Current/Recent Reading List

26 August 2008

Best Quote Ever

From one of my honors students, in answer to a student info. sheet I give out at the beginning of the year:

Q: What are your strengths in English? What would you like to improve upon?

A: I'm good at reading and writing; grammar is a great weariness.

Yes, grammar is a great weariness, young lad. As are a number of other things...

In (not so) unrelated news, one of our new first year folks, fresh out of college, is basically sweet, and will probably be a very good teacher. However, she has to be taken in small doses at this point - way too much energy without enough direction. So, for the past eight days or so she has shared, every day, the fact that she currently dates a young man whose family is originally from a country we currently have troops in. And, this young man is devoted to a religion that, let's just say, has a controversial standing in post-911 America. Not only this, but because 10th grade in NC is devoted to World Lit., she has booked said boyfriend and his brother to come speak to 10th grade English classes next Wednesday and inform the kiddos all about said religion, pending approval from the principal.

Now, first of all, I'm not at a place in my unit plans where this is convenient yet (we'll read Persepolis later on), but to be a team player my classes will attend if the approval comes through. I would rather spend the time getting across the fundamental reading and writing practices in my classes that it takes a couple of weeks to establish. Second, I get the sneaking suspicion that there is a "let's educate the hick kids" mentality here. Third, even if these guys are absolute princes who have the best intentions of "bridging misunderstandings" (as I'm sure they are), what makes them expert enough to give such a talk, and how willing will they be to face questions about why many fellow Americans legitimately feel uneasy about their religion? Fourth, is this really, perhaps, just an outgrowth of overexuberant puppy love and a desire to show off Mr. Boyfriend (don't think they've been dating long)? Fifth, can someone get me Mark Steyn on the phone, and see if he can make the talk?

18 August 2008

New School Year Preview (Part 2) - You Know You're Old When...

... you look out among the sea of faces at your first big faculty meeting of the year, and notice a young new teacher who... OH MY GOD! SHE WAS MY EDITOR FOR THE FIRST EVER YEARBOOK CLASS I TAUGHT IN '03/'04, AT MY FORMER SCHOOL! SHE WON MY OUTSTANDING STUDENT AWARD FOR THAT CLASS!

It's true - This morning I looked over at where the business/marketing teachers were sitting, and I saw Suzie (not her real name, obviously), and didn't trust my eyes, so flipped through the faculty list in my new handbook. Sure enough, that's her. So as soon as the principal was finished talking, I rushed over to her, hugged her, and spent the rest of the day basking in the glow of getting to work with a former student. She seemed tickled and pleased about it as well. Last I had seen of her, she had no inclination towards teaching, but changed her mind between her sophomore and junior years of college. This is her first year in teaching, and her first real job!


Can you tell I'm excited? It was a great day all around actually, and I can't say that about every "first day back" I've ever had. For one thing, miracle of miracles, we were given half of the day to work in our rooms - trust me, that's quite a bit for Day 1. More later in the week.

15 August 2008

New School Year Preview (Part 1) - Why My Kids Will Hate Me

Yes, first workday is Monday. Sigh.

Well, might as well jump in the mud and get going from the start, which is what my kids are going to have to do. Partially because I'm brainwashed from my Writing Project experience of the summer, and partly because I was veering this way by the end of last semester anyway, I can proudly declare why my students will hate me this year:

They are going to write their asses off, more than ever! First, I'm incorporating a modified writer's workshop into my classes, where we will spend at least two days a week on nothing but writing and conferencing, and by the end of each quarter the students will be responsible for having finished several pieces of writing in a variety of forms. Many of the deadlines will be open-ended up to the report card deadline, which means self-discipline will be a premium quality. Those who wait until the last minute to do things (and we all know there will be several) will hear me say, "Ooops, too bad. I had plenty of time to help you the last eight weeks, but precious little now. Looks bad for you."

Also, continuing what I started to do last semester, I'm making all tests written tests, in one way or another. As I tell the kids, "Written tests, once I've told you what's expected on them, actually give you a better chance to show what you've learned. You are actually more in control of your grade than ever before." This not only forces the kids to think more, and in a higher-level fashion, but I am happy to reward effort, and I don't have to worry about cheating or guessing. And believe it or not, written tests are actually not that hard to grade when a rubric has been set up ahead of time.

So, we will write, write, write, and as much as possible, I will write alongside the little urchins in an act of solidarity against their outrageously unfair teacher.

Sound schizophrenic enough?

07 August 2008

I'm Late on This, But Can't Help Pointing It Out...

Rarely will you see me frequenting a Starbucks. Wyfe, on the other hand, is much more of an enthusiast, though to her credit, she just likes the coffee, and rolls her eyes at Starbucks pretensions.
Well, we always stop at the Starbucks drive-thru at the beginning of long interstate trips back home after visiting either my parents or hers. I always dread it when I'm the one in the driver's seat, because I have to repeat the nine or ten ridiculous words it takes to communicate Wyfe's order. As for me, I just ask for a medium coffee, which I guess ends up translating as, irritatingly, a regular "Grande".

Well, now I know I have at least one fellow traveler. This is from a while ago, the June issue of The New Criterion, but can't be passed up. From the wonderful, and curmudgeonly, media critic James Bowman:

On my occasional visits to Starbucks, the ubiquitous coffee merchants, I try to refuse to use the private language the company has thoughtfully provided for the convenience of its patrons. Sometimes I forget and ask for Tall, Grande, or Venti, but usually I ask, defiantly but with some embarrassment, for small, medium, or large, because I resent being forced into a greater intimacy than I desire with the Starbucks corporate culture. I want to be a customer, not a member of the Starbucks Club who validates his membership along with his entry on the premises by speaking the Starbucks idiolect. Doubtless the marketing department in Seattle has tested it to a fare-thee-well and found that most people are not like me; most people are happy to use the special, European-sounding jargon—the Stargot, as we might call it—because it flatters them into the belief that, along with their coffee, they have purchased at a very reasonable price admission to an exclusive circle of coffee-drinkers who are socially a cut or two above those who drink from the caffeine-springs of Dunkin’ Donuts or Ma’s Diner, where they use ordinary English.
Back on the other coast but with considerably less subtlety, The Washington Post has long been engaged in a similar exercise... [there is a] never-ending radio advertising campaign for the Post which ends with that newspaper’s supremely irritating slogan: “If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.” Was there ever such a crass appeal to intellectual snobbery by an organ purporting to be an arbiter of public tastes and morals?...

... Naturally, no one wants to be outside the circle of those who “get it”—a formulation once applied mainly to jokes but now used to indicate a political group-identity which defines itself in part by stressing the stupidity of those who do not share it. To be among those who “get it” is not only to hold a certain set of views that make one reliably progressive but also, by holding it, to be a member of the progressive club—which, like the Starbucks Club, is decidedly up-market socially.

The "Stargot", indeed!

03 August 2008

The Good Tears Were Sad Tears

With all the fun I've been making of the women-folk lately, especially in conjunction with the Writing Project experience, let me give you a small vignette about one day when I didn't mind the tears at all:

As mentioned previously, we were split into peer writing groups of four, and within these groups we read and gave each other feedback about our pieces, both online, and in person. In my group there was one lady in her fifties, one in her mid-thirties, and one in her mid-twenties.

The latter of these is a fifth grade teacher, and to observe her personality - bright, friendly, wholesome, and oh-so-maternal - is immediately to know that elementary education fits her well. Other clues about her cropped up each day during the first week of our institute: she baked breakfast goodies for us twice, she fussed over her hair and clothes when others wanted to take pictures, her necklaces and bracelets always matched her pants, and when she gave her presentation, she wore heels and a fairly formal black dress. She even told us that she and a few friends had started a cooking club together. If I had to pick one person I know who could go back in time and survive, probably thrive, as a stereotypical 1950's-style housewife, it would be her. Her first writing, a childhood memoir, was about the aw-shucks vacations her family always took at a cabin by the lake (yes, they even toasted marshmallows), while all her other friends went to Disney, or Cancun, or Hilton Head. I wondered aloud if she felt a jealous tension over what her friends got to do compared to her, and in total seriousness she said, "Nah." All of this made me privately giggle a bit - which is probably patronizing - but I meant no harm. She was obviously a wonderful person, but a bit of a throwback, and without much life experience yet.

Or so I thought. The next writing assignment was a personal narrative, in which we were to explore a formative event in our lives. We read these in our peer groups, and we were even being recorded as part of a study on peer writing feeback. My young friend waited until last to read hers, and I sensed a different confidence about her this time, like she knew she had something good. From the first couple of paragraphs, it was obvious I was right. Her writing was funny this time, all about her hair: the travails she had as a young girl when her mother wouldn't let her wear it long, and then the absolute self-esteem she had, once she was allowed long hair, from her teen years to the present. Even once she was married and gainfully employed, she occasionally had nightmares that her hair had been all cut off. These were mere dreams, though, and life seemed to be sailing along.

As she read, I knew some turn of fate was coming, but never suspected it would be too bad - perhaps just a mild admonition life brought along to remind her that looks aren't everything. When the turn came, though, we were all unprepared for the gravity and immediacy of it. She read of how, merely a few months ago, she miscarried a baby, and her beloved grandmother died, back to back. She reached this point in the paper so suddenly that I could almost hear my own internal "thud". Concurrently, all the confidence in her voice fell off, and she began sobbing. This was obviously awkward, and one of the other group members offered to read for her, while I dug in my pocket for a tissue to offer. She took the tissue, but wanted to keep reading, and she did, though with difficulty. Turns out, on the day her baby would have been due, she scheduled a hair cut, wanting to take inches off, wanting to feel like she could make a fresh start. When it was over, her feelings of brokeness, alas, had gone nowhere, and she finally had to squarely face herself and her grief.

It was a stunning story, and a stunning effort to finish reading it, all the while fighting back tears. We all eventually tried to offer a few pointers here and there about how to improve the piece, but frankly it needed no improvement - not then, anyway. The best I could tell her, in the end, was, "That was an awesome piece of writing, but I'm so sorry."

Two days later, when it came time to pick one member of the peer group to read to everyone, we told her she was the pick, and crossed our fingers. She read with absolute composure, but absolute conviction, her voice not breaking until the final sentence.

In the face of her bravery, who cares what I was thinking, really, but I'll tell you anyway. What I felt was absolute pride in my young friend, who I know now, better than I did before, will some day be a perfect mom.