Monthly Archives: February 2006

Solo Week

When classes start up again after vacation, I’m going to embark on my first solo week.

The University requires that I teach, all by my lonesome, for two weeks during the internship. Those weeks can happen pretty much any time and in any configuration the intern and CT chooses – Monday to Friday, say, or Wednesday to Tuesday. An intern can do both weeks together if he or she wishes, or split them up over the span of the internship. I’m going to start mine of Monday.

I spent some time this afternoon with CT at her place. We talked about my solo week and about what I should do with the various classes. We decided quite some time ago that we would co-teach the Advanced Placement (AP) class, both because teachers get special training to teach AP and because there’s one particular student who’s been a thorn in CT’s side and she doesn’t want to give him any reason to go running to Mummy and Daddy whining about the poor quality of his education. She’s giving me a lot of leeway in deciding what we do with the class that week, though, and I’m looking forward to some of the conversations I’m going to try to get started with those kids.

I’m going to have them do some writing about Bel Canto (which they’re supposed to be reading over vacation) and we’re going to read Hamlet cover to cover (they watched the Mel Gibson movie over the course of the last week or so). I want to see if I can get the kids to establish enough critical distance from the texts to be able to connect them in meaningful ways. It’s kind of a stretch – or, at least, it will be for them – because the works aren’t obviously related; there are quite a few common themes, but no common plot points. The point for the week’s lessons will mostly revolve around active reading and meaning-making; something they should already be doing, not only as AP students but as juniors and seniors. Neither CT nor I are confident that they have quite reached the “active readers” stage yet, though. The whole point of all this literature stuff, in my view, is to give us experiences through which we interpret the world around us. I want to see if I can get the kids beyond just dragging their eyes over the words on the page to really USING the experience of reading as a means of understanding themselves and their lives.

(proofreading that last paragraph has me thinking “what the HELL am I thinking?!?” Wish me luck, wouldja?)

The Freshmen 200’s are going to get more of what they were working on before vacation. The period 2 kids will continue working on the literature and poetry of the Holocaust. I’m really interested in opening up a conversation about the concepts of justice and forgiveness with them; I felt like the AP kids didn’t really attend to the idea fully when we tried to engage them in that same discussion a few weeks ago. I’ve got a bunch of material in mind to move the class along; song lyrics from Patty Griffin, writing prompts about slavery and internment camps and the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of the U.S. government – I might have them watch a West Wing episode where Josh gets into it with a Justice Department appointee about slave reparations. We’ll probably spend most of the block day watching Nuremberg (which I’m looking forward to, never having seen it myself) and writing about the really big questions that Holocaust literature presents.

The period 4 kids will finish watching Romeo and Juliet, then we’ll work on some sonnets. I’m not sure how much I really want to drill the mechanics of the form into them (*I* still have to look up the poetic rules for sonnets – I can’t expect them to memorize them if it hasn’t been important enough to ME to commit to memory, now, can I?). I really just want them to read them, to speak them, to let the language work through their brains so that they can make sense of a few of them.

Then – and this is the part I’m REALLY looking forward to – we’re going to (TRY to) discuss the ineffable; that part of poetry and drama and literature that speaks to us in ways that we can’t adequately describe. How does a piece of writing, or an actor’s performance, communicate more than just what’s on the page or script? I want them to think about times when they’ve been stricken by something outside of themselves – a poem, a song, a performance in a play or movie; hell, I’ll even take a play in a football game – that’s transcended language. How do we experience those moments? How do we communicate them to others so we can share them? Does the act of putting such moments into words somehow diminish the experience? I’m not sure I can pull it off, but I’m SO excited to see what freshmen come up with anyway.

The period 5 kids – the 400 levels – are going to do some writing. CT asked one of the students in that class, just before vacation, what kind of writing she likes to do. She said that the class really enjoys writing prompts that are personal, so I’m going to compose five day’s worth of “tell me about you and what’s important to you” prompts. Then, we’re going to work with Frankenstein.

I’m pretty sure that the novel is too much for these kids. It’s nothing like the Bella Lugosi movies they may or may not have seen, and Shelley’s language is dense and formal and I doubt these particular students would have any patience for it at all, so we’re going to watch a movie. I may photocopy a couple of passages from the book, but most of their comprehension of the work will come from the film, and I’m more than okay with that.

I bought this DVD – which I’d never seen before – from the bargain bin of my video store a couple of summers ago. I’m not usually in the habit of buying movies without having seen them, but I’m SO glad I bought this one. It’s a Hallmark version – made for t.v. – is very faithful to Shelley’s story and the production is, in my humble opinion, excellent. The story is really about acceptance and rejection and finding an identity – all themes with which nearly every teenager can identify, and I’m hoping that they’ll at least consider attending to some of the material as a group. We’ll do some writing around the theme, and I may ask them to put together an “identity” project that will ask them to really consider who they are and what’s important to them and, more importantly, why. I’m not sure I can pull THIS off, either, but I’m willing to give it a good try.

So, I’m not sure how much writing I’m going to be doing during my solo week. I’m hoping to be able to keep pace with the work – actually, I’m hoping to make the KIDS do most of the heavy lifting – but I may find that my evening writing time is taken up with other tasks. Regardless, I’ll post an update when it’s all finished. Keep checking in…


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Membership Has Its Privileges

I was in Barnes & Nobel today, meeting a friend for a bit of cocoa and conversation. While I was there, I picked up a book we promised my father-in-law for his birthday and, well, a couple of other things.

While I was standing in line doing quick math in my head (okay, I’ll ‘fess up, I have to round everything to the nearest, oh, five dollars. My math skills really suck), I figured I had about eighty bucks’ worth of books. Yikes. While figuring, and keeping track of my small people, I heard someone behind a register talking about a teachers’ discount. Hello? Could you say that again, please?

So, when my turn came, I asked my very pierced checkout girl what the whole “teachers’ discount” thing was about. She turned expectantly to her manager, who proceeded to explain to me that, if I could provide a paystub or a picture ID from my school, I could take advantage of the promotion. It gives me 20% off of school related books (but not textbooks, he explained, because B & N doesn’t get discounts off of them from the publisher and, therefore, can’t pass along a discount to the customer) and discounts on other things like DVDs and games during their special educators’ weeks, which he’d be happy to inform me of if I provided my email address.

It turns out he was willing to take my word for it that I worked in a high school, since I had neither my ID nor a paystub to offer as proof of my eligibility. I’m pretty sure my selection of books helped my case quite a bit – I had the Arden Complete Shakespeare and a bunch of SparkNotes folders about grammar, composition and annotation; not exactly bedside reading for most folks.

After my discount, I still payed over seventy bucks. It’s okay, though – I got a new book for the girls, my FIL’s birthday present, a really nice annotated complete works of the Bard, and a bunch of easy-to-follow quick references that are very helpful in making mini-lesson plans.

Have I mentioned before how much I LOVE books?

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They’ve Gotta Think You Like Them

I was the recipient of some very good advice yesterday, though I’m not entirely sure what to DO with it.

CT and I were sitting in the tiny office she shares with another English teacher when she turned to me and said, “Okay, I’m going to tell you this because I’ve been at this for 25 years, and it took me a long time to learn it and I want to save you some time. Freshman will only work for you if they think you like them.”

Apparently, all grade levels perform better for teachers they feel kindly towards, but this axiom holds particularly true for freshman. Coming from middle schools, freshmen are used to being coddled and treated kindly, CT said, and they often don’t know how to function independently. The idea that “you’re in high school now and the rules are different” doesn’t seem to sink in until at least sophomore year – if even then – and the key to getting 9th graders to produce is to give them the impression that they’re your favorites.

I was out of the period 4 classroom on Monday and CT told me that they’d expressed relief to have her back as their teacher. It seems that they don’t think I like them.

To be fair to me – and to them – I didn’t come to them under the best of circumstances. I arrived, unannounced and in the middle of a week, and almost immediately started leading their class. There was almost no transition to speak of. Add to that the fact that they’d been disintegrating as a class since the semester break back at Christmas, and CT was starting to crack back down on the expectations for classroom behaviour. I was in on that process and my theory is because my appearance coincided with the reestablishment of order, they’ve decided that I don’t like them.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. While I may not KNOW them very well, I do like them. And I’m SO proud of the work they did with the Hamlet unit! When I was back in class yesterday, I made a point of telling them that I’d been bragging about them to everyone I know (and even to people I DON’T know) since Friday – that I think they did truly remarkable work when asked to do things that are usually only asked of upper classmen and freshmen in college, and that I’m really excited to be working with them.

I’m hoping that helps but, short of being more expressive of my enthusiasm for being with them, I’m not sure what else I can (or should) do.

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To Be or Not To Be….

…that may be the question, but the answer is most decidedly YES! Freshman CAN work with Hamlet, and do an amazing job at it, too.

There is much noise and clamor that Hamlet is “too much” for freshmen. The play is too dense, the argument goes; there’s too much intrigue and psychological machinations and ambiguity for younger students to fully comprehend. The popular opinion seems to be that Romeo and Juliet is the way to go with ninth graders; Hamlet is so far beyond the capacity of youngsters to comprehend as to be completely inaccessible.

Oh yeah? Well, that may be true in a lot of cases, but I’m here to tell you that my freshman 200 level kids KICKED HAMLET’S ASS these last two weeks.

I had planned a unit that revolved almost entirely around Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, which was released in 1990 and stars Mel Gibson, Glen Close, and Ian Holm, among others. This version is perhaps my favorite, not only because I’m comfortable with the actors, but because it isn’t set in modern times – I have trouble with modern settings for Shakespearian works. Anyway, I love this version. Yes, Zeffirelli makes some creative adjustments to the original text – most notably transposing the “to be or not to be” soliloquy and the “are you honest? Are you fair?” confrontation between Hamlet and Ophelia – but, not being a purist, I don’t feel these changes negatively impact the work as a whole.

Really, though, I love the film because it’s accessible to young people. Even these kids, who were born two years after this film was released, know many of the actors – they’ve seen the Lethal Weapon movies and most of them recognized Helena Bonham Carter, though they didn’t know from where. They’re often put off by the language – Zeffirelli uses Shakespeare’s words – but they feel as though they can “get” this if they try. It doesn’t seem dated or foreign to the students in ways that other, older productions seem to.

I approached the unit with my main focus being the film. We started out by reading the “to be or not to be” soliloquy (see the “I love my life” post for a comment about that) and spent a day or so really digging into what it means. The kids came up with a lot of really good insights, especially considering none of them admitted to having any prior experiences with the play. They were able to figure out, without any translations from me, that Hamlet was contemplating suicide but that he was afraid to take his own life because, they said, he didn’t know if the life he was living now, as bad as it was, wouldn’t be better than whatever life came after death (and they even talked about how suicide was a “sin” and he might face an eternity of punishment for it, which didn’t help his decision-making any). I was amazed by how well they managed to work through that particularly dense piece of drama, and by how tenacious some of them were about getting it “right”.

We watched the film in bits, mostly because the classes are only fifty minutes long (and these kids still haven’t figured out how to come in and settle right down, so we’re usually left with only about half an hour of actual class time when all is said and done). While it’s not the most enjoyable way to watch a film – in fact, it bugs the crap out of me, personally – I stopped the DVD every so often to ask the kids what was going on and, much to my giddy delight, most of them had a pretty good handle on it. Sometimes, though, I stopped the DVD because they asked ME what was going on – and I’ve got to tell you that, most of those times, they asked about particularly difficult scenes. They were confused by Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia, they didn’t get a lot of Polonius’ ramblings, and they missed the bit about Claudius sending Hamlet to England to be killed (and, being freshmen, they were completely grossed out by how much families kissed each other on the lips, which I thought was funny).A few days into the film, I photocopied a couple of scenes from my favorite annotated version and asked them to read the text ahead of watching the scenes in the movie. Without a whole lot of prompting from me, they were able to speak to the differences between the text and the film and how those differences affected the mood and tone of the scenes they watched. Though none of them was particularly eloquent, they had the right ideas, and it was profoundly exciting for me as their teacher. One student, commenting on the omission of most of Ophelia’s dialogue during the “are you honest, are you fair?” scene, struggled to explain that her silence made her seem weaker and more vulnerable, and that same student mentioned later that the mood set in that scene helped make Ophelia’s insanity later in the play much easier to believe. Another student said that he didn’t quite get the “feel” for the scene through reading, but that it made much more sense after seeing it. They were able to talk about how Hamlet knew he was being watched by Claudius and Polonius and was testing Ophelia when he asked her where her father was. When she answered “at home,” and Hamlet knew full well that she was lying to him, the students talked about how this betrayal of trust on Ophelia’s part only fueled Hamlet’s anger and confusion and helped explain his behaviour toward her later in the play. One particularly attentive student decided that Zeffirelli transposed that scene and “to be or not to be” (“to be or not to be” comes before “are you honest, are you fair” in the original version, if you don’t know) so that Ophelia’s lie contributed to Hamlet’s despair and contemplation of suicide. It was beautiful.

We finished the movie on Friday. As a final assessment, I asked them to pick a scene that best illustrated Hamlet’s true character, then write a short essay explaining to me why they felt the scene was so telling.

Most of them chose the final scene, particularly where Laertes, after being wounded with his own poisoned sword, confesses all to Hamlet and begs his forgiveness as they are both dying. They watched Hamlet forgive his friend, and beg his forgiveness in return. They watched as Queen Gertrude, portrayed as completely innocent in the film, dies in Hamlet’s arms. They saw how Claudius responds to both the queen’s death and Laertes’ accusations. They loved it.

And they wrote. Several of them really dug deep and came up with the opinion that Hamlet was never crazy at all – that it was all an act. They explained that every single thing he did throughout the play was motivated entirely by love – his love for his father, his love for his mother, his love for Ophelia. They wrote that Hamlet only ever wanted to do the right thing and that not always knowing what the “right” thing was was what led him to his frustrated outbursts and “madness.” They wrote about how much he loved his parents and how devastated he was by his mother’s behaviour. They wrote about how smart and calculating Hamlet was in asking the players to recreate his father’s demise, so that he could be sure that the ghost had not misled him and therefore not exact revenge where none was warranted.

They kicked ass. I am SO proud of them.


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There’s Always One

So, I’m STILL thinking about the fifth period, level 400 English class. I find it occupies my thoughts so often because I’m growing increasingly frustrated by not only what I’m observing, but also my total inability to do anything about it.

There’s one boy who’s gotten under my skin. This particular young man is handsome in a very boyish way, with clear skin and penetrating blue eyes. Those eyes reveal a character that is very clever and crafty. He’s quick to anger and is particularly fond of mumbling expletives under his breath, though he’s often not aware enough of his surroundings to realize that an adult is standing right beside him. He has decided that the class is a colossal waste of his time, but has also figured out a way to skirt the edges of acceptability in such a way that we can never actually catch him doing something “wrong”.

He’s been “reading “ a book called Monster. It was a book of his own choosing, recommended to him by several of his classmates. The book is slightly below his tested reading level and is arranged very much like a movie screenplay, so there is a visual aspect to the text that he was certain would make the process of reading the book easier for him.

Every day, he strolls into the classroom and sits in a different seat. Once, he got the book out without being asked, but the rest of the time he’s come in and gone straight to another student to begin a conversation. When he’s asked to settle in and do the work, he’ll dutifully open the book and stare at the same page for the entirety of the period. He constantly looks up to see who’s looking at him (and very often sees me looking at him), grins, then goes back to looking at the same page again. At the end of the period, he’ll go to CT and claim that he’s read several pages – today’s number was thirty – when, in fact, he’s barely read a single paragraph.

CT has given the students a worksheet with a series of exercises they’re expected to do with their reading. Half of them are hands-on, creative projects from which they get to choose (create a CD, complete with artwork, as a soundtrack for your book; create a book jacket, cast a movie and explain why you chose particular actors to play each role); the other half is very English-class oriented: describe the narrative style of the book, describe the main character, summarize the story. The assignments are written down and very clearly explained, and CT took a class period earlier in the week to go over them out loud and to explain how many points each component is worth.

CT’s standards for this work are entirely attainable. One student turned in three sentences describing the narrative style of her book, and that work earned her the full point potential despite the grammatical and structural errors in those few sentences. My point here is that these children do not have to exert themselves to an unreasonable degree to achieve success in this class, yet most of them – and the above mentioned boy in particular – choose not to do any of it.

So my question becomes this: how does an instructor cope with students who simply refuse to participate? We’re clearly in “you can lead a horse to water” territory here; we’ve made efforts to offer the students control over the books they read, we’ve given them choices concerning which projects they want to do with the end result being that they don’t want to do it at all.

My blue eyed boy affects me so deeply, I think, because I see a spark in him. I know, for sure, that he could do this work, and that he could thrive in the class. He’s quick, he’s got a sense of humor, he’s got an energy about him that resonates to me. He’s decided, though, at all of fourteen, that he doesn’t need to know any of this, that it’s all a waste of his time. This isn’t the cool thing to be doing, all this writing and reading, and he doesn’t want to be seen doing it.

I wonder what the source of all that apathy comes from. Does he not have a trusted adult in his life who has appreciated the value of learning? Is he incapable of understanding how important this literacy stuff is, even (especially?) to him? Perhaps what bothers me so much is that he’s also decided that he doesn’t like me, so he’s not at all open to allowing me to model that behavior, or letting me close enough to tell him how deeply I believe in his ability to do this well.

Of course I don’t know what the future holds. I fear, with his temper and lack of respect for authority in pretty much any form, that he’s headed for a life of struggle and trouble. Maybe, though, he will decide that being able to read and write and communicate effectively really IS in his best interests. Perhaps he will choose a profession or a trade or find a passion that requires his focus and attention.

I just hope he figures it out sooner rather than later.


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A Night of No Homework

I’ve been forbidden to do homework tonight, and I’ve gotta tell ya, I’m having a hard time with it.

CT sent me home today, slightly early, with the admonition that I was to do nothing work-related tonight. She told me that I’ve been doing too much and she’s made it her new priority to teach me how to balance work and life.

I obviously need more practice.

I have a couple of things I really want to work on, but I’m going to be a good student, listen to my teacher and not work on school stuff. While I was waiting to pick up the girls from school, I did make a list of things I want to work on when the moratorium is lifted, but I don’t think that counts. My “assignment” was made easier by the fact that today was a “visit gramma and grampa” day, so most of my prime work time was taken up with loving old people.

Still, this is harder than I thought it was going to be. It seems that I really DO need to learn how to balance life and work.


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I LOVE My Life!

So, here’s the scene. I’m in the living room with school papers strewn all around me on the couch while I attempt to corral them into some sort of coherent order. PunkinPie, my eldest daughter (who’s eight, it’s important to remember) comes over and picks up a random sheet, which happens to have the “to be or not to be” soliloquy printed on it. She reads (aloud) to about “slings and arrows” when she abruptly drops the page and runs to her room.

Not that this is exceptionally odd behavior for her, but still.

Anyway, she returns about two minutes later with the Calvin and Hobbes There’s Treasure Everywhere book. She flips furiously through the pages until she finds what she’s looking for; a Sunday comic that depicts a pile of green nastiness that’s supposed to be Calvin’s dinner which suddenly bursts into the famous monologue. Calvin watches the scene with such expressions on his face! Finally, though, the goo breaks into the chorus of “Feelings” and, well, that’s just too much for poor Calvin. The final frame is his mother removing the now empty plate and Calvin begging not to have that dinner again.

Can I reemphasize that the kid is EIGHT?!

I am going to see if there’s a way for my husband to record the kid reading the comic so I can bring it into my freshman English class so they can see that this stuff really DOES connect to stuff outside of school. And to see that an eight year old has the capacity to at least hold the recognition of the Bard’s work in her head.

And so can they.

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