All posts by Ray Lira

“smashing scorpions” is not a rock band

I always remind my writing students that they should choose interesting topics based on their own life and experiences. I try to give them examples from my own life that I think might engage them. So when we begin discussing how to write a “process” paragraph, I tell them about how to catch a scorpion.

Let me explain… During the summer, my wife and I regularly find scorpions that wander into our house. I say wander because I know that they’re not doing it maliciously (even if they do have menacing pincers, a poisonous stinger, and armor that always makes me feel that I’m face to face with a creature from one of the Alien movies). They just happen to wander through a crack while looking for water, a cool environment, or a bug to eat. But most of my life, without giving it a second thought, I would smash any six- or eight-legged creatures that wandered into our house.

Then one day, I questioned myself: Why was I automatically defaulting to smash-bug- scrape-remains-off-the-floor mode? I realized that, 99% of the time, I didn’t really have to kill them. So I decided to devise a catch-and-release method. The next time I saw a scorpion in the house, I got a clear plastic cup and covered it, slid a heavy sheet of paper underneath, then flipped it right side up, allowing the confused creature to fall into the cup. I then took it outside and tossed it over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. Just kidding – I tossed it in the farthest corner of our backyard where it could hide in the bushes or under a rock.

So last semester, when I introduced my students to the process paragraph, I began by discussing my scorpion-catching method. To make it engaging, I brought in a real scorpion to class. Just kidding again – I brought a rubber scorpion, a plastic cup, and a heavy piece of paper and then demonstrated the steps of how to do it. I then asked for a couple of volunteers to try it. They were a bit uneasy (a fake rubber scorpion can be almost as scary as a real one) Then, as a class, we worked together to craft an example of a process paragraph outlining the steps.

Not a real scorpion.

For more than a year now, I can proudly say that I have no scorpion blood on my hands. When I told a friend about all this, he commented, “That’s very Buddhist of you.” Yes it is, although I’m not a Buddhist. I’ve just become more conscious of how we treat the creatures among us.

But before you begin complimenting my humane treatment of arachnids and other critters too much, I must also let you know that when it comes to flies, it’s a totally different story. I catch them and pull their wings off, then watch them hop around trying to get airborne. Once again, just… you know.


what is your happy face?

I usually have my students take a quick brain break midway through class to help take their minds off of thinking too much and sitting waaaay too much.

One favorite activity begins with me asking what a basic happy face looks like. Simple: A circle, two dots and a curve.

Then I have them go to the board and draw their own version of a happy face…






Keep an eye out… you just may see some of these students walking around campus – You’ll recognize them by their smiles…!


Look! It’s a Bird… It’s a plane… it’s an observation!

During their college years, students must – like it or not – become writers. They must begin to see like a writer, listen like a writer, feel like a writer, even smell like a writer. Uh… yeah…


And the first step to becoming a good (albeit temporary) writer…

Learn to observe.

I have my students complete weekly observing activities to get them accustomed to actively gather ideas for their writing. Every week, they must go out and make observations on a range of areas: the GCC campus, human behavior, food, animals, money, clothing, their major, and art, to name just a few.

I also share my own weekly examples; here are some observations I’ve made recently:

Smaller birds will attack hawks to keep them out of their area.

Just a few years ago, poke was virtually nonexistent in the Phoenix area – now poke restaurants are becoming ubiquitous.

Some panhandlers have come up with creative signs; I saw one that said, “I’m down to my last million – help me please!”

My students have discovered some “gems in the rough” of their own. For example:

Parents are more lenient than before.

When people have to present a project, they usually have something that they do. Like some people twirl their hair and others tug on their shirt.

Children usually act more hyper than adults but also are more honest than adults.

Some gems are rougher than others, but at least they’ve begun to hone their observing skills. And as students progress through college, they’ll continue to develop what Robert Ingersoll called the “Holy Trinity of Science”:  Reason, Observation, and Experience.

Then, the sky’s the limit. Look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane…!


Money Brings Happiness in the Classroom!

At the beginning of my ESL classes, I often hand out strips of paper with a single warm-up question that can be answered relatively quickly (I haven’t timed them, but I think the average is 10 seconds). This gives students an incentive to arrive on time to get a few points and partake in an interesting warm-up discussion. Some examples: What do you often dream about? What is your greatest fear? If you changed your name, what would it be? Recently,  I gave them this question:

How much money do you need to be happy?

They quickly began to pencil in their answers; as each student finished, I collected their strips of paper. One student was taking longer than the usual 10 seconds. We joked that he must be writing quite a lot of zeros! He turned his in and we discussed the amounts everyone had written. The lowest was “$20” – the highest was a tie between “too much” and “whatever Jeff Bezos has.”

Then I asked them, “Do you know of a word in English to describe an amount so large that it can’t even be counted..?” Being ESL students, they were stumped, so I explained that they can use the term “a zillion.” I then passed out zillion dollar bills. They beamed and were amazed because they look and feel like real money. One student said, “Wow! Now I can quit my job!” Another said, “I’m going to buy a house – and I’ll be getting some change back!” One asked “How many zeros are in a zillion?”

I asked them, “So, now do you feel happier?”  

The answer was a resounding “Yes!”

For a few minutes, these students smiled and laughed together, helping to build connections and community in the classroom, something that just may bring more happiness than a zillion dollars.


Inspiration from the Girl Who Married a Ghost

Last weekend I was spending an inordinate amount of time wandering aimlessly (on purpose) around a bookstore, when several titles got my attention (or “caught my eye,” if you’re into painful clichés). I thumbed through them and decided I wasn’t interested in reading them, especially since the “To Be Read” section on my bookcase is much bigger (almost the entire bookcase) than my “Have Already Read” section (one shelf).

But one title in particular stood out: The Girl Who Married a Ghost. I thought about how many of my students often settle for essay titles like “Comparison-Contrast Essay” or “Definition Essay” or even just “Essay.” I realized that this title might come in handy as an example that attracts the reader’s attention. Browsing around, I found more titles that jumped out at me. And since I’m always looking for inspiration for classroom ideas, I typed them into the “Teaching Notes” on my phone:

The Girl Who Married a Ghost

The Baby on the Car Roof

Sleepwalk With Me

A Burglar’s Guide to the City

Monkeys with Typewriters

I’m looking forward to bringing the girl who married a ghost into my classes. Am I referring to the title of the book or an actual girl who married a ghost…? With a little time and effort, maybe both….