24 September 2008

Directives from the ceiling, stars in the closet and feet on the ground

(A voice from the ceiling interrupts a lively discussion of how to improve college application essays)

Disembodied voice: If you are assigned in-school suspension and walk out, you'll be suspended for two days. Some of you are going to ISS without being assigned, and if that happens you will get two days' suspension as well. You must be accompanied by a parent when you return, or you will be escorted off school property . . .

Me: Who goes to in-school without being assigned??

Grace: I know, right?

Disembodied voice: . . . you will not be allowed to return to school.

Donald: So much for talking about going to college . . .


Me: So I'm recommending that you check out AdmissionsAdvice.com to confirm what I've been telling you about your college application essays. You really need to make sure that they communicate some aspect of who you are that your grades and test scores won't show. We'll continue working on your rough drafts tomorrow. Any questions?

Alyssa (waving her hand in the air): Clay Aikens is gay! He came out yesterday.

Me: Alyssa, um, I don't think I actually called on you. And I don't think this has anything to do with college application essays . . . so . . . What??

Alyssa: And Lindsay Lohan has a girlfriend.

Me (to Jessica, as I point to my forehead): Is that frown line back? The one that happens when I'm confused?

Jessica: Oh yeah.

Me: Just checking. Alyssa, I'm very happy for them all.

Charles: And back to the discussion of our essays . . .

(Even later . . . )

Me: So how many of you got an idea for your essay from the brainstorming activity?
(Two hands go up out of 24)

Me: So how many of you wrote your brainstorming thing vertically, like a list?

Charles: Vertically? Um, I wrote complete sentences.

Amanda: Me, too.

Samantha: Yeah.

Katherine: Yup. Complete sentences.

Me: What? How many of you did your brainstorming in complete sentences?
(22 out of 24 hands go up)

Me: Why? I told you specifically that it should NOT be complete sentences, that you should just write whatever pops into your mind related to the topic.

Charles: That's just the way we roll.

Me: Oy. Yes, I am rolling my eyes at you, Charles. Let me get this straight. I tell you NOT to write complete sentences, and you do. If I tell you I WANT complete sentences, I get little bitty fragments with no punctuation. Huh??

Jacob: I think that's the way our minds work. We want to do the opposite of what people tell us to do.

Anna: Miss? I think it's because we have messy lives so we naturally try to put them in order, in sentences.

Me: I think I'll go with what Anna said, if you don't mind.

23 September 2008

Teacher punishment: Fire drills. Student punishment: Reading the New York Times

(Fire alarm rings as the class is two paragraphs into a four-page New York Times article about Berea College, a Kentucky college that provides free tuition to its low-income students )

Various student voices: Oh, thank goodness! About time! Woo hoo!

Me: Hey! I'm right here!

James: We're too tired to suck up right now.

Me: Hmmm. Too bad.

(Later, the fire drill over, the article read and written about)

Me: So did anyone write that they'd be interested in going to Berea?

Darren: I wouldn't go there. The education isn't good.

Me: The article doesn't discuss that, but why do you think this?

Darren: If the education is free, then it can't be worth anything.

Me: So. If I gave you a Jaguar, you'd turn it down?

Darren: What?

Me: If I gave you a fancy car like a Jaguar, you'd turn it down because it wouldn't be worth anything?

Darren: No, that doesn't make sense.

Me: Exactly. The Jag still costs a lot of money and is valuable, but I'm giving it to you. I'm just not making you pay for it. The free tuition is a gift to you. Just because it's a gift and doesn't cost you anything doesn't mean it's not valuable.

Darren: Ohhh. I guess. That makes sense.

Me: That's why I get the big bucks.

John (quietly to Donald ): You know, I bet she does.

Me: Only some days . . .

(In the hall)
Student: Did you hear about that fire last night?

Other student: Yeah! I heard the sirens!

Student: It was on my street. Man, seeing that house burn was hot!

(As the New York Times articles are being distributed)
Audrey: Miss? Are we reading New York Times articles as punishment? You said that last year's class had to read these after they lost all your books.

Me: Of course not! You haven't lost my books yet, so this is fun, not punishment.

17 September 2008

And other skills to file under "miscellaneous"

(During the last two minutes of the day, as Gerald takes his do-rag and snaps it in the air like a wet towel)
Monique (laughing): Do it again!

Gerald (as he obliges): Why are you laughing?

Monique: I don't know! I want to learn that!

Me (watching enthralled as the do-rag cracks in the air): Geez, Gerald. That's pretty good. Notice, however, the very wide clearance we've given you.

Gerald: Oh yeah. Don't worry. I practice a lot.

Me: I believe it. Nevertheless, I think we'll all stand back a ways . . .

Monique (still laughing): Man, I want to try that!

Gerald (as he coaches her on the proper technique): And then you snap your arm back like that.

Monique (as her attempt results in a mere rustle of nylon in the air): I need to practice, I guess.

Me (as Gerald now displays variations--snapping it ceiling-ward and floor-ward alternately): So this needs a name. What do you call it?

James: Do-rag whipping.

Me: That's pretty good.

Gerald (thinking for a second): Do-rag ninja.

Me (et al., laughing in agreement): That's perfect!

Monique: Now you need to do this on YouTube!

Darren: Hey! You should include this on your resume!

Me (head in hands as others enthusiastically agree): Oy. Perhaps not. We'll see . . .
Bell rings.

13 September 2008

A room without a view: Or I wonder what accountants dream of?

If I had stopped to think about it, I would have realized that I was overdue for a teacher dream. Although I went the whole summer without one, I woke up this morning, my first weekend after my first full week of school, straight from the throes of a fairly typical teacher dream.

My retired friend Gary was back teaching English, and he was telling me quite enthusiastically about his plans to begin the year with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. We discussed this for a few minutes, and when he disappeared to teach his class, I decided to find my class. At this point, this turned into one of my more typical teacher dreams where I'm supposed to be somewhere but I either don't know it or can't find it. This time, I couldn't find my room.

I spent most of my dream wandering around a huge building filled with people that looked like a cross between my former school and my current school. I kept running into people I knew who seemed to know where they should be. I kept waiting to hear the dreaded, "Mrs. Huth, please report to your class" over the PA system.

In my dream, my room was AB21, a computer lab that is actually across from my real classroom, AB16. I felt frustrated that I couldn't find my familiar room in this familiar building so finally, I asked someone where my room was. The person I chose was a former department chair, infamous for her enthusiasm and optimism. She stood in the center of a beautiful room beneath a skylight and in front of a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows. The light streamed in, and I remember thinking that my room, the room I was looking for, was somewhat like hers.

When I told her that I couldn't find my room she smirked at me and told me my room was #3 Crosswoods. She added that that was where they put teachers who would teach eight classes in a row. I asked, Who in the world would do that? She said that they didn't know they were teaching eight classes in a row because they couldn't tell what time of day it was.

I eventually gathered, from random responses from those standing nearby, that while I was teaching my morning classes somewhere else, all my colleagues had met to choose their classrooms. Because I was the only teacher who hadn't chosen, they gave me the room no one else wanted.

I remember feeling vaguely unhappy as I mulled my room situation for the next year. I pictured a small, dark room with no windows. How else could those teaching in the room not be able to tell what time of day it was? Nevertheless, I also remember thinking, Oh well, at least I like my kids. They'll make the lousy classroom seem better.

And then I woke up. Hmmmm.

10 September 2008

Tell them they don't suck: Or how to build self-esteem among teenagers

I must assume that teachers respond similarly to the question that inevitably occurs early in the school year: How's it going? or How are your kids? or How are are your classes? Mostly, we respond with guarded optimism: Oh, they seem good! or Oh, they seem fine. or Well, they're freshmen (or 6th graders or kindergartners) after all. We understand that those first few days of school are gloriously different from the rest of the year.

If we are lucky (and have been around the block 21 or so times), our new students know us by reputation from cousins, siblings, aunts or uncles who had us back in the day and who (we hope) didn't hate us. Perhaps even thought we were entertaining. Or useful. Or not lame. If we are lucky and experienced, we enjoy the first few days of classes as a time to move quickly from point to point with classes we don't yet know. Since we don't know our students, we don't necessarily have to worry about them. We don't have any details, complications or background information to confuse our focus on the classwork at hand. No bad test scores, no unreadable essays, no phone calls home from the previous day to contend with. No history. Yet.

To be honest, it is a simple but boring time.

Finally, on about day four, they begin to emerge as known quantities with names and personalities. Monique is the one who looks sullen but breaks into a beautiful smile when I concur that being on drill team should be considered an athletic activity. Grace is the one whose mother I worked with for a few years and tells me that she knows I'm always patient. Dolores asks good questions about applying for college. Josh is very serious. Kevin asks me if I'm always calm and quiet. Darren makes me laugh when he tells me a story about a friend of his and former student of mine from last year. They become more comfortable, especially when I talk about applying to college. Instead of merely nodding at me when I speak to them of my hopes, my plans that they all attend college, they begin to honestly assess their chances and express their fears.

Me (moving around the room as they work on creating their résumés for college applications): You had a question?

Kevin: Not really. I just wanted to say that I suck.

Me: Um, why is that?

Kevin: Because I don't have anything to put on my résumé. I didn't play sports. I didn't belong to any clubs. Nothing.

Me: Well, um, did you have a job?

Kevin: Yeah, but that doesn't count.

Me: Sure it does.

Kevin: Oh. Okay. I'll put that down.

Judith: Miss? I suck too.

Me: Judith? What? Why do you suck?

Judith: Because I don't have anything either.

Me: Judith, you don't suck. Neither does Kevin. In fact, no one in this room sucks. We are incredibly un-sucky. And you all have something to include on a résumé.

Judith, Kevin, George, et. al: But . . . what about . . . yeah, but . . .

Me: None of you suck, okay?

Judith, Kevin, George, et. al (slowly, reluctantly, with a heavy sigh): Oh . . . o . . . kay . . .

Me: It will be fine. Now find a club to join.


Student: Miss? I listed this as community service, but what if they ask me why I did it?

Me: Um, I don't think they'll ask you that. But why are you wondering?

Student: Because I don't think I can give them a good answer. Maybe I shouldn't include it.

Me: Colleges like to see community service on a résumé. What's the problem?

Student: Well, I had to do the community service. . .

Me (patiently): And . . . ?

Student: . . . because I was arrested.

Me: Oh.

Student: See?

Me: Well, you don't have to tell them why you performed the community service. I don't think they'll ask.

Student: Really? Oh, good!

Other student: Miss? Should I put a job on my résumé if I got fired?

Me: Um, have you thought about joining a club here at school?