Constructive Criticism

I used to take voice lessons, and for those who have not done so, voice lessons can be a great deal more daunting than you might think. They test the self and the confidence in all sorts of strange ways. My voice teacher, Lynn Werner, is a genius, and during the time I took lessons from her, she gave me some fantastic insights. One that comes to me now resembles the advice I got from one of my excellent writing teachers. Lynn told me to be cautious when listening to the comments and “constructive criticism” from people who hear me sing.

First, look carefully at the background of the person who is offering comment. Look at that person’s experience in the field and his or her interest in you as an artist. That really matters. People who do NOT know what they are talking about or people who do NOT care about you in the slightest should NOT form ANY PART of your ideas about your performance, your work, or your choices.

That may seem harsh. Someone reading this might think, “Hey, when I offer a suggestion, I’m being nice, and I’m very wise, so people should listen to me.” If you are thinking that, you are wrong.

I make the caveat that a reviewer for a publication may be an unbearable boar, or a roaring idiot, but if he or she is hired to write about a performance or product, that is a legitimate job, and worthy of the pay it takes to do it. Watch Ratatouille, and you’ll see what I mean.

On the other hand, people who offered unsolicited “constructive criticism” need to think again. Consider the purpose of the comment and its intent, and (most importantly) consider what good it will do.

I do NOT offer criticism, constructive or otherwise, unless I have been paid or I am invested in the success of the person or persons I am advising. I have known professionals and friends who say and write things incorrectly, but I do not tell them so unless I am their designated editor or teacher. I do NOT say, “It’s ‘moot point,’ not ‘mute point.’” I do not say, “You’re mispronouncing that.” I may be right, but that would not be constructive. It would be merely critical, and I doubt they would feel anything but embarrassed by my criticism.

I DO criticize writers, students, and readers. I am paid to do so, and I put a great deal of effort into finding a way to make it constructive. First, I acknowledge what works. I pay attention to and point out the things that make any effort or product strong or good. I am specific in this as often as possible. I don’t say, “That was a good story.” I say, “The dialog makes the character seem completely real and sympathetic, especially here on page three.” Then I read back what I think is strong. When I make suggestions for revision, I try my utmost to make what works bigger and what doesn’t work go away. I remind my audience that the author is the final authority on these things, and that my suggestions should only be followed if they inspire confidence, creativity, and joy.

If I correct an error in mechanics or spelling, I do so in as painless a way as possible and refer to it as being picky because that is the truth. I don’t mean to imply my suggestions do not make people frustrated or hurt or angry or confused. I know how it is to be taught. I have taken lessons in writing and singing. I have had my feelings hurt when I should have just listened and tried what was suggested. I have an ego the same as anyone else.

What I mean is that the best type of criticism always comes from the context of helping a fellow become great. If it causes pain, it should be short-lived and productive, like a shot of antibiotics or waxing.


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Spring Break Ends

It doesn’t seem fair that Spring Break is over since I feel like I have zero motivation to get back to school tomorrow morning.  I’m serious.  I am infected with terrible Spring Fever, and I have to write a test which is not done.  It’s miserable.  I thought pretty long and hard about retiring at the end of this school year, but I decided (after conversations with my nephew, my students, and a very dear friend) that I could hold out for one more year without becoming insane.  Let’s see if that happens, shall we?  I include in this a short slide show of my journey into Texas, a brief one, but not without merit.


 Here is the slide show!

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Best Huck Sentence 2

It’s that time of week again.  It’s time for me to add to the best sentences.  I have so many this week, it’s hard to choose just five.  I chose fifteen for my lecture on this set of chapters, that is ten through twenty.  I have whittled those fifteen down to five for this blog post.  Part of what determines my choices this week has to do with the effect each sentence had on me.

Twain, Mark.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Penguin Classics, 1985.

The first sentence I chose is from chapter ten.  “Never you mind, honey, never you mind” (62).  Here Jim is speaking to Huck, and I believe it is the first time Jim calls Huck “honey.”  I just love that.  That little endearment seems so sincere coming from Jim.  Some people, when they call someone else “honey” or “sweetie” or “darling,” it seems utterly fake, but not Jim.  He’s the genuine article.

My choice from chapter fourteen is also from Jim.  “En mine you, de real pint is down furder—it’s down deeper. It lays in de way Sollermun was raised”(90).  This is from the debate between Huck and Jim as to whether King Solomon is wise.  Huck comes across as too ready to accept the common line about Solomon’s wisdom.  Jim makes a solid argument against cutting babies in half.

This third best sentence if from chapter fifteen.  “No, you feel like you are laying dead still on the water; and if a little glimpse of a snag slips by, you don’t think to yourself how fast you’re going, but you catch your breath and think, my! How that snag’s tearing along”(95).  Here we see Twain giving shape to Huck’s observation of perception of speed as a relative thing.  It will take some years for physicists to make something of this truth, that speed is a relative thing.   This observation gives you sense of both Twain’s and Huck’s native intelligence.

From chapter fifteen we also have Jim teaching Huck how perfectly awful being a prankster can be.  “Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ‘em ashamed”(98).  Those who read this book will see this truth worked out in torturous detail in the final chapters.  Jim treads a line calling Huck trash, but his hate is aimed at the behavior, not at poor little Huck who could easily be seen as trash.

From chapter eighteen comes a wonderful description.  “Sometimes he smiled, and it was good to see; but when he straightened himself up like a liberty-pole, and the lightning begun to flicker out from under his eyebrows you wanted to climb a tree first, and find out what the matter was afterwards”(117).  This description reminds me of my father.  Enough said.

This last of this set comes from chapter twenty.  “‘Looky here, Bilgewater,’ he says, ‘I’m nation sorry for you, but you ain’t the only person that’s had troubles like that'”(135).  The “late dauphin” calls the “duke” Bilgewater.   It takes one…

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Years ago I attended a lecture in which the professor’s thesis was that Yeats in his “Wild Swans at Coole” consciously chose to use almost all Anglo Saxon words until he could drop Latinate words and cause little bombs to go off in the reader, little excitement bombs.  Ever since then, I have been fascinated by how languages have come together to make the great language that is ENGLISH.  In my case it is Standard Edited American English, but English nonetheless.

With this enthusiasm in mind, I created an assignment for my Juniors.  I asked them to look up and define their favorite twelve English words of Latinate origin.  This is my own over-the-top response to the assignment.

<<Advocate>> from the Latin vocare, meaning “to call.”  I like this one because it can be used as both a noun and a verb.  I also like it because I consider my profession a calling.  I am an advocate for my students because I hope to arm them against the terrors of adulthood.

<<Avuncular>> from the Latin avunculus, meaning “uncle.”  This is one that I always recall because a student “used” it in a poem, and I knew the poem was plagiarized, but just in case, I asked her, “Define avuncular.”  She said, “Oh, I just replaced another word with that one as the synonym.”  “What did it replace?”  That’s when she admitted she had cheated.  I like it when my boss uses an avuncular tone.

<<Bear>> from the Anglo Saxon bera, meaning “the brown one.”  Here I depart from my assignment, which I suspected would be a bear, but it turns out I like it.

<<Beautiful>> from the Latin bellus, meaning “pretty.”  It’s obviously French as well with that “eau” at the beginning.  What a beautiful day this turned out to be, after the sun set.

<<Delicious>> from the Latin delicere, meaning “to allure.”  I suppose the whole point of being a good cook is to allure a suitor.  It’s a delicious ploy, no?

<<Density>> from the Latin densus, meaning “thick.”  I have liked this one since seeing Back to the Future, when the boy says to the girl, “I’m your density.”  He meant to say destiny.  I just laughed and laughed.

<<Egg>> from the old Danish or Viking tongue, meaning “egg.”  That’s wonderful.  What? Was no one in England eating eggs until a bunch of Vikings took the beach?

<<Heart>> from Anglo Saxon heort, meaning “heart.”  I love how silly a heart can be.  You gotta have heort.

<<Heaven>> from the Anglo Saxon hefon, meaning “heaven.”  The Latin for the same place is paradise, but the Anglo Saxon word suggests it was lifted up, heaved (as it were).

<<Homage>> from the Latin hominaticum, meaning “a vassal’s service.” I like this word because it has a silent “h.”  Films are often in homage, especially those of the Coen Brothers.  I love all their movies.  I think they’re offering service to the stories they have always loved.

<<Human>> from the Latin humus, meaning “soil.”  Well, if that’s not Biblical, all of us humans made of soil, nothing is.

<<Jocular>> from the Latin jocus, meaning “joke.”  Jocular may sound like it has something to do with athletes, but it has more to do with nerds.  Ha!

<<Knife>> from the Anglo Saxon cnif, meaning knife.  The old folks of England would have pronounced the “k.”  That I like.  It sounds funny rather than threatening.  “I’ll k-nife you!” “Oh, k-nut it out.”

<<Mankind>> from the Anglo Saxon man, meaning “to think” and cynde, meaning “native.”  It’s great to think the old folks believed people had to think to be defined as mankind.

<<Mysterious>>from the Latin myien, meaning “to shut the eyes.”  That’s why faith is all tied up with the mysterious.  It’s seeing with your eyes shut.  It’s knowing with your heort.

<<Pine>> from the Latin pinus, meaning “Pine tree.”  Just because it sounds like a man’s body part in the Latin doesn’t mean anything.  Pine means pine.

<<Pistol>> from the French, Greek, and somehow Czech pisk, meaning “a whistling sound.”  The name of the pistol must be from the sound of the bullet whizzing past your ear in a wild west gun fight.

<<Pneumonia>> from the Greek puien, meaning “to breathe.”  It’s strange that the disease pneumonia (don’t pronounce the “p”) springs from the opposite meaning.

<<Sheep>> from the Anglo Saxon sceap, meaning “sheep.”  If we talked livestock, like sheep and cows, with the old folks, we might be able to communicate.

<<Sky>> from Old Norse, another Viking tongue, sky, meaning cloud.  It’s funny to think when sky came into English it shows the English positive thinking.  They were seeing the blue, and Vikings were seeing the storm.

<<Sultry>> from the Middle English sueltrie, meaning “oppressed with heat.”  Consider that the English had no use for such a word as sultry until the French took the crown.  What could that possibly mean?  The English went to the Riviera for the first time?

<<Sure>> from the Latin securus, meaning “secure.”   The English use of “sure” in answer to questions sounds an awful lot like “yes” in Mandarin.

<<Voodoo>> from West African, and meaning “sorcery.”  I just wanted to have one of those beautiful other worldly words in my list, and there’s nothing like that voodoo that you do.

<<Wish>>from the Anglo Saxon wisc, meaning “wish.”  This wish of a word shows how the Anglo Saxon words tend to differ from the Latinate.  They are short little words with great big powers, when you wish upon a word.  “A dream is a wish your heart makes.”

<<Woods>> from the Anglo Saxon widu, meaning “wood.”  “From this wood do not desire to go. ”

<<Yes>> from the Anglo Saxon gese, meaning “yes.”  This might be the most favorite word of all, this one and a name.  My favorite sentiment about “yes” comes from Kevin McIlvoy.  “The language of miracles is yes.”

On that note, I finish.  I am pretty sure I hit twelve Latinates, and I loved this, far more than I thought I would.  Yes.  Yes.  Yes…

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Freedom without “Freedom”

So…I’m a little behind on my posting, so I’m going to find a way to double post.  We’ll see how it goes.

Anyway, my Juniors were given the assignment to write a poem using a metaphor to represent freedom.  That is, they were to write a poem about freedom but not use the actual word freedom.  This was intended to make them try and picture freedom in a more concrete way.  Here’s my attempt.


A Fragment of Liberty


I woke up in a wilderness of stone,

And around me were crooked and narrow paths

Where flint tore the heels of uncounted souls.

The people did not see me.  They toiled in small caves;

Their forge fires glowed in the twilight.

Long chains manacled them to stakes,

And they were making more links.


I then came to

The great gate at the edge of a golden prairie.

The grasses waved and shimmered in the wind.

Sails of white clouds hung in the impossibly blue

Dome of the sky.  Far off, too far to clearly see,

A great lighthouse stood on the shore

Of a mighty sea.

White caps glittered there, and closer still

A herd of buffalo, their shaggy humps moving

From the round horizon and over the rolling hills

Made distant thunder.


The gate was only a gap with a grid of

Iron rails over a trench

Above me hung seven wrought letters.

A sign in red gave CAUTION.

Avoid traps, sinks, and floods.

The management is not responsible for lost items.

There are no guarantees.


The fence that started there stretched

Left and right

Straight as a string and long as forever.


Along the fence-line travelers has beaten down

The verge into a hard, gray path.

Along this wide road someone had built

Small shelters, shacks of sod and planks.

They had a certain symmetry, a charm,


But not for me.


Out there, where the great distance made vision indistinct,

I saw what could have been giants.

They were people.


They moved as if they were sliding on ice.

They were quick, and they twinkled,

And though the path to shelter was easy

I could not resist the people.

I struck out, and the path I took

Was no path at all,

And no path was left behind me.

No path was left behind.

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What are You?

I have asked my students to define their own culture.  It’s tricky, isn’t it?  Culture and race are different, at least to my mind.  Your race you inherit.  You have nothing to say about it.  Your culture you can bend.  You can embrace parts and leave others behind.  Your grandpa was a racist?  You don’t have to be.  Your grandma had eleven children?  You are not required to have any.

Here are the things I embrace about my culture.  I am a third generation New Mexican.  That means I like green chile on everything except the stuff I prefer with red chile.  I do NOT believe in rain (it’s just a myth) unless I am drenched by it.  I think Texas has an overblown sense of importance, but I like Texans, sweet and simple as they are.  I do not believe in following people closely on the highway.  Give all the other drivers room.  I think of the speed limit as a suggestion.  When the weather is nice, I like to drive slowly and enjoy the ride.  When the weather is nasty, I’m tempted to drive like hell in order to get home quickly.  I don’t think most of the people on the coasts even know my state is a state, and I think I like it that way.  The less other people know about me and mine the better (blog entries aside).

I am a McCollaum.  I don’t like to be interrupted, and I don’t like to interrupt others.  I will wait my turn.  I am not in a good mood.  I don’t know why this is, but McCollaums are rarely in a truly good mood.  We’re putting up with things.  I have a darkness always simmering in me.  I am a bad sport.  It is for this reason I do not mind being alone.  I’m less likely to do something that I regret if I am left to my own devices.  I value toughness over beauty, but I admire beauty in the same way that I always admire starlight.   I like to read and think, and I will go out of my way to hear something funny.  I am very thankful for what I have.

I am a Jones.  I like music and talk and sweets.  I can bake, and have since I was about three years old.  I want people to feel comfortable when they come to my house.  I like hosting parties.  The Jones clan are volatile, but their anger fades quickly.  They do NOT hold a grudge.  I think each year I become more Jones and less McCollaum because I forget a little bit more of what I once resented.

I am a citizen of the United States of America.  My father was a Marine as was my oldest brother.  My Grandpa Jones was in the Army.  My cousins have served.  My cousins still serve.  My brother teaches history, and he’s really good at it, and he understands more than most people about how this country was formed and the ideas that make it still worth defending.  I will defend my rights and the rights of others even when I do not agree with them.  I like this country.  That’s what makes me nervous about our current climate.

I am a Christian.  This is the most important part of me, the part I will not discuss too much because it is sacred, and because I am a McCollaum I will not handle it too roughly.    I want to be kind to others, to express love to them, to reflect the LOVE that has saved me from the worst of fates and from hate.

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Best of Huck (I)

This year I am teaching Juniors.  As part of their first assignments, I am writing parallel work.  This will only serve them in the slenderest of ways.  I hope it serves me a great deal.  I also hope it serves a reader or two.

We begin with a loosely organized journal in which I must pick five sentences from the first nine chapters of Huck Finn that I admire.  For each of the sentences I choose I must provide a rationale for why I admire it.  I will begin with the bibliography of my copy of the book.

Twain, Mark.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Penguin, 1985.

The first sentence I chose from Huck Finn is in chapter one.  “Then she told me about the bad place and I said I wished I was there”(10).  I find this sentence amusing, and that I always admire.  Since I have already read the book (several times), I also appreciate how it comes back much later and in a much more serious way.

My second choice appears early in the pages of chapter two.  “If you are with the quality, or at a funeral, or trying to go to sleep when you ain’t [sic] sleepy—if you are anywhere where it won’t [sic] do for you to scratch, why you will itch all over in upwards of a thousand places” (13).  Once again, I appreciate the humor of this statement.  Further, I appreciate Huck’s insight about how we respond to restriction.  If we are supposed to (or must) stay still, we are bound to want to itch or sneeze or yawn or laugh or something else that is forbidden.

The next sentence comes from chapter two as well.  “I was most ready to cry; but all at once I thought of a way, and so I offered them Miss Watson—they could kill her”(16). Humor carries the day.  This sentence is funny, but it also shows that Huck has come to care for Miss Watson as if she were family.  He only has Pap, and so the gang is thinking of not including him because they will not have anyone to kill if he turns on the gang, but then he realizes that Miss Watson is someone he would be willing to protect, and she is steady and trustworthy and easy to find if the gang needs to kill her.

Another great sentence comes at the end of chapter five.  “He said he reckoned a body could reform the ole man with a shot-gun, maybe, but he didn’t know either way”(32).  This shows that the well-meaning new judge finally gives up on reforming Pap.  That does not surprise the reader after getting a chance to see how Pap treats Huck.

The last for this week has to be from chapter six.  “(Pap) said they was crawling up his legs; and then he would give a jump and scream, and say one had bit him on the cheek—but I couldn’t see no [sic] snakes”(38).  In this scene Twain creates a recognizable attack of the delirium tremens, the most severe symptom of alcoholism, the type of attack that can eventually lead to the death of the addict.  I chose this sentence because I do NOT like snakes.  They frighten me terribly, so being bitten on the cheek would be torture.  On the other hand, many of the sentences in the scene are as effective as this one, and some inspire even more terror.  It is remarkable writing, and a testimony about how dangerous it is for a child to be in the care of an irretrievable alcoholic.

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