Category Archives: failure

WHY Are You Here?

*Background; this semester, I’m teaching composition classes at Local U. and Not-Local Community College.  I’m also teaching a teacher intern seminar and fitness classes at two different places, so I’m effectively working five part-time jobs.  I’m so frazzled, I often have no idea how I make it to the end of the week.  That being said, I’m more than a little surprised by how well things are going in general, and I’m not sure what to make of that…**

So, this happened;

The other day, instead of reflecting on a quote, I had my Local U. composition students write me a brief note about how the writing of their first paper is going.  I asked them a bunch of questions to spark their thinking, ending with “is there anything specific – a grammar question or an issue with organization or comprehension of the source materials – that you’d like me to go over with you?”  That was the question upon which I based our post-writing discussion.

With the exception of a couple of kids who just finished an associate’s program within the University, every single one of my students in that class is a fresh-out-of-high-school freshman; that’s important to know.  The very first kid to volunteer to speak asked about MLA formatting and how much of it they were supposed to do for this paper.

None of it,” was my answer, and 22 pairs of eyebrows shot toward the ceiling.

“Look,” I said, “you’re working with two sources; MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and President Obama’s A More Perfect Union speech.  As long as you identify them in your introduction and are clear about which source you’re quoting from in your body paragraphs, you’re fine.  MLA citations in this rhetorical situation would be unnecessary and distracting.”

It was at this point that another girl chimed in with, “can I just say that you’re NOTHING like what my high school English teachers said you’d be like?”

If the preponderance of nodding heads is any indication, her answer to my query about what she was expecting was affirmed by nearly everyone in the class; they were pretty much universally told that they would have to hit the ground running with a full and competent knowledge of citation, structure and process, and academic vocabulary, and that anything less than skillful and consistent display of these qualities would have them shamed and ostracized in their classes.  From the sounds of it, fully half – maybe more – expected to fail out of college within the first few weeks.

It was at this point that I stopped them – literally held up my hands in the “whoa, Nellie!” position – and asked them what, exactly, they were doing here.  “WHY are you here, You Guys?  What is the POINT of your being in this class?”

Genius boy in the corner pipes up with a hesitant “to learn stuff?” (reminding me that I should probably show them Taylor Mali’s “Like, Um, You Know?” poem).

“YES!” I bellowed, making a couple of them literally jump in their seats.  “If the POINT of your being here is to LEARN STUFF, then why the HELL would I expect you to KNOW any of it ALREADY?!  What would be the POINT of this class if you already KNEW everything I came here to TEACH you?!  Can you IMAGINE how BORING that class would be?  Seriously; I’d want to gouge my own eyeballs out by the third class!  GAH!”

One of the things I’ve observed in my teaching practice over the last year or two has been the fact that students would rather sit in silence, confused – and frustrated by their confusion – than speak up and admit they don’t know something.  I can’t tell you how many times I read an article aloud to my classes and stopped after a particularly challenging concept or a $5 vocabulary word to check comprehension, only to have them assure me that they “get it” but not be able to explain it to me when I asked them to prove it.  At some point, the system the way we practice it beat out of these students the kind of curiosity that encourages questions.  It discouraged them from admitting that they don’t know something, which is devastatingly ironic given that the one place we should ALWAYS be able to admit we don’t know something is in a goddamned CLASSROOM.

So, now I’m on a mission.  I am crusading to get kids to start ‘fessing up when they don’t understand something, to ask for help if they need it, and to not let teachers get away with assuming that someone ELSE taught them what they need to know to do well in class.  I’m done with that shit.  I am a teacher; my job is to help people learn, not assume that they should already know everything.

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Filed under analysis, concerns, critical thinking, ethics, failure, frustrations, I can't make this shit up..., I love my job, really?!, self-analysis, Teaching, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

Ten Things Tuesday

Ten things my students chose to write about for their position papers:

1.  Puppy mills.  This student went ahead with this despite my recommendations that she choose another topic.  The standard for a topic was that reasonable people could disagree about the issue, and she admitted that reasonable people could not defend the heinous practices of puppy mills and yet, there it was, a paper arguing against the heinous practices of puppy mills.  Sigh.

2.  Electric Vehicles.  This one wasn’t so bad, though it was boring to read.

3.  Abortion.  Natch.  This paper was horrendous; it was all I could do to figure out what the student was trying to say.

4.  Electroshock therapy.  While this student started off strong, the paper fell apart about a quarter of the way in; he focused more on the history of the practice than on arguing that the way it’s currently being applied should be reconsidered.

5.  Animal testing.  This paper was completely incomprehensible.  Observe, a cut-and-pasted paragraph from the essay:

Martasian (student’s beliefs about animal research) found that students have more negative attitudes towards animals testing than undergraduates involved in animal research. The study also shows pervious work by examining feeling towards two nations. Some previous studies of this kind were characterized by a single nation. The same study that involves the two nations, those nations were among the British and Americans. Newkirk (wrote the book Free the animals: the story of the Animal Liberation Front) found animal welfare is more highly developed in North American than in Britain. Two groups were recruited from Britain and the United States.

Really; I have no idea what to do with that.

6.  Gay rights.  This one appeared in a couple of my classes.  One student did okay with it; the other tried to argue that gay marriage should be banned because it does not provide a good environment for children.  Needless to say, I eviscerated that paper, pointed the kid in another direction (reasonable people can argue for the separation of civil and religious marriage, so I encouraged him to take that angle) and sent the paper back for revision.

7.  Obamacare.  I told the students that they were welcomed to write about what they thought was an important issue and that, even if I staunchly disagreed with their position, they’d get the grade if they did good work with it.  This kid got all of his information from well known right-wing propaganda machines and forwarded claims that I could debunk on Google.  I sent the paper back and told him to try again.

8.  Whaling.  This was another paper that started out with a good premise but fell apart before we got to page two.

9.  NASA funding.  I haven’t read this paper yet, but the kid who wrote it wrote a surprisingly effective (and entertaining) analysis about calcium, so I have high hopes.

10.  Funding for the arts in schools.  This paper is another I haven’t read yet and, to be honest, I’m kind of dreading it; the student who’s writing it hasn’t produced anything of any kind of quality all semester (AND he admitted that he started the paper the night before it was due, despite my trying to get them to run through a drafting and revision process for weeks).  Oy.

 

 

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The Post I’ve Been Promising

So!  I promised you all a post that recounted my experiences at Classical Private School.  I’m sorry I’m only getting to it now; I’ve been preoccupied with the (soul-sucking) job hunt and have kind of been avoiding thinking about CPS a whole lot.

The last thing I wrote about, if memory serves, is that I’d agreed to teach a writing workshop as a volunteer for six weeks.  After a heart-to-heart with Dr. Wong, I discovered that CPS had no budget and couldn’t pay me (or, Dr. Wong assured me, she’d have hired me by that point).  She gave me the impression that she was fairly confident that their budget for the 13-14 school year would be sufficient to bring me on board, though, so that was encouraging.

In any event, I taught the writing workshop for the six weeks.  It was a little bumpy because the kids weren’t sure what the expectations were; some of them were under the impression that it was a required course while others were sure it was a volunteer deal, so I didn’t get consistent attendance.  Two of the kids were convinced that they didn’t NEED any writing instruction (though Dr. Wong made a point of assuring them that they did) and one boy spent most of the time goofing off (there’s always one!), but the rest of the group did really well.  Once they were reassured that I wasn’t teaching grammar, they kind of got into it (the adults in the school kept insisting on calling it a “grammar class” until I corrected them in front of the students – yes; I’d be teaching grammar, but it was a writing workshop.  The focus was on the writing process, not on grammar, per se).

I pulled out some of my more successful lesson plans for the course; we did a unit about the basics of the writing process (topic, purpose, audience!) and about the different rhetorical situations one encounters (you need to know topic, purpose, audience before you start writing so you can be sure you’re addressing yourself properly to the situation and the reader).  We reviewed some of my more stunningly awful emails (that’s ALWAYS a popular lesson).  We played the synonym game.

After I got them used to the idea that writing is a process and that it’s okay (good, even!) to start out really, really badly, we wrote.  I had them write personal narratives (tell me the story of your name) and, I think, it went very well.  The kids work-shopped their papers with each other (using some very clear and specific guidelines I supplied for them; workshops are only effective if you know how to do them, and they had never done them before meeting me) and ran through several drafts of their papers.  What was most fun was that a bunch of them didn’t really know their name story, so they had to go home and ask about it.  When I came back after we’d started these papers, a couple of kids were excited about the things they’d learned, and they reported that they really enjoyed the writing once they felt they had a good handle on what they wanted to say.

The one big hiccup was that, one afternoon, I was completely usurped in a really disrespectful and inconsiderate way.  I drove an hour each way to get to this place.  Keep in mind, as well, that I was doing this as a volunteer.  Well, one afternoon, I arrived and was asked if I would mind if Dr. Palmer interrupted my class for a few minutes to let the kids know about an elective he was going to be launching in the coming weeks.  Of course I don’t mind, so I say so.  Well, Dr. Palmer walks in five minutes into my class (we’d barely gotten started) and proceeds to take up more than my hour talking about the course he was designing around the acoustics of electric guitars.

Seriously.  I sat there waiting for him to finish, and I ended up having to leave well before he was done.  I was furious.

Beyond that, though, it went well.  The kids reported, in their evaluations, that they learned quite a lot about their own writing process in the short time we spent together.  They offered suggestions for what they’d like to know more about (were we able to spend more time) and expressed some satisfaction that they were noticing that writing felt a little less ominous to them for our having worked together.

I was sent off after my last class with a small offering to help offset my gas expenses, a coffee mug, and a CPS mouse pad.  Though Dr. Wong was not in the building that day, the Dean of Students offered me what I thought were heartfelt thanks and an eagerness that we maintain communications.  I left feeling pretty confident that someone would be in touch to offer me a position in the fall.

I haven’t heard a thing from any of them since.

Seriously.  Crickets.  No calls, no emails, nothing.

I’m not going to call them.  At this point, I’m reasonably sure that if they could have hired me, they would have, and I’m not in a position to accept a long-distance volunteer teaching gig.  I’m disappointed, though; CPS wouldn’t have been a perfect fit for me, but I think that I could have done some pretty significant good there.

I wish them all the best going forward.  Maybe our paths will cross again sometime.

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Filed under about writing, analysis, colleagues, composition, critical thinking, failure, I love my job, Learning, lesson planning, rhetoric, Teaching, Teaching Writing Seminar, The Job, writing, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

A Year Ago Today

It was a year ago today, and at the literal last possible moment, that I was told that I would not be coming back to Charter High School for the next year. I had absolutely no warning or indication that it was coming and, in fact, had been explicitly and repeatedly told that it wasn’t by people I foolishly trusted; I have copies of emails and instant messages to prove it.

A lot has changed in that year, but what really hits me is what hasn’t changed. I still, to this day, have not any reliable explanation; no one has bothered to give me the decency of telling me exactly what happened to me or why it happened. I’ve heard different stories from different people, each told to me in almost embarrassed tones, like the speaker didn’t really believe what they were saying. None of the principle players involved in this little drama has ever reached out to me, either to explain or to apologize.

For a year now, I’ve held doors open; I’ve been available and accessible in the hopes that someone would grow a conscience and send me a message, to offer me some kind of explanation, to tell me the truth. No more of that, though; I’m done. I’m not accepting the apology I never got, but I’m not going to leave myself open anymore, either. I’m too hurt – and too angry – to keep hoping that they’re going to suddenly become decent or ethical. I need to move on, and in order to do that, I need to lay this baggage down.

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Quick Hit: Kill Me Now

I can’t even VOLUNTEER to teach!  I just got this from the summer camp I contacted in JANUARY (and again in April, and again in May, and again on Friday).

WHAT do I have to DO?!

Our summer filled up quickly with the curriculum we wanted to structure for the teens, so there was not the writing opportunity I thought there may be, and I do apologize for this. We often have so many generous and talented folks who want to offer their services to us, but it is often more the timing and program structure that will determine when or how we can use them. I am sorry if this is a disappointment. For volunteers who will be with us day in and day out, I feel it is important to give them the workshop opportunities, which can also take up more time. For instance, we had a poet willing to visit with us 2-3 days a week, so I had to jump on that and offer her the “writing blocks.” That and our Americorps VISTA has a degree in writing, so I wanted to give her an opportunity as well.

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Quick Hit: Thank You, Sir; May I Have Another?

Ugh.  I should be used to this by now, but I’m just not. Every one of these feels like a sock in the gut.

Thank you for your interest in Local U. I’ve placed your CV in our files. Unfortunately, we did not have as many adjunct sections available for the Fall. I will keep your information on file, in case there are any changes.

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Quick Hit: Is This How They’re Doing it Now?

I was expecting a phone call.

Instead, I got a letter that reads, in part, “We experienced a very competitive field, with many qualified candidates interviewing for the position.  While the interview committees have selected another candidate for the position, your expertise was both valued and appreciated.

Blah.

I have it on good authority that the candidate they chose is a brand-new graduate (who, it turns out, is the roommate of the intern my former mentor had in her classroom this semester.  My mentor called me to give me the news yesterday morning, when her intern told her that the roommate had been offered – and had accepted – the job).

That makes twice I’ve been passed over for someone fresh out of college.  I doubt this will be the last time, either; schools would much rather pay the scale for an inexperienced teacher than for one who’s been in the classroom.

I’m trying very hard not to take this personally.  Looked at from the big-picture angle, there’s nothing exceptional about this experience; when a single open position can consistently generate 70+ applications, landing a position becomes more a matter of luck than of qualifications.

I’m looking down the barrel of a full year’s worth of unemployment in my field, though, and trying to come to terms that, during that span (and of having sent resumes to literally every high school and college within my commuting distance), this is only the second time I’ve even been contacted (to be fair, Quaint Coastal City School District did send me a “we got your resume” postcard; beyond that, I’ve gotten literally no response from any of the schools, up to and including those to whose principals I’ve sent personal emails).  It’s really hard not to get discouraged.

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