Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Interview

My teacher- and blogging buddy Ricochet posted an interview over on her site.  I was just thinking this morning that I haven’t posted here in a while, so I’m posting this.  Thank you, Honey, for posting the questions by themselves; I wasn’t sure I could manage not peeking at your answers before I wrote my own.

My background information is that I am in my 5th year of teaching in a high school (though I have taught at the junior college and university level, as well)  in the Northeast.  I teach English, writing, literature, poetry, public speaking,  critical thinking, and film as literature.


How was actually teaching different from what you expected it to be when you went into teaching?

Teaching is both better and worse than I expected it to be in college.  Truly, nothing that happens in a college classroom can prepare one for the experience of being a teacher; despite their best efforts to get us prepared for classroom management and curriculum design and all the day-to-day stuff that happens, there’s really no substitute for being in it.  Honestly, I don’t think that someone who hasn’t taught in the field in the last few years has any business teaching a class that prepares teachers for their jobs; I have no problem with someone who’s never (or not recently) taught giving classes in the respective disciplines, but the classes specifically designed to teach people how to function in an honest-to-Goddess classroom should only be taught by people who actually do it (or have recently done it).  Maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, I realized that I’m not answering the question.  I guess my answer would have to be that I didn’t expect to do as much on-the-fly teaching as I do.  I mean, I knew that I wouldn’t be following a plan word-for-word, but I find that I can go off on any of a million different fruitful tangents depending on what interests the students.  A kid will pick up on some little detail or ask a question that I didn’t expect, and we’ll spend a whole class period exploring where that takes us.  Personally (and professionally), I have no problem with that – in fact, I think it’s really wonderful – but it sometimes leads me to have to recalculate my trajectory for the semester.

What do people not know about schools or teaching that you wish they did?

I wish that people understood how emotionally invested in our work, and our students, we teachers are.  Of course, there are the exceptions – I know for sure that I had teachers who were just going through the motions – but I would have to say that the greater percentage of people who go into teaching do it because they love their disciplines and they love their kids.  I CARE about how well my students do; I know I have something to give them that will help them get along in the world, something that will ease their way and make their lives richer and more productive.  It matters to me that my kids are safe and well cared for.  It matters to me that they be given the space they need to grow and change and to sometimes fall flat on their faces.  I know I didn’t go into this work for the money (she says with a sharp edge of bitterness in her voice), and I resent the fuck out of people who discount the work that we do because of their perception of the hours that we (supposedly) work.  These people take no heed of the fact that teachers are building human beings – the future citizens of our world – and that is no small thing.

What do you think is the biggest problem facing educators today?

The single biggest problem that faces education is that we SAY we value it, but we don’t BEHAVE as though we do.  I won’t even tell you how much money I spent out of my own pocket because there are simply no funds for things like paper and pens and books.  I hold book fairs and bake sales and I beg my friends and family and the members of my community to give our school the things we need because we don’t have the money to buy them.  We talk a good game about how America needs to be on the cutting edge of science and technology, yet we do practically nothing to serve the kids who are in our schools right now.

There’s a bumper sticker that says something like “it will be a great day when schools have all the money they need and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy another bomber.” Our priorities are NOT what we claim them to be, and until we start behaving as though education matters, it will all be just so much lip service.

What is the best thing about teaching?

The kids, without question. I ADORE my students, and I bear each and every one of them a particular variety of maternal love (though I will admit to loving some more than others). I have formed great relationships with most of my students since I began doing this work, and it is the exchanges and interactions I have with my students that I find most rewarding about this job. There is little that equals the high of seeing a kid finally GET something that she’s been struggling with for however long we’ve been working on it; the look of “Oh, my GOD, I GET IT!!” that crosses their faces is just fantastic, and the fact that they’ll never think the same way again is something that I treasure. I’ve been fortunate to witness a lot of those moments (I call them “Helen Keller moments” in honor of the famous scene at the water pump), and the potential for more is what keeps me hooked on this work.

I’m also in love with my discipline, and getting to share that with a new group of kids every year is more fun than I expected it to be. I get to read and talk about books for a living! Really; how can that be bad?!

Where do you see yourself ten years from now?

My intention is to keep doing what I’m doing, though I can’t say for sure that I’ll be doing it WHERE I am now. I teach at a tiny charter high school whose long-term future is somewhat murky (between funding and the disposition of the Department of Ed toward charter schools, we’re not sure whether we’ll see ten years though, in a fit of optimism, the board signed a 20 year lease with our current landlords, so….). Mr. Chili jokes that I’m his retirement plan, so it’s a good thing I like what I do, because he plans on my doing it for a while. I’m okay with that; I’m still excited to get up and go to work every morning. Someone once said that if you find something you love to do, you’ll never work a day in your life. I think that someone was exactly right.


Filed under Helen Keller Moment, I love my job, little bits of nothingness, Questions, self-analysis, Teaching, The Job

Something Wicked

My freshmen are wrapping up our investigation of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (if you haven’t read this novel, go git it!). Here’s what I’m giving my babies for a final project.


As a wrap-up to Something Wicked This Way Comes, you have the opportunity to choose between two options for demonstrating your understanding of this book and the work that we did with it. You may either:

1. Create a piece of writing that plays off of the themes in the novel. You may write an extended poem, you may write a play script, or you may write a scene that doesn’t appear in the book (tell the story of what happens to Miss Foley or the lightning rod salesman, for example, or who the “people” in the mirror maze really are, or write another chapter for the end of the book, maybe one in which you investigate what happens to Cooger and Dark or a scene where Will is telling his own son about his adventures that summer and what he learned).

2. Create a piece of artwork that visually demonstrates a main theme or idea from the novel. What do you think the Dust Witch (or any other of the circus “freaks”) really looks like, and what does her appearance tell us about who she is and what she suffers? Illustrate (and explain) the most profound, sad, or frightening tattoo on Mr. Dark, and try to capture the power that those images have over their likenesses in real life. What do you think the train engine looks like? Can machinery take on a personality?

Regardless of which option you choose, you MUST also offer up a 3-5 minute presentation on it; tell us what you did, why you did it, and how you think the work you did demonstrates your understanding of some important aspect of Bradbury’s novel.

You will be graded as follows:

Creativity – 50 points – the student’s project is interesting and relevant. The project is thought-provoking and asks the viewer/reader to consider an important aspect of the novel in new and interesting ways.

Workmanship – 30 points – it is clear that the student took time and care in creating this project. The piece shows evidence of careful work and attention to detail.

Presentation – 20 points – student is able to talk about his/her project clearly and coherently. Student can explain how his or her work connects to the novel, and is able to answer questions about that connection – and his/her artistic process – clearly and competently.


Filed under lesson planning, Literature, Teaching

What’s the Point? *EDITED*


You know, there are only a few occasions (and, thankfully, they don’t happen all that often) when a student does or says something that just hits me in a bad spot. I mean, sure; they all say dumb shit, and I’m convinced that, at least half the time, they have NO idea how they sound to other people. Most of the time, though, I’m able to take it for what it is. Actually, I kind of LIKE that they say the things they say – the material they provide is priceless.

Sometimes, though, it’s just wrong. Take this morning as an example. I have been doing a lot of thinking about my freshman class and their (lack of) writing skills, so I decided that, instead of just setting them to the descriptive paper, I would take them through a series of exercises that would bring them through a logical and carefully orchestrated process which, at the end, would leave them prepared to write the work that I’m asking of them. I sat with them and worked through the exercises myself, so I could gauge how much time each exercise should take. At the end of each section, I asked the students to share the work they produced, and led them through a series of questions designed to get them to see – even if only superficially – how this work was helping to prepare them to tackle the longer, more sustained narrative I am expecting them to craft.

After the third section, I asked a kid – let’s call him Kevin – to give the class a little perspective into what he’d done. “I didn’t do what you asked,” he said. “I didn’t see the point in it, so I just started writing the intro to my paper.”

Seriously. I’m not paraphrasing; that’s what the kid said. I didn’t see the point.

I managed to not lose my shit (though trust me, it was a near thing). Instead, I asked him to consider that I DID have a point, that the lesson that I’d planned for the day was deliberate and purposeful, and that it would do him well to trust that not only do I know what I’m doing, but that I also have his best interests at heart. It was all I could do to not kick him out of the room. I should probably disclose, for the sake of honesty, that Kevin also posted a comment on another student’s facebook page to the effect that the curriculum at CHS is a joke, so this was just a little extra something to make my day.

To be honest with you, I’m still worked up over the whole thing. I remember being a teenager and wondering exactly why my teachers were making me do all the dumb things they made me do, but I never once refused to do them (and you can be certain that I never challenged a teacher in front of a class the way Kevin did to me this morning). What’s more, I make a POINT of showing the kids the reasons behind almost all the work I ask them to do. What’s frustrating about that is, half the time, they don’t get it (and often still don’t get it until they’re in college, which is why Collette’s email from yesterday geeked me right out).

I’m not sure whether I’m going to follow up with Kevin. My boss, Carrie, tells me I should just let it go – that Kevin’s response is a coping mechanism because he’s having trouble keeping up with the “joke” of a curriculum, that he was expecting something from this experience that he’s clearly not getting (namely that he’d be able to get by with minimal academics and play his guitar all day). I can intellectualize that, but it doesn’t keep me from being upset and offended that this kid, who thinks he’s all that, believes he knows more about what I’m teaching him than I do.


Edited to include: I couldn’t let it go. I sent this to Kevin (and cc’d my boss and Kevin’s mother):

Dear Kevin,

I’m writing to you because I never got an opportunity to talk to you this afternoon about what happened in class today. I think it’s important enough to be addressed immediately and directly. I would rather talk to you about this in person, but since we won’t have class again until Wednesday, this will have to do.

While I appreciate that you may not always “see the point” in the work I ask you to do (I do remember being in high school and wondering the same thing, myself), I require that you to do it, anyway. The exercise that you chose to ignore this morning was important in the progression of the lesson I had planned for the you and the class, and while I understand that you may have been frustrated by having to do some of the pre-writing exercises that I suspect a lot of students skip in their writing, I still expected you to at least attempt them. A significant issue I see in most students’ writing (yours included) is a lack of cohesion and purpose; the exercises that I planned for this morning were meant to address that failing and to give the class a valuable tool in learning how to overcome it.

It was very disrespectful of you to simply ignore an assignment and then announce that you did so to the class. I ask that you respect that I not only know what I’m doing, but that I take my work very seriously and care very much that what I teach you makes the work you have to do easier and more productive. I think that you might have found that participating in the exercise gave you an opportunity to plan your writing in ways that you normally don’t do, and that giving yourself that kind of deliberate map would – and will – make writing an extended essay both easier and better.

Going forward, I expect you to complete all the work that I ask of you, both in class and as homework. If you’re ever interested in the purpose of an exercise, simply ask me. I am a mindful teacher – I don’t give busywork and I will always be able to explain to you the purpose behind a lesson. That being said, don’t always assume that you’ll understand – or appreciate – the reason after I explain it to you; it has been my experience that most students don’t really “get” why teachers ask them to do the things we do until long after they’ve left our classrooms. What I’m asking of you is to trust that I know what I’m doing, and to give yourself the opportunity to learn what I have to teach you.


Mrs. Chili


Filed under concerns, dumbassery, failure, frustrations, General Griping, I can't make this shit up..., really?!, student chutzpah, You're kidding...right?


This seems to be the year for kids coming back to tell me that they get why I jump up and down on them about stuff they don’t want to do. It’s awesome.

A while ago, CHS instituted a community-wide, weekly vocabulary word contest. Someone (usually me) chooses a word (I often choose from the SAT website) that the entire community has to define and use in a CHS-related sentence. Elaina, the Goddess of the Front Desk, chooses a winner each week (which inspires the kids to write funny sentences, because we all know how much Elaina loves to laugh), and I announce that winner in morning announcements on Friday. It used to be a voluntary thing, but then a couple of us started issuing it as a for-credit assignment. As everyone has at least ONE of the teachers who requires it for a class, every kid in the school should be doing this.

Nearly every kid in the school blows it off. In fact, I just chased down a couple of students on Friday because they hadn’t done the damned CHS word in weeks, and those zeros were starting to stack up. I mean, really?! It’s ONE sentence, once a week! Gah!

Anyway, this was in my inbox this afternoon. It’s from Collette, who’s a junior in my English classes:

Hi Ms Chili!

I took my SATs this morning and I just wanted to say thank you SO MUCH for having us do the CHS word every week. It pretty much saved my butt in the reading/writing parts of the test. There were at least 10 from this year and last year in one section alone, and if I hadn’t known how to properly use them in a sentence I would have been completely screwed.
I always wondered what the point of it was other than to just be fun, and now I know. 🙂

Warn the Juniors!

Hope you’re having a pleasant weekend 🙂

Best wishes,

Isn’t that FANTASTIC?! I’ve sent her an email back asking if I can read this in morning announcements on Monday; SO many kids aren’t doing the weekly vocabulary word, and I wonder if this might inspire some of them to do it.


Filed under colleagues, fun, I love my job, success!, the good ones

You Don’t Get Credit for Wiseassery

Get this.

My students were given an assignment to take note of new words they encounter in their reading.  Part of the mission of our school is “to create independent learners,” and I thought that it would be better for them if they were the ones finding the vocabulary words, rather than having me go through and give them a list (why should *I* do that work?  I know what the words mean!).

Here’s the assignment they got:

Please complete a printed list (handwritten is fine) of AT LEAST 15-20 vocabulary words.  List the word, the page number it was found on, the part of speech, and a definition YOU UNDERSTAND for each word you find.

Maggie (remember Maggie?) decided to be a wise ass with this and completely blew it off.  Her list was very clearly done last-minute, and she didn’t actually do what was asked of her.  That, combined with the fact that she didn’t put a header on the other half of the assignment (to propose a paper topic to me), earned her a 70 for the assignment.

This morning, I got a note from Mags that said “It says I only got a 70/100 on this.”

No question, just the statement.  I considered responding with “Yes, it does.” and leaving it at that, but I didn’t want to sink to her level.  Instead, here’s what she got from me:

That’s right, Maggie, you do.  Each part of the assignment was worth 50 points.  You earned a 40 on your description paper proposal because you failed to put your name on it.  You earned 30 points on your vocabulary assignment because I got the very strong impression that you blew it off.  You didn’t list page numbers or the parts of speech like you were asked to do, the definitions you gave said very clearly that you didn’t actually look the words up, you spelled some of the words incorrectly, and you listed “air” as one of the vocabulary words, with a definition of “good for breathing.”  The purpose of this assignment was for you to take some responsibility for learning new terms; you didn’t do that.  Honestly, I think a 70 is generous.

I’m thinking that it’s time to take the darling aside and explain to her that while she may think she’s the shit with her wiseassery, I am not amused and it will continue to her detriment.


Filed under concerns, dumbassery, failure, frustrations, I've got this kid...., really?!, student chutzpah, You're kidding...right?

Professionally Developed

I have to renew my teaching credentials in 2012.

Yes, I know that’s a long way away, but I’m learning from the mistakes of my past.

You see, I spent several hair-tearing hours at my dying mother’s kitchen table in June of ’09 trying desperately to piece together all the documents for the professional development hours I did during my last licensing cycle, and I distinctly remembering promising myself that I’d never – ever – do that to myself again.

In an effort to keep that promise, I’ve begun scanning the required documentation I’ve collected so far so that I can upload it all on my portfolio on our school’s website (which, really, is awesome.  I think I’m going to really love having an electronic portfolio).  I had a paper file at home, so I just laid it all on my scanner and loaded it on to my thumb drive.  From here on out, I’ll scan certificates as I get them.

I just double-checked and, according to my state’s DOE site, I need a minimum of 75 professional development hours between now and 2012 to renew my license.

I just did the math (shut it; I did, so!!) and figured out that I already have 85 hours!  Next Friday, I’m heading to the Holocaust Center to gather up 8 more!

Go, ME!!


Filed under doing my own homework, Learning, Mrs. Chili as Student, self-analysis, success!