Category Archives: Teaching

Quick Hit: Do NOT Start with Me

This afternoon, I came to the high school at 2:35 to pick Punk up for an appointment that she’d be late for if she took the bus home.  A group of students was waiting for their bus on the sidewalk on the far end of the driveway that loops to the front door, and a few kids were across the driveway so they could all throw snowballs at each other.  No problem; I expect that (especially considering there was a doozy of a snowball fight happening in the senior parking lot as I drove by).

I slowed and stopped so they could see me, and made eye contact with the two kids still on the driveway.  One of them crossed back to the sidewalk, so I slowly proceeded toward the door.  As I made my way by him, one of the students threw the snowball he was holding at my car, hitting the drivers’ side rear window.  He crossed the street behind me and rejoined his peers on the sidewalk.

In a dark red coat.  He was easy to pick out of the crowd.

I stopped the car, backed up, and called the young man to my passenger window where I calmly but sternly scolded him (I’m the mother of two teenage daughters and a high school teacher myself; I have some experience with this sort of thing).

Me:  You.  Over here….  What was that?

Kid:  It was a snowball.

Me:  I know it was a snowball.  Why did it make contact with my car?

Kid:  Uh…

Me:  NOT okay, do you understand?  Do not ever do that again.

Kid:  Okay.  Sorry.

To his credit, the boy apologized to me, and I heard him being soundly ribbed by the kids watching from the sidewalk as I drove away.

My intent was to embarrass him – which I did – and to make him think twice before he does something like that again.  I think he was genuinely shocked that I backed up to reprimand him, and I know that many (probably all) of the kids looking on were surprised; I’m sure they’re not used to being called to task by total strangers.

Punk-ass kid.

 

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Thoughtful Thursday

I’m at a kind of low place energetically right now.  I’m sure a lot of that has to do with my grandmother’s passing and her upcoming memorial (there’s a whole MESS of stress I’m carrying about that, but that may be the topic for another (possibly private) post some other time), but I’ve spent the better part of today on the edge of full-blown panic about my professional future.

Here’s the thing; I know what I’m meant to do, at least in the abstract.  I’m a teacher.  I’ve always been a teacher, ever since I was a kid.  I love it, I’m good at it, and it’s exactly what I want to do.

What has me freaking out right about now, though, is the idea that a) I may not find a job in a classroom next year and b) I may not want a job in a classroom next year.

I’m coming to the hard realization that, for all its faults, CHS was a pretty damned permissive environment.  Even there, though, I ran into a lot of problems, and I have gotten more and more frustrated the more I think about the fact that we say we want to raise careful, energetic thinkers, but we really don’t do the things that are required to produce them because we’re too afraid of “crossing lines” or “pushing boundaries.”  As soon as someone gets a bug up his or her ass about something – as soon as someone is the least bit uncomfortable or challenged – administrators panic, all hell breaks loose, the teachers get blamed, and we’re right back to tiptoeing around only the safest playgrounds.

I’m calling bullshit on that.  The problem is, though, that this attitude is not likely to make me a particularly attractive candidate for employment at a school district.

I’ve been kicking around the idea of trying to land a gig as an outreach coordinator or a workshop facilitator for an outfit that aligns with my ethics, but I don’t have the first inkling about what I’d be qualified to do or how I would go about finding a place to do it.  I thought about perhaps trying to find a position with an activist group or a liberal politician – maybe even of becoming a lobbyist – but, again, no frickin’ idea how to go about getting something like that moving.  There are a couple of teen-centered programs in my area, and the thought has occurred to me to look into what they’re doing to see if they have a need that I can fill, but my concern is that I don’t have the counseling or social work credentials that would be needed to work in places like that.

I hate this feeling of being directionless.  I feel off my mooring, adrift, and not a little scared.

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Quick Hit: Vindication

I attended a seminar yesterday on the Constitution and the ways in which the document continues to change and evolve as society does.  It was a fascinating day – much more so than I imagined it would be – and I’m eager to sign up for the rest of the programs in the series.

One of the panels featured a lawyer who does extensive work with issues of privacy.  After her session, I made my way to the front of the lecture hall to try to get a moment or two with her, which she graciously offered me.  I quickly told her to story about what happened to me at CHS last year, giving her a thumbnail sketch of the proverbial ‘facts of the case,’ but stopping just short of the fact that I was let go at the end of it all.

Her very clear and unhesitating diagnosis of the situation was that a school representative, working with the express permission of a parent, has the right to disclose personal information of a medical nature about said parent’s minor child.  It seems that  HIPA has a clause that allows for the release of information by the subject party or the subject party’s legal representative – in this case, a parent – and, in the absence of a clear school policy forbidding such disclosure (which there wasn’t), there is absolutely no wrongdoing if said school representative gives information about a student to the school community.

The attorney literally gasped when I told her that I’d been let go as a consequence of the story I told her.  She went on to tell me that I absolutely had actionable cause (which I’m not going to pursue) and that this never should have happened.

I said the things that I said that day with the express permission of Sweet Pea’s parents (and Sweet Pea concurred when she was well again and I was catching her up on what was going on at CHS).  I knew what I was doing was right when I was doing it, but I walked away from the conversation yesterday feeling incredibly vindicated.

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Angry Love Letter

I subscribe to Letters of Note.  You should, too.

This was today’s offering.  It’s a letter from Pat Conroy, the author of, among other things, The Prince of Tides, in response to hearing that a school board in West Virginia had challenged the inclusion of that novel and another of his works, Beach Music.  The letter was published in the local newspaper, and the challenges later failed.

Letters like this make my proud to do what I do.
To the Editor of the Charleston Gazette:

I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.

I’ve enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your English teachers, they didn’t have any money either, but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word getting out.

In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read The Catcher in the Rye, under Gene’s careful tutelage, and I adore that book to this very day. Later, a parent complained to the school board, and Gene Norris was called before the board to defend his teaching of this book. He asked me to write an essay describing the book’s galvanic effect on me, which I did. But Gene’s defense of The Catcher in the Rye was so brilliant and convincing in its sheer power that it carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris till the day he died. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was one of the executors of his will. Few in the world have ever loved English teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by know-nothing parents or cowardly school boards.

About the novels your county just censored: The Prince of Tides and Beach Music are two of my darlings which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteen-story building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In Beach Music, I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.

People cuss in my books. People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. I’m perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other teachers prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane language in The Catcher in the Rye forty-eight years ago.

The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and shamed themselves and their community. You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book-banners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works—but writers and English teachers do.

I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send my affection to their students. West Virginians, you’ve just done what history warned you against—you’ve riled a Hatfield.

Sincerely,

Pat Conroy

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Ten Things Tuesday

It’s Banned Book Week!

I don’t know about you, but I see banned books lists as a challenge.  Someone tells me I “can’t” do something, and I’m MORE curious about it than I would have been if they’d just kept their mouths shut.  In fact, I went to see The Last Temptation of Christ BECAUSE of all the whackadoodle Christians who were protesting and wailing and condemning the film (most of them, I might add, without ever having seen it; the uproar started before the thing was even released).  How’s THAT for heresy!  (also, and not for nothing, I kind of liked the film…)

Not only do I READ “banned books,” I teach them, too.  Here are ten of my favorites:

1.  Native Son.  I teach this to seniors whenever I have the chance.  The book is difficult and ugly and painful, but it’s also, I think, an important look at the ways in which poverty (and the systems that both create and perpetuate it) affects EVERYONE adversely.  It’s also a great way to talk to students about privilege, which is a desperately important conversation to have.

2.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  I teach this one to freshmen every chance I get.  The novel requires a bit of background for the kids; most of them have no concept of the society in which the novel is set and, as a consequence, they have a hard time grasping the main conflict in the story.  Once we do a unit on Jim Crow, though, everything starts to fall into place.

3.  The Kite Runner.  I taught this in a Film and Literature class, and offered it as a free reading choice to sophomores last year (three of my 16 kids chose that book).  It’s a gorgeous novel that asks students to take a hard look at loyalty, friendship, kinship ties, and responsibility.

4.  The Things They Carried.  I teach the eponymous story when I’m teaching my unit on descriptive writing.  O’Brien’s story is a strange combination of stark, raw, lush, and beautiful.  The end gets me every time, and I’ve been teaching the story for years.

5.  The Lovely Bones.  Here’s another one I taught in both the Film and Lit class and offered as a reading choice to sophomores last year.  I don’t love this novel, but I do love the questions it inspires in the students.  The themes of remembrance and letting go are difficult ones to process, and despite my being lukewarm about the book, I’m always pleased by the work we do with it.

6.  The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’ve taught this novel several times, and EVERY SINGLE TIME, I’m amazed by the really great thinking that it generates in my students.  My most recent go-round with it was last year – you know; just as the whole Sandra Fluke, contraception hysteria was really getting going? – and it was both incredibly satisfying and singularly terrifying how relevant the novel was.

7.  The Golden Compass.  I taught this in a Film and Lit class two years ago, and it may well have been my favorite novel of the course.  It asks students to think about institutional control, what we are and are not allowed to believe, and what belief inspires/compels some people to do, particularly in the pursuit and maintenance of power.

8.  Harry Potter.  Duh.  The righty wingnuts get their panties in a bunch over magic.  Whatever.  I don’t teach the whole series, but I have taught The Prisoner of Azkaban in my Film and Literature class.

9.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Technically, I have never taught this book.  I did, however, encourage a coworker to teach it to sophomores two years ago, and I was planning to teach it this year if I had still been in the classroom.

10.  The Hunger Games.  I taught this to freshmen last year, and I think that it was an entirely successful enterprise.  One of the things I work on is teaching kids to look beyond the stories; to use the plot as a metaphor for something larger.  I think that most of my class was able to see the themes of individual responsibility, protest, and resistance as we made our way through the novel.

 

What are YOUR favorite banned books?

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Ten Things Tuesday

I don’t know if I’ll make it to ten things, but here are some of the things on my work-related summer to-do list:

1.  Planning.  I’ll be teaching at least three core courses (most likely, English I, III, and IV) and at least two electives.  I need to decide what those electives will be, then plan an overview of the year for each of them.

2.  Writing competencies.  The State has decided to use competencies to determine student achievement, and it’s pretty much fallen to me to write these for the English department for the school.  I’ve already begun the process – I’ve done a fair bit of research into what other schools are doing to measure mastery – but I still have to codify them into a useable rubric.

3.  Interviewing.  I’ve made it pretty clear that I want a different part time teacher next year.  The man who taught this year was well enough – he read books and graded the kids’ work – but he never even bothered to become a part of the community.  Not once in 180 days did this guy ever stay for lunch; he’d disappear as soon as his morning class was over, reappear for his afternoon class, then bolt out of here with only an occasional “see ya later.”  That doesn’t make him a bad teacher, but it does make him a bad fit for the community.  I’m not convinced, though, despite my making requests that he be observed and evaluated, that that actually happened, so it may well be that admin decides to offer him another part time gig.  I’ll argue against it, but I don’t know how well my arguments will be heard.

4.  Rearranging.  I’m not good at moving rooms around; once I get things to a point where they’re both functional and appealing to look at, I tend to leave everything well enough alone.  I’m not sure that I’m making the best use of the classroom space I have, though, so I’m going to bring a couple of outside eyes in to the room to see if I can move things around to make it work even better than it does.

5.  Laminating.  I have a ton of inspirational bits and pieces that I rotate on and off the walls of the room – cards, images I’ve scanned, that sort of thing – that are printed on plain paper.  When it gets humid, all that paper curls, so I need to spend some quality time with a laminator to protect them.

6.  Reading.  I’m reading for my own personal enjoyment again (I’ve taken the Outlander series back up, and am heartily enjoying spending time with old friends), but part of my planning process is choosing which books to read during the upcoming school year.

7.  Cleaning.  We inhabit a nearly 200-year-old mill building that seems to generate its own gunk.  I’m planning to spend at least a whole day after the kids leave taking all the furniture out of my room and vacuuming the shit out of the place.

8.  Re-cataloging.  I have a lot – A LOT – of personal property at this school.  I need to document everything that’s mine, and make sure that I have record of its being mine in the event of loss, damage, or separation.

9.  Organizing.  I have to go through all my files and make sure that a) everything is where I can find it and b) everything that can be scanned and cataloged has been.  I have a lot of great materials that I just don’t use because they’re not convenient to me when I need them.  I need to figure out how to remedy that.

10.  Networking.  I am concerned, because of things that have been happening around here, that there may be a need for me to keep certain options open.  I’m going to review my professional development, look into some more college courses (I’ve been flirting with the idea of a degree in social work), and talk to some of my contacts about the possibility of perhaps stretching a safety net underneath me.  I wish it weren’t so, but wishes aren’t horses, so beggars don’t ride.

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Doing the Hard Work

A student of mine approached me soon after we began reading Native Son.  She was concerned by the graphic nature of the novel, and she tried to explain to me that she’d already read a number of “books like this,” so she felt that it would be okay for her to sit this one out.

Native Son is a terribly difficult novel to get through.  There are a couple of really graphic and ugly scenes in the story, but neither scene (nor anything that leads up to it) is gratuitous; those scenes are vital to our understanding of the reality of the main character.  I insisted that she continue in the reading.  I told her that I understood that it was hard to read, but that I thought it was important that she keep at it.

She came to me again this morning, upset about yet another graphic murder in the story.  She had worked herself into tears, and I spent the better part of ten minutes trying to explain to her that a good part of the POINT of this novel is the graphic nature of those scenes and of the lives of the people in the story – those people who find themselves with choiceless choices.  I’m not sure she heard me, though, so I wrote her this note (which I cc’d to her mother, just to give her a heads-up).  My hope is that I hit the right note of appreciating her objections while explaining why I think it’s important for her to keep at it.

Dear Josephine:

    I understand that you’re upset right now, Honey, and I am genuinely sorry for that.  I want you to understand, though, that I think that the work that you’re doing is very important, and that I wouldn’t be asking you to do it if I didn’t think it was something you could handle.

    Native Son is a VERY difficult novel to get through.  I know that the graphic description of two of the key events is particularly troubling to you, and I fully appreciate why you feel that way; please don’t think for a moment that I don’t understand that.  What I want you to understand, though, is that those scenes are desperately important to the overall function of the novel.  

    One of the central ideas of this work is the brutality of the life that Bigger (and by extension, other oppressed people) live EVERY SINGLE DAY.  We don’t want to look at the ugliness; we don’t want to look at the desperation and the despair and the fear and the rage that are an everyday reality for people who find themselves in impossible situations with impossible choices.  We, as members of a privileged class – you and I are white, educated, reasonably wealthy people living in stable families in a reasonably safe and clean and well-appointed environment – can say we understand how other people live, but we really don’t see it; we can only imagine it.  It’s uncomfortable when we’re presented – full-on and in our faces – with the hard and cruel and brutal that other people have to live around all the time.  It’s supposed to be uncomfortable; it’s supposed to make you uneasy.  I want for you to use the skills of critical and professional distance that we’ve been practicing all year to take a step back from those scenes.  The point isn’t the graphic descriptions (though I know they’re hard to get around): the point is that Bigger doesn’t believe he has any other choices.

    What are the implications of that fact, and what kind of work can you do with that knowledge?  What kind of spin does that put on your thinking about current events, or about the reality that you and I get to participate in a system that deliberately and brutally excludes entire populations of people?  What does the investigation of Bigger’s reality – of his self-image and his self-esteem, of his prospects and his goals, of his aspirations and his dreams, of his relationships and the ways he believes he’s supposed to behave – do to the ways you think about yourself?  To the ways you think about our collective past?  To the ways you think about our present, and the policies, stereotypes, and assumptions that we continue to create (or to perpetuate)?  

    There’s a lot of really great thinking to be mined from this novel.  I’m eager to get Mr. Carson in to the class to help you all work through the history of the time period – and to see how some of those policies and attitudes are STILL in place today (have you been paying attention to all the racism that’s evident in our current political and national news?  Have you heard of Treyvon Martin and seen all the ugliness that has stirred up?).  This novel is an important one for you to have in your arsenal; I know that you’re angry and upset, but I also know that you’re smart enough to get past that and to do some really significant thinking.

    Trust me, Josephine; I have faith that you’re more than capable of getting through this, and of coming out on the other end with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of race, economics, and politics that will give you a really strong and impressive foundation for a lot of the work you’re going to be asked to do in college.  Remember, too, that I’m around to talk you through all of it; I don’t expect you to do any of this work on your own.

    Warmly,

        Mrs. Chili

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Thought for Thursday – Doing Your Research

(cross-posted at The Blue Door)

So.

My seniors are (or, rather, should be) engaged in a research project that will allow them to write an analysis paper on The Handmaid’s Tale.  Their purpose is to link Atwood’s dystopian novel to current (or recent) events, whether here or in other countries, in meaningful and logical ways.  Given what’s happening in politics lately, I thought it was a paper that could pretty much write itself.  I don’t want it to write itself, though, so I’ve been spending some time with the kids going over how to do ethical research.

The problem when I was a kid was finding information – we needed to be taught where to look for the things we needed to know.  The problem for my students (and my children) is finding good information – there is so much that is so readily available (and is so often ridiculously unreliable), that teaching kids how to sift through the sketchy stuff to find valid sources is a priority in my teaching about research.

I was thinking about this tonight when I got into it with a facebook friend about the factual validity of something that was posted on her wall.  On the surface it was no big deal – it was a clearly partisan bit of sarcasm and anger and was clearly intended as such – but it sparked a conversation about the veracity of the information that we bounce around the internet.

One of the things that I need – not just want, but need – for my students to understand is how desperately vital it is that they learn to think critically about the things that get presented to them as fact.  It seems to me that we’ve gotten to a point (or, perhaps it has always been thus and I’m just noticing it more) where it’s become accepted practice to pick and choose the details one wants from a given set of information so that one can prove whatever point one is trying to forward.  It doesn’t matter that the whole of the set indicates something entirely contrary to what is being reported – as long as items A and B support a particular viewpoint, items C through Z can be conveniently downplayed (or outright ignored).

Facts can be very inconvenient things.  They can challenge a previously held belief, they can force a reevaluation of a prejudice, and they can seriously hinder an argument.  Facts can compel us to rethink the way we see ourselves and can rattle what we think of as foundational beliefs.  That can be scary; so scary that a lot of people are just as happy to not do it at all.

It’s important to me that my students not be intimidated by the idea that the facts might force them to rethink the way they see the world – or the way they see themselves.  It can be profoundly uncomfortable – threatening and existentially terrifying, even – to have one’s thesis (or world view) refuted by the facts, but my hope is that I can raise my students to understand that the mark of a strong and mature intellect is being able to adjust one’s thinking when the evidence indicates that an adjustment is necessary.

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