30 December 2006
Now back to original programming:
There is a crude tradition among male golfers that when one of them fails to get his tee shot past the lady's tee box, he is always asked by his partners to pull down his pants in order to verify that he still qualifies as a man. I hardly ever golf these days, but having played a decent amount over the years, I can gladly say I never saw anyone actually oblige this request. Unrelated factoid: though I was not an eyewitness, I am aware of an acquaintance once pulling down his shorts and wiggling his wang at his (no doubt alarmed) television, all due to the poor play of his favorite football team in a big game. How's that for a digression?
In any case, I have felt like the guy with the short tee-shot during this festive season, with my own imaginative golf partners hectoring me for a lack of manliness. Why? Well, here are the highlights:
1. Last Thursday morning, I went to the mall in search of a certain diamond anniversary band (ahem - major brownie points) for my wife's surprise Christmas gift. While surreptitiously eye-balling jewelry store brochures without actually entering the stores, I walked by a middle-of-the-mall kiosk, and was accosted, in a friendly way, by a man of Middle Eastern descent. "Sir, do you have one minute?" he asked, and because I have an aversion to rudeness, even when it is not rude, I consented. The next thing I know, this guy is holding my hand in his, and is buffing one of my fingernails with some kind of nail-kit rubbing stuff. It was all I could do to not pull my hand away immediately, put a bag over my head, and leave the mall while gnashing my teeth. But I persevered, told the man I would consider the stuff for my wife, and walked on in shame.
2. Later, inside an actual free-standing jewelry store that got my business, I consented to being served a vanilla espresso while my credit report was being run. Fortunately, credit ratings don't rely on manliness points.
3. That afternoon, at another mall, I entered Victoria's Secret only to buy my wife some new undergarments. No g-strings, no lingerie, nothing to turn my face red, I swear (or else I wouldn't be telling you about it, now would I?). But, the girl at the counter did talk me into applying for a Victoria's Secret card, which I figured might be handy in the future (for the wife, of course). Unfortunately, while they were running my credit, the machine at my register went down, and I had to stand in line for at least 10 minutes while all around me women and teenage girls brought bras, panties, and who knows what else to the counter. Discomfort ensued. I could have just bided my time by staring at the softcore pinup advertisements on the walls (actually I did for at least, oh, three of those minutes), but too much of that would have made me seem a perv or a lecher, I decided. For those other seven minutes, there was simply no place to hide! Help!!
4. Moments later, while walking down the center of this mall, a young woman of Middle Eastern descent stops me and asks for "five seconds." So lost was I in the haze of paying for a diamond ring and being held captive (darn the luck) in Victoria's Secret, I don't think I even regained my mental faculties until I already found that my thumb was in this woman's hand and was getting the same damn polishing treatment that my other finger got earlier that morning at a separate location. "I CAN"T BELIEVE THIS!" I seem to recall thinking, and yet, as if paralyzed by kryptonite, I couldn't stop it. To make matters worse, I bought the kit this time after the lady haggled down the price.
5. Christmas morning I made an apple compote to accompany our breakfast casserole. Darn good, too. Got the recipe from watching Emeril on the... er... Food Network.
6. Later on Christmas morning I opened a package containing two Italian cookbooks which I... er... asked for for Christmas. (Hey, Clemenza in The Godfather cooked sauce for fifty men, remember).
So there you have it. I'm not even going to pretend to defend myself. You'll know I've really gone over the edge, metrosexually speaking, if I ever report going to a stylist instead of a barber.
22 December 2006
There were a few fireworks at the schoolhouse just before break, and sad to say they fit a familiar pattern.
My bratty but bright second period reports almost en masse to our math department chair, two doors down, for third period Algebra II. Now, I need to point out that this lady was my school-selected mentor for my first three years in the biz, and is as sweet and kind a person as I could have asked for to help me along. Perhaps because I am her son's age, she even bought me birthday presents while I was her mentee.
She fits a certain Southern "type" that is probably familiar to some of you. Prim and proper, a former pageant girl whose daughter followed in her footsteps (pageant-wise and teacher-wise), married to a well-known gent of the community, and a pillar of the community herself, she is outwardly the very essence of the Southern lady. But not far beneath the surface, there are obviously conflicted feelings, disappointments, and even bitterness that can be detected. I do not know the source of these in full, but I can tell you that (in my opinion) her three children, all above the age of thirty, are spoiled and take great advantage of her, but she mostly reacts to them with the occasional passive/aggressive comment, rather than just telling them to grow up, grow a pair, and stop PISSING HER OFF!
In my amateur-psychologist opinion, the place she transfers these frustrations to is the classroom. Every year, about half way through each semester, I start to hear bright kids tell me that she can't teach and that she's mean as hell to them. For a couple of years, I passed this off as kids being frustrated with upper level math and finding a scapegoat in place of pinpointing their own laziness. But after a while, I had to admit something wasn't right in her classes, or I wouldn't have kept hearing this repeatedly from even my favority non-whiners. I've refused up until now to even get in a protracted conversation with my students about it, for fear of allowing them to trash another teacher (much less my former-mentor) in my room.
Fast-forward to Monday, when she was out sick, and five of our common spoiled-but-talented girls took the opportunity to converge on Principal Goldberg with their complaints about their bad grades and their teacher's "hateful" comments to them. When they later told me what they had done, I was a little upset with them, because I thought a) going over her head without their parents being present wasn't going to help matters, but worsen them and b) they probably had some malice mixed-in with their motivations. However, after really listening to them, and to an independent (and reliable) outside source, I have come to these conclusions (not solely on my own):
1) My teacher friend simply doesn't have the ability to grasp upper-level mathematical concepts, at least not enough to get them across to anyone.* The kids all say she can only tell them one way to do a problem, and if they seek alternatives they are chastised. She originally was certified for middle-school, and though she got secondary-school licensure later, anything beyond Algebra I is beyond her expertise. My independent source, now a senior, said in order to maintain an "A" she had to take her book home every night and work through the examples from the chapter introductions, then go back and do the work based on what she had taught herself.
2) Because she has department seniority, she does not want to teach any lower level classes.
3) As a result of #1, my teacher friend gets very defensive with her honors classes, because they are challenging her and it obviously threatens her. When kids realize this, even if their original intentions are not ugly, they latch on like evil-little pit bulls; thus, there is an upsetting atmosphere in that classroom most every day.
4) My teacher friend has simply run out of patience, as well. She is near retirement, and unfortunately seems to be leaning to the "The hell with it, I'm almost out of here" mind-set.
I have no idea how this will end up - the class has a state End of Course test, and everyone is worrying about their grades and transcripts. The principal came and sat in on the class Tuesday, but I don't know anything beyond that. What I do know is that it is a shame, a darn shame, all around.
*Note: You will often hear certain teachers, administrators, and (prepare your boos and hisses) Doctors of Education say, in a mildly indignant tone, that "You can know your subject backwards and forwards, but if you can't teach it, you won't be any good as a teacher." At first glance, this may seem like a "no duh" point to make. But make no mistake, this is coded language for the following: only those who have been given the special knowledge that Education Department Gnostic Ministers can impart are really teachers.
In other words, following the academic trends of the last thirty or forty years, content doesn't matter, only form and presentation. As long as you present it in at least thirteen different (excuse me, I mean diverse) ways, it doesn't really matter what you are presenting. This way of thinking, of course, allows certain groups to protect turf and keep a stranglehold on who can enter the profession.
Whenever I hear the old "you might know it but can't teach it without the right methods" canard, I simply want to cry, "CRAP! CRAP! CRAP!" I guarantee you that for every one hundred people who have a complete grasp of any subject, you can only find one or two who are so devoid of social and communication skills that they can't get it across to others who have the prerequisite intelligence in place.
Don't buy it, don't believe it, don't even entertain the idea. The high majority of the time, if someone cannot successfully teach a subject, it is because they don't understand it themselves.
End of seminar.
20 December 2006
Break began today, and I apologize for my absence on the blog. As previously noted, December is a tough period to slog through for a teacher up until that last day, which this year was helpfully an early release. In any case, I have a few tales to tell, and will now have a little more leisure for the purpose. Just give me 'til tomorrow evening, after I take care of some Christmas chores.
By the way, nothing says, "I teach in Central/Eastern North Carolina" quite like the traditional gift the faculty gets from some anonymous do-gooder each semester: A bag containing some sparkling cider, and freshly ground sausage from one of the local hog farms. The sausage tastes great in my wife's Christmas morning breakfast casserole.
Hope ya'll enjoy some good eatin', too, over the next few days.
15 December 2006
Plus, I left my book bag at home with a couple of student papers in it. Oh well.
Things have looked up, though, since my awful, bratty little second perioders gave me a homemade birthday card, containing the following:
"From your fantastic, loving, charming, and EXTREMELY intelligent second period class."
Very sweet. But more importantly, they did not use the word "good", knowing I would have circled it and written "overused, lazy word" beside it. Yes, probably even on my own birthday card.
13 December 2006
Well, you can guess where it goes from here. As a punishment for me flights of fancy, I receive a figurative (perhaps metaphysically motivated) thump on the head reminding me that life is still life, and no one promised me, or anyone else, a Christmassy rose garden, least not in this life. Last year this fateful event occured just before break (still unresolved, btw), and this December a student of mine lost her grandfather, and another girl at school lost her mother.
In the category of more minor problems, I've got 1,068 papers to grade this week, plus tests to grade, plus Christmas planning/erranding, plus going out of town this weekend and rushing back for the preschool pageant, and on, and on...
Oh, and I've stupidly taken it upon myself to organize a mini-Shakespeare production to be put on in the late spring. Good news? I've got like 30 kids interested in doing it. Bad news? I have no idea what the hell I'm doing.
There - thanks for the shoulder. Some time between now and next week, I'm going to listen to our old book-on-tape of Patrick Stewart reading "A Christmas Carol", and should be feeling much better.
10 December 2006
Not so cool from the weekend? Reading papers with clunkers like these:
"Cell phones today are a positive form of technology, towards the world today."
"Well during and emergency they are very safe, even though the teachers at school may think of it as a distraction, they can take away from the learning."
"This affects you education this would not be a problem if students would be more responsiable."
06 December 2006
So we’ve been studying The Divine Comedy this week, but our textbook (natch) only has excerpts from Inferno. Without any Purgatorio or Paradiso, this makes for grim Christmas-time fodder – and I added to the festive mood by copying an additional section of Canto’s 32 and 33 for them, where Count Ugolino forever gnaws on the back of his enemy’s head and recounts the story of cannibalizing his children. Peace on Earth, people, but not in the Inferno.
Anyhow, I’ve tailored a cool poster project for the class (stolen from the internet, of course), through which the kids get to create their own geography of Hell, and include their own nine circles, along with appropriate punishments and potential inhabitants. This, needless to say, requires a good deal of policing, but also contains much amusement. To wit:
“Mr. P., we’re going to put a circle for fags.” (idea rejected by Mr. P.)
“We’ve got a circle for preps. Hey, M_ _ _ _ th, can we use you as an example?” (idea only acceptable to Mr. P. if M _ _ _ _ _th had no problem with it. Since she did, idea rejected by Mr. P.)
“We’re putting Bill Clinton in our Perverts circle. Who was that Monica Lewinsky lady, again? A figure skater?” (other student: “No, dummy. You’re talking about Tara Lipinski.”)
“If we can’t put in homosexuals, can we put in metrosexuals?” (idea approved by Mr. P.)
“Can our ninth circle be for Carolina fans (note: as in Tar Heels, for you non-resident readers) ?” (idea warmly received and approved by Mr. P.)
“Well, we’re going to put in a circle for State fans, and put Mr. P. in as an example.” (idea coldly received, but approved, by Mr. P.)
(While student searches for appropriate poster images on internet) “Hey Mr. P! Come look at this big fat guy!” (you don’t want to know what Mr. P. saw when he foolishly complied)
04 December 2006
Five years ago, when I decided to start teaching, I had six weeks worth of vacation to get by on, and then nothin'. I didn't think finding a position in the heavily populated Wake and Johnston county areas would be hard, but I didn't understand that 1) English teachers are not in huge demand compared to those in other disciplines, and 2) the nicer, richer schools won't go for lateral-entry teachers when already-licensed ones are available. Plus, there is the usual insider-hiring that goes with every profession. So, when my little school offered a job, I determined the driving distance was okay, and jumped at it, needing a salary and all.
It's been a blast, and I've gotten real comfortable there. In fact, short of me violating an ethics code, there's probably little I could do to wear-out my welcome. But there is a slight sacrifice in pay, as well as in convenience, compared to teaching at a couple of high schools that are closer to home. Those schools are three times as large as mine, and one of the true charms of my current situation is that I get to know the kids really well - I see them, almost literally, every day. The biggest drawback, however, is that the majority of the kids I teach simply have no ambition beyond getting a job in their home area and staying there. This is quaint and touching, but it doesn't do much to spark imagination or a healthy competitive streak. Out of 28 kids in my current honors class, I can only think of three or four who, right now, are open to the possibility of attending a major university, or of expanding their horizons (horrible cliche, btw, but I'm short on time) in any substantive way.
Just one county over, the county I live in and that my son goes to school in, things are much different. And so, sometimes, I get that itch.
02 December 2006
My temper is what I'm referring to. Walk around the average high school, and sooner or later you'll find a teacher with eyes bugging out, index finger leveled, and lung capacity tested to its full extent as he just lays into a student or two. Perhaps you've even been on the receiving end of such a tirade (even I was a couple of times, back in the day). In any case, this teacher, on Friday, was me .
Normally I hate to lose it, because I don't like myself very much when I feel out of control, and I have a hard time getting my wits back - not a good thing in the middle of class. But these boys have had it coming for a while, and actually it felt quite cathartic. Plus, it worked. I especially liked dressing down our future varsity quarterback (a good kid, btw) when he tried to backtalk me in the middle of my rant. He never got a complete sentence out. The rest of class was deathly silent after that, and we actually accomplished a few goals for the day. What a concept.
Anyhow, I came home and thumped my chest a few times. The wife was really impressed, as you can imagine.
28 November 2006
Teaching high school writing, or talking about writing for that matter, is a humbling experience. By the time they reach me, the kids I can help the most already know how to form complete sentences that make sense (I know, a novel concept that ninth and tenth graders should, just maybe, already have that in the arsenal). The kids I am the least help with, or perhaps no help with at all, are those who cannot routinely form even middle-school level sentences. Some of them work very hard, and I work as hard as I can with them, but it makes no difference.
I am not an expert in the field, but I suppose much of the latter's lack of facility with language comes from the language of the home and a poverty of reading throughout their young lives. As with much in learning acquisition skills, if language abilities haven't clicked by about third grade or so, the future outlook is probably grim. However I have a little pet theory about another factor.
Kids like to write the things they want to write, like notes to each other. No big surprise there, but the point is they understand that writing can be, indeed is, an important form of communication. What they balk at with school writing assignments, I really believe, is the formality of them. So many of my kids simply have no exposure to the idea of being formal. This doesn't just apply to writing, but to all walks of life. Ingrained in them is a rebellious nature regarding any mention of dressing up, speaking properly, behaving differently in public than in private, etc. Even folks around my age, pretty low down on the food chain of formal generations, grew up understanding that you had to dress presentably for visits to the grandparent's house and, most assuredly, to church. And one certainly understood, that in public and proper situations (as well as on school assignments), language conventions needed to match the dignity of the occasion.
Add this to the pile of uphill battles. Maybe we should force all our kids, from an early age, to watch Cary Grant movies as part of their school curriculae.
26 November 2006
You Make The Call! Which was the most irritating and icomprehensibly idiotic story from over the long holiday weekend?
a) All local and national media outlets apparently, and simultaneously, decide to "officially" confer the hideous moniker of "Black Friday" on the day after Thanksgiving.
b) Some dork actually coined the crass, and ominous, moniker of "Black Friday" in the first place.
c) Michael Richards won't shut up with his incessant mea culpae (is my Latin grammar correct?)
d) Jessie Jackson is handing down opinions about anybody else's misdeeds.
e) Just when it seemed that our long national Seinfeldian nightmare was over, we had to be reminded again of who the hell Michael Richards is in the first place.
f) Jessie Jackson is talking about, well, anything.
g) The media reports that Michael Richards is seeking therapy.
h) Some therapists, apparently, take money from Hollywood types who need to pretend they are extraordinarily sorry for bad behavior (that got noticed).
i) People seem surprised that they end up with bruises and bloody noses after standing in line all night at Best Buy.
O.k. - now, You Make The Call!
22 November 2006
We've actually had a "Nor'easter" hit us in N.C. the last two days, and the rain, wind, and flooding were bad enough that school was called off today at 11:00.
We also bid adieu today to Lizzy, Darcy, and the good-hearted Jane, for whom no one could resent her happiness. And here at the end, with the final Pride and Prejudice test, and the last video of the mini-series, out of the way, I found that for one of my kids there is, perhaps, an even deeper bonding with the novel than I could imagine.
I've mentioned before that I have a delightfully glum little curmudgeon girl in my Honors class who loves to tell me all about who and what has annoyed her that day. When I had these same kids last year, it was easy to see that she was one of the two or three outsiders in the group, but she put on such a brave face about it that I never worried about her much, and I've felt the same this year. She does have friends, and she behaves herself, unlike many kids who are not in the dominant Honors clique. She does, however, miss numerous days, and shows little motivation to make up her work. Flat out, she has told me that she doesn't care about her grade - though when she's in class she does really top-notch work. I don't know much about her family, but they are not wealthy and perhaps a little on the wild side.
Well, yesterday I found out that she has been diagnosed with clinical depression, and went to see a psychiatrist yesterday afternoon. On top of my sympathy for her condition, I felt like an extra heel because she really seemed distressed yesterday while we were taking the test, and left her last essay question a little incomplete, which I urged her not to do a couple of times (turns out she still made an "A"). By last night, my worries about ranged from "Is she suicidal?" to "Is she going to keep coming to school?" to "Do I not talk to her enough because she is quiet and the more popular kids always grab my attention?"
Happily, she was in class today, and seemed to really enjoy the end of the mini-series. I sat by her some of the time we were watching it (hope I wasn't too obvious) and we chatted for a while about the novel afterwards (she finished it well ahead of most of the class). Thinking about it later, I realized that she was the type of kid who might easily be drawn to the plight of the Bennet sisters, particularly Lizzy, who is smarter than her peers but not considered a prize by those of high status.
When I told the kids they needed to turn their novels back in next week, she told me that she really wanted to keep hers, and she might not bring it back. And I was struck with a compulsion I've only had a couple of other times: I thought, "I'm going to buy that girl her own copy of the novel." And so, this weekend I believe, I will.
It will be a tough road for her, I'm afraid, but one day, I hope she'll mirror Jane and ask, "why is not everybody as happy?"
Happy Thanksgiving ya'll!
20 November 2006
Somewhat comical case in point: A girl who was a member of the senior class just transferred, in disgrace, to another school. Now, I never taught her, but the quick background is that she has always been an unparalleled drama queen in constant need of attention. Sometimes this has meant coming off as a mega-slut who can't keep a boyfriend, and sometimes it has meant inventing different ailments that are threatening her health and well-being.
Her latest attempt at attention was of the latter persuasion. About a month ago, she began telling her classmates, during Spirit Week, that she had an enlarged heart, and that if she didn't have a transplant within a year, she would die. She also told them that, on Homecoming Day, the principal was going to call an assembly of the seniors so that she could explain to them what was "going on with me."
Sad to say, there was immediate skepticism among the faculty, and among a sizeable number of students. Part of my skepticism was based on the fact that a couple of days before I had seen her playing in one of those violent powder-puff football games, and that after she got knocked down she had to have two teammates carry her off the field because she had a "knee injury". In any case, the assembly never came about, but some of her friends who fell hook-line-and-sinker for the whole thing threatened to kick the asses of others who expressed doubt, or downright contempt for her claims.
A week later, she was overheard telling a teacher that the "cartilage around my heart is starting to harden." The teacher, a former nurse, apparently withheld the potentially upsetting news that a) the heart has no cartilage around it, and that b) in any case, cartilage is already hard - being cartilage, and all.
And then came the coup de grasse. One of her friends (naturally) ran into her mother somewhere, and mentioned the devastating situation. Her mother informed the friend that her daughter had no such health problem. You can guess the rest: "Annnnd, they're off..."
After her former friends, who had cried many a tear for her, told her where to go, they had to apologize to those whose asses they had threatened with kicks. And our poor protagonist then, officially, became persona non grata. She didn't show up to school for two weeks, and when she did, it was to transfer.
So that should have been the end of it, right? Well, apparently the smart-assier students who saw her that day greeted her only with the following sound: "Beep... Beep... Beep..." And the drama class, of which she was a part, wrote a mock-funeral skit in honor of her departure. The hook? When they drew the curtain for scene two, which was supposed to be the actual funeral, there was only a box on stage, with no mourners in attendance.
As I said, no mercy. Of course, what she did was indefensible, even if she does have "issues." But couldn't the kids find better, and less bitter, ways to express their outrage?
Ah, forget it Quixote. Go back to your classroom.
15 November 2006
I received the call from my mother at school today, during my planning period. It was not a shock, and actually I was much more emotional last week after hearing about Granny’s stroke, and apprehending that it would be her death blow. Some of my students were very sweet about it this afternoon. The hardest part of today – and this can come as no surprise to those of you who have been through this – was to tell my five-year old. He cried and cried, and I realized just how much a child his age can comprehend of death.
If I had to remember Granny in any one particular place and time, this would be it:
I’m ten years old, or so, and we are visiting Granny and Pop over the weekend in Charlotte (something we did maybe once a month, give or take). It’s either June, July, or August, and it’s been hot as fire all day, something that, as a kid, I take only a little notice of. My Dad, brother, and I have been out for a good part of the day, either playing baseball in the backyard, or playing putt-putt. Probably, we’ve watched a good portion of Saturday afternoon baseball with Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola, though my Pop doesn’t particularly care for watching sports. Now it’s evening time, after supper (which consisted of roast beef, creamed potatoes, green beans, lima beans, Pillsbury biscuits, sweet tea, and apple or lemon pie), and a huge thunderstorm is beating down on the world. Granny sits with us at the kitchen table, and plays card games with my brother and me (my favorite was “Memory”). She may be fussing at my Mom, she may be fussing at my Pop – but with us, she chuckles, even when we’ve done something upsetting like spilling tea on her tablecloth. For a moment, in that moment, the world feels nothing but safe, and good, and right. I’ll never forget your chuckle, Granny.
Two Sundays ago, on All Saint’s Day, our church service included a live orchestral performance of John Rutter’s Requiem. It was the second time I have heard this particular music for the requiem mass service live (I highly encourage you to get the CD if you have a taste for such things), and it's so beautiful and haunting (all the more remarkable because it is a modern composition using traditional forms) that it never fails to give me chills. This also turned out to be the day before Granny's stroke. In the middle of the performance, before the final “Lux aeterna”, our minister read the names of church members who had passed on in the last year, and each name was followed by the toll of a bell. My tears were for no one in particular on that day, since I didn't know any of these members personally. But in some sense, even on occasions such as that, tears for the departed are always personal. Let there be a bell toll now, Granny, for you. Requiescat in pace.
13 November 2006
Most importantly, my Granny, who made it to 97 earlier this year, is likely to pass away very soon. She had a stroke last week, and now is not eating, so it may not be but a day or two, God bless her.
I can report that our new English teacher finally started on the job today. She is the teacher who our principal wanted to hire during the summer, but couldn't get approved because of fear that she wouldn't pass the NCLB's "highly qualified" muster. You may recall what all that led to.
Anyway, we are back to square one, and this was our new contestant's first whirl in the classroom; she seemed to be fine, and I liked what I was hearing from her students about what she told them. She's probably about my age when I first started, which (I hope) means her experience with what the rest of the working world is like will help her keep the craziness of a high school in perspective. This may seem counterintuitive - after all, aren't schools the places where, these days, things are tolerated that never would be in the "real world? - but after about three weeks of panic, I found my patience for the trials of teaching was much higher than it was for the trials of boring office work that drained my spirits. Guess it all boils down to whether or not you are doing something you love and enjoy (most of the time) - something the majority of human beings who have walked this earth never have had the opportunity to experience. I try not to forget that.
When I get a better feel for how she's working out, I'll report.
10 November 2006
Still, I believe we need to tackle something more easily accessible to this class, and since our new textbook company has yet to deliver 75% of the free paperback novels we ordered, I began a scavenger hunt to see what we still had on hand that might work (having thrown away most of our old, ratty editions in anticipation of these non-existent new ones). I wanted to do To Kill a Mockingbird , but the best I could come up with that seemed a good match was Of Mice and Men. I'm not a big Steinbeck fan, but of all his work, OMAM always resonated best with me. And, the kids immediately came alive yesterday when we started and got to the cuss words: bastard, son of a bitch, damn, and God damn. What tenth grader wouldn't love it?
If you want a nice clue as to how old these particular editions are, then check out this back-cover blurb:
"Travelling across America in search of who you are - now they do it on cycles, in cars, by bus or in the time-honored tradition of foot and thumb. The wanderers of today may wear their hair long and speak a different jargon, but their trip is one that men (and women) have taken for as long as this country has been pushing at its frontiers."
When I die, I'll have a great many things to answer for. But at least one of them won't be having written that.
07 November 2006
I really like the teacher, but he's pretty loosey-goosey, and gives the kids much leniency in their content. In fact, a couple of his kids apparently have quite a bit of "creative control" over the production - and they are not the ones you would want in that position. So, what we've been treated to is a series of minimal newscasts suffocated by lots of "yo, yo whass'up which ya homies, this here's J.T. which ya info for today" intros, sign throwing, hip-hop background music, bump and grind dancing before and after the "newscast", and a couple of silly skits. To put it shortly and sweetly, and politically incorrectly, the kids on screen were doing their best imitations of the worst clowners you can imagine from hip-hop, rap, or redneck videos.
Now, I feel like a grandma pointing this out, but I was fairly offended by the first showing, and completely offended by the second. An actual grandma colleague came by yesterday, asking me to bring up her objections at the next School Improvement Meeting. I concurred, and since have found out there have been several other objections already voiced.
Here's the thing - I teach, or have taught, some of the boys (it's mostly boys in there) who are doing the clowning, and they are good kids who are capable of succeeding in life. Three of them are black, with no dad at home, and we all know what the percentages say about that. I simply want them, when they are at school, to aim for something higher, and more dignified, than the same stereotypical lowest-common-denominator junk they see on t.v.
The good news is that I brought this up with two of them today, and they agreed. One was actually perturbed because he said the student producers kept telling him to play the hip-hop angle up, even though he preferred not to. The other said he totally understood what my point was, and that the teacher had already decided to clean up that stuff, based on the complaints he had heard.
Dignity no longer rises to the level of the Darcy's or the Bennet's, but at least it still exists as a freakin' concept. By God.
06 November 2006
"O.k. Before we get to the book, I want to talk a little bit about having balls."
No lie. Yes, in a class of 15 and 16 year-olds.
Only about half the class snickered, the rest apparently being as dim-witted as, say, Mr. Collins.
01 November 2006
They are not the pretty people, with two exceptions among the girls, and maybe one among the boys. One of the girls, in the front row, is 16 and pregnant, and already a year behind in school. She gets dehydrated and has to go to the water fountain quite a bit. In one of her papers she wrote (off topic) about how her dad tries to act real nice whenever their relatives from Virginia come to visit. "But he don't fool me," she wrote, and I almost didn't have the heart to mark that up. She's a real sweetheart, as mild-mannered as could be.
One of the other girls lost her father to cancer four years ago (I discovered from reading her latest essay), while another's mom is having eye sight trouble after most of a benign tumor was removed from her brain. She goes with her mom to the hospital to translate for her. A girl who just moved mid-semester from a beach community, and is the nearest to a "prep" as that class contains, apparently was relocated by her grandparents because her parental situation was so bad (this from the guidance counselor). Again, all these girls are real sweeties, though they may have to warm up a bit before you see it.
Among the boys is a repeat offender to tenth-grade English, one who I failed last year because he sat in my room and did absolutely nothing except sleep and joke around. On our final exam he wrote a desperate note about how he knew he screwed up in the class and was hoping for pity. He got none, though I'll admit I thought about it. This year he is a completely different kid, carrying a solid "B" in my class. He's still a little lazy, but wow, what a change.
Oh, first period is a bit silly, and not too interested in my high-falutin' ideas about why literature is important. There are, to be sure, no future scholars among them. On certain days, though, I think about them and all the suffering they've been through, and all that will surely be coming to some of them, and I marvel at them. They are a little downtrodden, but I don't see any quit in any of them at this point. And to me, they are beautiful.
30 October 2006
I happened to hear this from our football coach, who I spoke with for a while on Friday. He's seen it all at our school - he went there, he's coached and taught there on and off for 30 years (winning a state title), he's been the asst. principal there, and he's seen two magnificent daughters graduate from there. Truly, the man is as upstanding as anyone at the school.
Coach provided a couple of us with a little anecdote that shed as much light on the Spirit Week/End of Western Civilization situation, in its own way, as any complex analysis could. Last year, he told us, he and another coach volunteered to show up to school around 6 am on Homecoming Day so they could go ahead and clear away all the homemade signs and other junk the kids were going to leave overnight. The idea, of course, was to 1) clean up trash, and 2) rob the little vandals of the glory of witnessing their works in broad daylight. So the two coaches loaded up their pick-ups and took off for the dump even before the first bell rang.
A couple of weeks later, he said, a parent came up to him before a ball game and told him she was very upset with him. "Why?" he asked. "Because," she replied,"you helped clear all the stuff away that my child helped put up before I could get there to capture it on videotape."
He also pointed out that last Wednesday, only two months removed from a late-night argument that got a student killed, many kids attended two separate late-night bonfire parties that took place on private property. The key is the term private property. In other words, somebody's parents said, "Sure, little Billy. Have your big ole' drunken fire party right here on your own sweet Dad's farm."
I'm sure they added that they didn't want anyone getting hurt or causing trouble. Hope they got it all on videotape, for the grandkids.
28 October 2006
Now for the happy, fuzzy stuff (sorta). While so many of my spoiled 15 and 16 year-old honors students were allowed to stay up until all hours for the duration of last week, our work on Pride and Prejudice continued apace. This was, of course, to the dismay of said spoiled children, especially when I determined - after realizing they did none of their reading last weekend - that from here on we would have a hard quiz at least every other day, on top of the rest of their work. The first quiz, (announced), took place on Tuesday, and yielded up three A's and 23 F's (two were absent). No lie. Thursday brought tne next quiz, which yielded up five A's, and a sprinkling of other grades across the spectrum.
So, who are the few making A's and obviously reading their books? Well, I'll highlight three of them. One was in my class last year, and is extremely intelligent, but comes from a poor, troubled family, and often misses school. She is a lot of fun to teach, but is almost completely anti-social with the rest of the crowd. The other two were not even in my honors class last year, but have stepped it up in a way many of the supposed honors kids haven't. One is a girl who, similarly, comes from a troubled, poorer family, but who does everything I ask without ever complaining, and is my leading candidate for my classroom award at this point. Yes, these two girls are nerdy and not real popular, which is what the glamour kids love to point out to me, as if it diminishes their accomplishments.
And then there is the third kid, another absolute gem. I'll call him Felipe, though that isn't his real name. Felipe was the best kid in my wildest freshman class last year. He is very intelligent, but shy, and I practically had to force him to move up to honors this year. He tore his ACL at the start of football season, and yet hasn't missed one practice or weight training session, helping the team out in any way he can. The football coaches rave about his attitude and character. When I can get him to speak, he speaks perfect English, so I'm assuming he is at least a second generation immigrant. But, he's the only person of hispanic heritage in the entire class. I don't think his family is poor, but they aren't rich, and I imagine he and his older brother will get back and forth to school via mom and dad until graduation.
So, here is a male, a football player, and possibly the first fluent English speaker in his family, and he is kicking ass on a novel about English gentry folk from 200 years ago. Ain't life, and literature, grand sometimes?
25 October 2006
Yes, as expected, the kids have not disappointed. Many of them stayed up until 3-4 a.m. Monday night/Tuesday morning, with the highlight being a girl fight at the famous "Dead End Road" across the street from school. The fight didn't quite go off as planned - a junior girl and a senior girl were supposed to tussle, but before the senior arrived the junior girl got into it with a former best friend, and apparently was pulled off of her after slamming her head into the pavement a few times. In the aftermath, she still managed to get in a few comments to the senior class about how they were all ----- who were sleeping with black guys and getting pregnant. Ohhhhhkaaaaaay. Let's just say I can make a fairly educated guess that this girl is probably doing the former as well, only with a white guy, and because of that ought not to discount the possibility of the latter. But I quibble.
Last night brought the ubiquitous Powder Puff football games, freshmen vs. juniors, and seniors vs. sophomores. I was there for a while, and things were pretty rough, even though it was only flag football. After I left, though, the seniors and sophomores almost came to blows - that is, in between the moments when they were cursing at each other. Our football coach, who donated his time as a referee, declared he would never get near the event again.
Tonight they are really supposed to strike, putting up all their homemade signs, and other junk, all over the school. Last year the School Resource Officer, and a few Sheriff's Dept. buddies, set up a sting and scared the crap out of most of the kids who dropped by. Good God in heaven, please let him be there again tonight.
23 October 2006
Those were also the good ole' days when, if vandalism was going to occur, it occured when the kids from one high school would sneak onto the campus of the rival high school during their homecoming week and doing something underhanded.
Ah, the innocence. At my high school now, and apparently for a good 10 years or so, one feels no desire to summon the energy needed for such covert operations against rival schools. Why not just stay at home and desecrate your own school? This morning, Day 1 of Spirit Week, we were treated to street signs, toilets, and other junky items strung out on campus, with "C/O '07" or some such painted on them. Someone also, charmingly, got on the roof of the gym and spray painted on the windows, in giant letters, that a certain student was "gay". Instead of spray-painted t-shirts that say ugly things about other schools, our kids have shirts that say ugly things about each other (sophomores slamming freshmen, for instance). Speaking of t-shirts, the seniors have already been warned not to wear their unofficial senior t-shirts tomorrow that feature all their names fit into the image of a vodka bottle, with the title "Absolut '07" written above it.
Should I even mention the facts that a) 90% of Spirit Week participants are bratty popular kids who view the week as a God-given right to raise hell (different from most weeks, how, exactly?), and that b) I will continually hear, "C'mon Mr.P, don't make us do work - it's Spirit Week."
Yeah, and you're still just as dumb as you were last week, kid.
I'll try to continue a day-by-day, blow-by-blow report on the inanity. However, I may be in prison before then if I fail to control my already mounting anger.
One saving grace? By the hand of almighty Providence, Friday turns out to be a Teacher Workday. It is an evil week, but at least a short week.
19 October 2006
Speaking of flags, the NC Senate passed a bill last session that makes saying the pledge of allegiance mandatory once a day in all public schools. It is mandatory, that is, for teachers to provide this opportunity to their kids once a day, though the kids cannot be forced to participate. After finally getting flags put in all our classrooms, we started this week.
We've been told that, although no child has to say the pledge, they should be given a referral if they do not at least behave respectfully while the rest of us recite it. Seems fair enough to me, all around.
But, want to know what will set a bunch of teachers off in a heartbeat at my school? A few weeks ago, when this was announced, the newly hired English as Second Language Teacher raised her hand and said, "Well, I myself am not an American citizen, and many of my kids are not, and they may not feel comfortable saying this."
Whoa. For the moment, forget about the merits (or lack of) of her point. Has this woman ever heard of, well, diplomacy? Leaden bricks dropped from the sky could not have made a louder thud.
And, it took all of .0032 seconds for about ten teachers to jump down her throat (without specifically using the word "you", of course - aggressive indirect statements rule in the South, thank you). In the lead were our two best history teachers, one of whom is a black female who was born under the ugly reign of Jim Crow.
We still put up a Christmas tree down our way, too, in case you were wondering (yes, I'm being smug).
16 October 2006
It is difficult, however, to describe some of the rewards of teaching without gushing. Those of you who read the Wyfe's blog may recall this post regarding the highlight of the past school year for me, in which a ragtag group of rural kids did Shakespeare and did him aw'right.
Well, seizing on the momentum, our little Shakespeare Club has gotten up and running again this year, and yesterday afternoon I led 18 kids to Raleigh to see the NC Shakespeare Festival performance of "The Taming of the Shrew". It was an outstanding production, hilarious when called for, and slightly tense (as it should have been), though good-humored, during the male/female role-defining scenes.
Hopefully without seeming to brag, I just want to point out what an awe-inspiring experience it is to gather up that many kids from a rural high school and take them to see their first full-length performance of Shakespeare. And, to know that they enoyed it. And, to hear one of them say, "I used to be a little unsure about Shakespeare, but Mr. P. kept telling me to read more of the plays, and I'm really into it now."
It is also cool that among my crowd were six bona-fide in-crowders, about eight 'tweeners (nerdy, but not unpopular), and about four total outsiders. Who else could keep such a group together for a day other than Will?
15 October 2006
Difficult (impossible?) as it is, after any death, even a tragic one, life must move on. The outpouring of love for this girl and her family must eventually give way to something productive, and not maudlin. Unfortunately, this past week brought word that some of the girl's friends are having trouble restraining themselves. Many seniors want the official "senior song" to be a grief-stricken hip-hop ode that one of her musically inclined friends, also a senior, wrote and recorded after her death. The song has been getting much play on local airwaves, and is a hit among the local teens. But to have that played every time the seniors enter and exit an assembly? Or during graduation ceremonies?
Not only this, but a couple of the murdered girl's friends want to drape part of the stage in black during graduation, and in general want that whole ceremony to be about her. The principal, of course, will stop all this from happening. But you can imagine there will be some rage against him and the faculty members who agree with him. I can't help but think the grieving is starting to be more and more about those who are left behind, and their wants and desires to be living martyrs. Sorry if that sounds callous.
It is all sad, of course. The murder, the grief, and the inability to place limits on grief. But, this is the MySpace.com generation; if you've ever seen the pages so many teens post on MySpace, it might not surprise you. They put their entire lives up there - every picture taken, every event of every day, every detail that ought to embarrass them - and do so proudly. I'M SO FASCINATING! I'M SO IMPORTANT! LOOK AT ME AND MY BOYFRIEND SMOOCHING! READ ABOUT MY DRUNKEN PARTY!
And then, when something truly profound happens to them, they have no private "space" left - a place for them to go when they need to reflect and wonder for a while. It is narcissism, and it leads to perpetual childhood.
12 October 2006
There is some mathematical principle that states the more excited I am about a piece of literature, the more the kids will disappoint me with their reactions. Nonetheless, we forge ahead, refusing to bow before the gods of ambivalence.
Me: By the way, next week we will begin reading that book you see on the top shelf over there.
Student: (perplexed) A book? We’re going to read a whole book?
Me: Yeah, I know. What a novel concept. Get it? Novel concept? Ha Ha!
Other, Seemingly Precocious Student: I don’t get it.
Me: It was a pun.
Seemingly Precocious One: What is the pun?
And yes, I then had to explain the pun. Took all the fun out of it.
But I’m sure Elizabeth Bennett would have laughed.
10 October 2006
I suppose he was referring to artistic workshops, but who could disagree, whatever the context?
Well, our school system decided that this year they would schedule four half-days for students, and use the afternoons of those days for staff development (I forget - who's supposed to be getting an education again?). About six weeks ago a former principal, now the head of secondary education, came calling to see if I would help develop one of these workshops, along with "English teachers from each of the other three high school (wink, wink)," and help present it at all four sites during those development days. He was under orders from his boss to come up with something, of course.
The posse of English teachers who were supposed to help quickly dwindled to two (inclusive of moi) who were fools enough to agree to it. Apparently he was turned down by some others. Funny, but I (chump) didn't think we were really given a choice.
We got one day to meet and put something together, and then I spent almost two weeks fretting and obsessing over how awful this would be, how we would be mocked, how I would stammer and sweat and look foolish. And then today we finally presented the first workshop, and it went off without a hitch. We actually got an ovation.
What, me worry? (Kingsley Amis was still right, by the way.)
08 October 2006
It has to be an overwhelming weight, I suppose, when you are a high school principal for the first time, with an assistant principal who is in the same boat. And vice-versa, I'm sure. Fortunately the two of them seem to work well together, perhaps, in part, because of solidarity in inexperience. But picture this situation, and then couple it with the fact that within the first month of school a student gets murdered one weekend night, and an English teacher quits without notice. Not, I'm guessing, a scenario that shows up in "101 Ways to Start the School Year in a Positive Way".
Furthermore, I'm here to tell you that high school teachers, especially entrenched ones, can be tough to deal with. They know, after all, that administrators come and go much more often than they, the teachers, will. And so, like some of our recalcitrant students, certain teachers will fight you on particular issues, or just ignore you altogether.
Anyway, at our meeting there were a couple of interrelated issues the principals seemed genuinely perturbed about - not in an angry way, but an exasperated one. These involved the refusal of some teachers to follow the usual protocol of dealing with minor disciplinary issues through students first, then their parents, and then administrators. One of the reasons the departed English teacher gave for leaving was that she felt she should be able to remove a kid from her room for minor, as well as major, offenses and not have to deal with that kid again the rest of the day (this would include sleeping, talking, getting out of seat, etc.). The principals' point was that, in the long run, the teacher was causing more problems for herself by not trying to handle the minor issues through the protocol. She was, in their view, farming out control of her room to them. They emphasized that they weren't referring to automatic suspension issues like disrespect, cursing, or insubordination. Principal Goldberg also seemed to be puzzled over how to deal with teachers who make no effort at relationship-building with their kids (not the naughty kind, of course).
Well, I know what many of you will say, and I can't blame you for being hardliners. We've discussed the days when kids automatically did what the teacher said the first time they were told, or else. They knew what their parents were going to do with reports of misbehavior, and it involved a red ass, or worse. On these matters, at least, the community largely worked together as a whole, so I understand. There is a charming story a retired teacher told me about when she was a freshman at my school in the late 50's. One day the principal announced, over the P.A., that all classes were to get up and file past the office in an orderly fashion. When they did so, they saw three of their classmates sitting on a bench, holding up pieces of paper that read in big letters, "Tried to Skip School Today".
But we ain't in Kansas anymore, folks. When I first started teaching I privately railed that I had to find a way to deal with any nonsense from these kids. Slowly, I started to realize that if I didn't I would sink. So many kids treat their parents like dirt, and vice-versa, that it is hard to expect them to come in, sit quietly on day one, and automatically stay that way through day 180. And, realistically, you can't write up thirty kids a day for every little thing they do.
So, I learned, often the hard way, that there are two things which go in your survival kit. One, you have to assume command of your own room, assume responsibilities for your own problems (within reason), and let the kids know you are the f'ing drill sergeant they have to deal with first and foremost (a laughable image, I realize, for those who know me). But then, perhaps unlike that drill sergeant, you have to get as many kids as possible to buy into what you are selling. And this only happens, I believe, when you say, both with words and deeds, "Come on with me. I love you, and I care about what happens to you. But just remember who is in charge here." Come to think of it, even that drill sergeant has to get the privates to buy in at some point if he is to have good soldiers.
I've always had natural success with relating to my kids - in fact, I find that the most enjoyable part of the job, and can't imagine anyone staying in teaching who doesn't enjoy the heck out of dealing with the knuckleheads. But as my post yesterday indicated, the being in charge part has been my albatross, though I'm getting better at it.
I do believe that the principals are mostly in the right here, and I don't think they were trying to shirk responsibilities. The teacher who quit should not have had to hear smart-mouthing every day, no matter what. I think you can fairly ask, though, if she exarcerbated things with the way she chose to approach disciplinary problems. I don't know the answer in her particular situation. But these days, if you're going to have a chance, you must learn to win things on the front lines, at the point of contact, etc., etc. (insert your own bad sports/war metaphors here). And sometimes, you can do this with nothing more than a little extra kindness.
What the principals may be wondering, though, is if they can win over enough teachers to feel like someone has their backs. I think they will, but it may be, to paraphrase Wellington, "a near-run thing."
07 October 2006
I'm not intending to brag, because I have miles to go before I sleep (so to speak). However, I'm a better planner, a better organizer, a more efficient worker, and most importantly, a better classroom manager than I've ever been. It used to be I would enter the school year talking a big game to myself about how the kids were going to tow the line this year, or they would find out I meant business real fast. But this internal bombast always felt a little hollow, if I'm going to be honest with myself. I'm a softy at heart, and nine times out of ten I would threaten kids with disciplinary action and then not follow through as well as I should have - or at least I would wait until things had gotten much worse than they needed to be.
Sometime last year, though, my confidence started to click. By the spring, I had become less afraid of conflict, and had fairly well-run classes, even though there were some challenging kids in them. As a result, I guess, this year I didn't come in trying to pump myself up about my new tough-guy attitude. I've just gotten in the trenches and stayed there. Within the first two weeks I was calling parents left and right, and keeping in touch with the principals about problem kids. I also flew into a well-timed (though authentic) rage a couple of Fridays ago in my Honors class, something quite rare for me. I think I shocked them, and they have been easy to settle down since then.
There really is no secret to this, in teaching or anywhere else: take care of problems as soon as you see them cropping up, and you save yourself long-term grief. I'm a natural conflict-avoider, though, and my learning curve on this life lesson has been a long one.
Of course, now that I've publicized how pleased I am with myself, I'm sure my classes will turn into total wrecks.
05 October 2006
02 October 2006
Wonderful Student w/Mild Complex: I don't even want to see. I'm sure it's a "C". Or an "F".
SMP: Whatever. Let's pull it up. Oh, yeah - what a horrible grade: a "90".
Student's Helpful Friend: (to Mild Complex Girl) So what did he say you have?
Mild Complex Girl: A "90". Gaaahhhh. I might as well go to the retard class. Mr. P. hates me.
SMP : I do not; I love you. But you are underperforming on your tests so far. Both of you, actually.
Mild Complex Girl: See! You don't think I work hard.
Helpful Friend: I think you need to have some organized study games for us the day before the test.
SMP: (ignoring Helpful Friend's comment) When did I say you didn't work hard?
Mild Complex Girl's Boyfriend: (as he enters room, deciding to stir up whatever controversy he perceives) Don't let her tell you what to do Mr. P. Tell her to shut up and pay attention in class!
Mild Complex Girl: (slapping boyfriend on arm) Hush! (then getting refocused on the issue at hand) Mr. P. already said I'm not working hard.
SMP: She is totally putting words in my mouth. (then, as brilliant idea hits him, he pretends to pull boyfriend aside for a sotto voce chat) Does she ever try to put words in your mouth?
Boyfriend: Oh yeah. All the time.
Mild Complex Girl: (slapping boyfriend on arm again) What! I do not! Bye Mr. P. (storms out with boyfriend firmly in grasp, and in the doghouse).
SMP: (says nothing audible, but clearly is smug about his deft deflection of teenage ire away from himself and towards that poor, dumb boyfriend).
30 September 2006
My three starters, plus an alternate, were all doing this for the first time, so perhaps they will fare better in the spring after this experience, as did last year's squad. They actually answered more questions correctly than our team last fall, but they also missed more questions, for which they were penalized. But even though they felt slightly humiliated, I think everyone had a great time.
Some more than others, however. You see, one of the teams had these two guys as coaches who saw themselves as Coaches, capital "C". Let's just say that the cup of testosterone overflowethed. Nice guys, but insanely intense about this stuff. After we met they asked how often we practiced, and I truthfully told them that we had not really practiced at all (my team members are all in band, or cheerleading, or volleyball, or two out of the three, so I'm lucky to get them, period). Well, they informed me, they practiced at least twice a week, and traveled throughout the year, from their home near Charlotte, to different competitions. That's great guys, really. Did I mention mention hog-farming is the top industry in our county?
Before we started, they kept calling huddles to discuss strategy, and in between segments they would storm up to the podium and speak with their kids. Pep talks, or halftime adjustments? You make the call. As they sat directly on my my left, I could see via peripheral vision that both of them were wildly fist-pumping after each right answer their kids got. And things really reached critical mass when one of them stormed the judges table during a time-out to successfully get points deducted from another team.
No matter. Their kids, and my kids, got squashed by that other team, a trio of private school preps from Rocky Mount. Their coach was laid back as could be, but the kids themselves were hyper-achiever types, and one of their girls, who annoyed the snot out of my team, was named (I'll alter it slightly) Emma V. That is her first name: Emma V. One assumes she goes on to have a middle and last name; then again, why would you need them when you are the stylish, the fashionable, the brilliant Emma V ? Oh, and my wife was totally irritated with the moms from this team, because she said they would do those prim little mom claps, and pat each other rapidly on the knee, whenever one of their children got an answer.
What's the lesson here, students? There are two: 1) There is no better way to salvage something from a last place, negative point loss than to viciously mock the two teams (and their entourages) that beat you , and 2) I'll take my salt-of-the-earth crowd over the fist-pumpers and knee-patters any day.
27 September 2006
Tomorrow, I (poor soul), will travel across the county to meet with another high school teacher so we can, ostensibly, develop a follow-up workshop. I quite literally have no idea what we are supposed to be developing, or how we are going to do it, and I'm not looking forward to it. So what's new?
Anyway, after discussing some of the workshop tidbits with my kids, I got the usual lazy-people questions: "Why do we even have to learn to write?" "What if we aren't going to do anything that involves writing a story (all compositions, fiction or non-fiction, beyond a paragraph equates to a "story" for my kids. Not an essay - a story). Blah, blah, blah.
Since I've been on the "end of western civilization" kick this week, I started wondering today if it ever occured to me, or my school peers, to question why we need to learn how to write well. I just don't remember ever having such thoughts. We might have complained about the assignments themselves (I know we did), but never about the underlying assumption that writing was important.
Sigh. I promise something cheerier by the weekend.
25 September 2006
As for the aftermath of our teacher-quitting episode on Friday, it is varied. A few horse-rears were, of course, thrilled to hear the news. But I spoke with four students who were genuinely upset about the whole mess, and were alternately mad at the teacher for giving in and leaving, and at the students who refused to shut up or behave for her. One girl made a fair point that, since 6th Grade, "perserverance" has been a character word for her class one month out of each year. "I don't want to enter college not knowing how to do a research paper," she said. A couple of others said that, while they didn't think she was the most personable teacher, they thought she was good at what she did, and they were learning. Maybe the toughest thing to hear, from one of my yearbook editors, was this: "I've been in a class (Spanish) where the teacher retired and they couldn't find a replacement for a whole semester. We learned nothing with the sub in there - it was awful. I don't want to go through that again."
Meanwhile, the other two teachers in my department are, like me, fighting mad. One of them, Ms. X, said she's tempted to give up her planning period just so she could take over that class and "taste a little blood." I would say, "Amen, sister!", but the problem with Ms. X is that she always wants to "taste blood", and due to this most of the kids can't stand her. If she took that class, all they would do is fight the rest of the year.
My colleagues also would like to seize this opportunity to let the principal know a few other things that were bothering the now departed teacher, and that bother them as well: we don't have as many English teachers as the other high schools in the county, our classroom computers are slow and outdated, some classes have 30 or more in them, etc. When this talk started at an impromptu dept. meeting today, I began feeling antsy, though I didn't disagree in principle. I apologize for the stereotyping, but my experience as the only male in a dept. of women is that meetings turn into, to use the polite term, griping sessions. I hate those, especially when Ms. X is involved. Not that male teachers don't gripe to each other, but it is just in a totally different way and takes half the time.
One more thing, relating to NCLB and the professional educator protection rackets that make sure hiring outside of the usual avenues is difficult. Over the summer, administration found a candidate for the English position who had a communications degree and was commuting to Raleigh. She had community ties, was young, and apparently really wanted to make the switch to teaching. Administration thought she was a perfect fit, and she was going to take the necessary classes to be certified in the usual five-year grace period (basically how I did it). The problem? Nowadays, if you have another available teacher who is already "highly certified", he/she has to get the first offer. The school board turned down the first pick, so this is how we ended up with our retiree teacher - and she was good, no doubt. But maybe this other woman, in the long run, would have been a better solution for our kids, and our department. Obviously administration thought so, but an inflexible system, unable to account for nuances, dictated something else.
23 September 2006
Ah, the provincial. Like that student, I love it and hate it. I don’t hold it in disdain, like the cognoscenti do, but I’m not going to pass over its rotten spots with sentiment either. People in general can be vicious, and charming small-town types are not exempt.
Witness yesterday, when I found out about 15 minutes before school was over that our newest English teacher was taking her toys, and books and furniture, and going home for good. She was already retired, you see, but in our state you can start pulling retirement benefits and go back to work for a regular salary as well, when a teaching slot desperately needs filling. Having taught for thirty years, mostly at a rival high school, she thought last year was going to be it when her part time position was dissolved. But when a last minute need arose at our school, she was approached about the position and accepted it.
Quite unbeknownst to me, her senior classes had been giving her absolute hell, perhaps because she was a stranger, or perhaps because the teacher’s name that showed up on their schedules this summer was the one they got mentally prepared for. In any case, it seems these future guardians of our civilization started rebelling against her en masse, and she had been in tears every day this week. They fought her on tardies, they fought her on schoolwork, they fought her by not shutting up, and then fought her by talking back to her as if she were their shop girl. Sure they got written up, and were forced to apologize, but eventually they wore her down, one month into the school year. She told me they would actually get just as much out of a sub for the rest of the year, since they had made up their minds about her.
And the thing is, she was a good teacher – the type I aspire to be one day. So, allow me to vent, oh, just a little. I totally understand why she decided to give it up. I really do. But I hate the fact that these kids, a few of whom are real assholes, got the satisfaction of driving her off. Exactly who the hell do they think they are? And how can anyone deal with them now that they are no doubt drunk with power? Some of them didn’t intend this, I’m sure, but the thing about these kids, even though they often can’t stand each other, is that their solidarity is strong. Even those who don’t go with the crowd won’t oppose it.
I really want to know what Principal Goldberg is thinking. He’s accomplished and impressive, but he’s young and has never administrated a high school. Yesterday, when I left, he had a bit of the deer-in-headlights look. I believe he will respond and get a grip on these kids, I really do. But it needs to happen now.
The whole episode also makes me reflect on whether I would ever get pushed by certain kids to the point of no return, as it were. Of course, I’m still relatively young and hot-blooded compared to someone with thirty years in; I’m also a typical man when it comes to matters of pride. But trying to put all emotion aside, I’ll be damned if I ever give some 17-year old punk or punkette the satisfaction of determining my retirement. They’d have to forcibly remove me from the classroom before I let them defeat me. If I’m blessed to be here and am still blogging in twenty-five years, you can hold me to that.
In a sense, though, this is a sign of a society defeating itself. Teachers shouldn't have to be reliant on their own iron wills in order to survive at what they love doing. We have to be mentally strong, but we're not supposed to be soldiers, for God's sake. I'm not going to hearken back to a particular hallowed time period, but dammit, I know it wasn't always this way.
20 September 2006
I've actually told myself before, in the abstract, "Hey! The observation is for my benefit - to help me improve! I welcome such opportunities to show what I can do with a class, and to learn from constructive criticism! I spit in the face of danger!"
Hah! What a joke. Who in their right minds likes being observed by a superior while they are on the job? Fine, there are a few annoying super-achievers out there, but they're freaks. Real folks (as they say in these parts) don't like being watched, and don't like being evaluated in person. It's unnatural, and... well, dammit, it makes me sweat.
Nice of my kids to point out to me, with the Asst. Principal in the room, that I needed to wipe my brow. Who couldn't love such angels?
18 September 2006
The opposite is usually the case in close-by Wake County, where an old fashioned Battle Royal continues over the issue of forcing year-round calendars on certain elementary and middle schools. I have a paper-thin grasp of this controversy, so perhaps Raleigh readers like Eric or Jimmy can fill us in on details. Forcing changes on the unwilling does seem plain wrong, especially when different kids in the same household might have differing school schedules. But hey, we all know they pay the bureaucrats the big bucks for this kind of thinking, so it must be right, right?
16 September 2006
Earlier in the day SMP had a face-to-face meeting with the Assistant Principal of War, who agreed with him that no more whining about work, kindergarten-type disruptions, excessive talking, or sleeping should be tolerated. In a joint statement, the two declared that unless the HCLF ceases all aggressive behavior, SMP will be forced to order ground forces and heavy artillery into action.
Other good news for SchoolMaster P has included the winning over of many neutral members of the class, who increasingly have come to believe that throwing their lots in with the enemy is a path to destruction. One anonymous neutral stated, "Last year SchoolMasterP seemed more interested in patient diplomacy. This year it seems he just wants to kick people's asses."
Gen. P's spokesman, however, cautioned against too much optimism. "We are still in the very early stages of this conflict. There are some particularly tough battles ahead of us, we are sure. We'll have a more complete picture after we've gotten through problem-solution essays, Oedipus Rex, and Pride and Prejudice," he said.
14 September 2006
For starters, I have no expertise in elementary education, but would imagine that massive homework at that age would be out of order. I got by just fine without lugging home books and papers until middle school, best I can recall.
From there on, I would see myself as a middle grounder on this issue. We have kids coming to us from middle school who seem to think the word "homework" actually is code for "go home and play with six-foot cobras." Their aversion to the idea of it is bothersome, and smacks of spoiling. On the other hand, most high schools in the state now are on a block schedule system, meaning four classes a day for 90 minutes each. Each class only lasts for a semester, much like in college. I simply don't find the need to lay on massive homework after we've worked hard for that length of time. My general and CP level kids rarely get assignments beyond "study for tomorrow's test or quiz", while my honor's kids usually get something every night, generally in the way of reading.
I will also add that you have much more control over the whole cheatin' thang when you have the kids right in front of you. It is particularly beautiful when I give in-class writing assignments, because I can watch the usual band of cheaters and homework hustlers squirm, knowing that sneaking glances at someone's essay is pointless. Generally they just give up and do nothing, which makes for one easy paper to grade.
Along the lines of cheating, here was a nice nugget from yesterday. A student I've previously designated as Mr. Romeo is flunking badly. He has tested well in his life, which is why he has been considered an honors talent. But he's a total lazy ass, and only signed up for this year's honors class because his (now ex-) girlfriend also did.
Another student, the most curmudgeonly little almost-goth you would ever want to meet, always lets me know at the end of class who or what has annoyed her that day, even if it is just me. Yesterday, she told me Mr. Romeo offered her a dollar if she would let him cheat off her vocabulary worksheets. A whole dollar!
Don't empty the bank account there, Romeo.
12 September 2006
All apologies to the Allman Brothers, or to the undercompensated blues musician who may have written that song.
Into the third week of my fifth year of teaching, you would think (I would have thought) that things would be nice and settled down, and my comfort level would be at an all-time high. Certainly I'm much better at planning classes and at managing them than ever before. I demand respect better than before, though I'm still working on being the good kind of "mean". I tell myself things ought to be clicking on all cylinders by now.
But the truth is I'm still a little antsy, and I'm still feeling butterflies about situations that haven't bothered me so much the last couple of years. Today I had to give (yet another) talk to my honors class about expectations, and about the poor grades I was seeing so far. And I was just plain nervous - even though I know these kids. I've never been one to relish a confrontation until I get good and mad, and frankly, there wasn't one today - no one argued with me, perhaps because I called some parents yesterday. What was I fearful of? I'll have to ponder it.
Everything just feels a little weird this week, that's all I know, and it doesn't help that we've had meeting upon meeting for the last several days, that I'm being drafted to help lead some kind of in-house writing workshop for all the high schools, that I have to schedule an observation for next week, or that I'm trying to get this year's Shakespeare Club events planned and off the ground before schedules fill up for all the kids.
By the way, here is one of those sweet intangibles of teaching: you call a mom or dad to let them know Johnny is being an ass in class and flunking after two weeks, and the response you get is, "I really appreciate you letting me know. Rest assured, this will be addressed tonight." And it's said in that tone that, back in the day, you thought meant instant death when you heard it from your parents. Yes, this still happens, believe it or not.
That is sweet.
11 September 2006
The following morning, driving into work at about 7:15, I turned at an intersection about a mile from my office in Raleigh. The streets were mostly still empty, which was not unusual, though perhaps they were a little emptier than normal. On the corner, as I turned left, I spotted a makeshift American flag display. The flag was attached to a little hand-painted sign that read “God Bless America”. It looked like something children might have concocted at the last minute for a 4th of July parade. But I got the feeling an adult made it and put it out sometime in the dark of night, just trying to get something out there to show support and help with morale when it was most needed.
For about five minutes, after I passed that display, I sat in my car and wept like a baby.
My son was 13 days old on 9/11/01. This evening he had questions, and we tried to explain, in the most cautious (but truest) way we could, what all this was about.
Also tonight, watching the retrospectives, I got emotional – for the first time in a couple of years on this anniversary, actually. Everything from that day, and that week, really came back to me for a while. I wish there had never been reason for such feelings, but thank God I can still find them.
08 September 2006
He’s also, according to teeny-boppers ages 14-17, cute, hot, fine, and hunky. One little girl who so obviously has a crush on the principal, and whose life is apparently an open book, told him all the girls thought he was hot, but they also heard (disappointingly) that his wife was hot. She also told us that her mom used to do crack, and that she wished America would adopt the Saudi methods of criminal punishment. All righty, then.
Then there is this snippet from a conversation with a former student who, as a sophomore, knew she was engaged (yikes!) but kept asking me to pronounce that word for her. “You know, that word for when you’re gettin’ married to somebody.” “You mean fiance?” “Yeah, that’s it. But he can’t drive right now because they took his license after he got a DUI.”) Anyway, from this week:
Me: Hey, A-----. How’s it going?
Me: When is your English class, this semester or next?
A: Now, but this is only the second day I’ve been in there.
Me: You’ve been sick?
Me: What, some kind of stomach thing?
A: I’m pregnant.
Me: A-----! How far along are you?
A: 8-10 weeks.
Me: Well, how are you going to manage?
A: We’re getting married next weekend. My mama’s gonna home school me until she moves to New York next year. Then I’ll probably have to come back here to finish up, or something.
It was only 18 years ago, but somehow I don’t imagine this conversation took place at my high school during my tenure there. Ever.