Garden path sentences, or “When the old man the boat, the young duck the oars.”

Native speakers of a language usually don’t have too much difficulty understanding what other native speakers are saying. That’s why grammar is so cool (to people like me). When you read the words in this sentence, your brain processes the syntax in real time, and everything makes sense. Sure, you might need to go back and reread a word or sentence every now and again if you get lost or distracted, but for the most part, reading is a pretty seamless exercise for the average literate person on the internet. Our brains just know when the syntax of a sentence works. Likewise, our brain gets hung up when the grammar is off. For an example, look at the following sentence:

horse raced

No doubt you probably had to go back and reread that sentence a couple of times to try to make sense of it. Most of you probably still can’t make it work. Your brain is telling you something’s not right. When your brain started reading the sentence, it assumed a horse was racing past a barn, but by the time you got to the end, your brain saw the barn falling. Your brain tells you that the syntax can’t make both of those things work. What the heck is going on? Is there such a thing as a “barn fell” that the horse ran past? No? Then clearly the sentence is just plain wrong, right?

Actually, the sentence is correct. Your reading of it was incorrect. This is a trick of parsing–your brain’s analysis of how the syntax in a sentence should work. It’s like an optical illusion but with linguistics. In elementary school, you probably learned that complete sentences have a subject and a predicate. The subject is the person or thing doing something, and the predicate is what the subject is or does (it usually begins with the verb).

wombat slept

You experience tells you that ‘raced’ is the verb in our awkward sentence, so your brain reads “raced past the barn” as the predicate.

horse raced 02

This is where the parsing gets messed up, because it seems like you have another subject and verb stuck in there (“the barn fell”), but your brain knows that “the barn” can’t be BOTH part of an adverb phrase–“past the barn”–AND the subject of another clause–“The barn fell.” It just doesn’t work. Even if you have no idea what an adverb phrase is, you know it sounds wrong.

Here’s the trick: ‘raced’ is not the verb here; ‘fell’ is.

horse raced 03

Again, your brain is probably telling you, “No. That still makes no sense. Stop listening to this man, and thank your lucky stars your kid isn’t in his Language Arts class.”

Hear me out. Your brain is probably still telling you that ‘raced’ is a verb. It’s not. Well, not technically. It’s a special verb form called a participle, and it functions as an adjective (a describing word) here. The phrase “raced past the barn” is telling us which horse fell, believe it or not. The trick of the sentence relies on the less common use of the word ‘raced’ to describe something that participated in a race. Which horse fell? The one “raced past the barn.” Think of it alternatively as “The horse [that was] raced past the barn fell.”

Still not making sense? It takes some mental gymnastics to really get it. Try substituting another participle to describe the horse instead of ‘raced’:

horse raced 04

Making any more sense yet? ‘Covered’ and ‘raced’ function the same way here to tell us which horse fell–the one “covered in mud” or the one “raced past the barn.”

There are many sentences like this. In fact, we’ve got a name for them: garden path sentences. They trick your brain into parsing the sentence incorrectly at first, so you have to go back to parse the syntax again.

See if you can understand these correctly on the first attempt:

  • The old man the boat.
  • Fat people eat accumulates.
  • The cotton clothing is usually made of grows in Mississippi.
  • I convinced her children are noisy.
  • Mary gave the child the dog bit a band-aid.
  • The girl told the story cried.
  • The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.

Having trouble parsing these? Check out the explanations of these sentences here.

What other examples of garden path sentences have you got?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A little perspective…

Over the weekend, some terrible stuff happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m not going to throw my two political cents into the fray because there are already plenty of opinions out there on the issue.

Instead, I want to talk about perspective. And my students.

As an English teacher, I spend a lot of my time asking people how things would be different:

  • How would the story be different if it were told from a different character’s perspective?
  • How would the conflict change if a certain event hadn’t happened or happened differently?
  • How can one character make another character understand his point of view?

It’s difficult for the students to think critically enough to answer some of these questions. Heck, it’s difficult for many adults to think critically about things like this. And even when we confront these questions earnestly, there’s no guarantee that the assumptions we’re making are sensible or well-informed, let alone correct. Most of the deeper implications of this problem are lost on eleven-year-olds, so I play a little trick on my students to illustrate the perspective problem.

I put the students together in groups of four. Then I give each member a picture, face down on his or her desk. I say to the class,

I gave you all a picture. Don’t look at your picture yet, but just know that I gave everyone a picture of a sculpture. You know what a sculpture is, don’t you? A three-dimensional piece of art made of wood or stone or metal.

Here’s the thing, though. I gave everyone a picture of the same sculpture, but I want to see if your groups agree on what the sculpture is. Carefully take a peek at the picture I gave you. Keep it a secret. Don’t let anyone else in your group see it! And don’t say anything after you’ve seen it!

The students look.

Now, put the picture back face-down on your desk. Again, no calling out, but just nod your head if you recognized the animal in the sculpture.

The students nod vigorously.

Now, put it back face down on your desk. Look at the members of your group. Without making a sound, just mouth the word for the animal you saw.

The students silently confirm what they know to be true. I ask,

Ok, just tell me, yes or no, did your group all agree on the type of animal you saw?

A chorus of “YES!”

Excellent! Then we all agree. On the count of three, tell me what the sculpture is. One, two, three…

The room erupts into a garbled mess. Half the room shouts “elephant!” The other half yells “giraffe!” There is a split second of confusion before the indignation.

Elephant?! That’s not an elephant! It’s clearly a giraffe!”

“There’s no possible way you could think that’s a giraffe! It has a trunk and big ears and everything!”

Then they turn on me.

“You said you gave us all the same picture!”

I have to correct them,

No. I said I gave you all pictures of the same sculpture. I never said the pictures themselves were the same.

More accusations then. “You didn’t give us the same sculpture! You couldn’t have!”

Then, I reveal both pictures:


“See!?” They all say. “They’re different!”

But the trick isn’t complete yet. There’s one more reveal:


Artist: Matthieu Robert-Ortis

This is when the jaws drop.

It’s a simple demonstration, but an effective one.

The hardest thing for students to understand is that our perspectives, like the pictures they received, give us a two dimensional view of a three dimensional issue. Every side is stuck at a fixed point around the sculpture, screaming about the animal that appears from that angle. The truth is that they are all simultaneously correct and incorrect.

And this is just bent wire. At least it’s a physical medium. You can see it. You can touch it.

It makes you think about how we rage about political ideologies and religion and economic policy. We’re all so sure. I’m convinced I’m right, too. Why can’t you see it?

But the truth of the matter is there are no giraffes, no elephants at all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

10 emergency classroom items for teachers (of either gender, really…)

Ok, so I was trying to avoid possible sexism in the title of this post, but I didn’t want to call it “10 emergency classroom items for teachers” and imply that I knew what female teachers needed. At the same time, I didn’t want to call it “10 emergency classroom items for male teachers” and appear to alienate three quarters of America’s educators.

Thus, I present to you, “10 emergency items for teachers (of either gender, really, but with a slight bias toward men…possibly).”


1. A personal grooming kit with toiletries

You won’t need a personal grooming kit every day, necessarily, but on the days you need it, you’ll really need it. Having a compact grooming kit with nail clippers, a file, facial hair scissors, and a small mirror can really save you from unnecessary embarrassment on those days when an errant nose hair makes an appearance. Plus, a small file can double as a flat head screwdriver or a mini pry bar in a pinch.

Deodorant, shaving cream and a toothbrush/paste are handy for Open Houses and conference days when you can’t head home to shower and shave after eight hours of trudging through the trenches.

2. Extra clothes

Like the toothpaste and deodorant, an extra set of clothes is great to have on hand for after school activities that require some semblance of professionalism. In addition, having an emergency outfit at school can save the day in the (inevitable) event that you end up with coffee, glue, lunch, blood, or vomit on your clothes.

3. Snacks

Sure, for you, but also for your kids. Often, you’ll have a student or two who–for whatever reason–isn’t getting as much food as he needs during the school day. Having some crackers or granola bars available for these kids can help hold them over and keep them focused. This is especially helpful if you have students who are diabetic.

4. ‘Thank you’ cards

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve suddenly needed to give out a ‘thank you’ card on a random Thursday. I’m fortunate enough that I have kids whose parents will regularly send in tissues and hand sanitizer to help keep all the classroom germs at bay, and having some thank you cards on hand is really convenient. Beyond that, everyone appreciates receiving a little positive note, whether it’s for covering a class unexpectedly or offering to switch detention duty so you can go to a Def Leppard concert.

5. Duct tape

Yes, duct tape is everywhere…because it’s amazing. I’ve used duct tape for everything from repairing binders, to keeping electrical cords from causing tripping hazards, and even taping over jagged metal edges on broken chairs to prevent injuries. Masking tape is always the go-to for hanging stuff on walls because it doesn’t leave adhesive behind, but when you need a job to stick permanently, go for duct tape instead.

6. Gum or mints

Because you don’t always have time to brush your teeth, and nobody wants to smell the leftover garlic knots you brought for lunch today.

7. A basic first aid kit and pain medication

Band-aids are absolutely necessary because kids are clumsy. Band-aids are also absolutely necessary because you’re clumsy. Even though your school probably has a nurse, a basic first aid kit with bandages, alcohol pads, antibiotic ointment, and gauze will prevent a lot of unnecessary trips to the clinic, and it’ll make the necessary trips less terrifying if you have the basics covered in your room.

The pain meds are for you, not your kids (obviously). You’ll need them.

8. Checkbook

It sounds weird–and a bit unsafe–to keep a checkbook at school, but if you have a place in your room or car to lock it up, having a checkbook nearby means you’ll always be ready to pay PTSA dues, register for Spring Fling, or make a donation to the March of Dimes to help save babies (and get a jeans day).

9. Comfy shoes

I don’t care who you are, no one chooses dress shoes over slippers for comfort. If you’re accustomed to wearing loafers or heels every day, chances are you’ll eventually develop blisters, corns, or other foot maladies that’ll make you wish you just had some house slippers to relax in for a day. So why don’t you? Get an old pair of sneaks to keep in your room for those days when your feet need a break. No one will judge you for it, and you can always slip your formal shoes back on if an administrator wanders in.

10. Sports equipment

I know, I know. We should be learning every minute of every day. There are no Language Arts standards for throwing footballs. And yet, at some point during the year, you’ll probably find yourself outside with thirty antsy children just itching to throw things at one another. Picking up a couple of cheap Frisbees, footballs, or kickballs at Wal-Mart will ensure that you’re always ready if you and the kids are ever in need of a “mental health day”–usually after testing. And a word of warning if you teach middle school: call them “athletic spheres.” Standing on the athletic field yelling, “Has anyone seen my balls?!” is a sure way to cause a spectacle.

What else do you keep “just in case”? Tide pens? I feel like Tide pens should have made the list. Comment and tell me if I should add Tide pens.

Tide pens.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My Focus Brick: Some advice for teachers

I originally posted this on Quora. as a response to the question, “What’s a great piece of advice for teachers?” It resonated with many people on the site, so I wanted to share it here on my teaching blog as well.

What’s a great piece of advice for teachers?

This is my “Focus Brick” in my classroom:


It’s in the top-center of my back wall so it faces me while I’m teaching. It’s just a regular old brick with the letters “TJK” written in washable marker. There’s not much to it, but it’s an incredibly effective tool for me because it’s a constant reminder of something I frequently forget:

They’re Just Kids.

I teach middle school (ages 11–14 in the U.S.), and those students can be just…miserable at times. They’re going through difficult physical and emotional changes. They’re struggling with creating a personal identity. Many of them are just beginning to realize the significance of their problems at home: strained relationships, financial hardship, abuse and neglect.

This hellish cocktail of hormones and identity confusion causes them to be absolutely insufferable at times. They can be rude, combative, insensitive, disrespectful, ignorant, lazy, and just about every other negative adjective you’d associate with the angst-ridden depths of modern puberty.

Without a constant reminder of the rough developmental stage they’re experiencing, it can be easy for me to take their words and actions personally.

They don’t mean it personally, and even the ones who want to personally attack you don’t really understand what they’re doing. Many of them have very little subconscious control over their thoughts, and any child development expert will tell you these kids don’t yet have the brain development or emotional awareness to genuinely evaluate the consequences of their actions before they act. So remind yourself:

They’re Just Kids.

They’re not test scores.

They’re not machines.

They’re not adults.

We can’t treat them like test scores. We can’t expect them to perform like machines. And—as much as we want to at times—we can’t expect them to act like adults.

So in those moments—usually at the end of the day—when I’ve been beaten down by the ceaseless onslaught of bureaucratic idiocy that is the American education system; and half the class hasn’t even looked at the assigned reading from the night before; and three kids are sleeping—two because they were up too late playing Destiny and one because he was taking care of his infant brother while his single-parent mom was working her second job; and one girl keeps chanting “this class is sooooo stupid” while the girl behind her braids her hair; and two boys are chasing a girl around the room while waving a dead bug in a tissue at her; and two others are playing games on their phones; all while I’m trying to discuss the finer points of standard ELACC8L5.a…

…in those moments, I need to hold back from raging at these unwitting victims of pubescent insanity, so instead I take a deep breath, stare at my Focus Brick, and remind myself:

They’re Just Kids.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Making the Mundane Interesting

I tell my students:

I’m going to read a story to you, but there’s a warning: it’s a disturbing story. It’s not suitable for all audiences, and I’ll understand if anyone wants to leave before I begin. Seriously.

Anyone want to leave? No? I don’t want to get any angry emails from your parents about this, ok? Ok.

Everything in this story is based on true events. This is real, it’s horrifying, and it happens every day. I’m going to relate the tale from the perspective of one who experienced it first-hand. Here it is:

Continue reading

Posted in Lessons, Tips and Resources | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Drawing Lines: The Notebook Lesson

I’ve always liked using writers’ notebooks in my class. They’re great for journaling, drafting, general brainstorming…even doodling. In the past, however, I never really associated any pomp and circumstance with these writers’ journals at the beginning of the year. The exchange was more of a “Hey guys, can you all bring a spiral-bound notebook for a writing journal? Cool.” That was it. The magic was in the process of USING the journal over the course of the school year.

I wanted to try something different this year. I’m sure I’m not the first teacher to do something like this, but I went out and purchased spiral notebooks for EVERY ONE of my 6th grade students this year (they were 17 cents at Wal-Mart and Big Lots, so the investment was worth it). I feel like the act of giving every student a notebook makes it more personal.

On the second day of school, I gave my students these notebooks, but before I presented them to the kids, I provided a bit of ceremony, and in my long-winded fashion, I said:

Continue reading

Posted in Lessons, Tips and Resources | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Debunking Viral Facebook Posts: Part 1

I use Facebook. I’m not ashamed of that. I think it’s a great way to keep in touch with old friends and keep far-away family updated on everything happening in my life (baby girl is turning 1 next month! Expect an onslaught of photos, everyone).

Every now and then, however, one of my friends shares one of those viral news stories/images/articles that just reek of a hoax – you know the ones I mean…those posts that fill your news feed with vague statements and amazing “facts” that have no sources or legitimate citations? I love stumbling on those posts because they give my brain a little workout. It’s like a challenge to see just how many logical flaws I can find in debunking them. The only problem is that most people don’t like being told that they’ve been taken in by faulty logic, so rather than call those people out on Facebook, I’ve decided to post my findings here instead.

I figure that this is relevant to my classroom because teaching critical thought and evaluating resources are two of my primary goals in my lessons, so let’s see if you saw what I saw…

Continue reading

Posted in Fun Stuff, Lessons, Sarcasm | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment