Saturday, February 28, 2009

Wishing former student well

I taught this young man as a 9th grader and a 10th grader. A memorable pain in the rear end, but generally friendly and funny. He was the sort of kid who all through the 9th grade, when he was a rambunctious goofball, I imagined what he would be like the next year, in someone else's class, so I could sort of make of that other teacher for having to put up with him. Then, I got my class lists the next year, and there he appeared again. The joke was on me. He was certainly one of the most memorable classroom disruptors I've ever taught.

He's a very good basketball player, one of the 25 best from the Class of 2010 (not sure if that's nationally or statewide), and has apparently signed with the University of Tennessee to play. There are quite a bit of interviews around the internets about him, and this is one of them. (I feel okay posting it, because he's been to two different schools since he left mine, and none of the articles seem to be mentioning his 9th/10th grade school.)

Anyhow, the funniest thing appeared in one of the interviews:

Capitol Hoops - If you had to choose a career other than basketball what could you see yourself doing a couple years from now?

Will - I would like to become a teacher , education is very important and is something that we all need in life.

Capitol Hoops - What subject would you teach?

Will - Lol , English.

If Will is ever an English teacher, I wish him a few 'Will's in the class in front of him. LOL indeed.

I do wish him the best in any case. It would be kind of cool to see this kid on national television, playing college ball. I will remember that he broke my chair, that he used to love to sing "I'm in Love With a Stripper" during class, and that, on occasion, I got him to sit still and read and write.

First day of tryouts

If I'm springing for dinner for my team captains at Red Robin, it must be baseball season. I cannot believe these boys' voracious appetite. All with bacon double cheeseburgers, bottomless fries, and bottomless sweet lemonade drinks. I just couldn't hang. But, wow, do I ever love Red Robin.

I always feel like I've been let into a secret world when I do this sort of thing, taking out four teenagers for a bite to eat. My favorite exchange was this:

J: "Yo, you ask Ms. _____ what I got on my quiz on Friday?"

Me: "No, but I know _____ (other team captain) got a 100% on it."

J: "Dag, I hate quizzes like that, with characters' names. All dem names are so long and confusing and all look alike. But that book's aight, though." [Note: It's Achebe's Things Fall Apart.

Me: "Oh, so you like it? Good."

J: "No, no, no, I don't like it, I just said it was aight. It's a book, so I don't like it."

So, yeah, today was the first day of tryouts. Because March 1 falls on a Sunday this year, we were allowed to open up the season today. I have about 30 kids trying out for about 20 spots. I have been keeping smaller and smaller teams throughout the years, but I don't think I can this year. Too many good kids, and I just can't imagine myself cutting some of them. My new outlook is that I think it's much worse for me to cut them than it is for them to hear it. Kids can shake stuff like that off. Right?

Regardless, we have a good team, very deep, and it's going to be a good year.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


I wanted to tell him that I was happy to see him, but also to ask him where he has been the rest of the year. The student had failed every quarter with the minimum grade of a 50, and failed every progress report before that. I have tried calling home multiple times. I have requested a parent conference on every progress report and report card. The young man does absolutely no homework and only about half the classwork. And now, in late February, I am meeting the father for the first time, with an unannounced drop-by after school yesterday.

I didn't, of course. But I just don't understand uninvolved parents. To be blessed with kids, and then not do anything regarding their education. It's just unfathomable to me. I tire of excuses about this.

So far, this slightest bit of effort to show some interest in his education has worked. The kid, one of my favorites, stayed after school pretty late writing his essay after his dad stopped by. It worked already, at least a little bit. It was the most earnest and hardest working I'd ever seen him.

The other parent who visited this week knocked on my door in the middle of class, showing me the fake report card her son had made for her a couple of months ago. Our report cards, which are not mailed home, but rather sent with the students or provided for pickup at conferences for the parents, are printed on regular paper using Courier New font. They are printed on regular printer paper, though sometimes the paper color is color. In other words, they are very easy to duplicate. This young man had created a report card for himself that gave him all 70s and 80s for the first quarter.

I've spoken with the parent numerous times before, but this was my first time meeting her. My pointed disappointment in what this kid had done was no match for hers; she had tears in her eyes. She couldn't believe that this young man would do this. I really couldn't either. In reality, the kid received six grades in the 60s and one grade in the 50s. Even though the mom was involved via calls to teachers, she didn't know until she visited the school and had the report card pulled.

To make matters worse, the mother had a heart attack this quarter, and the step-father headed under the knife for open-heart surgery yesterday. The kid is under a lot of pressure, and he might have felt like he didn't want to add to the stress of the house by bringing home a bad report card. Still, you don't lie like that.

He's certainly one of the kids I've connected with the most this year. We knocked on doors together for hours down in Virginia for Barack Obama in October. We talk baseball nearly every day and he's going to try out this year. But he's got a lot of growing up to do. I'm going to try to help him do that the best I can.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A dead red bird and the calm before the storm

Tomorrow, I'll start James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis" with my students.

Talk about one of the saddest stories ever. To introduce it, I've typed up the first two paragraphs and will hand it out tomorrow, and will see if we can determine the tone of the story based on how those first two paragraphs are written.

A strange week for me otherwise. I'm taking a personal day on Wednesday, eliminating my perfect attendance for the year for a good reason (getting a mortgage to purchase my first home). So it's two days, a real break on Hump Day, and then two more days. Baseball season officially starts on Saturday, when I'll be having the first day of tryouts. It's the calm before two months of the focused intensity and blur of the baseball season, which I love but also fills up my schedule like nothing else can. The intensity will have the exclamation point of buying my first home (closing date is set for March 31) and moving. It's all very exciting.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Eugenia Collier, Shakespeare, and Buying a House

Overwhelmed is an understatement. Buying a new house (I've decided on one), deciding on a mortgage (haven't decided on one), with the start of baseball season (and an end to any time at all) staring me down in my face, coming on Feb. 28... it's all been a lot. I've been leaving every day at around 3 o'clock, to look at houses and meet with mortgage people, and the work at school is piling up. I'm trying not to collect as much - I ordered a customized stamp and have been stamping homework, then having them turn it in at the end of a larger assignment.

I pour everything into planning during times like this. My King Lear unit is turning into one of my favorite of all time. I'm using the TSI Shakespeare stuff a whole lot. For the last two classes, I divided the class of ~30 into three groups, and they're each putting on their own rendition of Act 3.7, which is the big Gloucester eye-gouging scene. It's probably the most horrific and violent scene written in literature, or close to it (longtime readers will know why I'm so sensitive about scenes with eyes), and it's fun seeing the kids wrap their minds around it. I set the three directors, and it's fun to see them work through it. Groups were assigned on Tuesday, and students were expected to know their characters very well, as well as the scene, and today I overheard a director telling a group, "Could y'all just please read this scene and make sure you understand it before we meet again because this isn't working?" and it's so nice for students to hear that from a fellow student and not me. Performances are Monday.

With the 9th graders, I'm doing a little coming-of-age short story unit. This week, we read Eugenia Collier's "Marigolds," one of my favorite stories. I know Ms. Collier - I've had her visit my classes before - and I know the story like the back of my hand. Today, I had my students work on writing a commentary about a passage from the story. She does so much with sound, it's pretty cool and such a wonderful little story. Next week, we're doing James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis," which is a similarly really, really sad story, this one even sadder than "Marigolds."

While we're reading the textbooks in class, students are writing a personal essay at home. With our study of To Kill a Mockingbird we focused on three main questions: First, how do people learn about others different from themselves? Secondly, what lessons should fathers (or adult male characters) teach their children, and what lessons should adult female characters teach children? And third, what moments in a person's life make them grow up? Students wrote on one of those three topics in a literary essay, and now they're choosing one of them to turn it back on themselves. They are writing about a time in their life when they learned to see the world from someone different's perspective, or about an older mentor who helped guide them somehow, or about a coming-of-age moment in their life.

Students are basically doing one part of the writing process at home most nights, and I am trying to remember how one should teach a personal essay. It's been a while. I've spent most of my writing assignments in recent years on analysis instead of personal essays, and have sort of forgotten. The assignment is kind of creating itself as I go, but that's okay; the kids are into it and I'm trying to help them create good products.

That's life in the world of Bmoreteach right now.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Now we're ready to gouge out eyes

It was certainly Friday the 13th yesterday at school. All throughout the English department, there seemed to be drama and upheaval, from minor to major.

However, I had taught one of my favorite lessons I have all year, and, as a result, am feeling totally invigorated about my King Lear unit. I'm teaching the hell out of it.

I adapted a lesson developed by Tori Talbot, one of my colleagues at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute. I ran off three copies of Act 3, Scene 2, in which Lear is railing against the storm, minus the punctuation. Then, we watched three clips of the speech, and students punctuated the speech as they watched. They really connected the way the language was used to convey meaning, and the comments they offered after each viewing (and each clip was under 2 minutes) were so good, they gave me goosebumps. We were able to analyze how each Lear sort of emphasized different aspects of the character; James Earl Jones emphasized his fury, Michael Holdern emphasized the self-pitying, and Lawrence Olivier read it like a weak ramble, emphasizing both Lear's madness and his impotence.

Afterwards, we compared the quarto version with the folio version of the play, and then to our conflated version. The punctuation has been added hundreds of year after Shakespeare, and we discussed how and why they punctuated it as they did.

It was awesome; it really was. We're now ready to gouge out eyes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Saved by James Earl Jones

We're at the end of Act II in King Lear, and I needed something to grab them. Some of them are getting it, and some of them aren't, as the Act I Quiz demonstrated. They're not immersing themselves into the language as much as I'd hoped. I'm working hard, but it's not all coming together like I had imagined.

So, yesterday, I tried to remedy that situation by using this lesson from the Folger website. There's nothing earth-shattering about the lesson, but it's a solid 70-line acting exercise that asks students to really immerse themselves in the language and decide how these relationships of power should be played out on stage.

Planning was great, but execution wasn't. I helped out one group way too much, lost track of the others, and found many students off-task. "We're done," they told me, but the depth of their reading was shallow. I should have modeled; I should have monitored more.

I tried to save the lesson by bringing in the James Earl Jones King Lear today. I asked them to read the first chunk of dialogue as they had planned to read and perform it, and to defend their choices. Then we watched James Earl Jones do it, and discussed how the acting and directing choices influenced meaning. We did it for every piece of dialogue in the scene.

Well, the result was tremendous. Students who never raise their hands raised their hands and displayed analytic skills that I haven't seen from them all year. If a student is able to disagree with a line reading and articulate an insightful why, then they demonstrate a superb understanding of the text.

The lesson culminated with them, in groups, analyzing Lear's last monologue in 2.4, and performing it based on the choices made during the analysis, then comparing it to Jones' performance of it. (Which is awesome, by the way.) It worked great.

I hope I have them back and that we're ready to delve into the depths of Act III.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Survey says...

I went into school today to find five packets of surveys from Dr. Alonso's office, with a note saying they'd take 5-10 minutes to complete in class and that we're required to do them. They were, of course, dumped on all English classes. The Assistant Principal saw the mock dirty look I gave her when she mentioned them in our faculty meeting last week, and made a little joke about it; I still sort of thought they'd be distributed differently. No such luck. That's the burden of English class, I guess - losing all sorts of class periods to guidance visits, survey distribution, school pictures, and any other chore that needs to be done. I guess it has to be done, as every student takes one of our classes.

That's all fine, but the survey was definitely not ten minutes. Half of my class, maybe a little more, was taken up by this darn thing, which asked 9th grade students to predict their future careers, majors, and five possible college choices, among many other things. I spent a lot of the class answering questions like, "So, if I want to be a forensic scientist, what major should I have?" and "What state is the University of Chicago in?" and "What are is the state abbreviation for California?" and "Why isn't their cosmetology on here?". I put a list of colleges on the chalkboard that our students have gone to and been successful at, to give them ideas.

I act like I'm complaining, but it's actually pretty inspiring to hear 9th graders ask so many excited questions about their future. The thing that is sad, though, is that they have so much work to do before they're ever going to be considered for these great schools they're putting on this survey, and, while they're capable, I'm not sure if they're willing. With the state of the economy right now, and the possible death of Pell grants and other federal aid programs, I am a little worried for the class of 2012. The lower socio-economic level kids with the A's will be getting the scholarship money. The kids who can't afford college with the B's will get what is left over. The poor kids with the C's and D's won't be getting much at all, it doesn't seem like.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Week in Review

It was the first 5-day week in a while, and it was a long one. I'm also house-shopping and have been pretty sick (seem to have kicked it, finally), compounding the length and stress of it all.

Still, it wasn't a bad one. I am running through the second 5-paragraph essay that I have had my 9th graders write this year. I'm holding their hands a little less than last time, and trying to workshop more and more. On Monday, they got their essay topics and were assigned pre-writing. On Tuesday, I arranged the essay topics into three Socratic Seminars, and had the students discuss their pre-writing in these seminars. On, Wednesday, students were required to start a quote bank of possible evidence to use. On Thursday, they had to develop a thesis statement, and, today, we worked on topic sentences. I'm feeling pretty good about it, though I'll flip-flop Wednesday and Thursday next time; it makes more sense for them to develop their thesis before finding possible evidence, I think.

Today was entirely a workshop day, and I spent the class period meeting with students individually. It worked out pretty well, I think. I really value the conversations I have with students about their writing, although the issue of "What do I do with all the other kids?" always rears its head. I opened up the possibilities for them this time, giving them a model essay, the list of required parts of the writing workshop, and told them to work in the order they felt comfortable today. I had them pair up with a student working on the same element as them, to discuss strategies and create their outline. It worked well; even though I was concentrating on the kid I was meeting with, I rarely heard off-topic talk. My principal walked in during one of these class periods, and I hope it looked studious.

With my Juniors, I am working through King Lear with them. It's working well. I've gotten a lot of great ideas from a friend from the Folger (thanks, Scott!), and am incorporating them with my own plans. I really love the Cambridge School edition of the text, and am considering requiring my students to purchase them in the future, as I spend a lot of time taking questions from them. It's very performance-based, which makes me feel like it is what the Folger editions should be. Unfortunately, they're about double the price of the Folger editions.

Anyhow, I'm trying to create a very performance-centered study of the play, and I want to ramp that aspect up a little bit next week. It is a pretty awesome play to teach, that's for sure.

Otherwise, we had a big national visit on Tuesday, something we've been preparing for for years. My role was a lot less than I thought it would be; I was interviewed by the team for about ten minutes, but my class was not visited. I've heard the visit was a success, though our school doesn't find out if we are authorized until the summer.

Baseball is heating up... kids are starting to throw a lot. Hopefully the weather is nice next week so they can get out there. It's frustrating not being able to be involved at all until March, but I'm also savoring the free afternoons until it starts.

Monday, February 2, 2009


... why smart, chill girls in my historically awesome 2nd period class keep getting into horrible fights with other girls in the cafeteria right after class ends. I heard some smatterings of a myspace thing as the kids filed out, and I guess I should have followed up with it, because no more than five minutes later I hear an all-points bulletin sending security down to the cafeteria. Later, I learned it K, a smart cool girl who I never would have imagined would be in a fight. This is the second time it's happened this month. The other time was with another bright young woman in the same class.

I feel like that class, in particular, has such a different rhythm than a lot of my classes during the day. Very studious and wonderful, full of really nice and respectful kids who do well. Eight A's last quarter, which is unheard of for me.

Then they turn into beasts in the cafeteria, apparently.

(Actually, all the evidence I hear is that the other girl came over and decked her in the face, so she fought back. I hear she didn't want to be involved at all.)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Finished Oscar Wao

I just finished The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It was a pretty amazing read, wise and funny. Diaz's writing just leaps off the page.

It's our departmental book club book this month, and I'm sure the question we'll be asking ourselves is whether it's teachable. We have a pretty liberal policy at our school, and I'm sure the kids would love this book. There's plenty to analyze in it, plus a lot that we could learn about world cultures. But it's also raunchy at times. Very questionable.

Probably a no. But on the English Teachers Ning, teachers are talking about success teaching it... hmmm...

Either way, a great read.