Saturday, April 25, 2015

"Listen or thy tongue will keep thee deaf."  ~  American Indian proverb

"O.K. guys, take out your English books and turn to page 216." (Groans all around…)

"What page, again, Mrs. W?"

"Page 216.  You know, the part about how to punctuate dialogue…" 

More groans, and louder ones.  And the loudest ones of all were coming from ME! I'd given the same directions 5 times that day already. 

Blast it, I thought. Now I need to give my students another test to see if they understand how to use quotation marks correctly, and that means reading 220 papers consisting of identical boring, boring sentences like: "Hello, Jane," said Tony. "Hello, Tony. How are you today?" "I'm just fine, Jane." You know the kind of sentences that live only in the standard English textbooks…  Who wrote these English textbooks anyway? Robots who never actually heard REAL LIVE PEOPLE TALK? I wondered.  Sheesh!  

But it was part of my job, and I did love teaching these kids. But these textbook sentences were soooo lame.

Well, there's a time to talk, and there's a time to not. 

"OK, class! Close those books, right NOW!"


"Girls, leave your purses under your desks! ALL of you, grab your notebooks and your pens and follow me!"

"What's wrong, Mrs. W? Where're we going?" 

"Grab your pens and notebooks, and line up at the door. We're going on "location!"


"Yeah, location! I told you that I used to live in Culver City where they used to make movies. Well, there's only so much of a movie that they can shoot on a sound stage. For the best outdoor scenes they send the crew and the actors out to the real world, and they shoot scenes there. We're going out to the REAL WORLD to hear REAL dialogue!"

"We are?"

"Yup! Now, listen to me… We are going to spy on real people saying real things, so you MUST be sneaky quiet. We are going to sneak up to a classroom with open doors, making sure that neither the teacher or the class realizes we are there. You must write down every single word you hear and identify whether it's a teacher or a student talking, and whether it's a girl or a guy. Is that clear?"

"Really? You mean REAL people talking?" asked one of the guys.

"Exactly! Now, if you hear a student whispering to someone, that counts in your dialogue, OK? Write down every single thing you hear, and when we get back to our room, you can divide up the dialogue into paragraphs, and you can put in the correct punctuation, especially quotation marks, when we get back. Oh, and you MUST be sneaky! We want to get the real way that REAL people really speak. Got it?"

I'd like to say that I thought up this way of teaching dialogue paragraphing and punctuation all by myself, but I didn't! I'd been reading a terrific book by a famous mystery writer who actually lived about 20 miles south of Anaheim, California. He'd also written an article about writing dialogue that intrigued me. He said that he would go to a MacDonald's close to a high school, buy a Coke, and settle himself into a booth just before school was out. MacDonald's would be filled with chattering high school students about 10 minutes after he'd arrived. Perfect! He would take out a notepad and copy all the conversations around him for the next hour. He said that it was the best way in the world to capture the current "buzz-words," the incomplete sentences, and the true music of live human dialogue.

Well, we could do it, too, minus MacDonald's. 

"Mrs. Waldron, do you think that writer's ever been at OUR MacDonald's across the street after OUR school was out?" asked one of the girls. 

"Well, if he was, raise your hand if YOU've ever gone to MacDonald's after school," I asked. Several, no, ALL of the hands went up. "Well, YOU might have made it into one of his books!" I told the class. A teacher uses every trick she can figure out to get her students to read, you see.

That evening I settled in to read as many of their "secret conversations" papers as I could, and they were GREAT! So true to the rhythm of the language, so true to the words that real people use when they converse. Wow! Great assignment, Terry Waldron! You ROCK, lady! I thought to myself.


And then I read the rest of the sentence, "…UNTIL YOU ARE QUIET!" yelled Mrs. Waldron…



  1. I just was told by a friend that she couldn't publish her comment here, and I'm just trying out this comment column to see if it works… Hmmmmm….

  2. It DOES work! Go ahead, if you feel like putting your two cents in about what I wrote… It's fun!