Monthly Archives: August 2011

“Make it Work”

That’s our school-wide theme for the year (we just decided it 10 minutes ago.  We even came up with a catchy tee-shirt logo!).  Here comes my plea for help.

I’m teaching freshmen, juniors, and seniors this year, and I NEED novel and short story ideas that work along the theme of the things we do to make our living and, tangentially, what it means to “make a living.”  I need at least five books for each class.  Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Freshmen – To Kill a Mockingbird (we’ll focus in on the ideas of professional and personal ethics with this), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (the ways in which the working world of adults is interpreted/misunderstood by children), The Giver (more professional/personal ethics)

Juniors – My Name is Asher Lev (choosing between the things you love and the things you’re expected to do), 1984 (playing – or not – within the system) and The Country of the Pointed Firs (very local flavor (the stories are set in a town literally 6 miles up the street) with a strong emphasis on community and interconnectedness).

Seniors – The Help (there are a million ways to go with this), essays from Studs Terkel’s Working, (oral history, finding value in everyone’s work), Native Son (the ways in which the systems we knowingly and unknowingly perpetuate affect ourselves and others) and A Handmaid’s Tale (again, with the systems).

I am also looking for ways to incorporate The Things They Carried and A Christmas Carol into some or all of the classes, and one of my colleagues is jazzed about The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind as an all-school read.  I’m expecting a copy of Norma Rae from Amazon any day now, and I’m also looking at teaching The Last Samurai for the ways in which it investigates the end of a system of living.

Please, please, PLEASE – if you know any books, films, or short stories that have a strong undercurrent of work and the ethics and values associated with it, send them along!


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Course Description

How’s this?


Aliens and Vampires

Stories serve a number of purposes that go well beyond simple entertainment.  Stories tell us who we are, they help us to transmit our culture and our values, and they offer a forum in which we work out our more difficult questions and problems.  In this course, we will investigate the alien and vampire genres.  What is it about these particular stories and characters that captivates our imagination?  Why is it that we’ll see a long run of a particular genre during a particular time period, and what do those stories tell us about the culture, the sociopolitical environment, or the issues of that time?

This course will look at a range of stories within the alien and vampire genres and will include both written and cinematic texts.  Some examples of the works we’ll investigate include Dracula, I am Legend, and Blade alongside Contact, Alien, and Star Trek.  Students should be prepared to read two full length novels and a short story during the semester, as well as to participate in writing and critical discussions about the stories.  A detailed analytical paper will serve as the final exam for the course.


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Why I Love My Job


Did you ever start thinking about something, and then discover, five minutes later, that that thinking led you to someplace COMPLETELY different but entirely connectible?  The other day, for example, I started thinking about Mr. Chili’s impending month-long trip to New Mexico for another instrument launch.  That started me thinking about what we can and cannot bring on airplanes.  THAT thinking led me to thinking about water bottles, which got me to these (which my sister hooked me on to and which I love, despite their hefty price tag.  Honest to Goddess, People; black flask in a black car in a parking lot in August for two hours while I watched a movie.  I came out and the tea inside was still refrigerator cold).  I went from Mr. Chili’s trip to my favorite beverage in three steps.  Kinda like six degrees of Kevin Bacon

So, here’s the scene, okay?  I’m on a lunch date this afternoon with my boss, whom I call Carrie here.  She’s awesome; smart, funny, and fiercely passionate and committed about what we’re doing.  She’s a truly amazing boss – the best I’ve ever worked with – and she’s also a dear and trusted friend; we know, almost instinctively, how to balance the friend relationship with the work relationship in a way that makes both relationships better.  We have a blast every time we’re together, and I’d been looking forward to this lunch for a couple of weeks.

ANYWAY, we’re having lunch and talking alternately about home things and work things.  At one point, we started talking about the fact that I’ve got Mac now, which means that I can teach electives this year.  We’re trying to decide which elective I should teach when, and we got around to the fact that my colleague is teaching his film appreciation class this term, so I’ll teach my Film and Lit class in second semester.  What, then, to teach starting in September?

Somehow, the conversation came around to the fact that Carrie and her daughter sat down to watch Interview with the Vampire the other day.  It seems that her kid was quite ticked off at Claudia’s fate, and Carrie spent a good bit of time explaining that her daughter felt that Claudia’s death was completely unfair.  That somehow led to a conversation about who the villains really are, which led me to observe that our villains change over time; when we were kids, all the bad guys were Russians.  Now, they’re all Arabs.  We go through phases in our entertainment; we get a bumper crop of football movies, then a run of mobster movies, then we get the alien invasion flicks, then we get the supernatural, ghost-and-vampire films, and so on and so on.  What is it, I asked, that makes a certain genre of film so accessible at a certain period of time?

As I was making my case for the cyclical nature of our entertainment choices, Carrie’s eyes got big.  “I KNOW!” she said, “YOU need to teach a seminar on aliens and vampires!

I swear to God, that’s really what she said.

Do you see now why I love working for/with this woman?

We spent the rest of the meal discussing what that course would look like.  I rattled off a bunch of stories that could be the foundations for the course – Dracula, of course, and War of the Worlds – and things like Contact, Alien, Men in Black, and Star Trek set up alongside Dracula, The Lost Boys, Buffy, Blade, and I am Legend.  The objectives would include an investigation of the stories’ history in popular culture and possibly some investigation of some of the earlier treatments of the genres, some critical analysis of the parallels (if any can be found) between the number of pieces in a genre during a particular time and the sociopolitical climate during that time, and some sort of creative component in which the students fashion a story (or a play or a skit or a mini-series) that uses one of the genres to interpret a current issue, like immigration, civil rights, or international diplomacy.

You should have seen us, geeking out over dessert, imagining how much pure FUN this class will be.  I’m off to write a course description; I’ll post it here when it’s ready.  Any thoughts, suggestions, or advice you can offer are, as always, gratefully accepted.


Filed under admiration, book geek, colleagues, critical thinking, Dream Course, film as literature, fun, I can't make this shit up..., I love my boss, I love my job, lesson planning, Mrs. Chili as Student, popular culture, success!, Teaching, winging it

Did You Hear That?

That was me, breathing a HUGE sigh of relief.

Thanks to some shuffling of faculty at CHS, funds were freed up to hire a part-time English teacher to fill in the space left by Mike’s departure to grad school in OregonMac is IN!  He came to interview early this week with administration and was offered the gig before the meeting even ended.

Mac will teach the sophomore class and will pick up at least one elective (most likely poetry, though the AD wants him to try his hand at a claymation class, too).  Even though this doesn’t effectively change my workload all that much – I’ll still have four preps because his taking the core class gives me an elective each semester – I find that my attitude going into this year has just been given a turbo shot of enthusiasm.  I really like Mac, and I think that we’re going to work exceedingly well together.



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Ten Things Tuesday

Ten things I’m doing and thinking about as I gear up for another year at CHS:

1.  I think I have a better idea of how to pace my classes now that I have the calendar and can count how many classes for each section I have for each of the marking periods (it works out to be about 9 for the Tuesday/Thursday kids and about 11 for the Monday/Wednesday/Friday kids).  My work for this week is to try to figure out how I can get decent units done in that short amount of time.

2.  I cleaned out my fish tank a few weeks ago when I came in after our heat wave to find that my two remaining fish had cooked died.  Yesterday, I filled it back up and started the filter running in anticipation of bringing in some new fish.  I’m hoping to introduce something a little prettier than I had in there last time.

3.  Our school-wide theme this coming year is “working.”  Anyone got any novel/short story ideas that deal with the idea of working (or not) and how systems affect the way we live?  I’ll take any suggestions you’ve got (except The Grapes of Wrath; I was traumatized as a kid and just can’t imagine re-reading it, never mind teaching it…).

4.  I’m still waking up at my regular school time, so getting back into the routine won’t be much of a thing for me.  For my teenage daughters, however, I fear the story may be a little different.  I’m going to start next week getting them up a little earlier to try to get them back in the habit before we have to get going for real.

5.  The building in which I work has finally installed a passenger elevator, which means that our handicapped students (and teacher) no longer have to wage a battle with the unruly freight elevator anymore (honest to God, folks; when I threw out my back, I had to wait for the handicapped teacher to get there to work the elevator for me).  It also means that someone (probably me) will have to be assigned to sit at the ground floor every morning to keep the able-bodied kids from taking the elevator.  I was very grateful for that elevator yesterday, though, when the girls and I hauled three laundry hampers full of plants that I brought home for summer vacation back to school.

6.  I have replaced a number of my quotes and sayings on the walls and cabinets.  I’ll update with a picture or two later this afternoon (I’m going in for a little quality time with the scanner this morning).

7.  I’ve been doing some meditating and centering in anticipation of what’s likely to be a very hectic year.  While it has the potential to also be about six flavors of awesome, I’m trying to remember that there’s only so much that I, as one person, can do.  As a consequence, I’ve been meditating on the starfish story.  I bought myself a starfish charm to wear around my neck, and I’ve got a poster of a starfish on the beach that I’ve hung in the room to help keep me focused.

8.  One of my goals this year is to give the students as little paper as possible.  I’ve got a handle on how to scan things into PDF format, so most of the material I’ll give my kids will come through their computers.  Of course, they’re going to be giving ME plenty of paper; I’m going to continue my habit of daily in-class writing. but I’m going to require that their major assignments be submitted electronically.

9.  I need to not forget that I’m also teaching a freshman writing class at Local U.  I need to figure out where my old syllabus is and update it for submission before the 22nd due date.  I went to campus yesterday and got some paperwork in order and my email account all set up, my next trick will be to set up the blackboard site for my course.

10.  I’m thinking of getting my hair cut; maybe I’ll start the new year with a new look.


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Care to Collaborate?

I think I need Hermione’s time-turner.

image credit

So, here’s the deal: due to circumstances far beyond my control, I’m going to be the only English teacher at CHS this coming year.  That means that I have to teach all four years of English, freshmen to seniors, and will have no opportunity to offer any elective classes.

I need to figure out a way to do that without wanting to kill myself by winter break.

I think I have a plan, but I want to get some feedback from people who aren’t inside my own head; my fear is that I’m not seeing the big picture and what I’m planning will implode before Halloween, and I really can’t have that.  Here’s where you all come in; would you think about this and let me know if there are any major flaws in the plan?  Then, would you think about how you might do it if you were in my situation, and make any suggestions you can to make the plan better, more efficient, and – dare I say it? – fun?

Okay – so if my math is right, and I’m not certain it is, but let’s just run with it, shall we? – if I take into account holidays, workshops, and “special” days like all-school activities and conference days, I figure there are about 16 weeks in a semester.  That means that I have four, four-week “blocks” of time.  My (very nascent) plan is to map out four different units that I will rotate through all four of the classes.  For example; let’s say I start the freshmen with a unit of poetry, the sophomores will be reading a novel, the juniors will be watching films, and the seniors will be writing (I have no idea how the actual plan is going to go, but I DO know that the first thing I’ll hit the seniors with is writing; the babies need to get a start on their college essays, so the first unit in all my senior classes is essay writing.  Really, that’s the only thing about all of this that I know for sure).  Then, after the four weeks, everyone will “move over one,” so the freshmen will start writing (probably response papers), the sophomores will get some poetry, the juniors will read a novel, and the seniors (who were probably fried with all the essay writing and application submitting) will get a little break with some films.  After four weeks, everyone will move over again, then once more at the end of the semester.  In the second half of the year, I’ll have four different “modules” to run through.

Does this have any chance of success, or am I optimistically kidding myself?

Here’s where you overwhelm me with input.  What do you think the eight units should be?  I know for sure that we need writing, novels, and public speaking sections, but literally everything else is up for consideration.  I love teaching film, so I’ll want to have at least one unit of that, and I have no objection to repeating units; in fact, I’d rather the kids read more than one novel in a year, so I’ll probably do the novel unit at least twice.  I’d rather do more reading than almost anything else, but how do I get more than one class reading without burning myself out (because I’m one of those teachers who reads with her kids, and I don’t know if I can teach four classes at the high school, a college writing class, and two yoga classes in two different venues, and read more than two novels at once).  Is there any way I can do a collaborative unit (or two, or three) with the art teacher?  How do I work field trips or hands-on, out-of-seat work into these mini-courses?  How do I plan due dates so that I don’t have four classes’ worth of work to grade at once?  How do I figure out how to get the kids to work harder than I do?

I’m reasonably sure I can pull this off, but I want to make sure I maintain the standards I’ve established in prior years; I want to keep the classes rigorous and energetic, and heavy on discussion and collaboration, but I need to figure out how to do that without burning myself out.

I will graciously and gratefully accept any and all help, advice, observations, and recommendations any of you has to offer, and thank you.


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