Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Burning Down the House: Good Advice for Teachers

Margaret Hundley Parker teaches writing at the college level, and for the new school year she's finding inspiration from an unlikely source: songs by the band Talking Heads (and Radiohead and The Doors, too). Find out why she thinks writing teachers should start their year by "burning down the house."

As summer wanes, I'm forced to brush the sand off my flip-flops and think about what the heck I'm going to do with my college writing students in the fall. How can I breathe life into my old materials?  I recently read about a teacher whose house burned down, and she lost everything. All her hard-earned notated articles, grammar books, finals and quizzes went up in smoke.Yet when I read more, she said it was the best thing that ever happened to her teaching career — she was liberated from all that old stuff. And it was awesome.

So with Talking Heads lyrics as a guide (with a shot of Radiohead and The Doors), I'll explore ways to torch outdated teaching materials so that a new syllabus can rise, all Phoenix-like, from the ashes.

Let's face it: No one knows exactly how to teach writing. The paradigms keep shifting — diagramming sentences gave way to drafting and revising and trying your best. Have you ever seen the prescriptivists and the descriptivists in the ring? There's no one "correct" way to teach writing — creative or expository — but if you're bored with your stuff, chances are your students are, too.

Here are some clues you should burn your syllabus:

  1. Your favorite handout about commas is much older than your students and mentions a "new" computer that's larger than a Volkswagen.
  2. Your go-to article on dangling modifiers has a footprint in the middle.
  3. Some of your examples have words that you've been mispronouncing since the '90s. (I'm talking to you, isthmus.)
  4. You still rely on "handouts."

Stop me before I go mimeograph something!

You May Ask Yourself, Well, How Did I Get Here?

Many adjunct professors get hired at the last minute. You go in for your interview, chat with the chair of department, and boom, your class starts in fifteen minutes. At some point you throw together a syllabus partially cribbed from teachers who've taught the class before. Then you fine tune, and teaching gets way easier.  Summer comes around and you don't think about the syllabus — you want to write! And play! And frolic in the sunshine with your children! Fall returns suddenly, and blam-o you have to teach again. Good thing you have a syllabus. That same old dusty syllabus.

Psycho Killer, Qu'est-ce Que C'est?

Fa fa fa faa fa fa fa... oh, sorry. Do something crazy! No need to get psychotic, but try bringing some new energy into the classroom with song and dance. No, I'm not kidding. Get the students out of their chairs to sing about run-ons and fragments. Be inspired by Daphne Athas at UNC Chapel Hill, whose English class ended in a performance by the students that was a big hit. For more about that, check out the book Gram-O-Rama, Breaking the Rules.

Instead of offering the private embarrassment of a usage quiz, let's go live. Tap into their inner (or outer) ham with a little grammar performance.

OK Computer

There are a million ways of getting a class more online. (Hello, Visual Thesaurus!) Personally, I've got to get better at working with instead of against computers in the classroom. I feel weird talking to a class when I can't see their faces. Recently, I gave my class a timed online exercise, but when I walked around half the class was on Facebook. Maybe I should copy the teacher I read about in The New Yorker, Jeff Nunokawa at Princeton, whose literary Facebook updates are aimed at his students. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

I know some of you savvy teachers take full advantage and post your syllabus online, have your students keep a blog and whatnot. I welcome advice from you. I email with my students but that's about it. But when I have only hard copies of articles or stories, not only are they flammable, it's harder to get them to students who miss a class.

The first step for this Luddite will be to put everything online. I want to be friends with the computers, but I'll still bring in hard copies, too. Rome wasn't built in a day. When we're discussing a short story, for example, I still want them to make notes on the paper. I've let students who've lost copies read along with their computers or phones, but it separates them. It makes me suspicious, too, because who doesn't sneak a peek at email as long as you're online? (Hold on, someone just sent me a photo of a LOL cat.) I think that a combination of hard copies in class and online access to materials at home will make it easier for the students and me to communicate throughout the semester.

Stay Up Late

It'll take more work, but it's high time for me to rethink the stories I teach anyway, and not bring in a story just because I know it well and have copies. Our lives change and so does our perspective on the stories we love. For example, I love love James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" and put it on the syllabus last semester. But I forgot that a two-year-old girl dies! I have a two-year-old girl. Yes, I accidentally cried in the classroom. Just found out your wife is cheating on you? Maybe not the time to teach Anna Karenina.

This Is The End

I don't plan on igniting my abode, but I'm moving again and if I could set fire to this giant grey file cabinet that's groaning under the pressure of outdated grammar handouts, then yay. I must purge. I must rethink. I must set the stage for grammar fun in the classroom, but also have all the cold hard facts online. I'll buy a symbolic torch and set the old stuff free.


Margaret Hundley Parker's work has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Time Out New York, Oxygen.com, Bust and performed at the North Carolina Literary Festival, CBGBs, and the 24-Hour Plays, to name a few. She has been an editor at FIT magazine and Road & Travel. Her book, the KISS Guide to Fitness, was published in 2002 by Dorling Kindersley. She has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Pratt Institute, and through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.


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