Monthly Archives: June 2010

Three Drafts

Mrs. Chili is at a week-long, writing-intensive workshop at Prestigious Boarding School.  We began yesterday with a round-table discussion about who we are and why we’re here, and moved on to the reasons we write (or not, as the case may be) and how we translate our own experience with words into the methods we use to reach our students.

The theme for today’s writing is “inheritance.”  I’m sure that’s a complex concept for just about everyone, but I bring my own special brand of crazy to this party.

We have been reading excerpts of Andre Dubus’s collection titled Broken Vessels.  The voice in these pieces is tight and masculine; he speaks of love in oblique ways, which, in a way, makes the entire sense of the thing that much more powerful, and the enormity of information that is conveyed in a scant dozen paragraphs is enough to keep 16 geeky English teachers engaged in round-table discussions for more than an hour (“notice that he says was here instead of is…”  “He’s watching with his father as he dies, not just watching his father…”).

Our assignment was to go off to write, and I’ve found a corner on the top floor of the massive, square library to open my laptop and contemplate inheritance.  Here are the (very) first drafts of some things I was able to take away from my brain-dump exercise this morning.  As always, I appreciate any feedback – questions, suggestions, points for clarification – that you’re willing to take the time to offer.

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It is a very handsome ring.  Heavy and substantial, the square setting supports a large and nearly flawless diamond and four rows of deep, dark sapphires.  For all its heft, the ring attempts a modicum of lightness; delicate filigree work on the sides try to counter the sharp angles and corners of the setting, but the overall effect is one of presence and power.  Her third husband, the one who divorced her shortly before the diagnosis, found the ring in a pawn shop.  The original center topaz was replaced with a diamond, but the rest of the ring remained as it was.  I remember my mother wearing the ring, but even when she and her husband were happy together, it was never a constant.

My mother wanted me to have this ring.  She gave me a number of her possessions over the months of her decline, and wrote a list of things that she wanted me to have after she died, but she was most adamant about this ring.  As someone who believed that people can imprint their energy on physical things, she asked me to find the ring in her jewelry box so that she could wear it every day; she put it on not long after the social worker came to the house to assess her availability for assistance (because it wouldn’t do to cry poverty while wearing such an impressive piece of jewelry) and wore it until, as she lay moaning and unresponsive in the nursing home, my sister-in-law slipped it off her finger a few hours before she died.  After signing a property release at the nurses’ station, the ring became mine.

I have never worn it.  For all that it is lovely and reminds me of my mother, and despite the fact that it is comprised of diamonds and sapphires – the same stones in both my engagement ring and the ring my husband gave me to commemorate our tenth anniversary –  I do not like it.  The longest I’ve worn it was the few hours between when we took the ring from my mother’s finger and the time it took me to drive home after her heart stopped beating under my hand.  I’ve visited it in my jewelry box a few times, but it’s never gotten much farther than that.

A big part of me wants to reset the ring to something that I would wear; something I could have that both suits me and recalls my mother.  I imagine a band setting, something low and secure, in which the sapphires march in a gently curving row to the diamond in the center rather than boxing it in pointed corners and straight lines; or maybe a pendant shaped so the tiny blue stones cradle the diamond in a soft wave of color.

I haven’t brought the ring to a jeweler’s, though; I haven’t convinced myself that it’s really mine yet.

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As I sit at the top floor of a massive brick and concrete library, thinking about my impossibly complex relationship to the idea of “inheritance,” I look out the window and see, growing through the cracks in the between the bricks on the roof, a single maple sapling.  There is no earthly reason for this tree to be growing where it is; there is no soil beneath its roots, the place where it’s dug in is both walled and roofed, so its share of sunlight and rain must surely be limited, yet there it is, two full-grown and clearly defined leaves sprouting defiantly from a four-inch stalk poking from between a pair of dusky red bricks mortared nearly 85 feet in the air.

I see a bit of me in the audacity of this baby maple.  I, who have sawn myself off of my family tree, have managed to find a new and unlikely place to root.  Though I don’t contend with the harsh edges and straight lines of bricks – at least, not anymore – I never imagined that I would be able to settle in as fertile ground as I have.  With no example to follow, I have managed to create for myself a life of stability and joy that I never thought I deserved, much less could have accomplished.  Unlike this little tree growing alone in the sky, I have created for myself a forest of chosen family surrounding a grove of husband and children that is far more vibrant and healthy than I was given reason to believe I would ever see.

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I teach because I need to give back.

When a family fails, the best a child can hope for is that other grown-ups – parents of friends, coaches, neighbors, or teachers – will step in and stand up.  When school is the safest place a child can be, the people who populate that school – especially the people who make it run and give it its routine – become the most important people in the world.  The people who are there, every day, with a comforting reliability give a child a sense of safety that they may not otherwise have.  The people who make and maintain fair and constant rules help that child learn that the boundaries aren’t supposed to move on a whim, and that great things can be accomplished in stable environments. The people who tell that kid that he *can* when all the people who are supposed to be important tell him that he *can’t* become the world to that kid.  That kid starts dreading Fridays and the days before vacations begin, because he knows it’s going to be that long before he again feels like he belongs where he is.

I teach, in part, because good people did those things for me.  I want to make kids feel like someone believes in them and in what they can do the way I was encouraged.  While I love my kids – and make no effort to hide that – I am hard on them, too – I *expect* things from them and I hold them to tough but attainable standards – because, as Booker T. Washington is quoted as saying, “Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him.”  I learned to believe in myself because people I admired believed in me, and I want to send that energy – that powerful and profound energy – back into the Universe.

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Filed under about writing, Learning, Mrs. Chili as Student, self-analysis, writing

Summer Reading

I always loved the idea of summer reading programs, even though I didn’t participate in them as a student (don’t give me any crap, either; I was working full time by the time I was a sophomore in high school, so I didn’t exactly have time to lug a book to the beach, you know what I mean?).  Reading is one of the major activities of my summer as an adult, though.  I love all the lists that come out, I can’t wait for my public radio to do their annual summer reading show (it aired today, but I was away from a radio, so I’ll listen to it tomorrow when it gets posted on their website), and I end up with a “my eyes are bigger than my tummy” situation in that my stack of books is often way out of proportion with the actual time I have during the summer to read them, but I don’t care.  Summer, for me, means ice cream, salads, the Cape, the lake, and books – lots and lots of books.

For our first annual book list, I’ve taken the easy out and hit up the American Library Association’s banned books list as a starting point, though I’m telling students that they can read any novel they like.  I’m thinking that, since I’m asking the kids to write a full-blown essay for every book they read*, I should give them some sort of incentive for doing the work.  I’m thinking of giving each summer reader a few “pink paper” passes; while I’m not willing to let them blow off a major essay, I would be okay with their skipping a reading response or two.  What do you think?

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Why read?  It’s a lot of work, after all, this reading stuff.  It requires a lot of effort on our part; we have to take the time, we have to participate in the actual act of reading, we have to think and question and remember.  It’s so much easier to watch T.V., where we can just sit back and let ourselves be entertained; the sets are designed for us, the lighting is carefully manipulated to convey a particular tone, and actors tell us exactly what we need to know.

Reading, though, engages us in ways that other media can not.  Reading asks us to hear voices in our heads that are not our own, to see places we’ve never been, and to partake in experiences we otherwise wouldn’t have.  Reading lets us travel in time and space, gives us insight into how others think and live, and asks us to be a part of the story.  Reading opens our imaginative and intellectual doors.

Below is the first annual CHS Summer Reading List.  The theme for this inaugural list is “banned books” and celebrates the right to read.  This list is taken in part from the American Library Association’s Banned and/or Challenged Books (ala.org).  Students may look online for other reading choices from the ALA, or they may read another novel of their choice; please don’t feel limited to this list:

The Great Gatsby; F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Catcher in the Rye; JD Salinger

The Grapes of Wrath; John Steinbeck

To Kill a Mockingbird; Harper Lee

The Color Purple; Alice Walker

Ulysses; James Joyce

Beloved; Toni Morrison

The Lord of the Flies; William Golding

1984: George Orwell

Their Eyes Were Watching God; Zora Neale Hurston

Of Mice and Men: John Steinbeck

As I Lay Dying; William Faulkner

Native Son; Richard Wright

The Lord of the Rings; JRR Tolkein

Students who read should write a brief summary of the novel(s), which should include a short description of the plot, personality sketches of major characters, the tone of the work (i.e., what message does the reader think the author was trying to convey?) and an explanation of the novel’s major theme.  Along with this summary, students should include a 3-5 paragraph personal response in which they address a) whether the story (or the themes in it) reminded them of anything – a personal experience, a film, another novel, a poem, etc. and, if so, how the two experiences are similar, and b) what stood out for the reader – where did the story provoke the most emotion?  Where did the reader see the story’s “turning point”?  Which character changed the most, and why?  These should be printed in plain, 12-point font on white paper and turned in during the first English class of the term.

Students who choose to participate in CHS’s summer reading may earn credit in their core English classes based on their summer work; students should consult with their individual English teachers to determine how credit will be given.  If a novel crosses the curriculum, students may be able to earn credit in other courses (math, history, science, etc.) as well; check with your teachers.

If you have any questions about the summer reading program, or you would like a personalized book suggestion, feel free to email Mrs. Chili at any time.  Happy Reading!

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*understand that this in no way constitutes an expectation on my part that anyone’s going to actually READ.  I’m hopeful, but only a little…

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Filed under book geek, critical thinking, Extra-curricular Activities, I love my job, lesson planning, reading

Quick Hit: Jealous

This morning, as I was leaving the house, I mentioned to Mr. Chili that I was going to have lunch in Local U. Town with Mike, and I asked him if he’d like to join us (since Mr. Chili works in LUTown, too, and doesn’t usually pack a lunch and, you know, because I love him).  His response led me to believe that he’d rather not, given that he’d be sitting with two dorky English-teacher types.  In fact, I was left with the impression that he’d prefer to spend his lunch hour having a bikini wax than endure the dorkiness that was sure to accompany our salads and sandwiches.

I was surprised, then, when my phone rang at lunchtime with Mr. Chili on the other end asking me to order him a turkey melt and telling me that he was on his way to meet us.

The title of this post isn’t about me accusing my husband of being jealous of my spending lunchtime with another man, though; it’s about MY being jealous of the fact that he sat down and fit right in.

When we get together with Sphyrnatude (which is about once a week) the two of them start going at it with the geeky scientist-engineer stuff.  They use words that I, with all my experience with language, can only guess at, and often they don’t use words at all – the number of acronyms these gentlemen can fluently trot out in a 45 minute lunch is enough to make a normal head spin.  Usually, I spend those lunches in polite observation of my favorite geeks in happy company with one another; I do not add anything of substance to those discussions.

My husband, though?  My husband sits down with two Master’s-degreed English teachers and slips right into our conversations about curriculum building and long-term planning and critical texts and secondary materials like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Bastid’s too damned smart for me….

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Quick Hit: Never Mind

It turns out I don’t have to teach summer school.  I’m both relieved and disappointed, but I think relieved is winning out…

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Credit Recovery

HELP!

I’m trying to put together an 8 week credit recovery program for the students who failed junior English this term, and I’m bumping up into a serious creative wall.

I want for the program to be largely self-directed; that is, I only want to meet with the kids once a week and have them do the rest of the work on their own.  I also want for it to be substantial; I’m resisting the urge to reign in the material because, well, if they couldn’t handle what I gave them in small doses every day for 15 weeks, what makes me think they can handle a lot on their own in 8, right?  The point is that they COULD handle the work, they just chose not to and besides, the point here is for them to prove that they’re ready for senior level English; one of the main themes of that class is moving toward independent, self-directed work.

I’ve got the first week knocked; they’re going to write a personal literacy narrative in which they relate how a literacy has helped to shape how they read, write, think, or behave.  It’s an assignment I do with pretty much every writing class I teach; what I want for the students to understand is that reading and writing are intimately connected and not, as so many of them think of the experiences, discrete activities.  I can point to any number of books that have been instrumental to shaping how I view myself and my place in the world, and I want for my students to be self-aware enough to understand where their influences come from.

After that, though?  I’m stumped.  I can’t decide if I want to continue the theme of social justice that we were working on over the semester (though I am leaning heavily in that direction) or if I want to branch into something completely different – adventure literature, say, or biography.  I can’t land on whether I want to teach one book in-depth, or work from a collection of short novels, stories, and film.  Further, I can’t decide if I should make the summer term all about critical analysis, or if I should make it a straight writing craft course (though, to be honest, I’m likely going to keep pushing the critical analysis, as that’s going to be the primary objective in senior English in September).

I’ve got a stack of potential books on my desk; A Long Way Gone; Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Beloved by Toni Morrison (or possibly Song of Solomon), The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and American Gods by Neil Gaiman are all in the running, as is The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (because my plan is to work that book with juniors next year, and these students, if they complete the summer session successfully, will enter September as seniors, so they won’t have to work the book twice).  I’ve not read the Beah or Gaiman books yet, and it’s been a very long time since I’ve read Conrad or Morrison, so I will have to work those right along with the kids, but I’m not opposed to that.

What do you think?  How would YOU go about building a summer school term that had a heavy independent study feel to it?  Thoughts?  Suggestions?  Please?

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Commencement

I’m attending CHS’s graduation ceremonies this afternoon.  I’m feeling that familiar, oxymoronic feeling of giddy excitement and a small, aching loss.

Several of these students have been in my classes, and a couple of them are precious to my heart.  I’m terribly proud of them and can’t wait to see them off on their next adventure while at the same time being a little mad at them for being seniors during the year I arrived at CHS – they won’t be in my classes again next term, and I’m saddened by that.

Then again, though, there are a couple of kids I am relieved to never have to see on my rosters again.  I truly believe that the Universe craves balance.

All of this bittersweet is tempered by the fact that the kids I love aren’t going very far away; I’m certain I’ll see them every once in a while, and I’ll be delighted to have them sitting in on my classes when they come back to visit.  There’s nothing they can’t do, and I’m eager to see them bring their own frequency of light into the world.

Look out!  Here they come!

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Quick Hit: NOT Awesome

One of my students – a senior who has never really been engaged in our class – told me today that it’s a wonder anyone ever does anything.  After all, he explained, everyone’s going to die, anyway, right?  So, why bother?

Why, indeed.

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Filed under dumbassery, failure, frustrations, I can't make this shit up..., I've got this kid...., really?!, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?