Category Archives: Teaching

Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!

The best part of my job teaching high school English is that I am forced to reread a handful of classic books every year. Without this incentive, I would rarely re-read the old favorites–with so many new books on the must-read list, who has the time? Fortunately, it’s part of my job to make the time for revisiting a few. Recently, my 9th graders finished Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. 

I first read this play in Mrs. Bye’s 8th grade English class. I still have my copy of the text from that unit, complete with mundane annotations in bright purple ink, but I’m afraid that the only instruction I can remember is an embarrassing conversation about how we mustn’t think that Romeo was up to no good when he wakes up in Juliet’s chamber in Act III scene v, because he did marry Juliet properly, even though that part happened off-stage. Overall, though, my first impression of this tragedy was dominated by a profound sense of doom. Those two kids had so much working against them: they didn’t stand a chance!

I encountered the play a second time just after the end of my sophomore year of high school. Taking the advice of a beloved history teacher, who swore by the mystical power of “Shakespeare Dates” to revive the magic in romantic relationships, my boyfriend and I went to a production of R&J performed in St. Louis’ Forest Park. The plan backfired, though. When faced with Juliet’s heart-rending display of devotion, I admitted to myself that I would NOT  commit suicide out of despair if my boyfriend died. Acknowledging that my feelings for him would never measure up to that tragic standard convinced me that the relationship was going nowhere. I dumped him after the show. (It would be some time before I understood that killing oneself is not, in fact, the ultimate display of affection.)

That was over ten years ago–(which means that my 10th high school reunion will be NEXT YEAR! So stressful!)–and I managed to avoid a serious rereading of the play until this recent unit. What a difference 10 years can make! My perspective on these characters has altered dramatically, as well as my understanding of Shakespeare’s overall message. Romeo and Juliet aren’t doomed:  they are agents of their own fates just as much as the rest of us. And the point isn’t that this tragedy was unavoidable and necessary for reconciliation between the Capulets and the Montagues; No, the point is that it COULD have and SHOULD have been prevented, and only a series of consciously wrong choices allowed it to happen.

Both Romeo and Juliet experience moments of foreboding and voice their concerns that “Gee, I get the feeling that if I crash this party/drink this sleeping potion, something really bad is going to happen.”  But they do it anyway! And did I mention that these star-crossed lovers spend a grand total of 20 minutes together before vowing eternal devotion and sneaking off to marry each other? An impulsive, rebellious  marriage smacking of a rebound (remember Rosaline, Romeo??) carefully orchestrated by the well-intentioned Friar who excuses multiple deceptions because he just wants everyone to get along: Can this be true love?

As an eighth grader, I found their declarations beautiful and inspiring. Ten years later, I find myself shaking my head and sighing “Oh, children…” as they cavalierly offer to strip themselves of their very names if only they can be together. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, all right, but for completely different reasons than I originally thought. I’d love to juxtapose this unit with The Crucible and assign a comparative essay on the significance of names.

How have your re-reading experiences altered your thinking about a certain novel or play?

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by | 01/31/2012 · 9:38 am

Recent Reads

‘Tis the season for listing books, or so my friends at Ignatius and CeilingFlickers would have us believe. Books we’ve read, books we want to read, the best books ever—all excellent lists. And since I’m a bit behind on reviewing the books I’ve been reading (instead of blogging) over the past few months, here’s a list of my own. In no particular order, I present:

Some Books I’ve Read Somewhat Recently

1) Helmet for My Pillow, by Robert Leckie: This memoir, written by a surprisingly articulate and engaging reporter-turned-marine-turned reporter, recounts the story of the 1st Marines in the Pacific theater in WWII. I picked it up at the library after Zach and I watched Tom Hank’s mini-series The Pacific. Leckie’s style is thoroughly enjoyable–his sense of decency, of what is “fit to print” in the 1950s, leads him to compose more…delicate versions of the stories than HBO delivered, but he communicates the heart of the matter powerfully despite this restraint. I’m looking forward to reading With the Old Breed, by Eugene Sledge (the other primary source text for the miniseries) sometime soon. Having spent so much time with my nose in a novel lately, this brief foray into non-fiction was especially refreshing!

2) Cautionary Tales for Children by Hillaire Belloc, illustrated by Edward Gorey: Sam and I spend a lot of time “reading” Sandra Boyton’s books and enjoying the tactile sensations in each of Marley’s adventures, but this little gem is destined to become a favorite in the Good Children’s Library. A gift from Sam’s lovely godmother, Amy, these tales seek to frighten children into obedience (in the most amusing manner, of course). Instead of a description, a single chapter title will suffice: “Matilda, Who Told Lies and Was Burned To Death”.  Oh, okay, ONE more: there’s also the tale of “Algernon, Who Played With a Loaded Gun, and, On Missing His Sister, Was Reprimanded By His Father.”

3) Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott: I first encountered this instruction manual for writers when I was in high school. I read the first few chapters, realized it was primarily for fiction writers, and never looked at it again. Until this Christmas, that is, when my dear friend Allison (over at RhetoricalExpressions) placed it back into my hands. Lamott’s advice is so encouraging. Beyond any bit of technical wisdom she offers (and there are many such bits), she frees her students to write by admitting that EVERYone writes crappy first drafts, and most people who write for fun or a living are mildly insane, and should embrace that fact. You can thank (or blame) her and Allison for my attempt to revive this blog.

4) Beowulf, by Anon, translated by Seamus Heany: This was my second year teaching Beowulf, and it is proving to be one of my favorite units. The story is so simple, so raw, and yet provokes such nuanced questions about justice and heroes and the monsters inside of us all. Nineth graders respond well to the combination of mythical creatures, family feuds, and gory battles. I hope Sam is a fan of this one someday. It’s a quick read: return to it through Heany’s masterful translation.

5) Almost All of The Books That Michael O’Brien Has Written: I’m presently about 50 pages from the end of A Cry of Stone, which is the last in his “Children of the Last Days” series. I’ve also read Theophilos and The Father’s Tale is beckoning me from under the Christmas tree. If you haven’t read any of his books yet, you simply MUST. I cannot recommend them highly enough. However, I will attempt to do so in greater detail in a future post.

But enough about me. What have YOU been reading? And what should I add to my list?

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Filed under Poetry, Reading, Teaching

In Which I Talk About Work*

When I first announced my pregnancy last year, my dear friend and colleague Natasha told me that “Becoming a mother will completely change your teaching.”

I’ll admit that I was a little skeptical at the time: after all, with four whole years of experience under my belt, hadn’t I transcended the possibility of professional improvement?. But Natasha has three children of her own and extensive experience in the classroom, so she’s the one to  trust when it comes to parenting, teaching, and their inevitable impact on each other.

Here I am, six months into motherhood, 2 months into my 5th year of teaching, 7 hours away from the start of annual parent-teacher conferences, and I can already tell that she was right.

The season of parent-teacher conferences is traditionally a time of anxiety, discomfort, and frustration for educational professionals. While the majority of conferences are pleasant exchanges with pleasant parents about the success of their pleasant child, there’s always the lurking possibility of conflict. Inevitably, there will be one parent who disagrees with a teacher’s grading system, with the discipline policies, with the presentation of curriculum, or with the enforcement of deadlines and voices his disagreement loudly. Then there’s the parent who suspects the teacher of secretly disliking her perfect child, who makes accusations of unjust treatment and occasionally makes threats. And, naturally, it’s the negative interactions that teachers remember most, and those memories put us on the defensive year after year. So my attitude towards the parents of my students has, unfortunately, been a little cautious and mildly suspicious: “Are you the one that’s going to attack?”

But this year I’m discovering a new sympathy for the mothers and fathers of my ninth graders. Instead of preparing myself for a verbal battle when I have to deliver bad news about a student’s performance, I’m trying to put myself in the parent’s position: How would I feel if a teacher told me that Sam cheated on a test and then lied about it? How disappointed and anxious would I be to learn that my son wasn’t reading or writing at peer level? And how much would I love to hear another adult praise my child and pay attention to his small victories?

It’s just clicked all of a sudden. Of COURSE parents over-react sometimes to bad news from teachers. It’s not that they are blind to their child’s imperfections: they’re just struggling to deal with the choices that their child is making, the consequences of those choices, and the painful fact that–as 9th graders–they need to be allowed to fail sometimes in order to learn. Considering how anxious I am about Sam’s reluctance to start crawling (when I KNOW that every baby is different and hits the milestones at his own pace, ect.), I can imagine how heart breaking it would be to watch your son struggle in academics, in social interactions, or especially in making moral decisions.

Each of my students is as dear to their mothers as Sam is to me. If that knowledge doesn’t make me a better teacher, nothing else will.

Back to grading now: Here’s hoping that I’ll have lots of good news to deliver to parents tonight.

*I’m usually intentional about NOT talking about work on the blog, as other teachers have been fired for making unprofessional comments in a public forum, and some states have recently passed laws limiting teacher/student contact online and I’m wary of the possibility of misinterpretation. None of my comments about conferences or parents are directed toward any specific individuals. If you find my reflections unprofessional or offensive, please contact me directly with complaints.  

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Filed under Mothering, Teaching

Some Things Never Change

Nearly four years have passed since I crossed the platform in my cap and gown to receive my degree from Hillsdale College. During those four years, I’ve visited the campus precisely three times: twice on my own to recruit new teachers for my school and once for the sole purpose of walking around the grounds with my new husband while eating an Oakley.

The campus has changed so much in those four short years: not a trace remains of the horrible, asbestos-infested Kresge classroom building, and the new student center supplies current co-eds with so much comfort and luxury that I CAN’T believe they’re getting the same quality of education that students enjoyed when they had to suffer through the EAR…and the EAR couples.

Suffering was an essential element of the Hillsdale experience: Suffering disappointment when some jock ahead of you in line took all the triangle potatoes at breakfast; suffering physical discomfort because of the smell of the fellow sitting next to you in the computer lab; suffering through the awkwardness of the housekeeper coming in to vacuum while you’re wrapped in a towel or, worse, just starting to get dressed; suffering intense embarrassment while you waited in the EAR for your friends to meet you for dinner and an EAR couple started snogging on a couch ten inches from your face…those were the good days!

Delp Hall: I used to deliver scones here a week before final exams

Some changes, such as the turn over in faculty, are bitter sweet. For example, I can no longer visit Delp Hall in hopes of dropping by Dr. Cuneo’s office for a chat. He’s gone on to become an Eastern Orthodox priest, though, and I’m sure he’s thriving in his new role. Some, like the venerable John Willson, have retired. Others have simply moved on. However, in a few short months, I look forward to knowing that one of those faculty offices is occupied by a dear and brilliant friend, Matthew Gaetano, who is joining the history department. When his then-fiance, now-wife Amy and I sat in our third story room in Mauck hall sipping tea and struggling to pronounce passages of Old English properly, we knew that some day she would join the ranks of enviable professors wives (so sophisticated! so talented in the kitchen! so intellectually active!). How pleasant it is to think that there will be familiar faces on that campus for some time to come.

And a brief glance through the headlines of the latest edition of the Collegian show that despite the inevitable marching on of years, some things will never change at Hillsdale College.

There are still those that protest against dancing in public: Monday Night Fever (sorry, Beyonce).

The deans are still making those difficult choices about which students can be deemed responsible: Woman RA’s Selected (though, to be honest, I’m not really sure why this qualifies as “news”)

And, best of all, the social ritual of tea-drinking that Allison, Amy, and I discovered during our freshman year is still going strong: Some like it Loose-Leaf and Campus Tea Culture (TWO feature pieces on DRINKING TEA….incredible).

But I suppose it’s only fair to note that Hillsdale isn’t the only thing that changed over the past four years. As much as I miss the classes, the culture and, of course, the people, on any given day, I know that I’ve changed far too much to be able to relive those days. While I miss my darling roommates, I’ve grown accustomed to having more than one room of living space. And while I miss my fascinating professors, I’m much better at delivering lectures now than I am at taking notes. And even though I miss Oakley with indescribable longing, I’m grateful to be done with the days when purchasing a sandwich represented a daring act of fiscal irresponsibility.

Thank you, staff of the Collegian, for the trip down memory lane. Now, it’s time to get back to work.

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Filed under Friendship, Teaching

O Entrepreneurs!

(Entrepreneur: An entrepreneur is a person who has possession of a new enterpriseventure or idea and is accountable for the inherent risks and the outcome.)

When I was a kid, my dad was always creating or discovering new business opportunities for me and my brothers. If we weren’t pulling a wagon full of extra zucchini door to door (a dime a dozen, literally) or hawking baseball caps bearing the family restaurant logo, we were mowing lawns or babysitting or yanking weeds in the garden for a small fee. My older brother Andy and I even assumed ownership of a small name plate engraving business for several years. Teaming up with my best friend Hope and her sister Joy, we got some pretty decent accounts from a local community college and a sports camp. DuBois Industrial Nameplate Company, we called it, (“DINC” for short). Andy  handled most of the business arrangements for the company: I think I was more of a liability than a partner, but he still gave me a generous cut of the profits.

 

Our machine looked something like this, but more antiquated.

 

 

In retrospect, we learned a lot from those experiences. We learned about deadlines and responsibility when we almost had to stay up well past our bedtimes finishing a project that had to be delivered the next day. We learned about the rewards of hard work when we spent a Saturday canning a year’s worth of salsa–a family favorite–from the produce of our garden. We learned about the correlation between work and money by keeping track of our hours spent bent over the manual engraving machine (though, some days, my adult experience doesn’t seem to validate that connection). And, perhaps most importantly, we learned a lot about ourselves. For instance, DINC was the first real opportunity I had to grapple with two significant character traits: my tendency to procrastinate and my abhorrence of trying to sell people things.

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not really  risk-taker. I don’t see myself as a business woman. But I am LEAST OF ALL a salesperson. Even if I believe in a product or service with all my heart, I cannot bring myself to try to get someone to buy it. It’s embarrassing: I blush and stutter and stumble over my words. I could barely bring myself to look our sweet elderly neighbor lady in the eye when I was forced to try to get her to take some zucchini off my hands. Sometimes I just gave it away, still feeling like a pest. (One of the reasons I dropped out of the Girl Scouts when I was still a Brownie was the unbearable pressure to sell those cookies!)

Despite my former discomfort with the sales aspect of small business ventures, I’m thinking about starting a little venture of my own.

I’ve been toying with the idea for some time. As my maternity leave approaches (only two weeks of classes left!) I’ve been trying to figure out a way to remain intellectually active and possibly work from home. The traditional housewife business ventures make me shudder: while I am grateful for Mary Kay and Arbonne and Tupperware and all they’ve done to liberate women, I would rather eat a cockroach than try to make a living hosting house parties in order to sell things to friends and their friends. I have to turn down invitations to spa parties and trunk shows because, no matter how tempting the free wine and facials and door prizes might seem, I know I will end up spending at least fifty bucks to assuage my easily triggered sense of guilt.

So, like I said, I’m considering a different kind of venture.

The idea came to me while I was working on lesson plans last week. My principal recently approved the addition of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! to my 8th grade English curriculum and I was putting together a new unit for my maternity sub. It was such pleasant work, reading through the familiar story of Alexandra Bergson and her resilience. I wrote reading quizzes and structured daily plans of discussion questions. I wrote a little guide to major themes. I chose key passages for analysis. I got to do the all the mental work of converting ideas from Cather’s pages and my head into something that 8th graders could digest without ever having to talk to an 8th grader.

While I do adore my 8th graders, there’s something so refreshing about just working with the subject matter. Wouldn’t it be great if I could write curriculum units for home school parents or co-ops who don’t have reliable instruction available for upper school literature? I’ve got the credentials, the experience, the practical know-how, and the time: do you think there’s a market? Could it be profitable? The existence of Sparknotes and other free cheat-sheets worries me a bit, but surely there are some people who would pay for high-quality instructional materials from a conservative, even Christian, perspective, right?

What do you think: good idea/bad idea? Those of you with homeschooling backgrounds, feel free to offer straightforward opinions here.

The thing is that I know that in order to turn this idea into a reality, I’m going to have to grow into the role of salesman that I avoided so diligently as a kid. Perhaps I’ll end up more like my dad than I expected to…

Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.” – Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

 

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Filed under Consumerism, Courage, Domesticity, Reading, Teaching, Writing

Maintaining the Standard: CSAP Stream of Consciousness

For those of you unfamiliar with the acronym, CSAP stands for Colorado State Assessment Program. Along with every other public school teacher in Colorado, I have the joy of proctoring these standardized tests. The job of a proctor is simple: maintain a standardized environment by reading directly from the script, pacing constantly around the room, and clinging tenaciously to sanity despite hours of boredom.

I’m lucky this year: my proctoring duties have diminished considerably compared with past testing seasons. Still, today’s four hour stretch was trying. Here’s a glimpse of what can happen inside the mind of a proctor during those tedious hours:

  • Stuck in a math room again: there’s never anything interesting to read on the walls in the math rooms. Except, of course, a poster containing text that begins with “throughout history.” No wonder they never learn.
  • Forgot my pocket rosary. I guess I don’t really need to keep track, but it’s so easy to get distracted when I don’t. Anyway, Hail Mary, full of….who is tapping their pencil? Who?
  • WOULD I pass an 8th grade level science test? Do I really want to know the answer to that?
  • The thing about Home that makes is so different from Gilead is that the characters are as reticent with the reader as they are with each other. Yes, that’s what makes me a little crazy about that book: everything is too delicate to be said directly, so readers share in Glory and Jack’s mutual discomfort.
  • Not that there’s anything wrong with holding back a little. I guess we’re encouraged to adopt a habit of openness, emotionally or otherwise. I think I’m naturally a more reserved person, but people take offense at that sometimes. Limitless openness can destroy the few fragments of the sacred left in our lives, though.
  • Dude, that kid needs to take out his earring. Can I interrupt his test-taking to point out a dress code infraction? Let it be? I’ll wait till the break.
  • Storage bins: I’m going to need lots of plastic storage bins for the baby things once he outgrows the O-3 month clothes. Clear and stackable storage bins. I must have them. With blue lids, yes, my precious.
  • Observed coping mechanisms once kids finish their work, but before their allotted reading time: pretending pencils are chopsticks, pretending pencils are people (fighting?), playing Cat’s Cradle with a necklace, balancing a pencil on the desk, fingertip, or another pencil, thorough inspection of nails and manicure, and….don’t do it….please, no….*sigh* nose-picking. Time for a round of hand sanitizer.
  • It’s so quiet in here that every tiny sound is maddening. Must they scrape their test booklets across the desk? Must they fill in bubbles so rambunctiously? Must they BREATHE SO LOUDLY?
  • Why is pacing so much more tiring than walking? I’m not really going anywhere, just shifting my (considerable) weight from one foot to another. My feet are swelling. There ought to be a special CSAP exemption for women in my condition. Oh well, I’ll make up for it by parking in the visitor slot.
  • The math teacher who lives in this room left a box of Altoids on his desk: in the name of CSAP solidarity, he wouldn’t mind sharing one with me.
  • Or two.
  • Seven. Stop it! (Sorry, Pete)
  • Eighth graders are so fidgety, especially when they’re required to sit silently and do nothing for twenty minutes…that one keeps tugging on his pant legs. Come to think of it, I do remember middle school as a season of life when my pants were never quite long enough. It’s probably even worse for Colorado teens: everything shrinks in this dry climate.
  • Pediatrician! I need to find a pediatrician! But where? And how? Is it too late? I have to go to the bathroom!
  • Hmm…I could definitely PASS an eighth grade science test, but I don’t think I would make anyone proud.
  • The baby doesn’t like CSAPS. The baby is trying to get out. What if I go into labor during the testing period? Would that invalidate the tests?
  • Okay, seriously, that kid is going to take out his earring now. Unless it’s a fresh piercing…what if blood gets on the booklet? Would that invalidate the test?
  • Test? Validate me? Walking….bad.

And….it goes downhill from there. By the end of a day of CSAP proctoring, most teachers feel like this little guy. (Stay tuned: he really does go for the banana)

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Filed under Teaching

Real Courage, Atticus-style

In an age when personalities are easily defined and categorized by such useful and limited tools as the Myers-Briggs test, it is much easier to give into these self-fulfilling predictions than to try to change. No matter what method of testing you try—Jungian analysis, the MBtypes, that one where your response to insults categorizes you—I always end up in the “peacemaker” category. This is usually a fine place to be: the world needs individuals who will compromise, communicate, and generally help everyone to get along.

But the typical weakness associated with this type is the ease with which we peacemakers submit to becoming doormats. I have never been the exception to this rule, though I’ve figured out how to fake it when necessary. In the classroom, of course, one must be firm: “If I see the cell phone again, it’s mine.” “No, you may not go to the restroom.” “If you tilt that desk back one more time, I will destroy you with my bare hands.”  (Don’t worry: my students and I understand one another—these threats have never led to lawsuits.) But out in the real world, a world where I cannot send other people to detention for failing to conform to my will, this firmness melts quite quickly. Is this simply who I am? Does my personality doom me to a life of spinelessness? My history suggests that it might, but a few incidents give me hope.

One of my favorite and most challenging college classes was a two-week seminar taught by the illustrious Mark Helprin. No living author possesses comparable powers of language and imagination: his lyrical novel Soldier of the Great War has remained at the top of my favorite books list from the first reading. Naturally, the course he taught was on creative writing and entry required composing an original short story. Writing fiction is not my forte and I had heard horror stories from previous students about his brutal treatment of their work. The possibility of being publicly belittled by my favorite writer deterred me for some time. But something—perhaps an unhealthy idolatry—propelled me to throw a story together at the last-minute and sign up for the course. Mr. Helprin, for his part, proved to be a respectful instructor, a generous editor, and an excellent story-teller. After the course ended, I wrote him a note, confessing my earlier fears and thanking him for proving them baseless. To my surprise and great delight, he wrote back! He said,

“Someone like you…must in your growing up lose timidity and gain self-confidence. Even had I been the world’s biggest son of a bitch, you, because of what and who you are, would have had no reason to fear me or to have been intimidated. Remember this: courage and goodness have the same route. It is impossible to have one without the other, even if one is, for a time, hidden.”

I’ve thought of his words often over the past few weeks as Zach and I have fought a repair shop for the correction of a rather gross injustice. I have had to argue with mechanics and managers, and I have, for the first time in my life, refused to take no for an answer. Where does this uncharacteristic boldness come from? Maybe it’s the early manifestation of what Zach calls the “Momma-Bear” instinct: a fierceness born of love. Or maybe knowing that my husband and my child will be worse off if this situation isn’t corrected gives me courage. I won’t write off pregnancy hormones either.  The troubles aren’t resolved yet (see prior posts: Deceptive really DID take a vacation this week), but we’re making progress.

The process of pushing beyond one’s personality type is not without growing pains. My mind, long accustomed to habits of avoiding conflict, fixates on the problem. Long hours of the night pass in anxiety as I rehash conversations, replacing what I did say with what I should have said and what I WILL say the next time an opportunity comes. The knowledge that I am (or will be) the cause of someone else’s bad day weighs heavily on me. I struggle with alternating feelings of guilt for standing up for myself and anger at being swindled in the first place. Change can be good, but it’s certainly not comfortable.

So, take courage, Liza. You’re not alone in feeling spineless at times. But if a doormat like me can discover a bit of hidden courage, I know you can do it too. (Just try to avoid starting the journey by confronting a national franchise :o)

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.  ~Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

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Filed under Consumerism, Reading, Teaching, Writing