Current/Recent Reading List

30 October 2006

Spirit Week Post-Mortem

On Friday morning (last weeks's teacher workday), one of the Asst. Superintendents showed up at school for a workshop session, only to discover the toilet, washing machine, and mufflers still in front of the school. Apparently she expressed her dismay, since guests were coming. It was a major oversight by Principal Goldberg not to get that cleaned up by Thursday afternoon, but he'll learn.

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

Let Us Now Praise Unspoiled Men, Err... Students

Hopefully my feelings about our Spirit Week have been established by now. I actually have an addendum about the whole stinkin' mess, based on a fascinating conversation I had with the football coach yesterday, but I promised reader Jimmy something hopeful, so I will save the addendum for my next post.

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

Told You So

I hope, after Monday, you ran out and bought stock in my Told You Spirit Week Would Suck Corporation. If you did, you have already made a bundle - and don't sell yet. There is rain in the forecast for Friday's homecoming game.

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

We've Got Spirit, Yes We Don't

I loathe Spirit Week - absolutely loathe it. I can't really remember what Spirit Week was like during my high school days, being painfully introverted and out of the mainstream as I was. But I'm pretty sure we just had the standard dress up days and the pep rally at the end of the week.

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

Flags That Will Fly, and Comments That Won't

I'm cautiously excited and optimistic about the new Clint Eastwood-directed film, "Flags of Our Fathers". If you haven't read the book, by James Bradley (son of one of the flag raisers from the famous Iwo Jima photo), it is well worth the time and effort (and I dare you not to cry at least once). Not sure when I'll see it, but I'm going to. Come on, Clint, don't mess it up like you (or the screenwriter) did at the end of "Million Dollar Baby".

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

Tiny Miracles of the Shakespearean Variety

I am not a fan of the vapid sentimentalizers of the teaching profession (a group generally comprised of teachers/administrators who have become NEA hacks), so just know that before I start.

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

As you recall, we lost a student earlier this year when she was murdered by a gun-wielding ex-convict during a convenience store incident. Thankfully, the man was caught in Raleigh a couple of weeks ago, and justice will, we hope, bring a relatively swift conviction and punishment.

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 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

We're on our way, Lizzy.

I’m so stoked about starting Pride and Prejudice in my honors class next week, that I just can’t wait. I also have excerpts from the A & E mini-series ready to go. This is the first real opportunity I’ve had to teach P & P, given the constraints of the ninth grade classes I’ve taught until this year. Of course, we are supposed to be focusing on world literature in 10th grade, but hey, Jane Austen was of this world, was she not? Exactly.

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


There is an all-too quip that I ran across in an essay by Joseph Epstein from the September New Criterion : "If there's one word that sums up everything that's gone wring since the War," wrote Kingsley Amis, "it's Workshop."

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

One-Sixth of the Way Home (Part II)

We had our first real School Improvement Team meeting last Tuesday, and, in spite of my previous whining (hey, gotta live up to the billing), it was an enjoyable and interesting, if exceedingly long, one. What was of most interest to me, though, was what I observed from our administrators, who were both there, eagerly.

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

One-Sixth of the Way Home (Part 1)

One of the toughest teachers at our school, our World History and Civics teacher, told me that a couple of students we had in common last year visited her the other day. They told her that Mr. P's class this year is harder than their history class last year. Well, I don't believe it, but I'll still take it as a good sign. Here at the end of the first six weeks of year #5, I believe I'm closer than ever to being the type of teacher I aspire to.

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


I'm in blogger deadlock right now - too many things going on, it's Thursday, and I'm already running on fumes. If I don't get some content up tonight, I will on Friday/Saturday, as I assess things at the end of our first six weeks. Can you believe we are already that far along?

02 October 2006

Hyperbolic Teens, Vol. 1, Number 1

Setting: Immediately after school, my room, in front of computer.

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).