Current/Recent Reading List

28 November 2006

It's All A Formality

Tomorrow is Stop #2 for the workshop on writing that I, along with my partner presenter, "volunteered" (on behalf of the county office, nod-nod, wink-wink) to give to all the high schools in the county. The last one went quite well, so my anxiety levels are way down, but I'll still be glad to get it over.

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

Game Time! (Thanksgiving Version)

You football fans might remember an old ad campaign titled "You Make the Call", which consisted of presenting an in-game situation that required a referee's ruling, and invited viewers to guess the correct rule interpretation. Well, in that spirit, I now offer up my own version, though I don't necessarily know the correct answer, so I will require a short explanation along with your choice:

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

A Little Light Through the Clouds

"'Tis too much!" she added,"by far too much. I do not deserve it. Oh! why is not everybody as happy?"

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

Like being a normal teenager isn't embarrassing enough.

One thing I noticed about teenagers fairly soon after I started teaching (and something I apparently forgot from my own blighted adolescence) is their hound-like ability to smell out, and loudly yelp about, injustices. Whether the offense is on a global scale, or a personal one, they do not hesitate to call a wrong a wrong. In our oh-so-neat little postmodern world, I find this somewhat comforting. The flip side, however, is that many of these same teens have developed no sense of mercy or forgiveness. Many of them adhere to the "Do me evil, and I'll never let it go" mantra.

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

Rest in Peace, Granny

My Granny was 97 years old when she passed away on the morning of November 15, 2006. She was my last remaining grandparent, and I feel as if a volume on my life has now been closed, and a new one opened. With death, as with budding life, most of us learn to crawl before we walk, walk before we run. If all things run naturally, we will next (hopefully years from now) have to face the deaths of two sets of parents. And then, of course, will come our turns.

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

New Kid in Town

This may be a slow week on the blog. It is one of those meetings-from-hell weeks, plus we have special career day events on Wednesday which will take away from teaching.

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

Bring on the Cussin'

After it took us nearly a month (off and on) to complete Oedipus Rex in my general English class, I found myself wanting our next reading to be in a completely different vein. You see, unlike some English teachers, I am bullheaded enough to make even the general kids read the real text, and not some watered-down encapsulation of it (which all the textbook companies un-helpfully, and temptingly, supply). I would not apply my resolve to kids in special needs classes, I'm sure, but then I don't teach those classes, so the point is moot.

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

Inane Clown Posse

Our technology teacher has been having his kids produce a school news show once a week, giving them a chance to work with cameras, effects, sound and editing equipment, etc. Once a week, for the last few weeks, they've been airing the ten minute segment over the school's closed circuit system.

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

Phrasing is Everything

So, prior to discussing the Netherfield Ball chapter from Pride and Prejudice, I wanted to give the kids a little background on the complex social etiquette involved in putting on such an event. By the end of the week, of course, I was not of sound mind, and so I actually said this:

"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

Top of the Morning

If Flannery O'Connor were still around, she could have done a real number with the fifteen kids in my first period general English class. They are quite an assortment, jammed together in my room from 8-9:30, like the disparate characters O'Connor might jam together on a bus, or in a doctor's waiting room. Eight are black, four are hispanic, and three are white. Most of them come in sleepy and a little grumpy, wearing puffy winter coats because it's a little cool at the bus stop in the morning. They are not too anxious to do work, but not defiant about it either. Some of them have aspirations, while others will probably be satisfied with just muddling through. And as with Flan's character groupings, first period contains quite a few wounded souls.

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.