Monthly Archives: September 2006

Maybe I DON’T Want to Teach in Public Schools…

So, I’m driving with my family to one of our bigger country fairs, and on the way, we’re listening to Whad’Ya Know on National Public Radio. I’m a pretty big fan of Michael Feldman; I really appreciate his sort of deadpan humor. Anyway, the weekly show begins with Mr. Feldman doing a quick-and-dirty rundown of the news, and this week’s offerings included the following stories:

In Jackson, Mississippi, a public school PTA sent letters home to parents asking for their participation in the group. At the end of what I imagine was the usual PTA pep-talk about how important parent involvement in the schools is, the recipients of the letter were asked to check one of two boxes: “YES, I want to be involved!” or “NO, I do not want to get involved. I want my children to be thieves, drug addicts and prostitutes. That last bit? A DIRECT QUOTE, People!

The other feature was a story about an art teacher in Dallas, Texas – with 28 years of service, it should be noted – who was FIRED from her job after she took a fifth grade class on a field trip to the Dallas Museum of Art. It seems the parents of one of the children complained to the school board that their child had been irrevocably scarred by seeing a nude sculpture.

I’m not making this shit up. Go here for the PTA story and here for the Dallas art teacher story.

What the HELL is wrong with people?! Between the stories I get from CT about the crap that she’s going through at the hands of her administrator, and the regular outrages I hear from Bowyer about the unethical stuff that’s going on in his school – and now these stories – I’m almost grateful I didn’t find work in a public school this year. It’s little wonder that our nation is experiencing a crisis in education – teachers are too afraid to teach anything substantive for fear of being sent to the unemployment office.


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“She’s a super-geek! Super-geek! She’s super-geeky, YEOW!!”

Rick James got nothin’ on me!

I went into my local Barnes & Nobel to buy a gift certificate for Organic Mama‘s younger daughter’s birthday present. It’s important that you understand that my ONLY intention was to walk out with the gift certificate.

I should know better by now.

Fifty-some-odd dollars later, I walk out with three grammar books and the wonderful collection you see to the left. B&N has come up with a series of university-level courses on CD on an AMAZING range of subjects; the inside cover of the book that came with the series lists 25 different titles in 6 different areas of concentration. Seriously; one can get anything from how men and women communicate to the Treaty of Versailles to appreciating classical music to the gem *I* picked up, “What a Piece of Work is Man.”

The set comes with eight CDs upon which a professor – in this case, Harold Bloom of Yale and Harvard – expounds upon the subject at hand – in this case, seven selected Shakespearean tragedies. The set is intended to reflect the lecture series of an entire university class, and I have to say (having taken more than my share of university classes) that they’ve done a pretty good job. The box I have – I can’t speak with any authority about what’s in the others – also contains a book with the transcribed lectures, study questions, suggested reading and useful websites. From what I’ve seen and heard thus far, it’s remarkable. A concise, inclusive, intelligent and well delivered course on the Bard’s tragic works.

I’ve been listening to the lecture on Hamlet in my car as I’ve completed the various errands of my day, and I have to say that I’m very, very pleased with the purchase (there’s a fair bit of alliteration in this post, isn’t there? I assure you, it’s not intentional). And one can’t beat the price. As an undergrad, I paid upwards of $1300 for the Shakespeare course I took in the summer of ’95. While no one is going to offer a student credit for listening to lectures on CD, if the goal is more about what’s in your head than what’s on your transcript, you can’t beat a college-level course for less than 40 bucks.

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Getting Ready

I’ve been thinking about my Foundations of English class today. I haven’t actually met with the students yet – our first class was supposed to be last Monday, but was taken up with the placement exam that most of the students should have already taken at that point. I’ve got five weeks to get through sentence structures, to cover the eight parts of speech, and to work on their writing skills and reading comprehension.

Since I won’t have access to the actual tests they took – and the college made an error by not administering the essay portion of the exam to this batch of incoming freshmen, so I don’t have that as a guide to what the kids know or don’t know – I’m going to run the first class pretty much on the fly. I’m going to start off by emailing the class as a whole tonight and asking them to come to our first meeting on Monday having read the first chapter of their text and with a short essay telling me five things I should know about them. I’m going to need an idea of where we are as a whole before I can really dive in and work on what the students really don’t know. I’m going to run on the (slightly pessimistic) assumption that they don’t know a whole lot. I figure, that way, I won’t be disappointed.

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The Lessons of Yesterday

I spent today at a workshop given by holocaust survivor Irving Roth which focused on the use of memoir. It was well worth the cost of the seminar and the two hours it took to get to the university where he was presenting.

Roth started his presentation by calling up the words of John Dewey, who essentially believed that it’s impossible to teach anyone anything new; that new knowledge must be built upon knowledge or experience that the student already has – or, lacking that, the student must be presented with an experience that will help him or her cement the new knowledge they obtain through the experience in real and meaningful ways. I’m not doing the theory a whole lot of justice here; let it suffice to say that Dewey wasn’t a big fan of lecture-based learning, and neither is Irving Roth. He spent the rest of the day explaining how to take the enormity of the holocaust and make it relevant to high school-aged students through exercises in empathy and human experience.

It’s very easy, he explained, to be completely overwhelmed by the events of the 1920s through the ’40s. The coincidences of geopolitical, economic and social factors that brought about the rise of the Nazis and Fascists are really secondary to the point that the holocaust was an essentially human experience that orbited around the very human experiences of loss, betrayal and fear. We are all human, he continued, and we are all capable of experiencing these things. Understanding how to lead students to tap into those recognizable experiences – those experiences of loss and fear and betrayal that our students already carry within them – and to relate what we teach them of the holocaust to those experiences, helps young people come away from the lesson with a deep sense of the humanity of it all. When students are encouraged to feel as they learn, the holocaust is no longer a disembodied event that happened sometime in the murky past. Students are able to create connections – to practice empathy – and to begin to internalize the vast and timeless implications of the era.

Roth also spent a great deal of time emphasizing that we are all orchestrators of choice. Every act we take, every decision we make, every relationship we play a part in is composed of a series of choices that not only brought us to this point, but which will bring us through to whatever is on the other side of those acts, decisions or relationships. He very beautifully illustrated that we, as humans, are all equipped with a moral center (though the argument can be made that there are certain individuals who lack that center, but those who truly do are rare enough to not really come into play for purposes of our discussion). If we are to be truly human, we have to constantly refer to that center – to inform every single act and decision from a standpoint of what we know in our core to be “right” or “wrong”. It is in doing this, Roth says, that we are able to survive the greatest horrors that we as humans can experience. The choice is to remain human in the face of evil that would seek to take our humanity from us.

I have about twenty pages of notes that were absolutely effortless to take; notes about questions of morality, notes about the overwhelming statistics of death and destruction during the Nazi reign, notes about hope for the future. Roth has a way of storytelling that is compelling and animated; he is an expressive man who (not unlike my father-in-law) likes to bounce up and down on the balls of his feet and wave his hands in the air to illustrate action. He is a man who, despite the horrors he experienced, the losses he suffered, and the attempts made on his humanity, chose to stay in the light. He has made it his life’s work to see that light kindled in others by creating the Adopt a Survivor and Surrogate Survivor programs. He tasked us educators to carry on the work of keeping the stories alive, of celebrating the lives and spirits of those who experienced the holocaust firsthand, and to see to it that the next generation understands the lessons that history so desperately wants to teach us.

Irving Roth inscribed the inside cover of his book Bondi’s Brother for me. “Dear Mrs. Chili,” he wrote, “may the lessons of yesterday guide our tomorrows.” As a teacher, it’s my job to see that those lessons are taught. It’s a responsibility I accept, and continue to strive to be worthy of doing well.

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Let’s Begin With a Challenge, Shall We?

I arrived for my first class, complete with appropriate teacher-clothes, my computer, a syllabus, the textbook and a lesson plan covering sentence structure and nouns. Oh, and a box of Dunkin Donuts Munchkins because I want the kids to like me right off.

I arrived quite a bit early, mostly because I had some photocopying to do because I also came equipped with a bunch of grammar-related comics to lighten the mood. I wanted to have a quick chat with Joe to see if there was anything in particular he needed me to do today, and I found him in a high state of agitation.

It turns out that this class – the Foundational English course – is set up for students who earn a certain grade range in a placement test that all students take when they are admitted to the school. The test is administered in a number of different sessions, one of which was held in an all-day run on Saturday, and the results of the test tells students which sections of math or English they will be taking. It turns out, though, that a rather large number of students haven’t taken the test yet – and didn’t show up on Saturday. As a result, my roster shows the names of six students (one of whom didn’t show up for the first class – I’m wondering what’s up with THAT) and I’m writing this from the computer lab at TCC while I watch 12 other students take the placement test.

Oh, and to make this morning even MORE fun? There was a class being held in the room where MY class was supposed to happen. Not that it matters much, really, because my class isn’t actually happening, but the fact that a professor from the culinary school just decided to plop his lecture into a room he wasn’t assigned sent Joe precariously close to the proverbial edge, though it seemed like a non-issue to me, given that my class wasn’t going off anyway.

All this means is that I now have FIVE weeks to cover the structure of the English language with my students instead of six. Woe befall ProfessorChef if he’s in my room NEXT week, though. I’ve got work to do!


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A Shameless Plug

The Divine Ms. P – also known as Organic Mama – has a new blog up. She and I went to grad school together and, as luck (and my bossiness) would have it, are teaching different sections of the Foundations of English class over at Tiny Community College. I’m very excited that she’s blogging – I really think you’re going to love her style. Surf on over to New Beginnings and check her out.

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The Keys to the Kingdom

I start my Foundational English class at Tiny Community College on Monday. I can hardly wait.

The class is essentially remedial. I’ve got six class meetings to go over the nature of sentences (I’ve got this one going on ALL THE TIME at my house – I’ve been drilling my daughters about it since school started, and both of them can recite the five things that make a sentence complete. Can you?), the parts of speech, subject / verb agreement, the various tenses, how to use commas and semicolons, things like that. It’s going to be a wicked sprint, but I have faith that we will get through it just fine.

While this isn’t exactly what I got into English teaching for – I’m more of a critical analysis, writing about literature kind of gal – I recognize and have a deep and abiding belief in the importance of learning the fundamentals. Learning to walk before one learns to run and all that. That I can get an idea out of my head and put it into yours using nothing but language, that we can share an experience through reading and that we can set parts of our souls free through writing are all staggering to me. Stop and consider, for a moment, how amazing language really is; about how you recognize when people use language really well and, conversely, how easily you recognize when people use language badly. You may not know the technical, grammatical reasons why something sounds right or wrong, but you know it when you hear it. Knowing why something is right or wrong, though, gives you that much more control over how you communicate, how you make your needs and feelings known, and how others form impressions of you. That’s a remarkable kind of power, and we are all entitled to it.

I’m going into this class with a high volume of enthusiasm for the subject matter, and I’m going to spend a decent portion of the first class convincing the kids that this stuff is worthwhile and important. Being able to communicate well is where the real juice is, and I suspect that many of them already instinctually know this.

Many of my students will be attending their first college-level class EVER on Monday morning with me as their instructor – don’t think I’m not mindful of that responsibility. Grammar doesn’t have to be boring, and I want them to understand that I’m doing nothing less than giving them the keys to the kingdom. Get the basics of your language down, and you’re well on your way to the most important life skill a human can possess: The ability to REALLY communicate.

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