Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Purpose of English Class

A colleague of mine recently e-mailed the staff regarding the classes he teaches. It happens that I also teach the same subject, though at a different grade level. I asked him to allow an excerpt for general consumption from the edusphere. Here is the condensed version:
I've had both parents and students question the relevance of what I do as an English teacher, and I think the situation is getting worse. A typical argument goes something like this: "I can speak, write and read English just fine, so why do I have to take it for 4 years?" I think if we lost the touchy-feely-obvious names -- English, Creative Writing, Language Arts, etc. -- and used specific cognitive-type class descriptions, we would, like Lucille Ball, not have so much 'splainin' to do. Some examples: Argumentation, Logic & Language, Literature & Analysis, Concepts & Creativity, etc.

As an English teacher, of Pre-College English--if that really means anything, I'll admit to agreeing with the idea. In fact, I've always wondered, even throughout my school years, why I had to take English class. I do think it is time that we update a bit of our schooleese--the language of the school.

The truth is that English class as a title leaves the student wondering what exactly the subject will be. Sure, they know they will study writing, but not what type. They of course know they will have to read, but what exactly will they read. So after much thought, I have, in accordance with my colleagues proposal, developed my new Department of Literary Analysis & Written Communication.

9th Grade: Introduction to the Craft of Writing
Semester One/Quarter One--Basic Written Grammar (we've shelved this for far too long)
Semester One/Quarter Two--Structure of Writing
Semester Two/Quarter Three--Introduction to Literary Analysis: Summarize, Infer, Evaluate
Semester Two/Quarter Four--Introduction to Literary Writing

10th Grade: Understanding the Intellect of Language
Semester One/Quarter One--Intermediate Written Grammar
Semester One/Quarter Two--Writing for Enjoyment: Develop the Creative Technique
Semester Two/Quarter Three--Intermediate Literary Analysis: Evaluate and Critique
Semester Two/Quarter Four--Intermediate Literary Writing

11th Grade: Developing Logic in Written Communication
Semester One/Quarter One--Developing the Style Within
Semester One/Quarter Two--Advanced Literary Analysis: Connect and Respond
Semester Two/Quarter Three--Introduction to Logic
Semester Two/Quarter Four--Introduction to Argumentation

12th Grade: Writing For a Purpose
Semester One/Quarter One--Advanced Literary Analysis II: Transferring Literature to Life
Semester One/Quarter Two--Writing To Persuade: The Skill of Persuasive Writing
Semester Two/Quarter Three--Writing to Inform: The Craft of Journalistic Writing
Semester Two/Quarter Four--Writing to be Known: The Art of Personal Writing

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

McNamar's Laws (Murphy's Laws for teachers)

In a recent post on things I wasn't taught in college education classes, I offered the future newcomers like I am currently, a few things to keep in mind. Today, I've been thinking about some of the inevitablities of teaching. Kind of like Murphy's Laws of teaching.

1. A blank whiteboard, with markers nearby, will always attract student artists in their various forms of artistry.
2. On that Monday morning after you've stayed up too late watching Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy, your must emotionally draining students will have some conundrum they want to unload on you.
3. If you open your door at lunch to one student, there will be a gaggle of them at the end of lunch.
4. On that afternoon when you've penciled in some quality relaxation at the spa, or the golf course for me, a mandatory and "quick" meeting will pop up. You will tap a leg your way through the meeting, rush through congested traffic and arrive in a scattered state of mind for your relaxation. You will think about the meeting the whole time and come away feeling only slightly refreshed.
5. On that day you have your most fantastic new lesson plan prepared there will be a fire drill, or a snow day. And on that day you are just too dang tired to teach, no such luck.
6. No matter how clear your directions are, there is always someone who doesn't get it.
7. On that day when, after a quarter, semester or year of slacking off, a student comes to you in tears, like she did today, looking for honest help, you will.

Literature Circles

In the world of blogging, I have an acquaintance that I interact with. The title of his blog is youvebeenduped. Lately, I have an increasing feeling that I am being exactly that, duped. As the teacher of two Pre-College English classes, I decided that the final quarter of their high school career would entail two sessions of Literature Circles.
I offered six novels from the British tradition and allowed them to choose their books through a draft. Nearly two weeks in, and I sense that my students are giving a cursory attempt at this new model. We have spent three quarters of the year discussing plays and essays, yet this task of discussing a novel on their own seems foreign.
This has me questioning whether or not I've done an adequate job of preparing them for analyzing and responding to literature. It makes me wonder whether I explained the Literature Circle concept well enough. And I wonder too, if the 35 days of school remaining is influencing their apathy, or is it true struggle.
I hesitated at the idea from the start, only because I am a control freak in my classroom. My wife had always told me that I hate not being in control--she uses the remote control issue, but most men I know are like that. It hasn't been until this past year, my first as a contracted teacher, that I've realized how much I need to control my surroundings. So giving the students control over the pacing and discussion has me feeling helpless. I want to jump into every group and lead them. I don't want this to flounder because conceptually, and as an end of the year activity, I like it.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Professional Attire

On my first official day of observing a teacher, I walked into the classroom with my shirt and tie, slacks pressed. The teacher wore jeans and a loose t-shirt. Throughout my student teaching experience, last year's long-term substitute experiment, and this my first official year of teaching, button up shirts, tie, and dress slacks have been the norm.
There have been days throughout this year, half-days before breaks, pep-assembly days, or Spirit Week promotions that I have ventured away from the shirt and tie concept. However, it is one of my quirky opinions that creates this need for professional attire, or business attire. I think that as teachers, we often are not viewed by the public as professionals. Somehow, teacher and professional don't seem to match up for the regular tax payer. So when we, our unions and our peers, walk the picket lines or write editorials about teacher pay and lack of respect from our students in the classroom, often we are viewed with contempt. "You work 10 months out of the year, get every holiday off, not to mention winter break, mid-winter break, and spring break. A bevy of in-service days," is what we hear.
If we looked like professionals, do you suppose we might start convincing more than ourselves that we are professionals?
A recent experiment, though not started as an experiment, openned my eyes to just how much of an impact my attire has in the classroom. We are WASL'ing this week--Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or Why Are Students Lazy to some. During the testing period, the Sophomores WASL, the Freshman take the ITBS/ITED. Here at our school, we offer enrichment opportunities to the Juniors and Seniors. Mostly, these enrichment classes are designed to be fun, a way to keep the students on campus and off the city streets.
I offered Dodgeball and Whiffleball. Both were well attended. But, a shirt and tie doesn't quite fit the appropriate dress code for either game. So, in light of the casual atmosphere, I wore sweats, shorts, t-shirt, track-suit, and always my luck Red Sox hat.
So, we had three academic periods and one testing period each day. During my academic periods, I could not get my students to focus on the task at hand. They were much more conversational with me about non-academic things than they ever have been. Now, some of that could have been the mood of the testing week, but I had to wonder if it had anything to do with my attire. Do I lose some authority in the classroom based on the way I dress for teaching?

Monday, April 18, 2005

Hostile Environments

Over at instructivist, you can read about the difference between a heathy classroom and a hostile one. As a public teacher, I have to admit a bit of anxiety befell me this morning. My current unit for my Pre-College English class is a collection of Literature Circles. I presented six books for my students to choose from and let them draft the book of their choice based on attendance.
Many of these novels deal overtly with the most taboo subject in public education, religion. Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory or Alan Paton's Cry, The Beloved Country, both have a heavy dose of God. I consider both of these novels to be wonderfully real portrayals of humanity, but now I wonder if the Thought Police, might be knocking on my door. Which brings up again that aged question of how to balance anything religious with public education. Does religious content in a novel that is required, or not required as in my case, constitute as a hostile environment?
I guess I am starting to show my age, especially when I make statements like the next, but when did the school environment become such a sensitive place. In the last ten years since my graduation, did I miss something? In my Pre-College class in a suburban Connecticut high school, chapters from the King James Bible, a clearly British infulenced translation, were read and viewed for their style and verbage.
In my 11th grade English class, my revered teacher taugh us poetry. She included the Psalms--clear examples of beautiful poetry, whether one considers himself religious or not.
Perhaps I should revisit my education in search of hostile environments. If you wish, come along:

1st grade: Ms. Stack dressed as Ms. Viola Swamp and had we first graders convinced that she was a witch. Ms. Stack also would not let me go home with my mother after recess, even though Ms. Fluckinger (yes, her real name) said I was not feeling well. But I owe Ms. Stack big time. I have only ever called in sick to work once. But in retrospect, it was a hostile environment.
3rd grade: Ms. Mudgett harassed me endlessly about my penmanship. I don't know that I ever satisfied her need for beautiful and clear, ah what is that called again--I don't use it now, cursive. She made me feel bad about it. In fact, as soon as I could write in any style I wanted, I did; no more cursive. Ms. Mudgett, I'm sorry, but your classroom was hostile--but, you'd be pleased with my penmanship on the White Board.
4th grade: Mr. Wood was one of the funniest teachers I ever had. His humor was dry and witty. But he would often accidentally step on my toes. "Oh, did I step on your foot," he'd say; and then we'd laugh together. Once in a while he would pull up behind one of us as we worked on math and tug on our ears, like he was flying the Red Baron. What a kick we all got out of that. Sorry, Mr. Wood, but that was a hostile environment. But, you'd enjoy the dry humor I employ in my classroom.
9th grade: The previous year in 8th grade, Ms. Mosely from the high school stopped by our junior high to talk to us about high school Spanish. My brother had Mr. C, and said he was real cool. I told Ms. Mosely precisely that. On my first day of Spanish, not knowing that Ms. Mosely was the lady who stopped by the previous year, she took roll and stopped at my name. "Well, Mr. McNamar, it looks like you didn't get your wish." Hostile. But to this day I can communicate in Spanish fairly well.

Interesting, isn't it, what perspective and time will do? I don't intend to imply that hostile environments don't exist, that would be foolish at best. I only wish we could be human again--connected by the simple things that make us laugh or the greatness of a good book, regardless of subject matter.

Monday, April 11, 2005

When teaching is insignificant

Spring break represents a new life in a way. The trees blossoming in the courtyard, flowers budding in front of the office offer the teacher refreshment. One more quarter go. I spent my spring break grading essays and planning the last push towards June. Monday morning arrives with a spring shower and a coolness in the air. I print off my next assignment sheet and head to the copy room. "Attention staff, there will be a brief faculty meeting at 7:oo a.m. in the faculty room." Unusual, I think. I head over. The principal gathers us all in and tells us that over the break, we lost one of our students. JK, I'll call him here. He died last Thursday at 18. Teaching doesn't seem to matter much today. Literary analysis or self-to-text connections, unimiportant. Third quarter progress reports, pointless. I taught JK, last year and the year before when I long-term subbed in his English class. His is a story worth much more than what I can offer here. But, I will do my best.JK suffered from Cystic Fibrosis, a disease that debilitates a person, and causes massive fluid build up in the lungs. My uncle died of Cystic Fibrosis in 1984. JK spent much of his school year at the Children's Hospital, always wanting to be at school. When I taught him last year, he attended school maybe 1/3 of the time. But he always asked for his work before he went back to the hospital. He ran for ASB office and won. He was elected homecoming king. He wasn't big, the disease stunted his growth. He wasn't physically strong--most of the time he looked pale and weak. But when it comes to strength, he possessed it where most of us lack it. To be able to push on, as JK did, requires an internal fortitude that I cannot comprehend. To live life to the fullest, in the face of impending death, is to be the most human that we can be. To be a selfless young man, when no one would question selfishness, is to demonstrate the best and most fantastic about humanity. To fight, literally until your last breath, when giving up seems just as noble, is to demonstrate for all those that knew him, what true courage is. JK, we have been blessed to live alongside you; we have been honored to learn from you. I pray your life will forever be remembered by our storied traditions here. Let us revel in your life and grow in your death. Thank you, JK, may you rest in peace.

Friday, April 01, 2005

April Fool's

It is inevitable, isn't it? As teachers we expect to have some type of prank or joke pulled on us. So when I had made it through the first four periods unscathed, as I watched other teachers cleaning up, I figured I was home free. Ahh, security, how fleeting it can be.
M, we'll call him, walks into my room after lunch and ask, "Do you drive a red Jeep?" The give-away. "Yes, M, I do. Why?"
"Did you find any fish in it?"
"I haven't been to my car since my prep period. Should I check it?"
"I would," he replies.
So off we go, to check my car, which was locked, I thought. And there, stuffed under my door handle, and laying on my front seat, and under the front seat were three slimy fish. I had allegedly taken part in a seran-wrap job of a fellow teacher's room only weeks earlier, so I had an idea of where to go. I am always up for a good prank on a colleague and even a few students who can handle it. But, breaking into my car, that irked me. My car is my personal space, not too mention, the envelope of money in the center console compartment. I had been to the bank during my prep and left some of the cash in the car.
So I marched down to the teachers room, walked in, and emptied the bag that I had placed the fish in on her computer. Then, I walked into my room, kids all whispering and looking. Now I know that someone in my room was partly responsible. So I tell them that I'm not mad about being pranked, but I am not real happy with the idea of my car being broken into.
I step out of the room to get some tape from the storage closet and one of the young ladies follows me out; we'll call her H. "Mr. Mac, where are you going?"
"I need to get some tape, where are you going?"
"Oh, I don't know..."
Odd, but H is a bit odd in a very benign and amusing way, one of my favorites (if teachers had favorites). As I'm coming out of the storage closet, H is back and quietly says, "It was me. You look really mad. Are you?"
I have had moments before that indicate how I will be as a father, and this was one of them. I just couldn't be mad. Anyone else, maybe. But H. Not possible. So I explained the frustration. That my room is almost open game. I can handle my room being messed with. I expect it, and in a way, it makes me feel good to know that my students like me enough to prank me. But my personal space and property, especially when it involves breaking and entering, I don't handle too well.
The rest of the period poor H kept stopping by my desk to tell me how bad she felt. Now I almost feel bad for making her feel bad.
I can't wait till next year. Oh, and my colleague who provided the fish, let's just say her tennis bag won't smell too great by the end of the day!