Sunday, August 28, 2011

An Unprecedented First Week

This week went well. Students arrived, fairly bright eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to learn, though I think the cobwebs from summer are a bit thick and will take some serious cleansing.

Tuesday, we were just getting started in my 5th block class. Syllabus, course expectations, emergency escape routes, lock-down drills, seating charts, note-cards with pertinent information at my fingertips. The classroom started to bounce. The LCD projector and ActivBoard started to bounce. I thought (forgive me) that a rather healthy individual had run down the hall. My room shakes whenever someone stomps by or, joy of joys, when the indoor track team practices inside when it is too cold during the winter months. It felt the same, just amped up a bit more and actually making me dizzy.

The kids made a joke about an earthquake. "Yeah...right. And this is my first day of teaching." I moved on with the plagiarism policy.

The bell rang, and kids dispersed. My last class of the day came in. Joking about the earthquake. "Seriously, ladies and gentlemen. I wasn't born yesterday. Find your seats and lets begin."

Allow me to interrupt to say that we are, actually, on a huge fault line. I know there are comments and questions about California falling in to the ocean, but I think it is actually more likely to happen on the eastern seaboard. But in the 23 years I've lived in this area, I have never seen or felt anything that related to the fault line. Forgive my skepticism.

We are just beginning to go over the syllabus when our principal comes on the loudspeaker and requests that we practice our first fire drill in order to allow administration to check for structural damage. My jaw hit the floor and the kids started laughing. Quickly, I explained the fire drill escape route, and we exited the building.

Needless to say, I was thrown off from my typical first day lecture. By the time we got back inside, I had to collect my thoughts to determine where we were in the first day. But these were my AP seniors, and good kids. And overall, I think this is going to be a very fun year.

Cut to the end of the week. We've gone through both sets of classes (block scheduling) 2x each. We've actually started school. The students are still in the honeymoon period. No one really talks or acts out. The ones who do are the ones who will require more patience as the year progresses. We are attempting to begin developing our first units. And talk turns to Irene.

I've never had a first week of school where the primary concerns are an earthquake and a hurricane. Amazing to consider. In hindsight, the hurricane didn't do much HERE. But we still had some strong winds and gusts and a bit of rain. I would have liked, personally, more rain, but I'll take what I can get.

I, frankly, hope that my future years in education do not require stockpiling non-perishable goods and bottled water. But I certainly hope that my future is just as exciting every first week. I hope I never tire of this profession and maintain my 'yippity-ness' until the day I retire.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Good Night

"Good night [Summer], good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow
that I shall say good night til it be morrow."

Romeo and Juliet; Act II; scene ii

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Buzz Words and Pedagogy

Each season, there is a word or phrase that comes in to its own. It doesn't matter if it is politics, fashion, or education. The buzz words are the new idea with which everyone is supposed to lemming-ly fall in to step.

Let me take a step back to say that I have a very odd, underlying feeling of trepidation this last weekend before the new school year starts. It feels differently than other years, from what I remember. But then again, I have a feeling that the beginning of each new school year is very similar to child birth - we end up forgetting the feelings of inadequacy and unpreparedness once the kids get here.

Ok - back to the main purpose behind this post. Our new buzz phrase in school is "Building personal relationships with students." At the risk of getting fired, I have to ask "REALLY?" Who on earth gets in to teaching to form personal relationships with the students? I don't have time for that, on top of all the data collection, data dissemination, test taking strategies, etc. To have to worry about the kids in addition to our list of duties is honestly asking too much.

Seriously. WE do not teach for the money. WE do not subject ourselves to scrutiny over how effective we are in the classroom for the fun of it. WE do not drag ourselves out of bed every day, wondering if the lesson will work for every class in the same prep and whether we should just scrap the whole thing, doubting ourselves time and again for the mere masochistic thrill of it. WE (and I use capital letters to emphasize true teachers) are there for the kids.

What is disheartening is that administration actually had to come out and state that we needed to work on this. What is disheartening is that, even as it was being said, members of the faculty scoffed and rolled their eyes. These are the teachers who need to retire or move in to the private sector. Teachers, and I mean WE again, are ONLY there for the kids. I posted last year about 2x that I was ready to look for a job outside of public school, and the kids changed my mind. Again. It happens every year where I doubt my future in education and I cannot help but return because I made an impact on some one's life. And even if it is just one student a year, it is worth it.

I was feeling hesitant regarding this year. I was questioning my preparedness for the year and willingness to jump in to it and give up my time and my energies. I think one reason why I'm feeling this way is that, for the first time, I have 2 classes that are almost entirely students I've had in the past (42 kids), and 4 classes with students about whom I know almost nothing (92 kids). After sitting through a week of meetings stressing numbers and testing and accommodations and parental contact, etc., and then being told to form those relationships, I got worried because I know nothing about my 92+ kids.

But then I went grocery shopping with Snickerdoodle. As I was strapping him in to a cart, I ran in to a former student who failed last year. He nearly failed summer school, too. We had a rather candid conversation about what happened during the year last year, and what happened during summer school. And I have hope for him for this year. And believe me, I'll follow him this year to see how he does. At the beginning of last year, even though he was in a class of kids I knew, I didn't know him. But he opened up to me and I formed a relationship with him. And twice over, he is one reason I keep returning to public education. He knows I'm hard on him because I care and because I see his potential. And I know I can do it all again, regardless of the 92 names that do not tell me anything as of right now.

I live close to my school. And unlike many of the teachers who live in this area, I deliberately go to the stores in this area because the kids see me. And I become human to them rather than just a teacher. I want them to see me outside of school. I want them to joke with me about squashing my bread under canned goods (true story) or tell me, after they've graduated, how well they're doing in their college English classes. I want to foster as many relationships as possible from the moment they first see me, even if they don't have me, to the moment they decide to move out of the area to follow a career.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

My Homework: An Update

Tomorrow I start back at school. I began the summer with a rather lengthy list of activities I wished to complete before my next nine month stretch of "I've got too much on my plate to worry about __" kicked in. I am quite happy to say that, aside from planning for this 9 month stretch, I finished everything on my list, including some that weren't even conceived of in June.

But more importantly than chores and activities around the house, my list of books that I've had a chance to read has finally increased. I am rather proud of myself for making the time and taking advantage of the fact that Syd takes 2+ hour naps now to finish chores so I have the time to read - for pleasure as well as for school.

I started the summer with Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Initially, I didn't like it. At all. But after time to reflect, I have to say that her writing, though not my style, is quite poetic. This particular novel, without revealing too much, demonstrates her knowledge as a writer in that she is able to tie together the past and the present seamlessly. The reader sails from the present story, told through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, to the past and the origins of the characters directly involved in the plot line. I think I didn't like it at first because I had to struggle to keep up with the progression forwards and backwards, but in retrospect, the plot was told in an obfuscated way to protect the sensibilities of the reader. I don't like the book. But I appreciate the story and the manner in which it was written, and understand the hype that is made over the book.

From there, I moved to Tess of the D'Urbervilles. And I am happy to report I have a new love. Thomas Hardy, in typical Victorian fashion, has swept me off my feet. I spent the majority of the summer reading this novel, as it is deceptively dense. But the language used, and the style of writing, and the sheer beauty of Hardy's descriptions kept me coming back even when I thought I'd be too distracted by my other activities. I have a particular passion for 19th Century writing. I don't know what it is about the time, but I focused on that in college and seem to find myself at home there more than other time periods. I'd never read Hardy before, but knowing that his particular passion was poetry, and now being aware of his particular style and how beautiful I find it, I don't see that I have any choice but to obtain some of his poetry to see if it impacts me as much as, or more, than Tess did. I also am now looking forward to next summer, when I will make it a point to read his other highly controversial novel, Jude the Obscure. It is because of these two novels that Thomas stopped writing novels. Alas, the world got in its own way yet again.

Needless to say, I am feeling more refreshed as a student of life and literature. And now I find my way back to my own scholastic obligations. I am beginning Othello, to refresh myself on the play before the students return. And I have a list of books that I want to read for myself, as well as one loaned to me that I promised myself I wouldn't keep more than a year, so I've got my work cut out for me.

But for now, I feel I can sit back and relish the thoughts stirred by my literary accomplishments and reflect on where I may bring some of this in to my classes.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Thumbing through a (scholastic) book at Barnes and Noble last week, I saw a clear outline of the difference between assumption and presumption. I'd always known they were very closely related, but the book made the line clear: assumption is a guess based on your own mere feelings - nothing factual in any way, which, I presume, is where the "Assumption makes an a-- out of u & me" explanation comes in. Presumption is a guess based on facts - things that can be proven and may lead you to a guess.

The past two days have been gorgeous. They've been hot and miserable, but absolutely beautiful for August in Virginia. They've been like nothing I recall seeing in a long, long time. August in Virginia is hot, muggy, buggy, hazy (when the mugginess takes over and you can't see the mountain ranges very well - almost like a permanent fog...). Triple H is the forecast most of the time (hot, humid, hazy).

Yesterday was hot. Subjective, yes, but when you go a month straight with 95+ temperatures, hot suffices. The difference was that yesterday had a clear, comfortable breeze with it. This time of year, when there's a breeze, it does nothing but make you feel like you're cooking. When you open the door to go outside, it's like opening the door to the oven, except it doesn't usually smell as nice. But when I opened the door yesterday, the sun baked me, but the breeze felt wonderful - a refreshing, revitalizing breeze. It was actually quite comfortable in the shade. In early August. Unheard of.

Today, the haziness is gone. The clouds are puffy and dot the sky. The breeze, again, is refreshing and actually quite strong. And the temperature is starting to come down. We usually see weather like this in late September, not early August.

Based on my previous Autumns in Virginia, and based on the data from these past two days, and without looking at any farmer's almanac or doing any research on the internet, I presume that this will be a relatively early fall. I think this may be a long winter, but based on the coats of the groundhogs, I don't think it is going to be a hard one (they're quite lean and brown). I don't see any evidence that we're going to have a lot of snow this year.

I'd like to have precipitation. Who wouldn't? But my curiosity lies more in the temperatures at the moment. I know many are suffering from the current heat wave we've experienced, and I'd like this trend to continue. We'll see where the weather goes and what develops over the next few months.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


No, I don't mean arrests.

As I left the nest and entered my REAL life as a college student (come on, didn't you ever think about how your life would actually be starting once you weren't doing everything everyone else told you to do? Parents, teachers, leaders...), meaning, I was legally an adult and made my own decisions, I realized how little I felt convicted in certain common, every day issues. I was rather easy-going. I would take everyone's thoughts and feelings in to consideration. It wasn't entirely a bad thing, since I got along with people from ALL walks of life and persuasions. In fact, I credit my convictionless beginning to my life with opening my eyes and my mind to so much that the world and life has to offer. I still look for every feasible opportunity to experience more in life.

The problem is, though, that I would be in a discussion, usually about something rather heady, and would nod my head to let the speaker know I was paying attention. And I could usually see that person's point of view. But it inevitably was perceived as my agreeing with the speaker on his or her point of view. I found myself agreeing to some things with which I slowly began to realize I did not agree.

I don't speak up well. I don't. I get over-run in large group discussions all the time. And I have a theory about why I let myself get talked over, but this is not the venue for that, at least not at this time, so... moving on... My point is that when I was (am?) in these deep, serious discussions with others, I find myself biting my tongue more than speaking my own piece.

I believe that one reason why I do this is because it is now habit. I've done it for so long, it is difficult for me to step out of that shell. But I've also found, through this process of self-evaluation, that I do have my own convictions. I have grown, experienced enough, matured?? Maybe all three? to develop my own ideas rather than ones that were handed down to me.

One thing I tell my students on a regular basis when they ask me personal questions (religion, politics, etc.) is that is does not matter what I think. My job is NOT to tell them what to think. My job is to get them TO think. They have been handed convictions by their parents, previous teachers, leaders, etc. their whole 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 years. My job is to offer them ideas and let them decide what they want to see in those ideas. Obviously, there are grammar rules, suggestions for writing, etc., but I mean on the bigger scale. I mean their life convictions. And now, I have a son with whom I will be sharing my (our) ideas, ideals, and convictions.

Some students see that, understand, and leave it alone. Some see it but continue to fight for my personal ideas. Some of my ideas are the same as when I was growing up. Some have changed. Some are still forming. As we approach the new school year, and as Sydney begins to comprehend more and think logically on his own, I will continue to, no doubt, bite my tongue in some regards, and will learn to speak up in others in hopes of allowing myself a voice as well as instruct my son to consider all sides of an argument and learn to develop his own ideas.

Here's to life experiences and thinking for yourself. I fear far too little of those happen these days.