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I graduated from the University of Southern California, taught English at Beverly Hills High School and have more than a million words in print as a ghostwriter or book doctor and corporate wordsmith. I see education as the widest door to both career options and personal fulfillment, and teaching as a responsibility and joy.
English is the broadest subject I tutor, being built, as it is, with stones from the other subjects listed on my slate—grammar, vocabulary, writing, proofreading and literature.
These subjects used to be assembled under the umbrella term Language Arts. I always squirmed at this catchall name. It felt like a bit of hype selling to middle- and high-school students. Don't get me wrong. I’m a big fan of the arts, but language is too starkly important (for good grades, for self-confidence, for career options, for an interesting life) to skip past Skills directly to Arts.
At least in my experience (at a high school rated in the top 10 in the country), few students entered the classroom ready to produce art. We spent the hours working on the basics— grammar, vocabulary, writing, proofreading and literature. Even the purpose of assigned essays, stories and novels skewed toward reading comprehension and studying good writing rather than toward the cultural value of these works of art.
The skill set we worked toward was short and sweet—being able to:
read (and research and question);
understand what you read; and
write what you need or want to communicate.
I wanted every student to have solid control of at least these skills.
Students who willingly exercised their craftsman-level skills could do well in college. A smaller number of students—those who possessed an innately creative mind and the persistence to keep honing their skills—might take themselves beyond craft to artistry. Only these students had a high likelihood of producing language Art. Yet I was thrilled: all my students had the choice of going on to college, and into varied careers, using English flexibly as an everyday, yet essential, skill.
So, yes, English is a broad subject. But it is easily divided into sections that we can look at; and that you can experiment and play with, learn, and put to good use, at your command.
A few years ago, I was gratified to learn from one of the industry’s undisputed mavens that my long-held instincts about how I teach grammar had been proven effective.
From day one in a high school classroom, my gut told me that:
- trying to teach grammar divorced from writing wastes time;
- students don’t need to be able to recite technical grammar terms in order to align words in a way that expresses what they intend to say;
- reading good writing (at the appropriate development level) is a friendly and efficient way to inspire reluctant writers;
- students learn more from editing sessions than from disregarding the corrections marked on their papers;
- both teacher and student must be prepared for new and more sophisticated errors to spring up as writing skill advances;
- in this sense, too, writing is cursive, not linear.
Fortunately, I was working in a school district that prized results above conformity. I met little resistance from my department head so long as the unconventional embedding of the study of grammar into the teaching of reading comprehension and writing didn’t blunt how well the students tested or how easily they moved along to college.
Then, Constance Weaver’s Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing (Heinemann, 2008) arrived. Weaver (Professor Emerita of English at Western Michigan University) has been writing books about grammar for teachers for thirty years. I whooped when I read findings that synced with the approach I always found effective.
Good writing means flexible, effective, self-chosen expression. Grammar is required: but the doing of it is the important aspect, not its terminology.
Literature denotes the written words of humanity assembled, sorted and considered. It includes technical or scientific works, but mainly we think of literature as creative works that illuminate the people, events and traditions that roil through time to form a culture—novels, of course, but also memoirs, drama, poetry and even narrative nonfiction.
By reading literature, we vicariously experience new worlds of people and events (many of which we would never want to actually encounter). We examine layers of humanness through the eyes of others. As Ernest Hemingway said, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they really happened and after you are finished reading one you feel that it all happened to you and after which it all belongs to you.”
In school, we decode these stories using the prism of literary theory, studying them through one or several of its facets—historical, sociological, psychological, mythological, and others. Whichever facet we use to analyze a particular work, a good book must stand on its own as well written, interesting and resonant. As Ezra Pound said, “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”
When a book “speaks” to us—if the story and characters’ dilemmas affect us intellectually and emotionally—the time spent reading passes effortlessly into the mind. We feel a resonance, a sense that some of the book’s dilemmas and outcomes echo in us. As Salman Rushdie said, “Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart.”
It’s a cliché (because it’s true) that a “classic” is a book everyone says they’ve read, but haven’t. Others, having studied the book through the prism of literary theory, establish the book as representative of its zeitgeist. It becomes a sort of shorthand to understand a particular time in history. Think Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy, many others.
A classic worthy of devotion must still touch us. It must illuminate themes (love, hate, life, death, wars within ourselves and among others) that readers from many backgrounds and levels of experience will fetch into their hearts. As Anatole France said, “The duty of literature is to note what counts, and to light up what is suited to the light…to choose and to love….”
My reading choices centered, first, on completing a major in English with good grades from a fine university. I peered at hundreds of books through the prism of literary theory. I enjoyed most; drudged through some. I learned to appreciate most classics for more than their sheer feat of withstanding the passage of time. More importantly, I learned how to evaluate theme, story structure and character development. I learned how to read like a writer—the first and always most important tool for a writer. As Stephen King echoes hundreds of other writers when he says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
So, come learn to read with me (especially if you also want or need to become a better writer). We’ll study literature as a flexible and modern tool, a prism for learning about living. For, as Cyril Connolly said, “While thought exists, words are alive and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into, living.”
Proofreading is primarily a hunt for errors. It requires a comprehensive knowledge of grammar and spelling, a keen eye and the patience to be diligent. Be aware, too, that various style guides differ among themselves on certain issues, and that writers who rely on Microsoft Word’s spelling, grammar and style checker (or a similar program) tend to leave certain easily corrected errors.
Proofing used to involve a copyeditor or proofreader noting mistakes by making odd-looking marks on the page. Today, even great writers still need proofing, but colorful tracked changes on a computer screen have replaced squiggles on a page.
Going digital has not lessened the importance of knowledge and patience. You are on the hunt—for fragments, run-on sentences, comma splices, subject-verb agreement, pronoun-reference agreement, faulty parallel construction, confused homonyms, misused apostrophes, spelling errors and any of the other grammatical niceties covered by whichever style guide controls decisions for the particular document (Chicago, MLA, APA, the AP or some other).
This need not be daunting. There are steps to take, a proven process to follow. I can help.
Speakers of Old English referred to the words they knew as their wordhord. In Old English poetry, “He unlocked his wordhord” meant “He spoke.” From hord we get today’s word hoard—a treasure, valuable stock or store. Today, a person’s wordhord is his vocabulary—a collection of words he understands and uses in listening, reading or writing. Your vocabulary is the treasury from which to withdraw resources to empower persuasion or simply communicate needs. An abundant and flexible vocabulary adds power to communication, whether for school assignments, business communications or simple self-expression.
Most American have at least thirty percent more words in their passive vocabulary (the words they understand in reading) than they use in their active vocabulary (the words they actually use when speaking or writing). Whittling the chance for nuance further, most people (even writers) use fewer words from their passive vocabulary when speaking than they do when writing.
Language is everything and everywhere among humans. It’s what lets us have anything to do with one another; and it’s what separates us from the animals. Little geniuses in childhood, we learn hundreds of new words every year. By the age of six, most children have active vocabularies of several thousand words (against a total lexicon in English of at least half a million words). By age 11 or 12, equipped with a survival vocabulary, most children lose their early natural curiosity and the rate at which they pick up new words begins to decline significantly. As adults, if we don’t make deliberate efforts to increase our vocabularies, we’re lucky to pick up even 50 or 60 new words a year.
I take a practical approach to teaching vocabulary. For students with grades at risk, we start with the basics—synonyms, antonyms, commonly confused words—and move to how words work within the rules of grammar to build strong sentences. For business people, we start with the same issues of grammar (if needed) and move into matching tone to task. For writers, we usually can start right in with sentence craft and nuance.
Do you want to write essays that will have teachers smiling instead of furrowing their brows?
Does your job require crisp e-mails that get a response, plus comprehensive reports, effective letters and maybe the occasional speech?
Do you have stories awaiting words and structure?
I have more experienced as a writer than any other form of work—more than a million words in print as a ghostwriter or book doctor, plus copy writing and all the major types of corporate wordsmithing.
One-to-one tutoring means we can start wherever you are now (from “I don’t write anything unless I have to” to “I like writing and want to get really good, maybe even publish”) and head straight toward your personal goal.
An outstanding teacher — Patricia has been working with my middle schooler for about 2 years and we could not be more pleased. Like many students, my daughter has a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Patricia crafts individualized lessons to extend her skills in areas where she excels and shore up areas where she is lacking. My daughter respects her and enjoys her company immensely and has even requested that they meet du ...
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