Writing Lesson in Washing the Car

Like so many in Southern California, my lifestyle would be impossible without a car. I love my MX5 Miata convertible. It gives me joy at the end of a difficult day as I speed down the road with the top down and music up. I can park easily amongst giant SUVs who think they are compact cars. With a bigger car, I tend to fill up the space but its tiny trunk forces me to clean it out as I am limited to 7 bags of groceries, 4 sweaters, 2 hats, 1 extra pair of shoes, a bag of blankets for Under the Tree, and a small box of extra Editing Academic Texts to sell. Note that the blankets and box don’t fit at the same time as the groceries!  And perhaps most importantly, I can almost always find it in the parking lot without having to take pictures on my phone for a location reminder. What a great car!

As much as I love my car, I don’t love washing it. You wash it, make it shine, and then boom! Bird boop, or rain or road dust or leaves or whatever so what’s the point? Nonetheless, a new semester is starting, and I like everything to be clean and new, so today, with Mr. C’s help, I set out to wash the car. As I spent 1 and 1 ½ hours scrubbing, vacuuming, wiping, and polishing under Mr. C’s guidelines, I was struck by how much washing a car resembles writing well, and so, without further ado, here are 10 writing lessons that can be had from washing one’s car.



Cars can be washed through the gas station drive through or hand detailed down to the paint. Different situations require different levels of washing. There will not always be tons of time to break out the special tire brush for the rims to shine up the wheels for that special date; sometimes you just want to knock the dirt off on a Wednesday afternoon. You have to know the difference between the kind of washes and choose the appropriate one.

Similarly, there are different kinds of Writing Tasks. When shooting a text to a friend, typos and spelling mistakes are expected. When texting a friend last night about his work schedule, I quickly typed “Working tonigjt?”  Now, that is clearly a typo, right? I mean, tonigjt isn’t a word in English or any other language that I’m aware of. Regardless, he could read it and didn’t correct my grammar! Good thing! So informal writing has its own requirements.

In contrast, in a formal essay for my class, that error would be significant as it shows either speed without care or lack of knowledge. Neither one of these are outcomes are good in a graded assignment, right? When you are completing a formal writing assignment over several weeks, you want to take the time needed to produce an awesome essay, much like the car when I drove it over to 7-11 to get gas and a total stranger whistled and said, “Whoa, nice ride!” Yes, it is and so should your essay be as well!



Did you know that dirt is not only ugly, it actually harms the paint? Do you know what else is ugly and harmful? Water spots. Yep, washing the car and leaving it spotty is not much better than leaving it dirty in the first place. Thus, when you wash matters as that big ole’ sun will bake the water on before you can get it dry. So, you must plan and time your washing carefully as to not simply be wasting time.

In the same way, timing matters with writing. If you plan out your schedule, give yourself time to think, to write, to edit, and even to take a break before it’s due, then you can have a quality product. But, if you slap something together at the last-minute without care or concern… it might just end up to be a spotty mess!



Mr. C is all about the correct tool for the job; as such, there are brushes for tires (3 different kinds!), hand brushes, power washer brushes (yes, we have a power washer), inside towels, outside towels, drying towels, car cleaner, car wax, tire cleaner, tire wax, detailing stuff, window stuff, and that’s just what we used today. Who knows what else lives in his man cave. I only go in when invited.

Though it seems like a ton of tools for one littl’ car, wow, does it make a difference in speed and overall result. A tire brush, for example, has to be rather firm to get all the brake dust off, but if used on the paint, ooooh, that would be really bad as it would take the paint right off. An outside towel has a different composition than an inside glass cleaning towel which leaves no streaks. Who knew?

Likewise, there are so many writing tools that can make one’s job more efficient and quick. A dictionary has different functions than a thesaurus. Editing hard copy can be better than Soft Copy. Spell check and Grammarly can save tons of time. The lesson from this is two-fold.

First, use the best tool for the job. And second, if you don’t know the appropriate tool, then find someone who does and ask. Your instructor, your tutor, blogs online or some other source- all of these people know some good tools, just like Mr. C who truly does know the difference between inside and outside towels that to me look exactly alike (same color, same shape, same feel- but oh sooooooo different!).



Washing a car seems pretty straightforward, right? Wet, soap, rinse, dry off. How tough can that be? Well, apparently, it is so much more than it seems. If you get the whole thing wet and take too long to soap, it dries off. If you soap it carelessly, you can scratch it with your jewelry (a fact I found out the hard way).  If you rinse it the wrong way, then the soap gets the rinsed part soapy again. Apparently, front to back top to bottom is the way to go. If you dry in correctly, you leave spots or worse, make it dirty again! Then you have to wash it all over which is a serious pain in the you- know- where! Whew, washing a car is tough!

Even more difficult than washing a car is writing college level English! However, just like washing a car, some writing techniques may be more productive than others! If you are fortunate to be in a college class, then your Professor will give you some new techniques to try! Don’t be afraid to try them just because they are new or time-consuming. You will find that even though things may take longer in the beginning, by the end, they will save you tons of time.

For example, I have my students brainstorm with a specific technique; they have to create a topic sentence outline for their essay before they begin writing it. Oh, how they resist this technique! Yet, by the end of the essay, or sometimes the semester, they see how much time they saved by starting out organized and finishing well. Not all techniques are the most effective. Find the ones that are!



When start rinsing off the suds, there’s a lot of water. Remember, you are outracing the sun here (#2)! One effective technique to start drying is to take her for a spin around the block. But maybe you are in a hurry( or completely soaked from poor washing technique like me!). So when you take out the special drying towels with the “wax as you go” stuff (#3) and start drying at the top of the car (#4), you may find that there is too much water to wipe off in one pass (#4 again!). The key though is getting most of it off so that again you have no water spots. Then, after the whole car is mostly water free, then you go back and wipe again. That is when you make sure you got all the wax stuff, it has no streaks, and all the water is gone. You could call that a re-wipe if you like.

Like washing a car, the more passes one gives a paper, the better the final product. Revision is taking a re-wipe or revision to the content and structure of the paper. Are the ideas clear, you may ask. Do my examples really prove my points? Are my core sentences (topic sentences) reflective of the main idea (thesis)? Then with a new towel, you have to go again and look at the grammar, the nitty gritty sentence level, and word level issues. Ask yourself about your verbs, your punctuation, your vocabulary. Now, finally, done, right?

Weeeeellll, no, not if you want a fabulous product. The final pass should be checking the details in your format. Is your MLA header correct? Did you spell the Prof’s name correct? Is your title ok? How about the margins? Did you meet the page length? All these passes will lead to a nicer paper!



Still, you aren’t done with the car if you want a truly spectacular result. Now comes the detailing, the precision work that separates this job from the drive through quickie wash and even the drop of someone else watch. Here is where the magic really happens.

Really good detailing occurs on both the outside and the inside (#1).  Of course, you need new tools (#3), and there are special techniques (#4).  For this example, I’m just focusing on the inside detailing. It is time-consuming. Oh, and order matters. Apparently, you vacuum the car before you wash it. Why? I didn’t ask but left it to the mystery of the process. Sometimes, you gotta go with the flow. So, you need another special towel, inside detailing towel and another special bottle of the misty stuff.  And there is absolutely an order - all the leather, but no shiny stuffy or glass. Those need another special towel and misty stuff. If you are a mess living in your car like me, you need yet another towel and misty stuff for all the sticky coffee tea spills in the cup holders. Wipe, polish, polish wipe. Whew. Pretty!


Similar to the process of washing a car, some techniques are better in different aspects of writing.

Focusing and Isolation are particularly good for the detailed look required at sentence level grammar. Reading Aloud is a big gun not used every day, but particularly useful in certain situations. With a quick write or a quick edit, you may have a passing paper, but if you strive for the excellence of an A, then you need to learn all the tricks of polishing your paper to make it shine! More information about the editing strategies and how to employ them are in my book Eating Academic Texts.



Not only does having a clean, shiny polished car, make the owner feel good about life, the car likes it too. If you let dirt and stuff build up on the paint, it does more damage. If you wash it regularly, you can assess the state of the car better. For example, on the driver side door, paint is coming off from the weather stripping, because, uh hmm, maybe I park too close to other cars sometimes and gently, very gently rest my door on their cars when getting out. If we (and by we I mean Mr. C) touch up this paint with again special stuff, we will save money by not having to replace the very expensive entire door seal. Also, I can modify my behavior and try harder to park more carefully. This is just one example of many possible benefits to routine maintenance.

Cars clearly benefit from routine maintenance, but what about one’s own writing skill? How does one have a solid everyday writing skill? By writing of course. By writing on a regular basis, by reading, and by learning vocabulary.

If you do these things, like routine car patience, your basis line writing skill goes up. Just like a car will be less damaged when cleaned more often, your writing will start out at a higher level the more routine practice you give it. If you want to save time and have a better level of writing, practice in small spurts every day rather than marathon sessions when papers are due. Because just like the dirt that continues to build up on the car, you will continue to need to write over and over and over again. Starting from step one will cost you much more time and effort in the long run!


Honestly, I don’t usually wash my own car. Almost never. I think the last time I was involved in this was 2015. I drop it off at the wash place or drive through the car wash or grade papers while Mr. C washes it while he washes mine.  The people I pay to wash it do a good job. It is their job after all. Mr. C does a great job. He takes pride in a clean car, and we drive mine on the weekend because who doesn’t love a convertible in Southern California? But I, I love my car. As I lovingly cleaned up that sticky spot that was deep in the cup holder, as I noticed my poor door opening/parking damage to the weather stripping, as I polished the mirror,and as I glanced at my reflection in the super shiny rims, I remembered the pure pleasure I take in having this car, driving this car, loving this car. At the end of the day, it is mine all mine, and I love it!

Just as you can with your car, you can get help with your writing, but you must own your work. We encourage group work in America; we also provide tons of support services in schools like the Language Acquisition Center where I work or the Tutoring Center. You can also hire private tutors too! You can share ideas with classmates and study together. All of these activities help you.

However, at the end of the day, when the rubber hits the road, the work is yours and no one else will ever care about it as much as you. Students come to me in the LAC and expect me to do a line by line edit on their work. Ha! No one will ever do that for you or for me for that matter! Students want me to talk about every single verb. Yeah, never gonna happen folks. You have to be in charge of your work. Getting help is fine, but who is going to cook an entire yummy dinner for you and then watch you eat it without getting any? No one. Own your work. It is a result of your effort. Be proud of it.



However, I don’t love washing it. I don’t find fun all the rules for good car washing. It’s so complicated. I don’t participate in the process enough to really know the steps. All the towels look alike to me. The brushes are a mystery. And don’t even get me started on the power washer. Seriously, that thing is rather scary. Not. Fun.

But the result, that is fabulous. The car sits in the driveway, happy and clean. I took it to the grocery store (note to self- take out Under the Tree blankets next time- it was a near thing getting the bags in the trunk!), and two different strangers talked to me about the car (going in and going out of the store). The guy picking up the karts in the lot gave me a high-five. Having a clean car gets me a conversation and good feelings. Who wouldn’t want that? Plus, I feel very industrious and responsible for washing my own car. Win-win!

In no area of our lives will fun always be happening 24-7. So many of my students expect writing to be one great party! Entertain us, they exclaim. We don’t like grammar because it’s boring. If you get down to it, so is the mechanics of eating or sleeping or breathing. Every minute of every day or every activity will never be a fun feast unless maybe you are five years old. Adults, however, must slog through the mundane activities to get the results they want.

Is brainstorming and blocking out ideas for writing fun? Sometimes. Was completely restructuring the Editing Academic Texts book 5 times fun? Not so much. Is checking my grammar fun? Sometimes. Is doing a tight edit looking at every single comma in a paper fun? Not so much.

Yet the results of all that effort makes it all worth it! Looking out over a class of students using my new book and learning how to edit better, yes, that is super duper fantastic!

In car washing and writing, fun can happen, but it shouldn’t be the only thing we look for!



I don’t know when I’ll wash the car again. But when I do, I will still need all that stuff from this time. Luckily, Mr. C believes in “a place for everything and everything in its place,” which is kind of a hassle when I’m tired of the sun and wet and just want to be done with the washing but will be fantastic next time we do it. Because the towels all have their own drawer. Now I know, if I remember, where they live. The inside towels and the outside towels are in different piles. Ahh, that’s how one tells. The brushes and bucket are cleaned and stored neatly. The power washer is wiped down and put away. If for some crazy reason, GASP, I wanted to ever do this on my own in the future, it would be possible.

Writing, like washing a car, is not a one-off activity. In all of our classes and in many areas of life, we have to write again and again. In my own writing classes, as well as most instructors, all the assignments build upon another. If students simply pay attention to the end of the work, the beginning of the next is rather easy since it is some kind of continuation. Yet. It seems that for every single assignment in class, the students are starting over from the very beginning! Why?

I think they are just leaving their writing utensils and tools scattered all over the yard rather than putting them away neatly. Their files are a mess. Their binders are unorganized.  They can’t find previous handouts. But, what if?

What if we took the time to organize the completion of our assignments getting ready for the next time whether it is this class or another? What if we started out with clean towels and the misty stuff was back where it belonged in the garage? What if the computer files were named clearly and the handouts were in order in our binders? Wouldn’t that be soooooo much easier next time? And wouldn’t I then need less help to get started, which would build my confidence and help perform even better in my writing and grammar?  I think so!

Writing is hard.  Few, if anyone, would argue this point. But there is hard, and there is crazy-making hard. With some care, by learning some lessons from the real life activity of washing a car, we can all reduce the stress and anxiety of writing and maybe make it just that much easier. Then, we can become better writers! That is my goal for sure! How about you?

Real or Not Real?

 The Freedom of the Press* is one of our foundational linchpins* on which American society is built. We want to make informed decisions, and this hinges* on the reporting of anything and everything that occurs in the country and the world. Even when I don’t like the news and it distresses me, as a concerned citizen, I want to know what is going on; moreover, as an educator, I have an obligation to.

The Freedom of the Press
is a Constitutional Right given in the First Amendment that states," Congress shall make no law ...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." Basically, this means that the United State government shall in no way limit or restrict the freedom of the media to investigate and report on what's happening.
linchpin is a thing, person, ideal, service, value, etc. that holds everything together; something vital to the structure of an organisation.
hinges on is an idiomatic expression used to say that one thing depends on another. For example, successful language learning depends upon or hinges on  not only the knowledge, but also the effort put into it.

This summer my class is reading the  dystopian* novel The Hunger Games. If you’ve been living under a rock* for the past few years, maybe you don’t know the three novels, the three block buster movies, and the countless other references to the topic. If so, the girl on fire is worth an investigation.


How I enjoy helping students analyze the differences between fiction and fact and how the lines blur from a story to the real world. Our essay for this unit is comparing that world to our own and finding the sadly all-to-real similarities between them.

Dystopian - a state in which the world is a terrible place, usually with a totalitarian government and destroyed environment.
Living under a rock is an idiom that means has no idea what's happening in the situation. For example, a student would have to be living under a rock in Mrs. C's class not to know how she feels about people being late to class.



Though my students have not read book 3 of the series, Mockingjay*, and maybe never will, I have and was struck* by the game played throughout the book between Peeta and Katniss as he struggled to decipher what was real and what was not real after a tortuous conditioning* experience by the Capital.

“You love me. Real or not real?,” asks Peeta. And Katniss answers, “Real.”

How can he react to a situation without knowing what is true or fake? How can we?

to be struck by an idea is an idiomatic phrase loosely based on the idea of being struck by lightening. Like a bolt of lightening out of the sky, which is forceful and rather violent, to be struck by an idea has the same kind of feeling where a strong or sudden idea hits your mind. For example, as she read the novel, she was struck by the idea that this was more than fiction because she could similarities in her own modern world.
 Conditioning comes from the phrase to be conditioned which means to be trained by someone through repetitious behavior. Conditioning is both positive and negative and takes place throughout our lives. We are conditioned by our parents for certain response, our culture for others, and our inter-personal relationships with other for even more responses. This is all a normal part of life. Negative conditioning, as used in this blog example, often comes through negative, harmful or even physically painful behavior.

Thus, it is our responsibility, however tedious and frustrating it may be, to validate the news we receive and believe and maybe even act upon.

Like Peeta, the first question we should ask is “Real or not real?”

Sources from Facebook to CNN have asked the same question and offer advice for doing just that.


Here are 3 Quick Questions

that we can all incorporate into our daily news cycle

to help us decide the veracity of information.

Where is the information coming from? Is it a trusted, well-known source?

Established news agencies, biased or not, have confirmation standards and legal requirements that must be followed. If are reading a source you have never heard of before, it just might not be true.


Are there any primary sources cited?

When things happen in today’s world, everyone wants to talk about them. News crews interview anyone even remotely connect to the situation. Companies give statements. If there is no primary source provided in a news report, it just might not be true.


Can it be verified by another established source? Can it be fact checked?

Verifiable facts should be reported by multiple news agencies. There are actually fact checking organizations like FactCheck.org and Snopes. There are actual lists of such agencies readily found with a quick google search. If you can’t confirm it with a quick search, it just might not be true.

In a perfect world, that elusive Utopian* society with “a brotherhood of man” in John Lenon’s Imagine*, we wouldn’t have to worry about fake news reports as people would equally share all the world; however, that’s not yet our world.


The scarily familiar dictatorship of The Hunger Games, where the good of the few demands a yearly sacrifice of the many, thank goodness, is not a reality in the United States as of now though there are certainly places in the world where such situations do exist.


To make sure that doesn’t become our reality, we have a responsibility to know the differences between fantasy and fiction, between propaganda* and truth, and between the real and not real.

Utopia is defined by Merriam Webster's Learner dictionary as, "an imaginary place in which the government, laws, and social conditions are perfect."


Propaganda is misleading or incorrect information  used to promote a particular point of view.


I wholeheartedly advocate* one’s right to make personal life choices. It is not ever my job to tell someone what to think or what to believe.


However, as an educator, I do have the responsibility to encourage thinking, questioning, and analyzing. I believe in using facts to form my opinions.

Advocate means to support or recommend a particular cause. It can also be used with for as in in advocate for a cause. Finally, the noun is spelled the same though pronounced differently. For example, The student advocate advocates for student rights. Don't you just love English?!?


Critical Thinking is the objective analysis and evaluation of issues to form judgement.



Personal Beliefs are the convictions one uses to guide his or her life.




Therefore, I encourage everyone, including myself, that before we form our conclusions and make our decisions, we start actively asking the question is this idea, article, picture, and even person

Real or Not Real?

Idioms in Human

I love this song. 


Merriam Webster’s dictionary (my personal fav!) defines human as having characteristics or attributes of humans, but what does it mean to be human in today’s world?

This week I had the wonderful opportunity (as usual with my awesome job!) to talk with humans from various linguistic and cultural backgrounds, Chinese, Korean, Brazilian, Syrian, Iranian, Afghan, Egyptian, Japanese, Vietnamese, and even American. I spoke with the motivated, optimistic, driven and grateful as well as the disheartened, jaded, indolent, and entitled. I made people laugh, and I made people cry.  I learned from teachers and students, mothers and fathers, engineers and artists, friends and enemies, and too many more to list. Together we all makeup humanity.

This song is about being human, about the actions we take both good and bad. What if we accentuated the good and diminished the bad? Just how much might we accomplish in the world?

Here are a few of the idiomatic phrases in the song "Human" by Christina Perri. Most of these phrases are used every day in American speech and writing.

Hold One's Breath

Idiomatically means to wait or delay until something happens.

For example: 

He’s been applying for jobs all over town while holding his breath that someone will call.

Also it's often used in negative advice to tell someone to give up the idea.

As in the following conversation:

Student 1: I think I’ll get into the morning class this fall.

Student 2: Don’t hold your breath! You’re number 24 on the waitlist!

Bite My Tongue

Idiomatically both mean to NOT say the negative words you are thinking

For example:

When she told me she didn’t like my new logo, I really had to bite my tongue! Who asked her anyway?

Also, it is often used in advice to tell someone to be quiet.

As in the following conversation:

Student 1: I want to go home early today, so when Mrs. C asks the class questions, just hold your tongue, alright?

Student 2: Got it!



Hold My Tongue

Fake a Smile

*Painted on Smile

Idiomatically , both mean to smile without the feeling of happiness behind it often for manipulative or deceptive purposes.

For example:

Did you see that fake smile she gave you? I mean really, doesn’t she know that you know what she said about you to the instructor?

Idiomatically, it means to give an unnatural laugh to cover up other emotions or used out of politeness for someone else’s not funny information.

For example:

I forced myself to laugh at his comment, but left as soon as I could.

Force a Laugh

Play the Part

*Act as if

*Fake it until you make it

In theater, actors take on roles or characters for a purpose. We do the same thing in life. Idiomatically, it means whether for good or bad reasons, to act in an expected behavioral role.

For example:

A newly graduated linguistic student might not feel like a teacher yet, but when she walks into the classroom, she plays the part of the instructor. She will fake it until she makes it.

An ESL student might not feel comfortable in conversations with native English speaking classmates, but he can play the part or act as if he is until it becomes a reality.

Crash and Burn (or Breakdown)

Idiomatically, it means to fail spectacularly

For example:

I just finished my first book in the GramEd series. It's the biggest thing I've done to date. I hope it doesn't crash and burn.



Turn It On

Idiomatically, used to mean to be at your best in the situation, rather like turning on a light.

For example:

So, when I’m in the classroom, I turn my energy on, my language knowledge on, my compassion on, etc. Even if I don’t feel like being there that day, I turn it on.


Be A (Good) Machine

Idiomatically, it means to be robotic, to do the job at hand without emotions getting in the way

For example:

When I have to talk to a student who plagiarized in an essay, I have to be a good teaching machine. I can’t be swayed by their excuses or tears.

Words (Voice) in My Head


Idiomatically,  a negative meaning is usually literal: an auditory imaginative “voice” in one’s head with negative thoughts, which is often used to refer to schizophrenic people's symptoms.

Idiomatically, it can be positive as in one’s one thoughts or ideas driving to success. The voices in our heads can be our own, or they can be others motivating ideas.

For example:

when I first started teaching, I spent a great deal of time with mentor teachers. Their words and wisdom became the voices or words in my head during tough classroom situations. Now, I have been teaching for a while, so I have my own success and failures. Now, I can talk myself through problems. I am my own voice in my head.

Weight of the World

Idiomatically, it means when a person is weighed down by obligations or responsibilities, he or she feels as his or her actions carry the future of the world.

For example:

International students with their families expectations, cultural adjustments, and scholastic demands often carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.

*knife in the back

Idiomatically, it means a deep emotional wound because of a betrayal or deep hurt caused by another's words or actions.

For example:

Nothing I did reached my failing student, and after flunking the level for the third time, she had to leave school. When that she told me I was the worst teacher she’d ever encountered and I should give up the profession, it was a knife in my heart.

Knives in My Heart

Fall Apart

*Wheels Fall Off The Bus

Idiomatically, both these phrases mean things aren't going well.

For example:

Yesterday the wheels really fell off the bus! I couldn’t find my keys, so I was late leaving the house, there was an accident on the freeway, the air conditioner in the classroom wasn’t working, and half of the class didn’t bring their books! I fell apart and sent them all on break early!

We are all human.

What if we all turned on kindness and empathy for others? Instead of carrying the weight of the world all alone, what if we helped each other carry the load?

Let’s bite our tongues when others beliefs don’t match our own. Let’s stop faking smiles and reach into our own hearts and find true emotion. Let’s stop being good machines and start being living, breathing, feeling humans. Let’s learn to play the part of empathetic, caring individuals until the part becomes reality.

Let’s all become the positive voices in the heads of the world.

Let’s represent humanity in such a way that is a honor to say I’m human.

Metamorphosing with Quotes

This week’s blog is a personal response to something happening in my own life incorporating applicable quotes to support my ideas. In my summer writing class, we have been studying the quote sandwich. Today’s lesson exemplifies embedded quotes.

Metamorphosing – Trying Something New with Quotations

I’m a teacher, and I love my job. Yet, for my entire life, I have dreamed of being a writer. I’ve always wanted to write. As a child, I wrote my own stories and poems. As a student, I loved reading the literature greats. The transcendental nature of words fascinated me. However, I did not major in literature or journalism. Though I have always wanted to write, I had nothing to say, no driving ideas, or no passion of thought. Also, I am eminently practical and needed a solid career, so I choose to embrace my love of words and become a writing instructor. With an academic background in English, Linguistics, and Reading, I have become proficient at aiding student writers in learning to put their ideas on paper. Watching a student realize the power of good language, the persuasiveness of clear logic, and the possibility of emotional connection validates my career choice and give me great joy. Mastering good writing has enabled countless of my students to meet their personal goals, whatever they may have been. It has been one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.

Through teaching, I have found something to say. I have many driving ideas. I have an extreme passion for empowering students to themselves write well.

And I never lost my desire to write. Toni Morrison once claimed, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” There are tons of books on the market for ESL, for writing, and for college; nevertheless, there is a lack in some areas. One book might have great grammar but less than stellar examples while another is too broad for my purposes. I realized that the exact topics I wanted were not yet written, so I decided I would have to write them.

“Long patience and application saturated with your heart’s blood—you will either write or you will not—and the only way to find out whether you will or not is to try,” argued Jim Tully. So, I tried.

I wrote in 2012, the first small book on student communication. It was only 100 pages. It had great ideas but huge gaps in structure and style. It was the best I could do when I did it. I used in in my classes, students learned, and life was good. But, it wasn’t an A effort. As an instructor myself, I’d have to score it a C-. I wondered if I was really cut out for this writing thing.

Sylvia Path claimed, “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” I understand self-doubt. I don’t have a degree in writing or formal training. I am only an adjunct instructor, not accomplished, nothing special, so who was I kidding that I could do this?

I was inspired by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s idea that “we have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” As a writing instructor, I did know what good writing looked like. I could recognize good wings, I just had to learn to stretch my own and do it. I had to be like Anne Frank who cried, “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

With a similar reborn courage, years later, I tried again. I followed Jack London’s advice that “you can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” My club was a co-author, Lucas Nguyen, a former student, inspiring influence, and overall amazing human being on a topic I knew little about applying for medical school coupled with what I did know a lot about writing. I embraced Meg Cabot’s suggestion that I must, “write the kind of [book] you would like to read. People will give you all sorts of advice about writing, but if you are not writing something you like, no one else will like it either.” This fantastic book told Lucas’ personal success story as a non-native English speaker getting into getting into medical school with advice to help others do the same. With input from others, a student reading panel, an editor, and another major contributor, this book is amazing! The material within is invaluable for students applying to medical school. Nonetheless, this too was a learning experience and had many faults. This book could be scored a B. I was getting better, but still had so far to go!

Regardless of the deficiency of the work, I had been bitten by the bug in a serious way. With the medical school book, I realized that my simple, direct way of teaching writing to ESL students could be a kind of magic. I could actually be one of William Gass’ true alchemists, not changing “lead into gold”… but changing “the world into words.” My goal of providing the accessible techniques for ESL students to create their own accomplished writing would help me to be like Mark Twain who wrote, “My books are water; those of the great geniuses is wine. Everybody drinks water.” I want my books to be like water to the thirsty ESL student trying to survive in an English speaking desert. Like Ernest Hemingway, “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

I continued to grow as a teacher and as a writer. I learned more about the process, about editing, about graphics and publishing and so much more. Larry L. King explained how to improve one’s writing by exhorting stating, “Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.” Today after 18 months of writing and rewriting a new book, I have submitted it for final review. It is the best thing I’ve ever written. I am so excited to release it in August. Finally, after all my effort, experience, and growth, I believe this book can be scored an A.

What does my journey have to do with your life?

Everyone single person has skills. She has something she loves to do. He has something he is good at. If they are lucky, what they love is what they are good at and hopefully even make a living with. But that is not true for many people. Many of us do things that we have to do.

So, what’s the point?

Something never comes from nothing. You can build upon whatever skills you have mastered in your life thus far. You don’t have to start over in your life but can metamorphose from one thing to another even as I am doing from an writing instructor to an instructor who both writes and instructs. Neil Gaiman said of writing, “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard, and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.” The same idea could be applied to whatever it is you are trying to accomplish one action, one day, one failure at a time. I believe you can do it. I believe I can do it too. I believe that we will keep going until it’s done. It’s that easy and that hard.

A Cycle of Flow

In my writing summer class, we are beginning the Emotional Intelligence (EI) Unit. I love this subject. So many conflicts among groups could be avoided if we all just had a bit more EI. One of my favorite aspects of this subject (and there are so many awesome ones, it is difficult to choose a favorite!) is flow.

What is flow? My beloved Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary defines flow as “an easy smooth and uninterrupted progress or movement” in thought, ideas, or rhythm. My own personal definition is that flow is happening when everything is going smoothly and effortless. In writing, flow happens when the ideas stream forth, and the words seem to almost form themselves. In the classroom, flow happens when the students are engaged and understand the topic while enjoying the process. I strive to have flow. I absolutely love flow!

Who wouldn’t?

Unfortunately, flow doesn’t happen without extreme effort. Moreover, sometimes, no matter how much time and energy we put into a task, there is just no flow! Those times can be particularly frustrating. Once you know what flow feels like and the productivity and excellence it can generate, it is super difficult to settle for less.

So, how do we create flow and how do we handle it when flow just doesn’t occur?

Like so many other things, there is a formula for flow. Here it is: when a person’s skill level is equal to or slightly below the attempted task, flow can occur.


Easy, right?

No, not so much. Skill level varies from individual to individual and even within one individual performing different tasks.

Take me for example. Since as I teacher I create all kinds of curriculum handouts and such, I am pretty good with MS Word. Moreover, I’m a writer and self-publisher too, so I know quite a few tricks. My skill level is up to most tasks. When I’m writing in word, I’m usually flowing along. But not always. As I progress in my activities, I raise the bar and try new things. Then, my skill level is no longer equal to the task; I am below level. When this happens, I get frustrated and anxious. There’s a formula for that too.

When a person’s skill level is lower than the attempted task, frustration and anxiety can occur. The further the distance between the two, the more frustration that will occur.


Well, then, why push it? Once you find your flow, why not just stay there and merrily flow through all the tasks? Good question. Once you find your flow, you feel great. Everything you are doing goes well. It’s like you are on the top of the world! So, why not just stay there forever?

Boredom is why. Yes, you can actually get bored with the flow. Hard to imagine, I know, but it’s true. When a person’s skill level is higher than the attempted task, boredom occurs.


The more time you spend at a particular level, the more your skill develops through repetition and effort. Your skill level grows and grows, but the task stays the time. Sooner or later, you will outgrow the task and encounter boredom.

Let’s look back to my example. Simply creating resources for my classes and running a website used to be fun! It used to get me in FLOW. But, over time, I got better and better. The tasks got easier and easier; boredom set in. Teaching alone wasn’t fun anymore.

So what did I do? What do you do once you get good at something and start to get bored? Attempt a harder task, which then, of course, results in FRUSTRATION until you reach the FLOW, that will eventually become boredom and then whole circle repeats.

It’s an endless cycle as we search for that amazing feeling, that sweet spot we call FLOW.

Let’s look at the cycle in action.

Here’s a real-life example of the flow cycle.

I’ve been working on my latest book, Editing Academic Texts Verb Form, for about 18 months now. Because I have been teaching grammar, writing, and editing for since 1999, knowing what I wanted to say at first was easy. I was smack dab in the middle of FLOW. Ooooo, how I love to FLOW!

Even when I was blocking out the chapters and deciding how to organize the material while talking students, I was still in FLOW. It was difficult, of course, but manageable.

Eventually, I hit the wall of FRUSTRATION in the nitty-gritty aspects of formatting. I seriously seriously hate formatting page numbers. I make so many mistakes. The stupid numbers give me nightmares. My personal skill level in managing anything to do with numbers is lower than low. So, for the last few weeks, my FRUSTRATION level has been ginormous! But, I knew it would not last. I have techniques to get through that period and slowly move back to FLOW by learning something new and increasing my skill level to meet the task. And then it happened. Wednesday night at 11:32 pm (way past my normal bed-time), it all came together. All the videos I’d watched, the help pages I’d read, the examples from Eric and Joe I’d looked at- it all came together. I got it. My skill level jumped. I did it! Ahhhhhh, once again, the FLOW.

Have I mentioned how much I love FLOW?

Now, all the tiny little details are being resolved, and I’m getting bored. I’m rather sick of this book, this project. It’s been 18 months after all. I’m not quite all the way to BOREDOM, but I can see it up ahead. I’m planning to enjoy my FLOW for a bit longer, get the book out for the fall semester, and then dive into the next book, Editing Academic Texts Verb Form. As I do so, I know I’ll cycle through all three stages again and again, but I will definitely enjoy the FLOW as long as I can.

What tasks are you trying in your life right now? Are you experiencing FRUSTRATION, FLOW, or BOREDOM? Keep in mind that none of the stages last.

If you are in FRUSTRATION because your skill level is not high enough yet, don’t despair.

Keep building it. You’ll reach FLOW eventually if you keep at it. I promise!

If you are in the middle of BOREDOM, you know what you have to do. Push yourself. Try something new. Try something harder.
Yes, it will send you into FRUSTRATION, but how much fun are you having being bored? Not much I’d guess.

If you are in the smallest space of them all, the FLOW, enjoy every minute while it lasts!!

Always Stay Humble and Kind

Listening to music provides so many benefits, especially for language learners.  Cultural priorities are revealed through songs. Correct and incorrect grammar is used too. Idioms and advice run throughout music. The segments are also short, often less than 3 minutes, so that you can listen over and over again to catch certain phrases or rhythms. You can hear what phrases can be shortened or smashed and what words are emphasized for meaning. Frankly, I think listening to music is overlooked by many students in their pursuit of better language.

There are so many awesome songs to consider when designing lessons, but today I’ve picked a song by Tim McGraw in the country western music genre for its message, ease of understanding, and amount of applicable language.



I suggest you listen to the song. Then read through the explanations of idioms, cultural references, language specifics, American values, and behavioral advice. Then listen to the song again, hopefully with a fuller understanding of the content.

“mountains to climb”

The mountain is a metaphor for any large task be it getting a new job, learning a new language, succeeding in someway or another, or countless others.  The task should be large like a mountain towering over the plain. In climbing the mountain, you in some ways “beat” the mountain. In achieving the task, you have victory in the situation as well.

“free ride”

This can be used in the obvious way as in a ride where you don’t pay, but more commonly in a broader sense to mean not have to pay for an action or experience.It is often used when getting a full scholarship to college as in “he got a free ride to college.”

“pick up line”

This is the idiom used for an insincere or lying phrase used to engage someone in a conversation for the purpose of having a fling or brief relationship, usually sexual.

“sleeping with someone”

This does not refer to actual sleeping but means to engage in sexual intercourse. A similar idiom is “to go to bed with someone” which means the same thing.

“take for granted”

This idiomatic phrase can be used in a multitude of contexts. It means be unappreciative of a positive something, for example, a relationship or gift.

“a light that glows by the front door”

Leaving the porch light on is a common theme in American culture. You’ll find it in songs and even advertisements.  Motel 6, for example, says “We’ll leave the light on for you.”

When you come home late at night, and it’s dark outside, having the light at the door is a welcoming sight. It’s easier to find your keys. You know that someone is expecting you to come home. 


“the key’s under the mat”

It isn’t safe to leave your house unlocked, but you want to allow friends to come in even if you aren’t home. Why do you do? Leave a spare key for special visitors and tell them where it is hidden. In fact, this is so common that you can buy a fake rock to hide a spare key for someone. Having access to this key shows that you are welcome in the home.

rock with a key inside

“eat a root beer popsicle”

Popsicles are frozen treats generally associated with childhood and summertime. In the summer, American children are usually out of school with fewer responsibilities and are running around just having fun. By using this reference, it suggests that we all should relax a bit and have some fun.

“when the work you’ve put in is realized”

Most accomplishments require a great deal of effort or work. You put in work or put work or effort into something. While the verb realize is most often used for coming to an understanding of an idea, it can also be used for getting the result of something, like extreme effort.


“stay humble and kind”

Humble and kind are both adjectives and most often used with linking verbs like be, seem, and become. However, in this case, the normally transitive verb stay is being used with the adjective in a kind of command form. No action is really taking place because the actor is already humble or kind, so he is just staying in the same state.

“cause your momma says to”

Like in most cultures, the American family relationship is significant.  In most families, pleasing one’s parents, especially mom, is very important. There is actually a standard phrase said by American parents “because I said so.” This indicates children should do what their told, even when they don’t understand or agree because the parent told them to.

“visit grandpa every chance you can”

Because most Americans don’t live with their extended families (grandparents, aunts, and uncles, etc.), immigrants often interpret this to mean that we don’t care about our families.  In fact, we do care quite a bit; it is just much more difficult to have those familial relationships so extra effort must be taken and with most things American, it is a choice, not a requirement.


“don’t forget to turn back around and help the next one in line”

While we are absolutely a nation of striving individuals seeking our own goals, we are also a nation of caring individuals who desire to be part of a successful community. Helping others along the way actually advances our own success.

“Hold the door, say ‘please,’ say ‘thank you,’

These actions are essential social courtesies, the actions of ladies and gentlemen, who are considerate of others. Though children used to be automatically taught these behaviors, social graces today are often lacking as we are all so self-absorbed and stressed out.

“don’t steal, don’t cheat and don’t lie”

Unlike social niceties, these actions refer to following the law. While America is certainly a place of great individual freedom, we do have quite a few laws for the good of the many. Obeying the law is usually a good idea.

“shut off the AC and roll the windows down. Let that summer sun shine”

This is another summer reference to getting away from the technology, the house, and the stress of it all and enjoying life for a minute.  Taking time to relax will help you to be more balanced and an overall happier person.

 There are so many fantastic resources available to help you along in your language journey. Study doesn't always have to be an intense experience. Sometimes, you can just have some fun with it! Try using music to have a bit of fun and learn cool stuff too!

Who’s Holding Your Safety Net?

My colleague, who teaches at a private ESL school with small classes and close connections to her students, recently shared a story with me.  A group of students were playing in the park and had a minor injury. Afraid to go to the ER, they called her. She drove to meet them, assessed the situation, helped them resolve the issue, and even fed them all lunch. She spent several hours doing this. I was stunned.  Why, I asked her, would you get that involved? The asked me, she said. They told her they had no one else to call. She didn’t volunteer, but what could she do once they asked for help?

I myself had the opportunity for out-of-class conversations for non-academic help with several of my own students this week, 7 to be exact. It apparently was a tough week in the student world.  While I didn’t drive across town and feed anyone, I did give extra time and energy. I invested a bit more into their lives than I usually do.  Why did I do that I ask myself? They asked me. Honestly, I was glad to provide assistance. In fact, it is those kinds of exchanges that make the tediousness of grading endless grammar errors worth it.  Nonetheless, I certainly couldn’t give so much to every single student who crosses my path.

What then is the answer?

At College, there are a plethora of student resources. There are student services, which provide a multitude of resources, student clubs, which offer common interest and companionship, and even full-time faculty, who have paid office hours. Nonetheless, so many ESL students seem to be floundering in school.

One reason I believe this to be so it that they don’t know how, in the USA, to develop solid support systems.  They don't have a safety net.

This week's blog offers a bit of advice for creating one’s own safety net.

Use Campus Resources




Investigate the available resources before a crisis. If you are attending an American college, there are resources on your campus for you. Every school has different availability. Some have Women’s centers; others centers for Veterans. Every school has a health center with physical and mental health resources. Most have academic support. Find out what your school has.

Go to your college web page. There will be a tab for students or current students. Go to that page. There will be a list of student services. Some colleges call it Campus Life or Student Life while others use the phrase Student Services or Student Resources.  

Look up the ones that apply to you. Find out what the requirements, if any, are. Find out where it is located on campus. Put the phone number or email address in your phone. Stop by next time you are on campus, so you know where it is. Do this BEFORE you have a problem. Take advantage of all the things your campus provides.

Know Your Faculty







If there are no office hours, you can still discover their availability.

  • Find out if they like to communicate by email. Do they elicit or encourage questions through email? Even more importantly, do they answer the emails you send? How can you find out? Check the syllabus or send a test email and see what happens. If they do encourage email, then communicate with them that way.
  • Find out if they are willing to talk before or after class. Some are, and some aren’t. How do you know? Come early and try to talk to them. Do they seem open or irritated? I’m always willing to talk before class, but I prefer if students want a real conversation as opposed to a quick question, that they let me know in advance, so I’m not trying to do last minute prep when they want to talk. How would my students know this? I tell them explicitly, but most instructors do not. How can you find out? Talk to them and see what happens.
  • Find out if they are willing to talk during a break. Some instructors use break time to touch base with students. I don’t. I need a few minutes of my own during class. How do my students know this? I tell them explicitly. Most instructors don’t. How can you find out then? Either watch to see what the Prof does during a break or give the conversation a try. If the Prof doesn’t seem to want to be disturbed, now you know.

Every instructor is different. While you can have the confidence that every instructor at your college has the academic wherewithal to teach the subject, that does not guarantee that each instructor will feel the same about your or you about them. Before you go to ask an instructor for extra advice or time, it helps to have established some kind of relationship with them. As a college student myself, I never had any problem getting advice from my Profs. Why? Was it because I was a great student? Not really. I mean, yeah, I did well in school, but lots of people did that. So why? Why were some instructors willing to share their experiences and expertise with me?

First and foremost, I spent time with them during office hours. When I was a student, unlike today, most of my faculty were full-time and so had office hours. I was there whether it was a convenient time for me or not.  If I liked a Prof or thought he or she was one I wanted to learn from, I would go to their office hours. I would ask questions about the material. I would talk about the class.  If they were busy, I'd come back another time. I was a regular in their world. They got to know me not just as a student in their classes, but as a person as well. At the end of the semester, I would write a thank- you card.

Then, when I did have the invariable problem in that class or another, I could confidently go back and approach the Prof. They knew me. I knew them. I knew that Dr. Wallach would talk to me about my teaching goals and Dr. Wheeler would recommend good reads. I knew Dr. Hertz would offer out-of-the-box solutions, and Dr. Finney would listen to endless complicated grammar questions. No one Professor, no matter how dedicated, can be all things to all people. Find out who they are and what they can be for you. Let them get to know you too. 

Today it is different, especially at Community College but at University as well. 85% of college faculty today is adjunct part-time faculty. This means it is harder for you the student to spend time with faculty outside of class, especially if there are no office hours.

How then can you make those connections with your faculty?

First, you must know if they are full or part-time and you must know if they have office hours. If they do, go. If they don’t, it’s harder but doable. 







  • Find out if they are willing to talk after class. Some are, and some aren’t. How do you know? Initiate a conversation. If they talk to you, great; if they say they have to leave, then you know. I am always available for my students after class. How do they know? I tell them explicitly. Most instructors don’t.
  • Find out if they are willing to make an appointment with you at some other time. How do you know? Ask. If you take this route, you are the one who has to be flexible. My schedule on campus is very limited, so while I am absolutely willing to talk with students, they have to work with my schedule. Part-time faculty members are usually teaching at multiple schools, so if you want to connect, you have to be flexible.

While true friendship between students and faculty is rare, communication, sharing, and compassion is quite common. The student is the one that has to reach out to Instructors though. They are available for all, but not all want or need the same things from every Instructor.

Cast a Wide Support Net






Many students from other cultures struggle with making friends in America.  “American are shallow and selfish,” they tell me. Maybe. But it is more likely that they are busy. We are all so busy today. Going to school, working, spending hours in traffic, taking care of kids, protesting bad government decisions, trying to get enough sleep—there just don’t seem to be enough hours in the day. Friendships do not function the same way here in the USA as they do in other countries. This is a fact. That doesn’t mean, however, that friendship support is not a vital, integral part of American culture. It just may be different from what you are familiar with.

For most people here, friendship is based on accessibility and connection. People in your class, your club, your church, your job, these are the ones that become friends. Thus, if you want more friends, you have to have more points of interaction with people.

Rarely here can you expect one person to meet all your emotional and companionship needs unless it’s your husband, wife, or partner, and then there’s still no guarantee.

What I have personally found effective for my own busy stressed out life is to have a wide-base of friends. I have friends with whom  I only talk about teaching, others with whom I only talk about writing, and others with whom I only talk about family. When I was a student, I had friends from my Honors Society, friends from my International Friends Club, friends from Beach Clean-up, and so on.  Now, as a busy professional, I have various problems, as do we all. I can’t expect any one of my friends to help me with every problem. Different friends in my life fulfill different needs. That’s how I manage.

If you are lucky to have a one-person BFF that can be there you for everything you need, great for you!

Most of us need a wide net.

Appreciate Your Family

Even if your family is not here with you, they care about you like no one else. Keep in communication with them. I’ve lost so many of my beloved family members that I appreciate all the more the ones I still have. I am lucky to have two Dads, the Hunter and the Pirate and I call each of them every week. The Pirate’s call is Tuesday, Hunter’s call Thursday. We talk as I drive home an hour and a half from work. They listen to all my teaching angst and book problems and whatever else I want to share.  I am also fortunate to have a wonderful husband. Now, he does not want to hear about every minute of my teaching day nor does he want to hear about all my student problems’ I obsess over.  Nonetheless, he is there for me if I need him.

You have a family. Call them. Text them. Facebook them. Stay in touch in whatever manner you can. Even if they don’t have any answers, they do have love to share.

Life isn’t easy; I’m not sure it is supposed to be. Maintaining connections isn’t easy either.  Yet with some planning and effort, you can create a safety net to catch you when you fall. The more people to hold that net, the more secure it will be. Develop a support system to share and cheer you on.


You are not alone, but you have to work to make connections.

So do we all.

Make some new ones this week !!!

Expand your Safety Net!!!

Black or White… or Grey?

In teaching this week, two different phrases came up that required explanation for my students: mixed blessing and false dichotomy. Additionally, I used the phrase double-edged sword in a mini-lecture and had to explain that as well. These phrases and the explanations got me thinking about absolutes and how we like things to be one or the other, yet often situations, experiences, classes, and overall life is rarely that cut and dried. Hence, this week’s blog examines the language of absolutes, advantages, and disadvantages.

Beware Absolutes!

False Dichotomy / False Dilemma


For example, a situation is either black or white. For example, students who earn high grades care a lot, and those who earn low grades don’t care.  This choice eliminates all other possibilities. However, gray may also be a choice, so students may earn low grades because of sickness in the family or working many hours, not because of care or lack of care about the class. These are other possibilities than the either-or scenario presented as black or white; these are gray. Sometimes there are two choices; however, more times than not there are alternatives rather than a dichotomous choice.

This logical fallacy, which is an error in logical argument, means that only two choices are possible and if one is correct, the other must be false.  It is also called either-or reasoning.

Often false dilemma choices are presented as black or white, right or wrong, yes or no, day or night,  one side or the other.

Advantages and Disadvantages Co-exist

Sometimes situations have both positive and negative aspects occurring simultaneously. We have some idioms for these situations.

Double-edged sword – because a sword has two sharp edges, it cuts on both sides. An example might be my ESL 201 class is a double-edged sword. One the one hand, students learn a lot, but on the other hand, they have to work extra hard to do well. Thus, it is both positive and negative experience.

A mixed blessing is used when something has both positive and negative facets. If you get a high-paying, competitive job so that you earn lots of money for fun, but you don’t have any time to spend the money because you are working so much, that job would be a mixed blessing.

Two sides of a coin – a coin usually has two different aspects often called heads and tails, but it remains one whole unit.  An example of this usage might be taking Mrs. C’s ESL 201 course will be a great learning experience, but the class starts at 7 am, so you’ll have to get up super early! Thus, it has both positive and negative aspects.


Bittersweet is used when something is pleasurable and painful at the same time. For example, Lucas is my co-author of the book Get Into Medical School.  When he got accepted to the Carver College of Medicine in Iowa, it was a bittersweet for me. I was thrilled that he began his education to become a doctor but was also saddened that he would be far away for years and years.

Remember, life and language are rarely either or.

You can be happy and sad, energized and tired, or thrilled and saddened, all at the same time.

Advantages Created by Disadvantages

Other times difficult situations create the very circumstances that lead to a positive outcome. English provides some optimistic phrases for these situations as well.





There is a silver lining in the dark cloud, it is darkest before the dawn, and to get the rainbow, you’ve got to have the rain are all phrases that mean the same thing: there is good in a bad situation. Some examples of the usage could be:

The silver lining in the dark cloud of no longer teaching at UCI is that I now have the time and energy to develop my own business.

It is darkest before the dawn so during the worst situations, I can look forward to the light of morning and an improvement of the difficulty.  Thus, I believe that all the time I spend giving feedback on papers will pay off in students’ writing improvement.

Since to get the rainbow, I’ve got to have the rain this means I have to work hard and suffer through vocabulary development in order to become a better writer.

Here are two more phrases that are so common, that people modify them to have fun.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade – this means that one can take a bad situation and turn it into a good one.

Modifications of this phrase that you may see online are:





When one door closes, another opens. Or a window. This is a phrase used to express that there is always more than one way to achieve a goal.

So if your door closes and you don’t get into the school you wanted when you applied, another door will open to another school with a different opportunity.

My favorite modification of this phrase is to open the door since that's how doors work. Love that!

Whether you are in the middle of a good experience or hoping to resolve a bad one or whether you are faced with a difficult choice, English has a way to express it! Take some time and learn these idioms so you can understand when people offer you encouragement and talk about your own situations as well!

Success by Choice

It’s almost midterms at IVC, so everyone, instructors and students alike, is on edge.  Over the past week, several of my colleagues have bemoaned their students’ lack of understanding of basic college concepts-- not the classroom content, but the soft skills so needed for success in an American college. Here in the USA, it is simply not enough to learn the material and get good grades. In fact, that is only one part of the overall college success package. While I have taught in various educational institutions, I don’t pretend to know every single American school culture. Nonetheless, at least in the California Community College, school is a job with all the requirements that suggests such as showing up on time, participating fully, and meeting curriculum requirements.

Today’s blog arises from the ashes of the instructor frustration burning hot around me this week. I thought it could be helpful for my students’ and all students’ futures to share five truths that college instructors live and grade by.

Fun is a bonus, not a requirement!

If you happen to be having fun, if you have an engaging instructor, if you have the opportunity to do exciting activities or play enjoyable games, if you genuinely favor the topic – that’s all bonus, not required. College is not supposed to be frivolous even when it is fun. College is a serious life-preparing endeavor.  And like life, having fun in college is not guaranteed.

Learning hurts. You have to do new activities, often repetitiously, that you may or may not really care about. You have to change the way you think about things, both big and small. You have to spend hours and hours reading, writing, and studying when you would rather be soaking in the sun at the beach, playing video games, or talking with friends. You have to do what someone else requires you to do when she requires you to do it. Overall, this can be painful. Expect it.


Stop griping about being bored.

Stop whimpering at how difficult it is.  

Stop expecting your instructor to entertain you or motivate you.

In college, having fun is a bonus, not a requirement!

Homework is not optional!


Homework assignments are designed to give students the opportunity to review, practice, and incorporate the class concepts. In college, few instructors assign “busy work” (work just to keep students occupied without any inherent value). Instructors are busy people trying to both fulfill their own dreams of helping others while struggling to make a decent living in an underpaid and under-appreciated profession.  Therefore, every assignment assigned usually has a long-term or ultimate purpose for the class.

When you don’t do the homework or when you complete it with a lackluster effort (yes, this is a real word! Vocabulary can be fun! Find fun where you can!!), you don’t build the necessary knowledge or skills to meet the classroom objective. Therefore, your grades aren’t as high as they could be, you don’t have the foundation for the next level, and you irritate your instructor, all at the same time! Most instructors value diligent hard work over innate brilliance. In my own classes, it is almost impossible to pass the course, regardless of how intelligent one may be, without completing the homework.



If you are going to spend the time, money, and effort to attend college today, why not just decide to complete, consistently if not enthusiastically, all of your homework for your classes?

Doing homework is not optional; it is required for college success.

Following directions is imperative!

 Every instructor has his or her own visions for the assignment, for the class, and perhaps even for the whole department. In most schools, instructors have something called “academic freedom,” which is the freedom to choose how to teach the course material based on their own expertise, experience, or preference. Therefore, the instructions given by each and every instructor will vary in some manner, sometimes a little but sometimes a lot.


Think about assignment instructions like a map to a specific destination that is only in the mind of the instructor, kinda like a treasure map. If you follow the directions, then you can reach the “X marks the spot,” find the hidden treasure, and enjoy the rewards of your discovery. However, if you don’t follow the map, then you might end up in the jungle being chased by King Kong! (There’s a new King Kong movie out in theaters, and I just love that misunderstood big guy!) When you don’t follow clearly given directions, you may not achieve the desired goal of the activity, thus wasting both your own time and your instructor’s time as well.

But wait Mrs. C, you might ask, what about those directions that are not clearly given? What about when you don’t  understand what the directions are, where the map is directing you, or even what you are looking for? Great questions and sadly, this does occur quite often. What should you do then? Read on to then next truth for the answer!



Following directions is an essential aspect of prosperity in college! 

Following directions is imperative to be successful in college and life.

Questions Facilitate Learning!

Instructors are not mind readers. Yes, they have experience, so might be able to anticipate problem areas. Yes, they have worked with many students with similar problems. Yes, they themselves have been students. Nevertheless, instructors are not mind readers. They do not know what is confusing to students. They are not aware of every single student’s personal background, academic knowledge, emotional state, or anything else for that matter.  They do not know which of the seemingly clear directions is actually a confusing mess. They do not know which of the myriad details might send comprehension for a loop. Again, instructors are not mind readers.

Articulating questions is an integral part of the learning process. One reason this is so important is because,  as I’ve mentioned, instructors are not mind readers, so they need feedback from the student in the form of questions and comments to help personalize the lesson to a particular group, class or individual. Perhaps more importantly, students need to ask questions to truly learn the material.

Asking questions helps to create the mental pathways that help the information stick. It also makes the learning more active rather than passively accepting information. Asking questions also indicates to an instructor that the student is present, engaged, and even learning! Asking questions is imperative for learning!  

Some classes encourage students to participate in classroom discussion; others have online forums. Some instructors have office hours; others are only available through email. Regardless of the possible venue to ask questions, most if not all instructors value questions as an essential part of learning.  



Ask questions, lots of lots of questions, and enjoy as your success increases!

Asking questions is an integral part of college success.

Acceptance & empathy not permission!

Actions have consequences.  College is not prison. Classroom instructors are not jailers.  Students have the right to attend or not, do the homework or not, and actively attempt to pass the class or not. In California, students have the right to fail the class.  As an instructor, I can recommend, cajole, and even require students; however, I cannot force them to do something.  I genuinely feel with and for my students when they are stressed because of financial problems, emotional difficulties, or immigration challenges.


I accept that students will do whatever (within their legal rights) they wish. I truly empathize when life’s challenges cause problems with their school work. Therefore, when a student asks me if she can leave early because she has a doctor’s appointment or if he can skip class because he has an immigration hearing, my answer must, of course, be yes; I even build into my core curriculum stop gaps for when these situations arise. There will always be consequences, though.

When a student tells me he will be absent because something came up and I say ok, somehow that “ok” translates in student language to mean that being absent has no repercussion because the instructor gave me permission.

When a student tells me she can’t finish her paper on time, and I say I understand, someone somehow that “I understand” translates in student language to mean that there will be no grade penalty for the late work because the instructor gave me permission.

When students tell me that the course required reading is so difficult because they are taking 17 units of course work and I say I agree, somehow that “I agree”  translates in student language to mean that not reading the materials is not required because the instructor gave them permission to skip it because of the difficulty. However, acceptance of students’ choices and empathy for students’ troubles does not translate into instructor agreement that this action will produce a positive result.

Class guidelines, curriculum requirements, and course expectations are not dependent on accepting or empathizing. They exist as a bar of achievement.  College success requires you to fulfill the stated course requirements regardless of whatever life situations you may find yourself.



Please don’t confuse caring with permission.

Acceptance of your behavior and empathizing with your dilemmas does not mean permission to disregard the class requirements.

Instructors are people, not robots!

It staggers my mind sometimes when I realize that many students honestly don’t realize that I am a living breathing person with needs of my own. I do not only exist for their educational benefit. I actually have a life outside of my interaction with my students.

This comes up in various ways. One of the most frustrating occurrences is during breaks. Embracing the idea that questions facilitate learning, students often forgo the idea that following directions is imperative. I explicitly tell them that everyone, including myself, gets to take a break during breaks. Furthermore, in every single class discussion, I give multiple opportunities for students to ask questions. More often than not they don’t.  However, when we take a break, everyone wants to talk to me. Despite the fact that I’ve been teaching for over an hour and I too need a restroom and drink break, everyone wants to ask me questions about the lesson, the homework, the due dates, whatever.

Why? Are they simply putting their needs before mine? Do they not understand that I too am a person who needs down time? Are they so afraid of the other students that asking a question in class paralyzes them? Honestly, it could be all of the above.  This does not just happen in my class during breaks. Students often do not consider the instructor’s stated preferences about communication, required due dates, or even effort expended in teaching. Needless to say, this is very aggravating for the instructor.

So remember, every interaction you have with your instructor affects your success in that class. You have needs as a student. Your instructor also has needs as an instructor. 


 A little bit of practical consideration

can go a long way to helping you

prosper in your educational pursuits.

Instructors are human beings, who want to see you succeed,

not educational robots, who only exist to teach you!

Keep Your Fire Burning

One of the most awesome yet arduous aspects of working for or with others is that there is help in feeding the fire of accomplishment and motivation.  Unfortunately, many aspects of life require us to stay motivated on our own and finish what we started without cheerleaders or spectators.  To be successful, you have to feed your own fire.

For many people, including myself, the beginning is great with the anticipation and excitement of a new endeavor. I am full of ideas and have very little difficulty in firing up a project. Similarly, the glow of achievement that occurs as my aspiration comes to fruition and my goals are realized is enjoyable and spurs me to greater feats. However, the in- between in the middle, when the activity is no longer exciting but becomes tedious, when I have to focus on the minutia, not the grand scheme, and when I have to buckle down and consistently perform, this middle often gives me problems.

How do I stay motivated through the treacherous and monotonous middle? How can I continue to keep the fire of accomplishment blazing until the end? How can my motivation burn brightly all the way through my tasks to keep me going? As I asked myself these very questions this week, I found 4 ways to keep myself going. Perhaps they will work for you too!


Use Appropriate Fuel

Just like a fire requires different kinds of fuel to get burning, maintain heat, and die out, goals and projects require different activities along the way. What works in the beginning, may very well be insufficient in the middle. Thus, it is important to have various strategies to fuel the fire so that it keeps going.


Take my current book project for example. I’ve been working on it now for almost a year. Planning, organizing, writing for hours – those were great fuel earlier, but now, I have had to change the process because, honestly, I’m tired of the whole thing at this point. 

I have to change the fuel for my fires and be open to change and continued learning. I can’t simply do the easy and familiar, but have to challenge myself and to modify my actions if I want to keep my fire burning. I’ve actually recently started a new educational project which has nothing to do with the book, but it has made me excited about teaching in a new way. Now, I can apply this new excitement as a new kind of fuel and get the book finished.


If you have reached a point in your project where you can see it is starting to wither and not flourish, perhaps you need to find an alternative way to approach it or a new method of work.  We have to use an appropriate fuel to keep our fires burning!

Anticipate Problematic Aspects

If you’ve ever camped and had to keep a fire burning for light and warmth, you know that all kinds of factors are a danger for that fire. There’s the wind and wet; there’s a lack of wood; there’s even a lack of skill in starting and maintaining the fire.  Basically, keeping a fire going takes a lot of work!

Likewise, keeping our own motivation going overtime takes a lot of work, and there are many possible problems to burn it out. Boredom is a big one for me, so is exhaustion, and, of course, the inevitable trying-to-do-too-much.  Everyone encounters different problems, but if we plan for them, then we have a greater chance of overcoming them! There are many ways to anticipate problems. One that I have found valuable is to know myself.  My problems repeat themselves in endless loops, so I can anticipate them and even have strategies to overcome them.



For example, I am at a low point of my semester. The excitement of the new semester and getting to know the students has worn off, and now I have to slog through their difficulties and try to help them achieve. Right now, I am smack in the middle of part of my worst time. I have many plans for this problem time both tried and true techniques, and I also have some new ideas I want to try. Changing up my fuel a bit will help keep my fire going.



Even if you are doing a new activity or starting a new project, you can be aware of your weaknesses and plan for those moments of difficulty when you want to give up, which can help you keep your fire going!

Get Others Involved

In our individualistic society, self-reliance is usually rewarded; nonetheless, sometimes we all need help to keep a fire going. Regardless of how much experience you may have or how good you are in maintaining a fire, there comes the point where it is just nice if someone else throws a log on the fire or gives it at stir. Sometimes a new perspective, whether large or small, can make a huge difference in the project. Sometimes we just need someone else to question or encourage. No matter how independent you may be, no one can go completely alone!

While no one in my life is involved in my creative endeavors as much as I (not even Mr. C!) I have many people that I involve in small ways.  I am able to get my students involved by offering a bit of extra credit for responding to the blog.  I have brought in excerpts from the book to use in class. I talk to my colleagues at work; I discuss aspects of the work with my family. I ask for opinions and advice from friends. Basically, I encourage others to help me feed the fire of creation.


No one will care about your projects as deeply as you; it is, after all, your fire. Nonetheless, involving others, getting others help can enable you to keep your fire burning all the way to the end!

Bank Your Fire

A fire doesn’t have to be raging hot to survive. In fact, keeping a fire low in embers actually keeps it alive, just resting a bit. You can still cook on it, and it still produces heat. We can’t go full throttle 100% of the time; we will burn out. Sometimes, fires and people need a break to perform at their best.

Personally, I try to plan my breaks. I know that I have to renew myself and remember why I’m doing this in the first place! I arrange small breaks every day, a bit of stretching here and a funny Facebook video there. I arrange larger breaks every week. Wednesday is my go to take-a-break for myself day. It’s when I do those small things to reward myself like getting a message or reading for pleasure. Occasionally, I take big breaks, like Saturday when Mr. C and I drove to drive up to Big Bear to enjoy the last of the snow.

These breaks can also change up the fuel for my fire and involve others while such breaks can even give me new insight into dealing with problems! Hence, these breaks are not distracting me from my goals, but are, in fact, helping me achieve them. I am banking my fire a bit so that it can burn more brightly in the future.


Don’t be afraid to take breaks. They will help you keep your fire going for the long term! Bank your fire to keep it strong!

Being motivated, in and of itself, is terrific! Nonetheless, it is essential for success that you persist in your endeavor through the difficult and boring middle so that you can achieve your goals and keep your own fire burning! I hope these techniques which I use in my own motivational process can help you in yours!