Monthly Archives: August 2009

Aaaannd, GO!

Classes begin at Local U. tonight (well, technically, they begin today, but I’m only teaching in the evenings…).  I’m feeling pretty good about getting back in the classroom – in fact, I may be a little giddy at the prospect – so, despite the tiny, and entirely expected, twinge of nervousness that comes with the first class of a new semester, I’m eager to get going.

My first class will likely not run the whole class period (I’m teaching from 5:40-7:00 on Mondays and Wednesdays – had I mentioned that already?).  We’ll mainly just go over the syllabus, which I need to pick up from the English Department office this afternoon; by the time I get to school for my class, the office will be closed and there’s little that’s more frustrating than seeing a pile of photocopies you need for your class sitting in a nice, neat stack behind a locked door.

I’ll probably get the students to do a little non-threatening writing – tell me about your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, tell me what your first day of college classes has been like, that sort of thing – and will make a concerted effort to know all 25 of their names by the time I cut them loose for the evening.

I’m expecting that none of them will have their books, and I think that won’t be a problem as I’m expecting the textbook rep to come to class on Wednesday to explain how the online writing lab works, then we’ve got Monday off for Labor day – that’s plenty of time for them to get themselves to the bookstore (or for Amazon to deliver).

I’m feeling pretty confident that this semester is going to go well.  I really enjoyed teaching freshman writing last fall; I see no real reason why this semester should be any different.

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Filed under I love my job, Local U., Teaching

A Week From Today

I will meet my CHS class next Wednesday.  A week from today.  Wowie.

I spent some time this past month in Mom’s hospital room trying to put together the bones of a plan for this class, then abandoned the effort as essentially pointless.  I have no idea what kinds of skills the kids will come to the classroom in possession of, neither do I know where their interests and passions lie, so putting together a plan which may be completely useless in the reality of my classroom seemed a waste of my time.  Carrie (she’s the director of the charter school) confided in me that she doesn’t have a lot of faith in the education these students have received in English over the last few years, so she’s warned me to be prepared for the possibility that we may have to spend a good chunk of the semester doing a lot of remedial, foundational stuff.  That information inspired me to lay aside my planning activities until I have a better idea of what my kids will need.

Our runway into the school year is a little weird.  We go to classes next Wednesday and Thursday, we have Friday through Monday off, then we start back for real on Tuesday the 8th.  For all that I have resented those first two days in the past (“why the hell do they do that?!  Why can’t they just start after Labor Day the way we did when we were kids?!), I’m kind of loving them now.  Those two days will give me a chance to get to know my kids, to find out what they think of themselves as writers, readers, and thinkers, and to set the tone for what I hope will be a fun – but rigorous – 16 weeks together.

I’m planning on using two textbooks as my guides for the semester; The Curious Writer and The Language of Composition.  My students won’t have these books – to the best of my knowledge, there is no textbook available to the seniors – but *I* have access to them, and I find both of them together to be just about perfect for what I’m going to try to do. 

The Curious Writer is a delightful text that reminds students (and, perhaps more importantly, teachers) that writing is, foremost, a form of inquiry; that we often don’t know what we think or feel about something until we write about it.  It encourages students to write “badly;” to set aside the inner editor and worry less about the fussy details in favor of really saying what they want to say – once they’ve got the big idea working for them, they can clean up the details later.  Very often (and I’ll admit to being guilty of this myself), writers focus on the micro “rules” of syntax and grammar rather than looking at the macro of the bigger picture – how a piece of writing conveys its meaning.  The red pen of English teachers past has frightened a lot of student writers into thinking that if they can’t turn out a pretty piece of writing on the first try, then they shouldn’t bother writing at all.  I am determined to NOT be the English teacher that scares the kids into thinking they can’t write.

The Language of Composition text is a gorgeous compilation of grouped pieces that model particular rhetorical strategies and choices, and which asks questions intended to inspire students to close reading and critical thinking.  Designed with the goal of helping students succeed on the AP English exam, the book uses readings, mini lessons in rhetoric and grammar, and interviews with writers featured in the text about their own writing process to model for students how to think and write clearly.  Where the Curious Writer is playful and seemingly free-form, The Language of Composition is more ordered and methodical.  Taken together, I think that these books will serve as a sturdy framework around which I can build a really dynamic class.

I believe that, in the swirl of emotions I’m feeling about going back to work, excitement has the biggest proportion.  I don’t feel especially nervous or trepidatious; I have no doubt that I can hit this class out of the park (and have a great time doing it).  I am, however, a little – how do I describe it?  On alert? – about the fact that I’m entering an entirely unknown work environment where the fact of my presence may not be welcomed by all concerned; I think that the current English teacher is seeing the proverbial writing on the wall and eyes my hiring with quite a bit of suspicion (not unwarrented, I might add; I, too, am under the impression that I’m being brought in so that she can be eased out).  I’m hopeful that this will be mitigated by the fact that I’m only in the school for two hours a day.

How’s YOUR runway going?


Filed under about writing, colleagues, composition, concerns, critical thinking, I love my boss, I love my job, reading, rhetoric, self-analysis, Teaching, The Job, winging it

The English IV Manifesto

Jessica commented the other day asking for suggestions about what to send out as a letter to parents and students on the first day of classes.  While what I’ve got here isn’t exactly a letter, I think it’ll serve the purpose for which I intend it; to let students know what I expect from them and, in turn, what they can expect from me.  Once I get hold of the parents’ email addresses, this is going home to them, too; even though my students are seniors and are, one could hope, mostly responsibile for their own stuff, I still think that communicating with parents in secondary school settings is essential.

It’s a bit lengthy (I’m an English teacher; what did you expect), but I’m pleased with how it came out.

English IV
Winter Term, 2009
Charter High School
Mrs. Chili

About the Course: This year, English IV will be a writing-intensive course that will focus on critical thinking and analysis.  We will use a variety of media to inspire our investigations into the communication process; we’ll be thinking, talking, and especially writing about literature, film, poetry, art, theatre, music, and speeches – among other things.  This class will be much more than response and interpretation; while it’s important to be able to discuss how you feel about something, it’s often equally important (if not more so) to be able to express your understanding of how a thing works or how it fits into the larger context of your own experience.  We’ll be looking at connections in this course and figuring out the different ways we can use literature as an experience to help us understand ourselves, our communities, and our world a little bit better.

Expectations: There are certain things that I will expect from you and, likewise, there are a number of things that you can expect from me.  First and foremost is respect.  As a community of writers and thinkers, we must be able to trust one another.  Writing (and thinking) is a process that most often involves missteps and risk-taking.  We need to create an environment where it’s okay to express half-developed ideas, where we won’t feel ridiculous if the thought we started chasing turns out to be silly or unsupportable, and where we challenge each other to expand thinking beyond the safe and expected.  To that end, it is vital that we approach this class – and each other – with a high level of respect.  We’ll learn a lot from each other – this class is not about me imparting learning on you but rather is a collaborative effort on all our parts – and we’ve got to be able to trust that we’ll support one another in the process of learning.  Everything else that we do at a community of writers and thinkers will expand from that sense of trust and respect; without it, we’ll get no where.

Beyond that, there are certain day-to-day expectations that need to be made clear.  You can expect me to be in class every day on time and prepared.  You can expect me to take you seriously and to be entirely supportive of your own learning process.  You can expect me to be clear about what I want from you in terms of work, both in class an out of it, and you can expect me to assess your work according to those standards.  You can expect me to respond to your questions and concerns (whether they be class related or not) in a timely and respectful way.  In short, you can expect me to be present and mindful and wholly engaged.

I expect you to be in class every day on time and prepared (that includes having completed any assigned reading and having all necessary materials with you in class).  I expect you to be present and engaged in class and to take the time we have together seriously.  I expect you to complete all the assignments I give, to participate in group activities, and to be a careful and conscientious participant in workshops with your classmates.  I expect you to ask questions, to stretch beyond what you think are the “safe” answers, and to take full responsibility for your own learning.  I expect you to come to me with any questions, problems, or concerns you have (and, if your concerns are about an assignment, I expect you to come to me well before that assignment is due).  I expect you to behave in a mature and respectful way toward yourself, your classmates, and me.  In short, I expect you to be present and mindful and wholly engaged.

Assignments: As a practice, I don’t map out an entire course on a syllabus; I feel that limits the class too much and stifles our ability to follow fruitful tangents that may come up as a result of our thinking.  That does not mean, however, that you won’t know about assignments in plenty of time to complete them.  For day-to-day work, I will usually write the assignment on the board or simply tell you what we’re doing for the class.  For major projects, I will print out an assignment sheet with detailed instructions and the assessment standards I will use to grade the work.  It is your responsibility to understand the assignment completely before you begin; telling me that you “didn’t get it” is not an acceptable excuse for not having completed an assignment or for doing it poorly.

Unless you are absent from school, work not handed in on the due date will be penalized ten points for each day it is late.  If you are absent from class, it is your responsibility to find out what, if any, homework was assigned that day and to have it ready when you return to school.  I do not offer make-up or extra credit work; I do, however, negotiate due dates with students who have legitimate reasons for not being able to complete an assignment on time.  If you think you’re going to run into trouble getting something in when it’s due, let me know and we’ll come to an agreement that meets both of our needs.

I will make every effort to have your work graded and returned to you in a timely fashion.  Please keep in mind, however, that you only had to write one paper; I’ll have to read and assess everyone’s work.

Media: I teach my classes through a broad range of media.  We will not only read extensively, but we’ll also make use of films, music, poetry, speeches, and maybe even a guest lecturer or two.  Some of the things that we will investigate in this class may be considered by some to be “edgy.”  As seniors – and very nearly adults – I expect you to approach this material with maturity and a sense of critical inquiry.  If, by common consent, Ms. Harrison (Chili’s note; she’s the director) and I feel that a permission slip is required before I present certain material to you, it is your responsibility to have that slip signed by a parent or guardian and returned to me on the day it is due.  Failure to present consent will result in your being excluded from the activity and assigned alternate work.  This is nonnegotiable.

Communication: I make it a policy to be accessible to all my students.  Please know that you are welcomed to email me any time at  I can receive mail from that address on my mobile phone and will get back to you as soon as I possibly can.


Filed under I love my job, Teaching, The Job

Excited (and, Apparently, a Little Anxious, Too)

I am really jazzed about getting back into the classroom and have spent the last few days in Mom’s nursing home room putting together the plans for my first couple of classes, both at the charter school (CHS) and at Local U.

I’ve probably mentioned it here before, but I’m not much of a planner.

I interned with two different kinds of teachers.  One of them was a serious planner.  She had a whole book full of neatly arranged and carefully orchestrated plans.  She printed out materials and had assignments all mapped out and she knew, every morning, exactly how each day would proceed.  I admired her organization skills and her ability to plan her entire school year before September.  She always had very clear sub plans and there wasn’t a moment of class time that wasn’t accounted for.

It was boring as hell.

The other teacher who mentored me during my last year of grad school was far more like the kind of teacher I wanted to be (or, more to the point, the kind of teacher I already was).  She had a general idea of where she wanted to go with the students over the course of a unit.  She’d gather up far more materials than she could ever use and she went in to the work with a goal in mind, but with no concrete demands about how she got there.  As a result, she was able to take advantage of found experiences (when, for example, a student made a connection to something she hadn’t considered including, we were able to chase that connection down because we weren’t rigidly committed to a “plan”), we spent far more time thinking and talking and writing than filling out worksheets or answering comprehension questions at the end of a textbook chapter, and the class was far more relaxed and engaged than I think it otherwise would have been.

That’s the kind of teacher I am and, while that approach has its DEFINITE drawbacks (sub plans being the most obvious, but there are also occasions where the class fails to produce enough energy on its own to get through the day, and that’s when having a plan in place is advantageous), I find that I function much better if I allow the class the room to explore the material in ways that make sense to them.

So I’ve been mapping out – as much as I do, that is – the first couple of classes at CHS with the intent of finding out what they do – and, perhaps more importantly, what they don’t – know.  I’ll have a better understanding of what I’m going to do with the semester once I know what the kids need in terms of foundational skills going forward.  I’ll make sure that reinforcement of those skills (or, if necessary, introductions to them) are included in the work that we do with the materials I’ve chosen.  Now, though, I don’t know what I’m getting, so I don’t know what they need.

Local U. is actually easier.  I’ve taught the class before, and the University has very clear guidelines for what it wants every freshman to end the class having experienced in the way of the writing process.  Again, how I get them there is entirely up to me, but having the milestones set up for me does take care of a lot of the planning work.

It seems, though, that along with my excitement, I’ve got some underlying anxiety.  I and my first teacher nightmare in a very long time the other night.  Okay, it wasn’t a nightmare, per se, but it was unpleasant.  I was co-teaching a class with Carrie, the director of CHS, and I walked into our classroom to find her at the desk trying to listen to a phone call.  She had the phone jammed against one ear and a finger shoved into the other trying to hear over the unruly noise the class was making.  The kids were totally out of control; one student was flicking little balls of paper (I’m pretty sure this element came from the “Paper Toss” application we downloaded to our iPhones for the girls to play) and another was writing on her desk with lipstick (NO idea where that came from).

The upshot is that I handled the situation COMPLETELY wrong, and I knew it as I watched myself  doing it.  I yelled, I intimidated, I called out individual students.  I wrote “courtesy” in big letters on the board and gave the students a pompous and entirely inappropriate lecture on classroom etiquette. It was a disaster.

I knew when I woke, however, that this was a good sign; it means that I’ve internalized that I really AM going to be back in the classroom,  More to the point, I know how to appropriately handle a situation like that; I think that I was confirming for myself that I’m entirely up to the task.

17 more days….


Filed under critical thinking, I love my job, Learning, self-analysis, Teaching, The Job, winging it

I’m Back!

Sort of.  Did you miss me?

So, long story short is that I was hired at the charter school, but only as an adjunct (“for now…” says the director).  I’ll teach senior English the first semester (90 minute classes 5 days a week for 16 weeks) and wellness (which, I’m gathering, is something akin to phys. ed.) during the second semester.  I’m not terribly jazzed about the second semester – I didn’t really want to be a gym teacher (and I certainly didn’t want to be one in a school that has no gym, so we have to go outside a lot, and I certainly didn’t want to do it during the second semester.  Hello?  January to May weather is terrible in this neighborhood), but it was the only thing I could get, so I’m taking it.  I’m planning on exploring a yoga practice (I think the kids will love it) and maybe some mat Pilates.  I’ve got a lot of wiggle room when it comes to what I do in my classes (both of them) so I’m not overly concerned about keeping it going.

I AM terribly jazzed about the English class, however.  I’m singularly responsible for the entire class; I get to choose the materials, I get to design the curriculum, I get to determine the assessments.  The director (who I’ll call Carrie here) is exceedingly supportive of me and seems really excited to have me on staff, even if it is only part time (“for now,” she says…).  She’s really interested in getting the English department on a more academically-oriented track; my impression is that, up to  now, the English department has been heavy on the creative / interpretive and not so much on the critical thinking / analytical.  In our conversations today, Carrie mentioned numerous times that she can’t promise me anything about what kind of foundation my seniors will have; she even went so far as to say she’s not sure they’ll even be able to express themselves clearly, never mind engage in any kind of analytical thinking right away.

I’m taking that as a very exciting challenge.

I’m also picking up another Freshman English class at Local U.  I’m taking a bit of a dfferent approach to this class than I did last year; now that I’ve had a semester’s experience, I’m more willing to play with the syllabus a bit and customize the course to suit my strengths.  Last year, since it was my first at Local U. as a teacher, I relied pretty heavily on the “suggested syllabus” that was handed out to the new teachers.  It worked, but I felt limited and stilted.  This year, I’m going to have fun with it.  I’ve signed the kids up with an online writing program that I’m really excited about, I’ve ditched a couple of the texts that didn’t work for me last year and picked up Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (I’m going to have a blast with that during the personal narrative unit!), and I’m going to include more activities and films this year.  I’m anticipating a great semester.

I’m still not ready to post here with any kind of regularity just yet; my mother still hasn’t passed and I’m currently trying to return to the life I suspended for four months to care for her.  Once I’m back in the classroom, though, I’ll be back here most days, telling stories and asking questions and seeking advice (and let’s not forget about Grammar Wednesdays!!).

I’ve missed you all, and I’m looking forward to being back.


Filed under colleagues, critical thinking, Dream Course, I love my boss, I love my job, job hunting, Local U., reading, Teaching, The Job, writing