with the Goethe Institute in Frankfurt and Munich. Most of all, I appreciate having the opportunity to teach in this school. Your class, like many others that I have encountered, fills me with pride and delight — and gratitude.
As you all know, English spelling makes Melbourne weather seem predictable. There may be rules, but they are diabolical 2 rules that are bent and broken at every turn. Sometimes I think that, for every English word that is governed by a clear spelling rule, there is another word that refuses to be subdued 3, like a peasant who is rebelling bravely against oppression 4. English words are defiant, headstrong and perverse 5.
In fact, English spelling sometimes seems as unruly and tumultuous 6 as a peasants’ revolt. One reason is that our language was forged in a melting pot 7 of many languages.
I honestly believe that some English writers are simply good spellers, while for others, spelling is an ongoing torment. If you are a good speller, your life is much easier. If you struggle with spelling, however, don’t let this put you off writing. The act of writing is much more important than perfect spelling.
During my years of English teaching, many of the best writers in my classes have not been naturally good spellers. Console yourself, if you find spelling difficult, with this thought: you can get a machine to spell for you. No machine, however, can write prose with the intuition, the wit and the discernment 8 of a human being.
If you have that kind of writing ability or potential, don’t let a few misspellings hold you back.