Friday, October 22, 2010

let me teach like a combine

One of my favorite poets, Taylor Mali, wrote a piece called Undivided Attention, where he speaks of a grand piano dangling from a mover’s crane eight stories high across the street from where he’s teaching math. It’s spinning in the air, a sight to see, and just like when the first snow falls, the children are more interested in what’s out the window than in math.

“Let me teach like a Steinway,” he says, longing for the magic to hold them rapt, to arrest their minds as a piano in the sky would.  I loved this poem so much when I started teaching that I slid it into the front cover of my gradebook. Students will notice it occasionally and spin my binder around to read it, but other than those moments, I really haven’t thought of it since. Until last Monday.

Monday was when I was in a hurry to deliver my lesson—there was more lesson than there was time to do it in, and to make matters worse, it was an overview of writing literary analysis. Yuck. I try pretty damn hard to keep the topics in the English classroom riveting, and when I can’t make them so, or when I can’t avoid a lecture, I try to keep it as brief as possible. But there was no getting around this lecture on analysis. They may as well have been a room full of toddlers with ear infections, and I was a giant pink, uncoated Amoxicillin capsule they had to swallow against their will. They were fussy and shifty in their seats and full of sighs, and I felt guilty and aimed to compensate by gesturing and gyrating more than usual.

When suddenly, the crescendo of a whirr outside became impossible to ignore. I glanced stealthily at the window, hoping to keep my prisoners from following my eyes. Ohhh, no. It was a gigantic combine harvester, with a cab and tires taller than the building, threshing through a six-foot-tall cornfield and shooting whatever it gobbled through the air back into its bin.

I prayed for a miracle. Desperate, I actually tried over-stressing the next few words out of my mouth in hopes of gaining victory over a monstrous piece of farm equipment. But alas, I ended up yelling something about citations and textual evidence, and before I knew it, heads were turned ninety degrees away from me, and they were gone.

“Whoa!” exclaimed Katie, who sits by the window, and the boys next to her began absentmindedly climbing across her desk to get a better look. They were transfixed. And I thought of the Steinway dangling out the window.

And I felt sad. Not because I lost their attention—a Hyundai could have driven by and they would have been more intrigued about that than about this particular lesson—but because of the feeling I had during the interruption. I want to be, I used to be, more flexible. I had this sudden unsettling thought that, four years ago, I would have thrown open the blinds and marveled at the maize-eater with them. We would have had an impromptu conversation about agriculture, corn in our food, government subsidies, whatever . . . then I would have shown documentary clips in the next class, because a good teacher follows the thread of the conversation and follows up on questions and makes it all relate somehow.

At the end of the year, they would have said, “Remember that morning the combine drove through the cornfield and we all went outside and watched it? That was fun!” But I didn’t think of that until later. What I thought of was how many minutes were left in the period and how this interruption would cost me some teaching time and how, if they were really listening—or actually, if I was really engaging—they wouldn’t have even noticed the combine.

But of course they would have. “See," Mali says, "snow falls for the first time every year, and every year my students rush to the window as if snow were more interesting than math, which, of course, it is.” And next fall, the combine in the cornfield will still be more interesting than absolutely anything I could plan for class. And next fall, I’ll do a better job of remembering where my guilt ended up at week’s end: not that I had to cut my lecture a little short, but that we didn’t drop our pencils, run outside, and watch the husks fly.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

an october tuesday

Parents sometimes compile their li'l pumpkins' soundbites into scrapbooks and albums.  Teachers do much the same thing, operating on a continuum that ranges from repeating students' remarks to a laughing lunchroom, to jotting them down on sticky notes that clutter up our workspace and eventually end up adhered to the base of our coffee mugs.  Today I giggled a great deal and received after-school visits from four former students.  It's days like today that give my soul a boost and remind me that, with all of the challenges inherent in this job, I get to work with 179 of the public's (not-so-li'l-anymore) pumpkins.

Me: Can you believe it’s almost November? The year’s almost over!
Jon: It’s not going fast enough. [widespread agreement]
Me: Maybe you should all try being more optimistic.
Them: [blank stares]
Me: Do you know what optimistic means?
Isaac: Is it like tacos?

Christian: What did you have for dinner last night, Ms. Septembers?
Me: Uh . . . I had a bowl of cereal.
Them: A bowl of cereal?!
Christian: You kind of have a depressing life, don’t you?

Me: That reminds me of a song by Ricky Martin. Are any of you familiar with Ricky Martin?
Judy: No, but I know a guy named Gomer.

Me: I realize this stuff can be boring, but it’s better than, say . . . an enema.
[A few chuckles.]
Me: Do you know what enemas are?
Debi: Is that for when you’re constipated?
Me: Yes.
Debi: Oh, yeah, my mom had one!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

kids nowadays

I read an article lately citing a study revealing that older people tend to complain about younger people. This was no earth-shattering conclusion, and I sincerely hope that no government funding was spent on the so-called research. The article went on to explain that the data also indicated older people engage in youth-criticism because it raises their self-esteem. They lost my attention at the second clause. As a teacher, I do plenty of complaining about youth, and while my sense of worth is constantly in question (privately, to be sure, but also by Oprah), the two are not correlative.

I feel that, given my age (which is top secret because some days, it’s the only way I can arouse intrigue in my students), I have an advantage in talking about this topic. It’s slightly over a decade since I was in high school myself, and I am constantly alarmed at how they—those crazy kids with their newfangled ways—behave, and it has zilch to do with my self-esteem.

Numerous articles have been printed since the turn of the century about the clashing of generations. For the first time, we have three distinct generations (some say four or five) in the workplace together: the baby boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y (a.k.a. the millenials). While my year of birth occasionally puts me in the latter category (depending on which article I’m reading), I’m definitely an X in my mindset and behaviors. That is, I was raised by baby boomers who both worked, divorce was prevalent, and efficiency was a top value, to name a few. This conversation can sound as generic as a horoscope until you look at the characteristics assigned to the ensuing generation: they grew up in a techno-rich environment and are comfy with technology in every part of their lives, influencing their creativity and attention to detail, for better or worse. They grew up in a stable economy, pre-9/11, so they have a noticeably higher level of confidence.

Let me put it this way (because I’ve always preferred qualitative over quantitative data): behaviorally and academically, the students I teach are nothing like the students who were my peers in high school. Sure, I could chock this up to demographic differences, but actually, the clientele in my building varies little from that of my high school when I was in it. I have friends who have been teaching twenty, even thirty-plus years, and they all give the same assessment: something happened in the last ten years, and students are just different. It’s baffling for those of us old enough to make the observation.

Kids today, educators most commonly complain, have an appalling sense of entitlement. Sure, this is a generalization: I have students who are so polite and humble that they’ll actually say “thank you” when I hand them a test. But we’re talking by and large here. Let’s say that I want to wrap up the year with a nice gesture for my students. So I spend way too much of my own money on doughnuts (I have to get at least three dozen per class) for them to nibble during final exams. What will I inevitably hear as they’re eating? “We only get to have one?! That sucks.” “Oh, man! There’s no jelly-filled ones.” “I’m thirsty for milk. Why’d you get juice?” This presumption of privilege is often so engrained that it will persist into college and even as many seek job opportunities. One recent article says that even during the recession, new grads are turning down jobs in record numbers because they feel that the jobs are beneath them.

For many, even basic courtesies are beneath them. I have students who will come in after school seeking clarification about their grade, and while I’m answering their questions or amidst an explanation, they will pull out their phones and start texting. Some have even acted irritated when I tell them to put it away while we’re talking, because they’re “not in class” (ironic, since those particular offenders tend to use it during class as well). Last week, I infuriated a student with my outrageous insistence on his adherence to rules. He had slipped out of class early on two occasions without my permission. (This is a legal issue that lands on my head should something go wrong in his absence.) On the third day, I told this student that it wouldn’t happen again, that it was disrespectful of me, and that because he’s a junior, I didn’t buy his excuse that he “didn’t know” he couldn’t leave whenever it suits him. And that I would write him up for detention. He hasn’t been to class since, because—in the words of a messenger—I “pissed him off.”

On the few occasions that I got into trouble with teachers, sure, I was pissed at them, but it was a humiliating, I’m-not-gonna-talk-to-you-anymore-or-laugh-at-your-jokes-but-I’ll-do-what-you-say-because-I’m-embarrassed-that-I-got-caught kind of pissed. I realized that I was the schmuck and that they were doing their job, as irritating as it was to my personal life. I stopped talking in class or passing a note because the teacher said so, period. And I didn’t feel inclined to ask why, to argue, to explain what I was actually doing, or to covertly continue my behavior moments later.

I grew up in the tail end of an era that my parents would recognize from their K-12 years: the teacher stood up front and talked while the students spent the period quietly listening . . . or at least, being quiet. Discipline was quick and, generally, not to be discussed. We all knew who got the F's in class and who the “bad” kids were, and we didn’t find their behavior funny. It never occurred to us to laugh at their out-of-turn comments, because they struck us as shocking and rude. I remember only once that I laughed at the deviant culprit during my sophomore year. It was when my horrible lab partner, Jason, yelled—apropos of nothing and in the middle of the teacher talking—that “Josh is a tampon.” It still makes me laugh to this day.

But I digress. By the time I reached grad school, the conversations surrounding how we treat kids were changing, and that’s a good thing. After all, if kids are changing, we must adapt or we risk losing them. Upon becoming a teacher, I prided myself on being more authoritative than authoritarian. I composed papers defending my philosophy regarding student empowerment, both in terms of curriculum and in management (that’s discipline, for you outsiders). Five years in, I’m still frequently reconsidering and reflecting on those areas of my teaching. I want to ensure that my conversations and corrections when it comes to student behavior are clear, fair, realistic, and respectful of students. Yes, for the most part, I don’t feel like “Because I said so” is a viable response. Just because that justification shut down my misbehaviors doesn’t mean I learned anything from it; moreover, that response simply doesn’t work on today’s students. They need a reason they can buy before they comply.

I’m younger than my students’ parents, and I’m certainly more in favor of student empowerment than my oldest colleagues, but I feel like we’re sharing the same megaphone when we holler that, at a certain point, kids need to be instilled with a sense of respect for authority. I abide by the bumper sticker and encourage them to question it, yes, but I want them to question in a respectful fashion and know when to shut up.

I’m not complaining about members of the youngest generation because it boosts my self-esteem. I don’t make them put their phones away or take notes or read in absolute silence for ten minutes because it somehow bolsters my sense of importance. I don’t insist that they take turns talking and pick up their trash and apologize for hurting others’ feelings because it makes my aging self feel superior. Why, then? I don’t know . . . perhaps because I hope that at least a few will get along with the rest of us? Because sometimes what they need to learn, like the rest of us, is to shut their yappers and listen? Because I said so?

Yes, “because I said so” sounds good.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

the week in quotes

Me: "When I think of the word anguish, I think of a mixture of sad and angry."
Masado: "Oh, okay. So what you mean is sangry."

"If an octopus had a monocle, do you suppose he would also have an accent?"

Samples of students’ 6-word stories (talented, tragic, touching, and trenchant, respectively):
Memorized quadratic formula today. Chick magnet.
My mom never came to get me.
Life? Open book. Pages? Stuck together.
Stalker: highest compliment or just creepy?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

tv teaching

Television has tried repeatedly to bring the teachers’ lounge to living rooms. This began with Our Miss Brooks (which debuted as a radio broadcast in the '40s) and continued into the last decade with Boston Public, a show that portrayed a faculty full of designer-suit clad, beautiful people who were, at best, prone to oodles of sexual innuendo, and at worst, prone to making out in dark corners of campus.

Just to set the record straight before I move on: in real life, there are oodles of innuendo, but that’s typically because all day we’re stuck talking to teenagers, who chortle and nudge each other for several minutes if we say something as humdrum as, “Put that thing away.” So after the last bell, when we emerge from our classrooms sweaty and irked, we need some witty nuance like a tongue needs . . . well, water.

Now A&E is bringing high school to the small screen with a new reality show called Teach, starring Tony Danza. Yes, that Tony Danza. It’s getting positive reviews so far, but after viewing the pilot, I’m unimpressed. To be fair, I embarked unimpressed: he teaches only one English class of a mere 26 sophomores who were screened by producers. Aside from the gross farcical underpinnings, those who edit film and do PR for Teach need to settle down. A patchwork of Danza close-ups are sewn in with scenes of him tearfully proclaiming that he’s “not sure if [he’s] up to it.”

One episode description teases that our protagonist is up against a “ball-busting principal.” The scene in question reveals a principal who matter-of-factly and reasonably states that nothing will get in the way of her students learning—not Danza, not this production. That speech makes the boxer-turned-actor-turned-teacher weep as well. At this point, I begin to wonder who wouldn’t be considered a ball-buster. Littered with screw-ups aplenty, the rest of the pilot does a better job of making Danza look incompetent than it does making teaching look as tough as it is.

The LA Times claims the show will “resonate with anyone who has or has ever been a high school student.” But even though the cameras are rolling and there are probably many genuine moments included, I simply cannot relate. My unsettled feeling after watching reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne: after publishing his first book, Hawthorne was so embarrassed by it that he attempted to retrieve and burn all copies. I was not inclined to assemble any pyres, but I certainly felt like sabotaging the network or something—anything to keep this big crybaby from infiltrating the airwaves and garnering empathy for all the wrong reasons.

Sure, I’ve blubbered abundantly in my five years of teaching (in fact, I did so last Monday night), but most of my tears come from students: the bright one who can’t go to college here because he walked over the border; the sweet one who turns everything in and never lets on that she sleeps in a car each night; the hardened one who never turns anything in but stays until dark each day so he won’t go home and get hit; the quiet one who finds courage to write about his murdered family. Their stories make me cry, and on occasion, the responsibility of teaching anything to people in those predicaments makes me cry. The timelines and pressures of state testing sometimes make me feel that no matter how compassionate I am, there is always an undertone of, Yes, that’s terrible that your family can’t buy food this week, but today we’re going to practice sentence patterns. I cry about not having enough time to be a human being for them.

Evidently, Danza faces a litany of challenges later in the season, including cheating and stealing. The indication is that since this behavior goes on “even with the cameras rolling” that the reality show is, in fact, realistic. But if it’s for real, tell me how a trained actor would open his first day thusly: “Welcome . . . welcome to the first day of school . . . I uh, I’m supposed to be here to uh, to be uh, your teacher. Your English teacher. Okay?” Ugh. Just give me some good ol’-fashioned innuendo and let me get back to teaching that’s true.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

friends in low places

I needed country music on my way home from work a couple nights ago. It was one of those days that only country can help me come down from. But that’s not the point. The point is, when I landed on my favorite station, there was dead air. It continued for several minutes. I realized first that, somewhere, a deejay was emerging from the restroom, from his car, from his employment into, possibly, unemployment. The next thought I had was that the dead air would be an apt metaphor for my blog this week if something of interest didn’t happen quickly.

The K-12 gods heard my plea and answered with the theft of my classroom hall pass.

I’ve dabbled in all types of passes (lanyards, cards I have to sign, extra staplers), but none has worked quite so well as the Room 137 Illustrated Toilet Seat. This isn’t the original toilet seat, but just like the Original House of Pancakes, nobody cares about particulars. When the one I had last year broke in half (an incident that was explained by a near-tears girl who had been swinging and tossing it a la Mary Tyler Moore’s hat), I brought in a newbie. As I pulled off the plastic sheeting and took the shiny new commode attachment from its box, the excited sophomores gathered round as though I were Santa with the latest iPod. And just like they would do with their new iPods, the students wasted no time in personalizing the potty seat.

Armed with markers, they crowded their new elliptical canvas and covered it in images that represented them and their musings: a film strip, a seahorse, a ninja. They autographed and dated the back. It had become a toilet-seat-time-capsule. And as this school year began, it hung on the doorknob and was carried to and fro whenever students needed to pee or text message without fear of reprisal.

Until Tuesday. A male student returned empty-handed, alarmed. He had been in the stall and had set the pass on the counter outside. Hooligans entered, throwing around wet tissue paper and making a commotion. When he exited the stall, he found that the thugs had taken the hall pass. The crime against Room 137, against me, against my veteran sophomores, reverberated for days. I plotted revenge. Since all of my ideas seemed slightly psychotic and would be tough to explain to the administration, I decided to just make a new pass. But in retaliation, this pass would be no fun. In fact, it would be merely a laminated, white page that read “The Most Boring Hall Pass Ever” (included in fine print was the tale of how such a lackluster hall pass came to be).

It hung in all its understated glory where the seat used to be. It grew slowly more wrinkled, and on Friday morning, it was stolen. Similar story: kid goes into a stall, comes out, and finds the pass gone. What did it all mean? Was the dual theft an unfortunate coincidence? Or were my hall passes—was I—being targeted? Should I be flattered, or should I expect my car to be stolen next?

I had no sooner nailed down all of my personal effects and given my 7th-period class permission to tackle any suspicious-looking teenagers on sight when the door opened. Todd, one of my veteran sophomores, had The Most Boring Hall Pass Ever in his hand and a look of confusion on his face. He had found it on the floor in auto shop. I thanked him, hung it back in its place, and finished the week with a sense of calm: my toilet seat is still gone, but at least I got a good story. Speaking of good stories, I wonder if this would make a decent country song?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

adventures in discipline

Anyone who has had to deal with the public as part of their job knows how impossible that public can sometimes be to deal with. But there are moments in teaching—and, oh my, are they numerous—where I think, “Only in this job . . .” Last week was the third week of the year. Here’s a peek into one class period:

I entered the classroom and heard, “There’s a new kid and he’s sitting in my seat!” The new kid, Ray, announced at my desk that he just moved from three hours away because his mom tried to commit suicide. His grandparents wanted him to live with his father from now on. Within the next 90 minutes, I would learn that Ray struggled with appropriate social interactions, targeting his peers for conversations in ways that made them uncomfortable. Since his peers aren’t adept at things like manners or empathy, they lashed out at him, bonding in their criticism of him while forcing me to stop the lesson and verbally ream them out in the hallway.

Meanwhile, one student was playing with a blue chunk of putty. I wouldn’t have minded this kinesthetic behavior (some kids need it—I got used to a student two years ago who had to flip through a pad of sticky notes during any lecture), except that it was a huge distraction for him (adhering it to his eyebrow, etc.), and thus, for his peers who were sitting nearby. Since Jorge’s assigned task at the time was to read silently, I asked him to put the putty away. He did, and moments later, it was out again. This time, I reached out and asked him to hand it to me. His response: “Why?”

Answering this question is often a lose-lose situation. I want him to understand the reason behind my request so he knows I’m not just being bossy for the sake of being bossy. I also want him to understand that this behavior, in his case, isn’t conducive to learning. He deserves to know why, other than simply “Because I said so.” However, answering this question opens the door for him to argue: “It’s not distracting anyone! Zack, are you distracted? See?” His seeking justification also gave him time to stall. He had moved his hands under his desk, presumably so that I either couldn’t see it anymore (did he think I’d forget?) or so that I couldn’t snatch it.

Long story short, we engaged in a power struggle for about 45 seconds over a piece of putty. In the end, I won (there is no way I wasn’t going to win this early in the year). The putty was sitting, sweaty and solemn, on my desk. About eight minutes later, I saw Jorge playing with a glob of putty. It was a replacement glob. Blue like the last one but not the last one. Here were my thoughts: [1] How resourceful of him to have a backup glob! [2] What a moron to have it out where I can see it and will have to respond with a consequence. [3] I have to respond with a consequence. [4] He wants a consequence. He doesn’t want to read, and he’s hoping he’s sent out of class so that he doesn’t have to.

When we step into the hallway and I talk to Jorge about how I’d like to trust him and how that relationship is now in jeopardy, he replies about his putty reappearance: “But it was a different piece.” Seriously?! Does he actually think he has a clean slate because he’s not playing with the initial piece of offending putty? He might. Or he might think I’m so dumb that I’ll be swayed by that excuse. Either way, it’s sort of cute and super irritating.

When we reentered the classroom, Ray was furious because Abe had called him a fag. He was pointing across the room and yelling at me to “do something about him.” I had already addressed, in no uncertain terms, the appropriateness of using this language in class. Few things make me more furious than students casually using “gay” as an epithet for anyone or anything they consider stupid. Because of this, and because of Abe’s fervent denials (he’s the cocky type who, I’ve learned already, tends to own up to his transgressions), I thought I should get to the bottom of this. Both boys came over to my desk, and for the first time, the class was actually quiet on their own, collectively leaning in to eavesdrop.

Me: Abe, did you call Ray a fag?
Abe: Yes, but that happened last period, and he’s acting like it happened now.
Me: How did the teacher last period handle that?
Abe: He talked to me about it and I apologized.
Me: And you haven’t used that word since this morning?
Abe: No, I swear.
Me: Ray, can we agree that in this class, we should focus on what happens in this class?
Ray: [Nods.] Yes. [Sticks out his hand to shake with Abe. They shake for what I can see is an uncomfortably long time because Ray won’t let go. Abe feels awkward.]
Abe: You shake like a girl.

Educators know that our job is always part teaching, part management. The ratio of each varies depending on the clientele, but we always long for something at or above 90/10. Because, in case you had forgotten while reading the tale above, I still had teaching to do that day. Supervising a reading test, helping students select books, monitoring their progress, reminding them how to react in writing . . . all while teaching them how to behave around fellow humans—a lesson which, although it’s not in my agenda, will not wait for an opportune time.