Posted in outschool, Uncategorized

Write like the Dickens!

New Outschool Class

Yep, it wouldn’t be Christmas
without “A Christmas Carol”!

*$12 per learner, 55 min.
*2-9 students
*Live Zoom
*Begins 5/18/2020

When I was a kid, I wanted to write like Dickens or Samuel Johnson–someone who makes the reader sit up and pay attention. To be honest, I equated sentence length with writing skill, so I wanted to write longer and longer sentences that would AMAZE my readers. (It never happened.)

Over the years, and as I’ve taken creative writing classes, I’ve learned to appreciate short, punchy writing and Hemingway. I’ve worked to trim down my prose, and I think I’ve made headway.

I’m still glad, though, that I can add clauses on clauses, phrases to phrases. It’s fun. It adds to my repertoire. And re-reading Great Expectations lately, I was newly struck by Dickens, such a consummate craftsman with complete control over sentence parts.

How can I get that? How can the students I tutor get that? Many want writing practice. They want to sound good on paper, of course.

With that in mind, I designed a new class for Outschool called “Write like the Dickens.” This class will meet one time and carefully, consciously imitate Dickens together. We will break down his craft, defining terms like parallelism (unrelated to geometry), and balanced sentence, and use his sentences as templates to create our own masterpieces. We will work together at first, starting small, and then independently as we gain confidence.

I will guide students in composing long, complex sentences that will stretch their writing skills and help them appreciate the building blocks of memorable writing. We will share our results and analyze how we can incorporate a bit of Dickens into our own writing.

This is part of a 3-part series of one-time classes called “Write like [Author”s Name].” The series includes Dickens, Woolf, and Hemingway.The three authors can be taken in any order or singly. When all three are complete, the learner will have worked with three diverse styles that run the gamut from complex/ornate to consciously minimal (Dickens/ornate, Woolf/moderate, Hemingway/minimal).

Posted in Uncategorized

Great Corona Summer!?

So, your plans for the summer messed up yet? I found out a while back that the kids’ swim league in my neighborhood is canceled. I expected the news, and it’s for the best–but still hard to swallow. All I can picture is days like big, oozing blobs of same-same-same-ness spreading out over my calendar.

Everyone’s in the same boat, and everyone’s wondering what June, July, and August will look like at home–without camps–without vacations–without summer jobs, friends, and blockbuster movies.

For CJDWhite Tutor Summer 2020, I’ve landed on two offerings, both chosen for maximum interaction, learning, fun, interest–and affordability.

Great Corona Summer!

Seize the day and read!

TWO NEW GROUP SUMMER CLASSES! Each can be booked in individual sessions (depending on your availability) OR as a package (buy 4/get 5th free).

Great Expectations Readalong
Take on a reading challenge + increase your vocabulary!
Each 50 min. session will be divided between short reading discussion and live action vocab competition.
  • Meets 7 PM on Tuesdays (June 2, 9, 16, 23, and 30), 50 min. sessions
  • Reading schedule and vocabulary lists provided
  • Meets on Zoom
Great Expectations Discuss-along
Take on a reading challenge + increase vocabulary + lively group discussions
Each 50 min. session with be a guided group discussion with emphasis on participation. Designed for the student who always wishes there was more time to discuss in class.
  • Meets Thurs. at 7 PM (June 4, 11, 18, 25; July 2), 50 min. sessions
  • Reading schedule and vocabulary provided (vocab for self-study, Quizlets provided)
  • Meets on Zoom


Ongoing weekly online sessions to explore poetry. We will work together to understand how poetic devices and structure combine to produce meaning. $9/50 min./2 stud. min. For the student who loves poetry and/or wants to understand it better! Specific poem requests happily accepted.


These courses will be online, but they will be highly personalized and interactive. Students will be encouraged to explore those questions that brick-and-mortar schools never have time for. In my experience, readers of Fahrenheit 451 want time to discuss why Bradbury repeats that bizarre toothpaste ad for Denham’s Dentrifice while Montag rides the subway.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

When they study A Streetcar Named Desire, they want to ask why Blanche is so dang annoying. Why does she have to talk so much?

These summer selections allow the freedom and time for inquiry. At the same time,
reading Dickens and poetry is great for building the mental muscles and stamina necessary for standardized testing, advanced language arts, and vocabulary.

Questions? Comments? Contact me or respond in the comments section. Enroll this week for a free session of Dickens.

Posted in Uncategorized

Monuments and Legacies

Since the world turned upside down and went Zoom-only, I have been meeting with small groups of teens for “Plunge into Poetry,” my Outschool poetry club. They are an adventurous crew and have faithfully followed my chosen titles. I’ve tried to both meet them where they are, analysis-wise, and stretch them.

On the stretch side, we looked at Shelley’s “Ozymandias” last week (text is below). Before you dive right in, though, it helps to understand Shelley’s inspiration.

The title of his poem refers to the ruins of an ancient monument to an Egyptian pharaoh, possibly known as Ramses II (of biblical infamy) and/or Ozymandias. He read about the statue–never saw it–and it may have looked like the painting below.

Especially notice the scale of the statue’s remains relative to the bystanders. Huge, huh!

I’m thinking Ozymandias/Ramses had no problems with self-esteem. And you?

With this image forefront in your mind, you can move on to the poem now. Access granted!


By Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymanidas, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Our discussions this week took on the irony in Ozymandias’ claims as well as the different forms of creation in the poem (sculptor, storyteller, poet, etc.) and their relative power to leave a legacy (and what sort of legacy?).

The Poetry Foundation, which I have a new and profound respect for, has this amazing poetry prompt to connect “Ozymandias” to our lives:

Think of some of the monuments in your country. Why where they built? What do they symbolize? Now imagine those same monuments 500 years in the future. Write a poem that, like “Ozymandias,” describes the effects of time on both the monuments themselves, and the values they were meant to represent.

I gave my students a couple of national monuments to think about. I am from St. Louis and always immediately turn to the Gateway Arch and all it symbolizes. I wonder if it will fall into the Mississippi River at some future date–and how far out into the river would it go?

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

I’ve never seen Mt. Rushmore, though I have wanted to. It must be impressive in person. But then we start to verge into a tradition of outsized statues erected by autocratic leaders in honor of themselves (think Stalin, Mao Zedong). Yes or no?

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Now seems an opportune time to consider what we want our legacy to be and in what form we want to leave it. How can we come out of COVID-19 and pass on something worthy to the coming years?

Thanks much to the Poetry Foundation, which is celebrating National Poetry Month and has amazing materials for teaching and enjoying poetry (!

Posted in Uncategorized

Until I Was on Lockdown

Until I was on lockdown here outside Houston, I was posting about how to spend your time productively on all things English. I hoped that my friends in other areas of the world, like Korea, Doha, or Norway, might find some fruitful ideas in my blog.

Now I’m stuck at home, and I’m finding it harder and harder to tame my thoughts and force them into a tidy outline that leads to a coherent blog post.

I’m done waiting. It’s time to move ahead anyway!

Update on my projects: I’ve begun teaching poetry and the common app essay on Outschool (also a life skills class on telephone communcation, which I’ll start in May). I had applied and begun putting together courses before COVID-19, which has definitely pressed the accelerator on the process. I’ve met some lively, intelligent, upbeat students and been so appreciative of this new venture in a stressful time. It’s helped me focus on positive activities and moving forward each day!

Outschool, like many other platforms, is stepping up during current closures to provide free classes for learners age 14-18. You can read more about the program here:

Outschool has been running group classes for years on Zoom. Isn’t that great! All my kids’ teachers are having to scramble and learn in a rush.

In a stroke of luck, I visited a charity store in Austin right before it became a very bad idea. And I bought several used books–I have new stuff to peruse! I’ve chosen Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to kick me off. A friend is joining me. With 1070 pages, it’s sure to last.

It hasn’t grabbed me at the start, but I will continue. I got sidetracked by Liane Moriarity’s The Husband’s Secret from my elibrary. It gets my thumbs-up as a distraction!

Will keep me occupied!
Quick little distraction. Recommended.

Posted in #litanalysis, Uncategorized

Turning Reactions into Analysis

Stuck at Home? Day 3

I just learned that my plans for the next few weeks will NOT be what I had imagined. You probably did as well. It’s daunting when time with kids out of schools, possibly with a spouse working at home, stretches out without definition. I’m usually relaxed on breaks, but I want more structure this time. I’d like my kiddos to return to class with brain cells that still fire, you know?

What does that have to do with Steve Smith and “Not Waving But Drowning”? If you read the prior two posts on this blog, you know I offered suggestions for home study. I hope you’ve tried a few, but I know the temptation to stop because you’re not sure you’re doing it “right.”

I’ve returned to this poem again and again over the years to show that you can read, analyze, and appreciate poetry without “expertise” or “permission.” I love how accessible it is–no intimidating structure or vocabulary–and that it makes moving from observations to meaningful analysis so seamless.

Let’s try it here, with the first line of “Not Waving”:

“Nobody heard him, the dead man”

Sit with that line for a bit. It’s strange, yes? At a very basic level, we’ve got a silent dead man. That’s normal, right? So why is Smith explicitly stating that “nobody heard him”?

Continuing in the stanza, the “dead man” “moan[s]” and then delivers two lines of dialogue (lines 3-4). Wow, that corpse is a chatterbox!

With just that very basic observation, you’ve unlocked wide doors into analyzing this poem–all by yourself. It only takes a measure of confidence and self-discipline to lean into your basic reactions and consider them from every angle:

  • Is this guy dead or not? If so, why is he talking? If not, why is he called a “dead” man?
  • Why is he “moaning,” and what does that indicate about his emotions?
  • Why can’t anyone hear him? Are they deaf, or not listening? Are they ignoring him? Why aren’t the bystanders trying to revive him?

Guess what?! These are pivotal questions with many possible answers–95 percent of which are worth exploring. We need only look for explanations within the poem and its world. For instance, when I try to understand why “they” are not reviving the dead man, I find that the bystanders are instead talking to each other (lines 5-7), sharing their theories about the incident.

They are more interested in gossiping than helping, and that leads me to the simple thematic statement, “People can be callously indifferent to helping others, preferring talk to action even in an emergency.”

Analysis just happened! Not accompanied by a magic ***POOF!***, music swelling in the background, or a chorus of angels singing. We didn’t even break a sweat.

I learned about jumping in and trusting my own intuition in a French class. As a grad student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I had to take a(nother) foreign language. I wound up in French for Reading, which I can sum up for you in a few words: use what you know about any language and guess. You’ll probably be right.

I picked up a bit of French (nothing I can say, LOL), but mostly I walked away with permission to call on my GUT POWER.

Now I’m passing along that permission to you. May it free you and take you to places you never dreamed possible!

My decades-old “French for Reading” textbook, which taught me
about GUT POWER.
Posted in grammar, Uncategorized

Stuck at Home? Day 2

So, You’d Rather Work on Grammar?

Yesterday I offered some ideas for reading “classic” American playwrights online while holed up in your house. Germ-free lit, if you will.

Did you give it a go? Why do you think Miller named his protagonist “Willy Loman”?

“More!” you might be saying. “More! Please send more language fun!”

Don’t panic! Today we’re brushing up on grammar.

I’m not obsessed with grammar. I’m not mentally correcting people who talk or email me. Except when they misuse reflexive pronouns on national TV. But that’s a whole different blog post, in which I reveal my language directives for my children in case I die before they reach legal grammar age . . .

It’s worth noting, however, that many adults and teens who learn that I tutor tell me that they want to write better. They wish they’d learned more in school about the rules of effective communication.

Yes, it does really help to know your grammar. Schools that shy away from it are making a mistake.

Bear with me here. I know you’re saying, “But grammar is so boring! So dry! So pointless!”

Guess what? People say that all the time about math, and no one’s suggesting we give up on that.

And, for those who like math but develop migraines thinking about commas, I’ve got news that’s going to rock your world: grammar is run according to rules and formulas–wait for it–much like math is.

You can practice on sentences (math=homework problems) repeatedly and improve. I suggest the following progression, which will help you fix common sentence-level problems:

  1. Phrases vs. clauses
  2. Independent vs. dependent clauses
  3. Simple sentences
  4. Compound sentences
  5. Complex sentences
  6. Compound-complex sentences

Make sure to complete written exercises to reinforce every concept (yes, writing it out is better).

Sources for FREE online grammar info and exercises:

What’re you waiting for? I’ll be sitting right here, waiting for you to come back and correct my grammar!

(Or, if you want help to prep for related sections of the ACT/SAT, book below.)

Posted in Literature, Uncategorized

Stuck at Home?

Turning Down Time Into Brain Gain

I rely on Libby, an e-lending app from my public library (icon pictured here). Other such apps include Overdrive and Hoopla. Do you use something else?

Let’s say your local schools are closed. Could be the coronavirus, could be a snow day–here in Texas we get hurricane cancellations. When that closure drags past a day or two, parents often become concerned about learning time slipping away. How can you make these hours count?

I suggest reading the classics (you knew I would, right?). You and your teen can stick your toes in the water quite easily. You can even take on a selection together. It’s always more fun to trade ideas about your reading.

Begin by consulting online reading lists for the SAT/ACT (here’s two:, Note: many lists say that they are “College Board recommended,” but I see no direct evidence of that.

Use the list as a menu and choose a play. I’m going with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman because I know I can borrow it through my elibrary. And BONUS! I can also watch the movie version for free on Amazon Prime.

Dustin Hoffman stars as Willy Loman in the 1985 movie version of Death of a Salesman.

Read for 10-15 minutes about the American dream (click here for the Wikipedia entry, which is perfectly adequate).

And then jump in! Divide your daily reading into acts. You can even proceed by scenes if acts feel too overwhelming. As you read, take breaks and compare to the movie version. Ask yourself:

  1. What do I understand better from watching the movie?
  2. What does the movie change from the written play? Why might those changes be made? What effects do they have?
  3. What are the main conflicts I see developing?

If you start with Arthur Miller, you can move on to his contemporaries, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, both of whom take on similar themes in their plays. You’ll be taking a huge stride on the trail through American plays, which are often short and use accessible vocabulary while still stretching literary analysis skills. (Parents, these playwrights take on serious adult themes of violence, sexuality, etc., so you may want to research them.)

If you or your high schooler want to discuss your reading, start a reading group, with each other or friends. You can also comment below. If popular demand indicates, I’ll create a private discussion board for Death of a Salesman and/or other plays.

Happy stay-at-home time!

And come back tomorrow for more ideas for self-study . . .

Posted in Uncategorized

Hey, Juniors, In-school SAT on Wednesday?

All current juniors in our school district will have the chance to take an in-school SAT this Wednesday. This is a great way to put your toe in the College Board waters and get a benchmark score.

You may have been preparing with a formal class or studying on your own. Excellent idea! It’s late in the game to cram all the grammar rules in, that’s for sure. I recommend, though, that you take the time to review your punctuation rules, especially for the comma, semicolon, colon, and dash. By becoming a pro on just these four, you can significantly increase your score on the Writing and Language Test.

For today, let’s go over a few simple but pivotal comma rules.

  1. If a sentence starts with a Long Introductory Thingie (we’ll call it a “LIT”), follow it with a comma.
    • Example: When you dress for a standardized test, put on layers of comfortable clothing.
    • Explanation: You need to separate the introductory element from the main part of the sentence with a comma for clarity. That element can be a clause or phrase, which is why I like to just call it a “thingie.” If you prefer, you can call it an “element,” which makes your acronym LIE.
  2. Use COMMA+COORDINATING CONJUNCTION to join two or more independent clauses.
    • Example: Juan usually wears a hoodie to the test, but Marcella thinks sweatshirts are too hot.
    • Know your coordinating conjunctions backwards, forwards, and inside out: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So (FANBOYS).
  3. Enclose extra (nonrestrictive) information or language within commas.
    • Example: Alex keeps his lucky hat, a bright yellow Pikachu that his mom knit for him six years ago, in his backpack during all important tests.
    • Explanation: The information within the comma pair is nice, but we don’t absolutely need it. Accordingly, we set it off with commas. On both the left and right sides–not, say, a comma on the left and a dash on the right (i.e., “Alex keeps his lucky hat, a bright yellow Pikachu that his mom knit for him six years agoin his backpack during all important tests”). The SAT often sets up this trap. Don’t fall in!
  4. Use a comma between coordinate adjectives.
    • Example: Paula’s slobbering, hyper dachshund cannot sit with her during the exam even though she calls it a support animal.
    • Explanation: Coordinate adjectives can also be reversed in order AND separated by AND. Try these tests to identify coordinate adjectives: flip them in order or remove the comma, substituting AND. If everything still makes sense, you do, in fact, have coordinating adjectives that require a comma between them.
      • We can say, “hyper, slobbering dachshund” as well as “slobbering and hyper dachshund,” so a comma between the two adjectives is correct.
  5. Yes, use the Oxford comma! In a list of three or more items, place a comma after each item, including the penultimate (next to last). The final comma is the Oxford comma, which Americans ironically (given the name) love more than their British counterparts.
    • Example: Forbidden activities during the SAT include texting, singing, talking, cheating, and talking on the phone.
    • Count 4 commas in the sentence above; the last one is your Oxford comma. Now you can amaze your friends and neighbors by referring to the Oxford comma and the penultimate item in a list. You’re welcome! 😉
Yes, commas can be scary. But if you spend time and get to know them, they will become your best friends.

For more practice on the Writing and Language Test, click here.

I’d be happy to help you with the comma and other essential punctuation, either online or in-person. What you learn will help you in all your writing tasks, each day. Hope to see you soon.

Posted in Uncategorized

“Keeping Up with the Joneses”

Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton, who wrote about the Gilded Age in New York City. She herself was a socialite and raised to the highest social standards (though she didn’t conform, especially in her decision to write).

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been tutoring Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. What a pleasure!

If you haven’t tried Wharton (1862-1937), you have a wonderful discovery in wait. You can even dip your toe in the waters through film: both her Age of Innocence and House of Mirth have been made into sumptuous movies attached to names like Martin Scorsese, Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Gillian Anderson, and Wynona Ryder.  

As I prepared for my sessions, I ran across a fascinating bit of trivia regarding Wharton’s prominent New York family.

First, her maiden name was Jones.

Second, the Joneses were extremely wealthy and moving in the elite social circles (e.g., the Astors). In the 1800s, it became the fashion to buy land in the Hudson Valley for large, expensive summer homes. We would call them mansions, and socialites used them as summer escapes from New York City. You know, just a little river house.

In 1853, Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones, Wharton’s aunt, built a “weekend getaway” of 24 rooms called Wyndecliffe. Wyndecliffe’s size and splendor set off a chain of competitive construction in the area—everyone trying to “keep up with the Joneses.”

Here is Wyndecliffe AFTER it fell into ruin in the mid-1900s, so you can imagine what it looked like in its prime.

GENERAL VIEW OF NORTH REAR WITH SOUTHEAST TOWER-BAY ON LEFT - Wyndclyffe, Mill Road, Rhinebeck, Dutchess County, NY HABS NY,14-RHINB.V,2-9
A scene from Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993). Imagine
the conspicuous consumption going on with this group!

Wharton, a product of this rarefied environment, presents all its warts in her work. She is sarcastic, humorous, critical, fond, and attuned to details. And though at times in the same vein as Henry James, I find her 95% less annoying.

The Age of Innocence won her the first Pulitzer Prize for Literature awarded to a woman, so if you’re into women writers, definitely check her out.

Beware! You might find, like me,
that you appreciate and under-
stand so much more of what you read on the better side of
age 40.


Posted in Uncategorized

Grammar in the Real World

Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh

File under the category of “English in the Real World”: I got an email on Saturday from a friend who was at work. Is “fisher” a noun or verb? she wondered.

It makes a difference to me, she said.

She is a pastor and was writing her Sunday sermon. Words matter for pastors, don’t they?

Pastor Pal was asking about two different translations of Matthew 4:19, which was rendered:

  1. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” AND
  2. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
  3. She also had the original Greek to consider.

What’s the difference here? As Pastor Pal correctly noted, #2 above with the noun “fishers” has Jesus promising that he will change his followers from one thing (fishers of fish) into another (fishers of people). The Greek concurred.

In #1, Jesus says he will change his followers’ activity–from literal fishing to fishing for people.

Grammar IS meaning here. We have to choose between Jesus changing what we DO or what we ARE.

My favorite kind of question to get from a friend! I’m happy to reply any time!

To learn about the infinitive phrase that appears in #1,” see Grammar Monster. This website looks like a great free resource for exactly this type of question.