Current/Recent Reading List

30 January 2007

The Scent of Weird...

...has been wafting around me at school lately.

First, about once a week over the last month or so, I've been getting a visit from a senior, whom I've never taught before (though I've taught his sister), intent on relating his firm belief that Jesus was just a good man, and that Christianity is a fraud first perpetrated on us for political reasons by Constantine. Why me? I have no idea, since I don't talk about Christianity at school unless it is in the context of reading something like Genesis, or The Divine Comedy. I might make the occasional mention of my church, but never when he's been around. Yet there he is lurking at my door at some point each week, apparently dying to get past the small talk and... what, evangelize me? I know I'm (over?)prone to putting real people and incidents in the context of Flannery O'Connor's fiction, but I swear this kid couldn't do a better Hazel Motes imitation to save his life (get the Flan pun there?). Next thing you know he'll be telling me he has started "The Church Without Christ."

And then there is my former principal's wife. She is retired from whatever it was she used to do, and so has been a substitute teacher in the county for the last couple of years. Just before Christmas, she stopped me in the hall and told me just how disappointed and upset she was that her husband wasn't featured enough in last year's yearbook: "He was only in two pictures! Where was the page all about the administrators? We thought everyone loved "us" here last year, and yet he's barely mentioned?" On and on she went, while I shifted nervously, and then she ran off to her class duty as the bell rang. Since that time, she apparently never fails to mention to any class she subs for how upset she is about the lack of coverage for her husband, and how she doesn't think she can support our book by buying one this year (she didn't buy one last year, anyway, btw), and shouldn't yearbooks have big features about the principal?, etc.

My solace is that everyone thinks she is crazy, and that she is being unprofessional, and just a wee bit paranoid. And since she's from NYC, you can imagine what her craziness gets attributed to, and what epithet gets attached to her. Fortunately, while I'm not above exposing her in my blog, I would never refer to her with the "Y" word. Well, rarely, at least.

28 January 2007

I Would Fire My Secretary...

... if I had one. As it is, I have only myself to blame for bad scheduling. How could it be that I had to drive back to school for a 7:00 Parent Open House Night on Thursday, and then had to pull basketball gate duty from 4:30-9:30 on Friday night? In any case, I think I've finally recovered now as I write on Sunday evening.

Once I get my senses back, I'll be better able to report on school doings. For a slight diversion, though, I would like to turn to the topic of Sports Broadcasting and The English Language. We all know that cliches are, apparently, a vital part of any sports broadcast. But there are also certain irritating phrases or terms that get introduced into the sports patois and, like viruses, infect all involved.

The latest I've noticed from basketball broadcasts and sports radio conversations are: "We need to get our bigs more involved." [Bigs used to be called centers, and sometimes power forwards]; "Their guards are quick and long."[Long has become the new "tall"]; and my favorite, "One of the strengths he brings to the team is his ability to score the basketball."[Hmmm. Since the only way you can score in basketball is with the basketball, I guess that is a good strength to have. Just think how much someone would be worth if he could, say, score the sneaker, or score the jersey!]

24 January 2007

Ambivalence and The New Semester

The new semester has started, and I'm not sure how I feel, besides slightly unmotivated. I have a class of 28 sophomores, a class of 20 sophomores, and a much improved yearbook class of only 14. I've managed to piss off a couple more of my former students because I wouldn't let them back into yearbook class; this after they did virtually nothing the whole first semester. Oh, well - seems to be a theme for me lately.

Anyhow, I can't seem to get a good read on the new classes yet. Frankly, the size of my first period class, along with the reputations of some of the kids in there, scares me to death - secretly I picture some kind of full-scale revolt, or brawl, or something awful. However, they have been good so far, and a couple of the thuggish types in there have behaved better this year, so I hear. Perhaps there is hope, but I definitely won't share with them that they worry me; that would be a huge mistake.

The second period class will probably be more fun, but there is a huge "Bubba" factor in there. These guys are of the "smarty-pants, huntin' and fishin', always making thinly veiled sex and alcohol jokes and snickering at themselves" variety. I have a lot of experience with such, so I'm not too worried about them, though no doubt they will irritate the snot out of me most days.

Somehow I didn't have any failures last semester, but I doubt that will be the case this time around. Oh, and can anyone give me tips on how to teach non-English speakers to write? in English?

20 January 2007

The #1 Demographic for Those Who Hate

... has to be high school teachers and administrators. Trust me, I don't hate all cutting-edge technology-related products and activities (though I probably won't know about them until they are old news to many of my family members and friends). I generally accept the conventional wisdom that the internet, and its popular sites, can be really beneficial, or really rotten, depending on how utilized. But MySpace? Let's just say I picture Screwtape and his buddies cooking that one up somewhere in the boss's basement. Anywhere there are kids on computers at school, it is highly likely that they are (at least on the side) finding a way around the security software and onto their idiotic personal MySpace pages.

Earlier in the year I expressed misgivings about how the MySpace format encourages teens to surrender to the world that which should remain private. It encourages narcissism and self-absorbtion, things most teens do not suffer from lack of in the first place. And,in passing, I'll just mention the well-documented fact that, oh, freakin' pedophiles use MySpace to great advantage. But here is what has me pissed off and ready crack heads right now:

One of our business teachers discovered on Thursday that there are two fraudulent (and public) MySpace pages that have been set up for a couple of teachers at our school. These were obviously set up by some smart-ass students(actually, it seems fairly clear who it was). One of them is set up for a popular gym coach, and the site doesn't mock or slander him, though it pokes some gentle fun at him. The other, set up for a civics teacher, is far more malicious.

Now, this teacher is a friend of mine, but I will readily admit he has an eccentric personality, and a kind of halting, labored delivery even in casual conversation. He is one of those teachers that we probably all had who was always a step behind his students, and therefore an easy target for practical jokes, purposely stupid questions, etc. But he is a really nice man, conscientious, and someone who constantly worries about both what his test scores will look like and the job he's doing as a girls basketball coach.

Not only was the fraudulent information on his page of a mocking nature, but the comments from "friends" on his page, who are of course other students at school, contain some awfully hateful language. Reading the thread, you can see that some got the joke right away, while others took a while; however, once it was clearly established that the page was not "real", the hate-spewers seemed to really unburden themselves.

The principal has already been informed, and the pages were printed out in their entirety in case they are deleted from the site. I have no idea what will happen from here, but I hope the discipline is severe. The gym teacher found out about his page and was angry, but so far as I know the civics teacher doesn't know, and for the sake of his feelings I hope he never finds out. (On the other hand, wouldn't it be just desserts for both of them to sue for defamation?)

Aside from my anger and disappointment in some of the students who were contributing to the "dialogue" on the site, most of whom are at least community-college bound,I'm astounded at their stupidity. By posting on a public site, which was so carelessly guarded that most of the faculty now knows about it, they have surrendered control of their reputations. Their posts, of course, all came attached with their little "friend" picture (duh!). Who would want to write a letter of recommendation for the most egregious of these posters? Who wants to give their rough drafts one more extra read, or cut them a break for a minor disciplinary matter? How might someone on the scholarship committee (I'm on it) view this when it came time to vote on a certain scholarships? And, as already mentioned, do they not have any clue about legal ramifications?

Plus, there are a couple of them I would really like to pull aside and punch. But that is one ramification, alas, that won't come to fruition.


17 January 2007

Mr. P Tells Unwelcome Truths; Girls in Snit

Usually the end of the semester, for me at least, is a time for fond farewells and sentimental remembrances that often have nothing to do with reality. Oh sure, I've wanted to strangle the hemoglobin out of many of these kids for months, but hey, I can afford to only remember the good times when I know I'm getting rid of the little lovelies for good (or at least for a semester).

Yesterday, the last day before exams, ended on a slightly more bitter note however. Things kind of came to a boil between me and three of the "it" girls from my honors class (they are also in my yearbook class) when they started complaining bitterly about how mean another teacher was to them (frankly, they are 75% right). But these are among the same girls (from a group that refer to themselves as "the Eight") who in the last couple of weeks have completely blown off class due to social dramas, and have decided they don't need to be quiet when someone (like, oh, their teacher) is speaking. And though this is none of my business, I suppose, two of "the Eight" just totally toyed with and dumped on a couple of boys in successive weeks.

I ended up telling the girls, in the most constructively critical way that I could, that they were quickly cementing a reputation around the school for being bratty and whiny.


Hysterics ensued, voices reached that completely irritating tone that only the adolescent is capable of, and what I said was already being misrepresented before the bell rung. An unfortunate, ugly ending to the day (though they couldn't help smiling as I laughed at their outrage). Still, I felt a little guilty about it for a while.

"The Eight", huh? I think I will begin referring to them as The Directorate.

14 January 2007

Curriculum Sans Content

I had a couple of thoughts to add to the discussion going on at Wyfe's blog about "theory" in English Departments. In the comments, reader Michael referenced a new book by Michael Berube entitled What's Liberal About The Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and "Bias" in Higher Education. I haven't read the book, but recently read a lengthy review of it in the November "The New Criterion" by Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory U. (registration is required to read the review on the TNC website).

I take it that Bauerlein is a conservative (gasp), and that Berube is a moderate liberal. Bauerlein's review contains some positive comments, including an acknowledgement of what Michael (the blog reader) says about Berube's evenhanded approach to theory. His chief criticisms, however, include Berube's acceptance of the notion that it really doesn't matter what you are teaching, as long as you are teaching kids to "open your minds, face verbal challenges, keep complacency at bay, and play fair."

Bauerlein has no problem with these practices in the classroom, except that they seem to become goals of a liberal arts education in and of themselves . He says, "This is today's fallback position for liberalism in higher education. It used to push curricular innovations such as 'opening the canon,' but those enthusiasms faded years ago. Now, shying away from content, it emphasizes forensic ideas and content-less habits such as critical thinking."

Ah, critical thinking. In case you ever wondered if the practices and ideas of the ivory tower really influenced public education, look no further than that loaded term. Go to any workshop, or heck, any teacher's meeting, and you will hear the mantra "Our kids just don't know how to do critical thinking anymore!" (as if the concept had a centuries-old tradition of usage). The Kool-Aid, it hath been swallowed.

In English especially, one can see the effects of this contentless "critical thinking" in the way state curriculum goals are written. There are rarely any specifics. Instead, the goals are written like this: "The learner will be able analyze a variety of fiction and non-fiction texts of increasing complexity from personal, social, and critical standpoints." For the last three years of high school, the goals include some mention of world (10th grade), American (11th grade), and British (12th grade) literature, but no specific works, authors, or eras are required to be taught. Our ninth graders take a state-mandated test at the end of ninth grade English that is, essentially, a reading aptitude test sprinkled with some questions involving literary terms. Why? Well, the curriculum for ninth grade demands that no particular texts or authors be taught during the year (not even Romeo and Juliet). Hamlet, Harry Potter, or Beatrix Potter; it doesn't matter, so long as we are hitting those critical thinking skills.

Well, I have and will continue to call hogwash on this concept. No one reads in order to improve their "critical thinking" skills, nor do they derive any moral benefit from concentrating on such abstract goals. Books, plays, or poems are not life-altering if they are approached in such a cold manner. In my experience as a teenager and college student, reading Huckleberry Finn or Macbeth stimulated me to think because I was moved by them (and, I was a slothful student who was, fortunately, forced to read them), not because of the reading skills the teacher was focusing on. Whatever "critical thinking" skills I learned came from my encounters with rather incredible content, and not the other way around.

Nor do such emphases really invite someone to wrestle with the traditions or aesthetic norms that have shaped so much of who we are (this is true, it would seem, even for those who want to repudiate them).

I would not want our state education boards to legislate what should be read in every classroom title by title, because some teacher autonomy and flexibility is important. But there are a few titles that should be in the curriculum, and certainly some authors that every student needs to encounter. And, since curricula is updated every few years, if reading Shakespeare no longer seems important to our society, say fifty years from now (ha!), then replace him with someone who has similarly stood the test of time. I just don't think we should continue to leave the English curricula, nor the testing that is based on it, in a completely free-floating content-zone.

10 January 2007

Gotta Love it When...

... life imitates art. We've been finishing up "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in honors class this week. A couple of days ago I stopped in the middle of Act III to emphasize that we could read the confusions among the two couples (Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius) as Shakespeare's way of exploring the risks and dangers of love. "In order to have true love," I said, "don't you have to give up a little of yourself? When you decide to completely trust someone, aren't you running the huge risks of being betrayed and hurt?"

Well, little did I know (until I noticed something amiss a little later in class) that the latest "hot couple" in there was a hot couple no more. They started dating right before Christmas, and I must say they looked adorable, and happy, together. But, over the weekend, he got word that she was hanging out with another boy from another school, and... well, you know. Of course, her story is that she didn't even like this other guy at first, he was just bothering her, etc. But now, since she's conveniently free, well he's just peachy.

As for boy #1, (with apologies to Jesse Jackson), he's now quite dejected after being rejected and unelected. I mean, talk about your sad puppy dog. Perhaps it's unfair, and sexist, but I don't feel like I have to be as sensitive to boys in this situation as I do to girls. It's not like he's going to cry when I needle him, after all (which I haven't done openly, of course - though I did ask him if the sun came up this morning).

From what I hear, he's pushing hard behind the scenes to retrieve the iPod Nano he gave her for Christmas.

What was that, Lysander? "The course of true love never did run smooth."

07 January 2007

All Our Bad News, Contd.

I won't dwell on it, I promise. But since most of this blog is dedicated to daily school life, I'll touch on the memorial service that was. Perhaps our school district is just weird, or perhaps other schools do this, but Friday marked the second funeral memorial service in five months to be held in our auditorium. School was actually dismissed early, and the casket was actually rolled in and put in front of the stage. The procession drove up, and the large family walked in. No less than two Baptist preachers gave eulogy sermons with enough bad cliches for a lifetime, and there was a fair share of over-emotive contemporary spiritual songs with accompanying soundtracks played from the booth. There was a PowerPoint presentation produced by the funeral home which, whatever it's purpose, served as a perfect catalyst for making emotionally raw teenagers (and a few family members) sob even more loudly.

Much of this is a function of the Southern love affair with sentimentality, I think. Much of it is also a function of the way our general culture spurns the idea of dignity. For every dignified moment of the service, there seemed two moments of public wallowing. I just don't know that it was good for my poor, sweet student to mount the stage and attempt to say a few barely perceptible words about her boyfriend through her heaving and crying. Maybe it's just me, but if I were her parent or grandparent, I would have discouraged that scene.

Again, sorry for the hard heart I fear I'm displaying. But I just believe, in these situations, that many people aren't trying to help our kids grieve as much as they are encouraging a cult of suffering. As an example, I'll point to the sister of the murdered senior from the beginning of the school year. She has, apparently, been almost uncontrollable in class; she's behaving like a brat, and feels entitled to, it is believed, because her sister was killed and people have indulged her. I really, really hope that doesn't happen to this poor girl, my student, as well. She is only in tenth grade, for God's sake, and while she loved her boyfriend, he was not her husband. She still has a life to live; we need to love her and support her, but not turn her into a living martyr.

04 January 2007

Are We Cursed?

As soon as I walked in the school building yesterday morning, I knew something wasn't right. I saw the principal speaking earnestly with the guidance counselor, saw our former principal coming up the hall, and saw some girls talking to a teacher and crying. A few minutes later, one of my kids asked me if I had heard about the student who had been killed in an accident the night before. Evidently he was going way too fast around a sharp curve near his home, lost control, and went flying off the road.

He was a senior, and, as with our last student death, a kid I had never taught. Not having great academic or conduct records, he was nonetheless one of those kids who had been muddling through enough to graduate. Apparently he drove in this fashion all the time, and I've heard he had compiled nine tickets in his short driving life. Call me callous, but this lessens my sympathy for him, though not for his family.

By 8:30 yesterday morning, the usual army of counselors had set up shop in the media center, and, as with our student death earlier in the year, I stayed away. Some kids, including a few with virtually no connections to the student, were in there all day.

My real connection to this situation is that his girlfriend is in my first period class, so my second thought (after, "Dammit. Not again.") was about her. She's a sweet girl from a troubled family, and I knew she would be devastated.

She has been to school the last couple of days to talk with counselors and a teacher who is a good mentor for her, but has not been coming to class. Really, she shouldn't until Monday. And although I am very fond of her, I'll admit I was relieved that she didn't come to class today, and that I didn't have to squarely face the situation yet. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I find myself resistant to the whole idea of dealing with student grief right now. I'm not proud of this, but I've seen such excesses in response to death already this year that I'm a little numbed to it. (In addition to previously catalogued excesses over our murdered student earlier in the year, not long ago I had no less than seven girls tardy to class because they all had to be in the bathroom crying with their friend whose grandfather had just passed away from Alzheimer's complications).

Certainly if my student needs my help, I'll give it in a heartbeat. Maybe what she will need from me though, in the week and half we have left in this semester, is as much of a normal environment as possible.

Or maybe I'm trying to justify some disturbing reactions on my part.

01 January 2007

Reading List Update

I'm a book addict, so December (with b-day and Christmas) always brings a cache of dead trees that I have no shelf space for. And yet, I ask for more.

Any-hoo, for what it's worth, here is what my stack-o-books looks like as a result of December. This year there are a lot of spiritually-related titles, which wasn't really planned as I look back on it. Maybe the big Someone is trying to tell me something about my 2006?:


Refiner's Fire and A Winter's Tale, both by Mark Helprin. - After reading A Soldier of the Great War last summer, I can't get enough of Helprin


Manliness, by Harvey Mansfield - See last post for why I need this one. I actually heard Mansfield give a lecture based on this book way back last spring, at NC State. A brilliant, congenial man with an idiosynchratic writing style that takes a while to get used to.


Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt - Obvious why someone gave me this. I never read McCourt's other bestsellers, but this one chronicles his thirty years as a creative writing teacher. From a few glances, it looks quite good.

Gentle Regrets, by Roger Scruton - Memoir-esque essays from the British philosopher. Read a great review of this a year ago, and never got around to buying it until now.


Postmodernism 101 - A first course for the curious Christian, by Heath White - Yes, I've encountered more than enough postmodern readings in my life to know what it is (depending on your definition of "is"), but haven't read a serious take on it from a Christian, much less a philosophy prof. who professes Christianity. Already read this one, and enjoyed it more than I imagined I would.

The Language of God, by Francis Collins - Just read a couple of great reviews of this, and got excited about it. Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, writes about his migration from atheism to faith, and squares evolution with belief in God.

Pensees, by Blaise Pascal - Been reading about Pascal for years, so thought I would finally go to the source. A Christian anti-Enlightenment Frenchman who was nonetheless a famous Enlightenment-era mathematician. Those were the days, I guess.

Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, by Frederick Beuchner - What better way to finish such a fun-sucking list than with sermons from an old Presby minister? Actually, Beuchner's reputation as a writer is well-established, and after I read an excerpt from one of these sermons, I was hooked.

So there you go. In addition, I need to read both The Winter's Tale (Shakespeare, not Helprin), and Pericles before we go see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform at Davidson College next month. Maybe I should just top the whole thing off with a grim cherry like King Lear.

Should have another stack to report on by late spring or so.