Monthly Archives: October 2009

Pink Paper Policy *Edited*

Huh!  I checked back in the archives, and it seems that I’ve not written about my pretty pink paper policy yet.  I wonder how THAT happened!

Okay, get ready to flash back about four years.  I’m working on my internship experience (ironically, at the high school I attended and under the guidance of the woman who was my biggest inspiration for wanting to become an English teacher, but that’s another story).  We were working several classes, but my pretty paper policy was inspired by an experience I had with a senior in the AP Language and Composition class (I had this kid…).

Let’s call him Chet.  Chet was a wise-ass.  Chet was always right.  Chet knew more than the teachers (even the ones with Ph.D.s in writing instruction, by the way).  Chet was a royal pain in the ass.

Let’s just say that Chet was not my favorite student, even BEFORE the proverbial shit hit the fan.

Chet failed to turn in a piece of writing.  A fairly important piece of writing that constituted a significant portion of his grade.

Chet baldly accused ME of losing this piece of writing.

It didn’t matter that Chet was unable to reproduce the piece (most kids would have just gone back to their computer and hit “print” again.  No harm, no foul.  Chet made some bullshit claim about a hard drive failure).  Chet had decided that I was an easy target – the intern is the equivalent of the red-shirted, no-name actors on the original Star Trek; you know, the ones who catch a phaser gun blast right between the eyes and never come back from away missions alive?

celebrity-pictures-leonard-nimoy-red-proactive

(edited to include this picture; I just had to go back and include it.  I think it’s a riot that I found this the day after I wrote this post….)

The upshot was that Chet simply didn’t do the work, but he wasn’t going to go down for it; he was going to blame it on me.

Dear Readers, I bought it.  I looked EVERYWHERE for this paper.  I turned my house upside down.  I looked in every rooom in the school I’d even WALKED past.  I practically stripped my car.  I could not find this paper because, well, you know…

The incident almost made it all the way to the dean before the kid finally confessed – after we threatened to call his parents in on the fun -  that he didn’t do the writing in the first place (don’t even get me STARTED on the depth of dumbassery this kid demonstrated; in the days that we were busy turning my life inside out looking for this fucking essay, he could easily have written the paper and planted it somewhere in the classroom).

I walked out of the dean’s office swearing that I would NEVER AGAIN be used like that.

From that point on, I have instituted what I call my “pretty paper policy.”  I went to the office supply store and bought a ream of neon-colored paper (I started with purple because I like the alliteration, then switched to pink when the purple ran out.  Think about that for a minute…that’s a LOT of purple paper….).

The idea is that when a homework assignment or essay is due, EVERYONE must hand me SOMETHING; either the assignment or a piece of pretty paper with the student’s name, the date, and the missing assignment’s title written on it.  That way, when the student gets a zero for work he or she didn’t do, they can’t tell me that I lost it when I can produce a piece of day-glo paper with their own handwritten confession on it.

I use the pretty paper policy in every class I teach, college and high school.  The college kids never get their pink paper back; I don’t accept late work without prior agreement, so that pink paper stands for a zero on the kid’s score.  The high school kids get to exchange their pink paper for the completed – albeit late – assignments.  Well, they do until mid-semester, anyway.  I wanted to give the kids a good half-semester to get used to me, my teaching style, and the kind of work I’m asking them to do.  I’m doing away with the policy on November 9th.  From then on, they get treated just like my college kids.

It’s a sad thing when a teacher needs to write receipts for missing work so s/he can cover the proverbial ass against unethical (lazy!) students, but it is what it is.  While I’m not happy about having to use it, I’m glad that I do.  I wonder how many Chets the policy has saved me from…

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Helen Keller Moments

My job is a series of nearly whiplash-inducing ups and downs.  Sadly, of course, the downs – the dumbass kids – make up the higher proportion of this particular roller coaster ride (and, coincidentally, a higher proportion of the fodder for my writing here).

Luckily for me, though, the occasional good ones are enough to keep me getting up in the morning.  These are the kids who “get it” in spectacular and obvious ways, and whose entire perspective of the work we’re doing – and, not for nothing, of themselves – changes in what I call “Helen Keller moments.”  I spell W-A-T-E-R in their hands and suddenly they’re off to the races.

These are the kids who make me love – LOVE! – my job.

Take today as an example.  After a couple of excruciating weeks of apathy and piles of pink paper (have I told you all about my pink paper policy?), I decided to do a review of The Book Thief in preparation for an essay test I’m going to give the students on Monday.  (Chili’s note; what follows kind of requires that you’ve read The Book Thief; I’ll do my best to explain it so that it makes sense to those of you who haven’t, but that’s really not the point of the story.  Sorry if I leave some of you behind).

I told the kids to do their morning writing about the book; what questions, observations, or connections did they make that they wanted to bring up to the rest of the class?  One of the students – we’ll call her Jennifer – mentioned that she was intrigued by the idea of Death as a narrator, but that she felt she couldn’t quite get underneath it.  She knew it was important that Death was the narrator, but she wasn’t sure why.  We talked a little bit about how Death describes his senses (he can smell color and hear emotions and taste ideas, that sort of thing).  Then, I brought up the fact that Death tells us he only sees Liesel four times; once when Werner dies, once when the pilot dies in the plane crash, once when the air raid hits Himmel Street, and once when Liesel herself dies as an old woman, many years after that air raid.

I held up three fingers to represent the first three times Death sees Liesel.  “Okay, you guys,” I said.  “HOW does Death know about all this stuff” – here I pointed to the spaces between my fingers – “when he’s only seeing her for the time it takes him to collect these souls?” – here I pointed to the fingers themselves.  “He isn’t presented as an all-knowing narrator, so how does he know about Max and Mama and the apples and, well, EVERYTHING?  Why is his knowing kind of ironic?”

There’s silence…

This is nothing new…

I’m willing to wait it out.

I looked up to find that Jennifer had a look of utter shock – SHOCK!  I tell you! – on her face.  Her eyes were huge, her mouth was in a big O, and her eyebrows were up to her hairline.

“OH.  MY.  GOD, Mrs. Chili!!  Death STOLE Liesel’s BOOK, didn’t he?!”

DING, DING, DING!!

Yes, Honey; Death essentially stole Liesel’s autobiography (though, to be fair, the book was tossed in with rubble and debris being removed from the ruined street; it’s not as if he wrestled it from her hands).  THAT’S how he was able to know about all the things that he couldn’t have known about.  It kind of blew one or two minds to think that, really, this whole time, LIESEL has been telling us her story – through Death’s reading of her autobiography – but I didn’t want to get them too worked up over that (we’re still working on basic plot and characterization functions here; I don’t want to push my luck too far).

I made a HUGE deal about this connection – this clicking – that Jennifer did; they know perfectly well when I’m upset with them, and I want them to know just as clearly when they do something great.

Jennifer’s discovery helped salve the last few weeks.  She left the class “getting” it, and that’s what I’m in this for.

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Filed under critical thinking, great writing, Helen Keller Moment, I love my job, Literature, self-analysis, success!, Teaching, the good ones

Sweet Mother of Herman Melville!

I think I’m caught up!

Well, technically I’m only caught up on the grading for my high school classes – I still have annotated bibliographies to assess for my college kids – but having all that paper OUT of my briefcase and into my grade book is such a thrilling feeling!

PHEW!

Things are a little mixed at CHS lately.  There seems to be a pervading sense of, oh, I don’t know; I wouldn’t call it ennui, exactly, but it’s not “let’s go get ‘em!” enthusiasm, either.  More of my students are doing their work, and there’s certainly something to be said for that, but those who still aren’t still don’t get it, and I’m getting the feeling from a couple of them that they just don’t care.

I left this message in a student’s notebook this afternoon.  This kid had about 11 missing assignments, and he decided to “make them up” by writing about eight words for prompts that would require at LEAST a couple of paragraphs (if not a couple of pages) to answer with anything approaching competence.  I made a point to send the message home, too, to let his folks know that I’m more than happy to help him, but that this horse just ain’t drinkin’ the water I’m leading him to…

Jeff, this is wholly insufficient.  If you continue to resist the writing, it is going to continue to be difficult for you.  Telling me that you can’t do your homework because you’re so far behind because you haven’t done your previous homework is not a convincing argument at all.

I am more than happy to help you. I am not, however, willing to chase you down. You’re making choices here, and when you decide to start making different choices, I’ll be here ready and willing to help you.  The motivation to do well has to come from you, though; until you decide that you want this, there’s very little else that I can do to help you.

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Grammar Wednesday

The ever-popular misplaced modifier!

Walking to school in the rain, my hair was soaked.

Looking up from the base, the mountain seemed like a difficult one to climb.

Answering the door, Dave surprised the UPS man wearing nothing but wife’s his underwear.

Misplaced (sometimes called “dangling” modifiers) are groups of words that are meant to describe or modify a noun, but the placement of those words makes the meaning unclear (and often funny).  Like the also ever-popular pronoun referent problem (we’ll get to that in  a minute) the problem with the misplaced modifier is that the noun is either unclear or too far away from the phrase to make sense.

In the first sentence,Walking to school in the rain is actually modifying my hair when, really, it should be modifying ME; my hair, after all, wasn’t doing the walking.  There are a couple of ways to rework the sentence to make sense; I would probably writeWalking to school in the rain, I knew it wouldn’t be long before my hair would be soaked through.”

In the second sentence, the noun is unclear.  We know that the mountain isn’t doing the looking up, so adding more to the sentence -we thought, perhaps – turns the structure into a perfectly lovely Looking up from the base, we thought the mountain seemed like a difficult one to climb.

In the last sentence, we’re not sure exactly who is wearing the underwear.  I’d rewrite the sentence to read Dave surprised the UPS man by answering the door wearing nothing but his wife’s underwear,

This brings us to pronoun reference.  I can’t tell you how many times I see things like this:

Kathy told Sarah that her baby was cute. Whose baby is cute; Kathy’s or Sarah’s?

Chris told his father that he was too old to join the Cub Scouts. Who is too old to join; Chris or his dad?

After putting a new radio in the car, Sam sold it. What did Sam sell; the radio or the car?

Some of these kinds of sentences require a prety hefty rewrite to make them clear, others are a bit easier.  The first one could be reworked to say “Kathy told Sarah, ‘your baby is cute.’”  The second (which I think is hysterical) needs quotation marks, too, I think: “Chris said ‘Dad!  You’re too old to join the Cub Scouts!’” The last one is a bit easier: “Sam sold the car after putting a new radio in it.”
Happy Wednesday, Everyone!

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“Dumb, Not Dangerous”

I have this kid…*

Using teenage logic to come to her conclusion, this kid has decided that because I don’t put up with any of her antics, idiosyncrasies, or blatant lack of courtesy, that I “have it in for her.”  As a consequence, each interaction I’ve had with this child recently has become increasingly adversarial.  The last encounter I had with her involved my calling her out (privately, I might add) for being disrespectful to another student – and me – by barging in on a conversation we were having to demand a piece of information she was missing.

It seems that this was enough to push her over her proverbial edge, and she went to her computer and left a comment that essentially stated her intense dislike for me (“hate” was the word, I think, and she made sure to distinguish me from my colleagues, just so she was sure everyone knew who I was without using my name) and that she wanted, in essence, to execute me.

Nice.

I would never have known about the stupid Facebook crack had it not been for some other students – who are ‘friends’ on this kid’s profile – seeing the comments and bringing them to the attention of the people whose job it is to handle such things.  One of those people is Carrie, the director of the school, who informed me that while it’s a situation that certainly needed to be dealt with directly and sternly (this isn’t this kid’s first experience posting inappropriate things about her teachers on her site), it was something I really needn’t worry myself over; in her words, the kid is “dumb, not dangerous.”

There were meetings, there was a discussion, I don’t feel anything was really solved.  Her defense was “I didn’t mean anything by it” and “I guess some people on my facebook page take things too seriously,” so my thinking is that she still doesn’t get the depths of inappropriateness she’s plumbed (and, not for nothing, this seems to be a pattern in my life, with the apology that actually blamed me for being rude…).  It will be interesting to see how she is in class going forward.

Oy.

*Chili’s note; I’ve decided I’m going to begin all posts of this kind with “I have this kid…” because it makes my sister laugh.

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You Know You’ve Hit the Big Time…

… when students post death threats for you on their Facebook page.

facebook kitty
Oh, SO wrong.

More later….

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Filed under dumbassery, failure, popular culture, student chutzpah, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

My Response to Lazy Students

This was sent home to parents on Wednesday night.  I’m not going to mess around with this; my students’ parents will know what’s going on in my classroom and if they don’t, it’s because they’re just not paying attention.

*Chili’s note; I’ve removed some information that would divulge my super-secret real identity.  Everything else is exactly as I sent it*

Dear Parents:

I am writing to let you know about what’s been happening in our English I/II class at CHS.

For the last several weeks, we’ve been reading The Book Thief as a group.  Assignments for readings have been posted to the class’s Ning site (ning address here) on a regular basis, and students have been asked to participate in discussions and to craft demonstrations that prove they are not only reading the material, but understanding it as well.

What I am discovering is that an unacceptable number students simply aren’t doing the reading and, as a consequence, can’t complete the assignments.  I noticed early on that four or five students in the class were carrying the conversations we were having about the book, and a reading comprehension quiz that I gave – which asked the students merely to relate plot – was a spectacular failure pretty much across the board.

When we returned to class after the days we missed due to the lack of heat, I asked the students to do their morning write about what they could do to make the class more engaging and effective.  Following their writing, I began a discussion of the culture we’ve got in the classroom and asked students what they could do to improve it.  Nearly to a student, the message I got was that the material was manageable and that the format of the class was effective for them, but that they just weren’t putting in the effort necessary to do their part of the teacher-student equation.  I was hopeful that our conversation would have sparked a renewed effort on the students’ part, but another reading comprehension quiz this morning revealed that all but two of the students hadn’t read to the page I had assigned.

Please be aware that I am working very hard to create a culture of community and cooperation in the classroom; I am invested in my students and I want them to succeed.  I can only meet the student halfway, however; your child will get out of this class only as much as he or she chooses to put into it.  I am encouraging your child to take responsibility for and ownership of his or her own education.

I am inviting you to join me in helping your student succeed.  Please touch base with your child regularly to make sure that reading and homework are getting done.  Please check the class’s website to make sure that you’re aware of the assignments and that your child understands exactly what is expected.  Finally, I want you to feel free to contact me any time if you have any questions, concerns, or problems; I make it a policy to be available to both my students and their parents as much as I can possibly be.  You can contact me at (my school email address).  I’m very good about responding to email.  If you would prefer a phone call or a face-to-face meeting, I would be more than happy to accommodate you.

Warmly,

Mrs. Chili

So far, only one parent has responded, and that parent was short, sweet, and to the point:

Nice letter.  Kudos.  -Candace

If any others come back at me, I’ll let you know what the general consensus is.  My hope is that most parents will be supportive and recognize that there’s only so much proverbial leading to water that I can do.  We shall see…

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Filed under concerns, failure, frustrations, General Griping, I love my job, parental units, self-analysis, the good ones, Yikes!

Apathy

Oy.

funny-pictures-cat-cancels-today

Yesterday was a disaster, and I’m hoping (against all hope, I know) that today will be somewhat better.

I have these kids…  In point of fact, I have thirteen freshmen and sophomores in my first period English class.  The truth is that most of these kids are new to CHS and that some (I’m not sure how many, but I know of at least two) were homeschooled (not that that’s an excuse, I’m just sayin’).  I’m willing to allow for the fact that these students might need a bit longer runway that most – time to get used to the unusual environment of CHS, time to get used to me, my teaching style, and my expectations for their work, and time to get used to, you know, working at all.  I’m okay with that; I’m willing to taxi with these kids for quite a while.  What I’m not willing to do is let them park on the frickin’ runway and hold up the rest of the planes lined up behind them.

Here’s the deal: I am going out of my way to make sure that the work I’m giving them is relevant and accessible.  We’re reading a book that is not particularly challenging to actually read.  Are the concepts and themes in the book complex and difficult?  Sure, but the actual reading of the text is entirely manageable by your average 7th grader (and before you go telling me that Punkin’ Pie isn’t average, I’m not talking about her).

I’m putting Every.  Single. Assignment. on our class website, with clear and explicit instructions for not only the work I want them to do, but how and when I want them to submit it.  I tell the kids their homework assignments before they leave the room and I remind them to check the website.  Still, they don’t do the work.

The other day, I made their morning free-write a question about how they – the kids sitting in their seats – can make the class better.  What can they do for themselves – how can they change their habits or shift their attitudes – so they get more out of the time we spend together?

Most of them answered my question honestly (this boy handed me a sheet of paper with his name on it.  Seriously).  They freely admit that they think *I’M* doing everything right, and that their lack of participation is due to the fact that they just don’t care.

Take yesterday as an example.  They’ve had several weeks to get through the prose of The Book Thief.  We’ve been talking about it (off and on) since we started reading and, for the most part, the only participation has come from me and four students.  Yesterday morning, I decided to see where they were in terms of plot comprehension (not theme or, you know, critical thinking, just tell-me-what-happened plot questions).  About ten minutes into the test, I looked up from what I was doing to see a classroom full of deer-in-the-headlight, panic-stricken kids.

When I confronted them about it, EVERY.  SINGLE.  ONE.  of them admitted that they just hadn’t done the reading (well, that’s not entirely true – one kid IS doing the reading, and she awkwardly admitted that her fear wasn’t from not understanding the questions I asked, but from worrying that she’d not have enough time to answer the questions to the extent that she was satisfied she’d done well.  Oh, and this kid?  She skipped 8th grade to enter CHS as a freshman.  She’s a year younger than the next-youngest kid in the class).  One girl, bless her heart, even admitted that she was only on page 80.  They were supposed to be up to page 457 by yesterday.

I am just about at wits’ end with this class.  I do not want to turn into the Wicked Bitch of the East, handing out detentions and letters home to parents, but I really do think that parents need to know exactly WHY their students are failing my class.  I’ve run my assignments past my boss and my colleagues, and the unanimous agreement is that what I’m asking for is not at all unreasonable.  In fact, several of my coworkers have commented that student apathy is undermining their attempts to run productive classes, as well.

What I’m saying here is that I’m reasonably confident that I’m doing my job.

I will not promote students who do not demonstrate that they met the standards and expectations for the class.  If the current conditions persist, I have the feeling that I’m going to be seeing a lot of students in English I/II again next year

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Grammar Wednesday

Kiku (who, if s/he has a blog, didn’t leave the link, so I can’t send you there) asked this of me in a comment recently:

What about ‘people’ vs ‘peoples’?

I’m answering this off the top of my head (which is my way of saying that I might be full of shit here) but my take on this is that when we use the term “peoples,” we’re talking about distinct groups within a designated area – the indigenous peoples of North America, for example.  To me, this is different from saying “the indigenous people of North America” because that fails to make the distinction of those people being associated with separate groups, tribes, or nations within the area in question.

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Monday Meme

I usually do these over at The Blue Door, but this one applied more to my professional than my personal life, so it goes here.  Thanks, Nurse Exec, for the inspiration!

1. When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I have always, for as long as I’ve been aware of the concept of a career, wanted to be a teacher.  I tossed around the idea of being a nurse for a while, but then changed my mind; I have the compassion for it, but I’m not sure I could survive all the puke.
2. Did you ever pursue that career?
I am a teacher.  I never bothered to pursue the nursing gig once I figured out all the science involved.
3. If you are not in that field, what changed?
I AM in my field, and I love it.
4. What is your current job?
I am an English teacher in a small (80 student) charter high school, and I’m an adjunct professor at a four-year university during the September term.
5. What’s the best part of what you do?
The interactions I have with my students.  Every single semester, I really connect with at least one or two kids for every one I can’t reach.  As long as I get to keep that ratio going, I’m going to consider my work a success.  I love watching them make connections, understand something they didn’t see before, and start to trust that they’ve got the chops for the work I ask them to do.  What’s really gratifying is to have a kid who didn’t like me when I was her teacher come back to me later to tell me that she thinks differently of her experiences now that she’s had some perspective.  That doesn’t happen often, but it makes all the frustration worth it when it does.
I also love that I get to be a student for my whole career.  My association with peers and colleagues and instructors allows me to keep learning.  I joke that I’d be a professional student if I could be.  If I stop to think about it, though, I guess I kind of AM a professional student.  I get to go to workshops, read books, and engage in conversations and investigations as a part of my professional life, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
6. Do you have plans to do something else down the road?
I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.  In fact, Organic Mama asked me, this weekend, what I would be doing if I weren’t doing what I’m doing, and I didn’t have a ready answer.  I love my professional life, and I plan to stay active in it for as long as I love it.
7. How did you get your present job? If you are a stay at home mom, how long did you need to plan that move?
I got the charter school job because my daughter is friends with the director’s daughter.  One afternoon, I brought Punkin’ to this new friends’ house and met with her mother (I call her Carrie here).  We exchanged idle chit-chat pleasantries in the kitchen when I mentioned that I’m an English teacher.  Friend’s Mom lit up like a beacon, but nothing ever came of it.  About six months ago, I literally bumped into Carrie coming out of a middle-school band presentation that both our girls were participating in.  She fixed me with a very serious gaze and told me that I NEEDED to send her my resume, like, TONIGHT.  I did, I interviewed a couple of weeks later, and I got the job a few weeks after that.  It’s part time right now, but the promise has been made that it’ll be full time next September.  I can’t wait.
I got the college gig a year or so ago.  The director of the Freshman Writing program is the man who acted as my academic advisor while I was a graduate student and I adore him.  It seems that he holds me in pretty high esteem, as well.  Basically, I wrote the man an email and told him I was interested in picking up a couple of first-year writing classes.  Given that the University is experiencing some pretty serious financial issues and there have been edicts handed down from on high that costs are to be cut in all departments, I didn’t expect to hear anything back.  About a month later, he called me and offered me a job.  I’ve been teaching freshman writing every September since.
8. Did your parents influence your choices of jobs over the years?
My parents were best for their negative examples, really.  I knew I wanted more out of my life than what they settled for (and then continually complained about).  Mr. Chili has perhaps been most influential about my job choices; he’s encouraged me to seek the work I WANT by providing that I don’t HAVE to work outside the home.  That he’s able to provide for our family with his job means that I don’t feel pressured to stay in a situation that doesn’t suit me.  That I’m happy at work means that I’m able to carry over a lot of that happy to home, too; it’s win-win.
9. What advice would you give your children on careers?
Find something that you love. I know that there’s a quote out there somewhere that says something like “if you figure out what you love to do, you’ll never have to work a day in your life,” and I believe that.  Don’t let other people tell you what you’re good at – or, worse, tell you what you “can’t” do; find out for yourself. Remember that money is important, but it shouldn’t be the deciding factor in choosing a career.  The most important part of your professional life should be that it feeds your whole self; do something that is in line with your values and priorities. The rest will fall into place.

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