Friday, March 31, 2006

How's the Reading Going?

So, I've got a bunch of you who've agreed to read Frankenstein with me. I can't even tell you how VERY excited I am about the prospect of having conversations about this book with grown-ups!!

If you're interested in keeping pace with the AP students, please read up to chapter six for Monday. Pay particular attention to themes that come up and points that seem to be repeated or stressed, and think about the kind of person Victor seems to be. I have a bunch of things I want to talk about, but I'm primarily interested to see what you all come up with as a result of your own reading.

Whenever you're ready, go ahead and comment. Questions, problems, discoveries, theories - I want them all.

And thank you SO much for reading with me!!


Remember that I turned my resume in a couple of weeks ago for a position in the school? Well, the secretary found me this morning during AP class and told me that I'm scheduled for an interview on Thursday for the job.

I'll let you know how it goes!!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Wanna Play?

I have a crazy, geeky, English Teacher idea, and I'm hoping at least some of you will play along with me.

I'm going to be teaching Frankenstein to my AP kids starting, well, tomorrow (if I continue - knock wood - to feel better, that is. I'm cautiously optimistic that I'm on the upswing here). Do any of you care to read along with us?

I've never participated in a book club - much less mediated one - but I would LOVE to find out what literate grown-ups think of the books I teach in high school classes. I know several people expressed, during the canon posts, that there are more than a few books they'd like to read but never "get around to it." Well, People, here's your chance!

You can pick up a nearly-free copy of Frankenstein pretty much anywhere. Make sure you get a genuine Shelley version, not some knock-off, though it doesn't really matter which edition you get (the book was published in 1818 and again in 1831). If you choose to play along, read up to chapter one by Monday (I'm going to give you a much easier schedule than the kids get, unless you'd prefer to keep pace).

Let me know if you're reading along with us, and be ready to talk about it!!

Film and Literature

One of the requirements for my Master's degree is that I complete a research project that focuses on a question I have about the practice of teaching. I've chosen film and literature as my topic, and I've been doing an awful lot of thinking about if - and if so, how - film in the classroom helps support literature learning in high school students.

Let me give you some background on this topic.

I am a child of popular culture. I was raised in a household where, on their best days, my parents were indifferent, so a good portion of my childhood was run not by a parent's prodding or the clock, but by the television. I was sending myself to school in kindergarten and knew it was time to leave when Scooby-Doo was over. My bedtime came after the Jeffersons. In between, the days were marked off in half-hour increments of fare like "I Dream of Jeanie," "Hogan's Heroes," "The Munsters," and "Good Times." TVLand is a catalogue of a good portion of my youth.

I may sound bitter, but I'm really not. I believe that a lot of value was learned in front of the television. I learned a lot about racism and bigotry from the likes of "All in the Family" and "Chico and the Man." I watched people whose lives seemed very different from mine cope with some of the same problems I saw in my own life. I was able to follow how one person’s choices led to certain outcomes. I watched as people sought advice from others and I learned to integrate other experiences into my own. I learned a lot about the intersection of reality and drama in front of the television. While I may have preferred to spend that time interacting with real people, I don't think that those countless hours of TV viewing were necessarily wasted.

As an adult, I still think that there's a great deal of value to be gleaned from drama in its many forms (though I have to admit to making sure my own daughters have more human interaction than I had as a kid). I’ve said before that, for me, education is really all about making connections, about being able to see something in a new or more complex way as a result of having had a previous experience. Education is about giving us a common vocabulary and set of experiences which we can use to make our communications deeper and more meaningful. While a great many erudite academics would scoff at the idea, I'm sure, I don't think there are many places where the possibility of learning something new is excluded. Pretty much everything is fair game - video games, rap music, television, movies, plays, comic books - everything has something to offer.

This is the angle from which I am approaching this research question. Students may not realize it, but they have a wealth of experiences to bring to the discussion of literature. I’ve been thrilled to hear kids bring up seemingly unrelated topics and watch as they drew threads of connection - sometimes very thin and tenuous threads, but sometimes good, solid ones - between their culture and the reading. While teaching A Taste of Salt, I was bothered at first when a student kept bringing up the fact that “Forrest Gump” was on television the night before. When I finally asked her why she kept mentioning the movie, and what does it have to do with what we’re doing now, she quite rightly pointed out that “in the movie, that guy lost his leg. Just like this kid we’re reading about.” Tenuous connection? Maybe, but maybe not. Here is an example of how this student is using a known experience - the experience of watching Gary Sinise’s character lose his leg in war - to mediate an unknown experience - the experience of reading about Djo’s near-paralysis following the fire bombing of a Haitian homeless shelter.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we make those connections all the time, and there’s nothing that’s off-limits to us. A student in one of the freshman classes quoted a line that applied quite nicely to our class discussion about justice and forgiveness while we read The Sunflower by Simon Weisenthal. “Justice,” he said, “is not closing your enemy’s eyes, but forcing him to see through your eyes.” When I asked him where the line came from, he told me it was in the opening sequence to a martial arts video game. That’s the kind of active thinking I’m hoping to inspire when I introduce film into my English classroom.

One of my proudest moments in college was when I handed in a paper that connected Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness to an episode of Star Trek; Deep Space Nine. Because I’d been pretty well ensconced in the culture of academia by that point, I was horrified that I was turning in a serious piece of writing that connected a canonical work to a cult television show. I felt compelled to write the piece, though; the connection was too valid and well-supported and I was excited to have recognized it in the first place. My professor agreed, and encouraged me to continue to seek out literary references in unexpected places. I still have that paper, and am still proud of the work that I did in it.

I have a lot more to say about this, but I’m feeling a little like I’ve wandered off my point. Let me regroup, and I’ll come back with more thoughts about the ideas of artistic license, visual vs. linguistic imagery, and whether or not a film has to be faithful to the original text to be considered “good”.

"That's FRONK-en-steen!!"

We're going to be teaching Frankenstein to the AP kids.

I'm very excited about the prospect of this unit. Frankenstein is one of my all-time favorite books for a number of reasons:

-it's fun to read. The book is actually told in a series of letters written by a sea captain to his sister, and that fact plays around quite nicely with the ideas of narration and time and narrator reliability. It's really kind of a head trip, if you think about it long enough.

-it's beautifully written. The language in the novel is flowery and formal, but not so much so that one can't follow a passage from beginning to end. There are several passages that are just lovely to read - and to read aloud.

-it brings up almost endless discussion possibilities. The themes that the story addresses are timeless: medical and scientific ethics, social status, personal responsibility and accountability, family and belonging, literacy, hubris and humility, love, death, revenge, longing ... the list can go on and on.

-it is nothing like anything anyone has seen before. Every kid thinks they know who "Frankenstein" is, and most often they identify him as the flat headed, green skinned, bolt necked creature in platform shoes who goes around moaning and choking innocent people with his bare hands. They conjure up images of mobs with pitchforks and dark and stormy castles and hunchbacked lab assistants. I’m betting a few of them will even come up with breakfast cereal. I wonder how many time Shelley has spun in her grave over that.

The story isn't really a horror story; at least, *I* don't see it as a horror story. It's more of a cautionary tale about the limits of our abilities, the responsibilities we have to one another, and the place that education, specifically literacy, has in our development as full-fledged humans. It’s a great story, and I can’t wait to get into it with the AP kids.

I’m working on putting together some lesson plan ideas for the book. We’ll do some really close reading of the first few letters - Shelley does a lovely job of inserting the subtlest of hints about what’s to come in Walton’s first letters to his sister - and talk about ambition. Frankenstein had planned on taking his story with him to the grave, but decides instead to tell Walton his tale in an attempt to dissuade the captain from his fervent desire to make a name for himself. It will be interesting to see what kinds of references the kids can come up with for the idea of blind ambition and to start a conversation centered around the idea that the sacrifice of a life is worth the benefit that life might have on the future of humanity (I’m thinking here of the scene in The West Wing where Leo tells his wife that his job IS more important than his marriage. I’m pretty sure there’s “A Beautiful Mind” reference to be made, as well, and one that dovetails nicely with the idea of madness in Frankenstein, too). I’ll make a point of logging student conversations and the references that they pull in to help them solidify their thinking.

I’m also looking forward to using film in the unit. I have a wonderful film adaptation of the book done by Hallmark Entertainment that I’m eager to show the students. I’d like them to really look at where the novel and the film are different, and what effect those differences have on the story. I also want them to have a look at some of the more “traditional” versions of the Frankenstein story - you know, the ones with the flat headed, green skinned, bolt necked homicidal maniac - and ask them why they think this interpretation became so deeply ingrained in the culture. Finally, I want to show them “Young Frankenstein.” Yes, it’s a Mel Brooks spoof of the monster movies, but it is the only one that shows the creature struggling with his humanity. Besides, it’s hysterically funny and, this close to the end of the year, the kids could use a little light humor.

I’ll keep you posted as we move through the work. It’s going to be fun!!

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Poetry: Take Three

The other day, elder daughter (aka Punkin' Pie) came out of her bedroom with a book and sat next to me as I sweated and hallucinated on the couch (I'm still really sick, by the way, and have been ordered by CT to stay home again on Monday. BLAH). Anyway, she'd begun reading the second installment of Patrick Carmen's Dark Hills Divide series, Beyond the Valley of Thorns, and she had a question. Our conversation went something like this:

Punkin' Pie: Hey, Mommy? Can I read something to you? I have a question about it.

Me: Of course you can. Whatcha got?

PP: Listen to this:

As evening approaches and the shadows begin their descent into Bridewell, the same frightening thoughts always disturb me. Darkness sends its shadows to draw all men back into itself, for it is in the shadows that darkness plays. And what of the man who stays in the shadows too long, at play with sinister thoughts? Darkness will surely overtake him.

Me: You read that beautifully, Sweetie (because she did). What's your question - is there something in there that doesn't make sense to you?

PP: No, I think I understand it all. What I'm wondering is, is this poetry?

We had a good, long talk about that. To get us started, I asked her what she thought - was it poetry or not? She approached the question the way most students do - she looked at how the words were arranged on the page and decided that it wasn't poetry because poetry, according to her third grade definition, needs to have "a lot of white spaces, and this doesn't. But," she said, "it feels like poetry to me."

NOW we're getting somewhere!

Me: Tell me more about that. What does poetry feel like?

PP: Well, it makes me think of more than just what it says. I mean, this part, where it says "darkness plays"? Well, darkness doesn't really play, right? That makes me think of a lot of other stuff that might happen in the dark - maybe bad or scary stuff, but not like monsters hiding or anything. More like people thinking sad or evil things. That’s what “sinister” means, right?

We went on this way for a while, executing a really top-notch close reading of this passage. We talked about denotation and connotation, we talked a little bit about how darkness is often used as a metaphor for a lot of other things, and we talked a little bit about how, even though the author may be trying to get us to think about things in a certain way, it’s who we are and what we already know that helps us make up our own minds about what a piece of writing really means.

In the end, Punkin’ Pie decided that the bit she read to me IS poetry. It fits her criteria of what poetry requires - the language is evocative and it makes her think of more than what the words say. I think, too, that what she thinks beyond the words is difficult for her to describe - there’s that ineffability thing again! - and that’s what made her think the excerpt was poetry in the first place.

She’s going to bring her book in to school tomorrow to use the passage as a “mentor poem” in her class which, if I’m understanding her correctly, means she’s going to use this poem as a model for her own writing.

I’ll be very, very interested to see what she comes up with and, if her permission is granted, I’ll post it here when she’s done.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Sick Day

I'm home sick today.

I would have gone in - whatever it is that I'm fighting off isn't affecting my GI tract, so I CAN still function - but I knew that CT would have kicked me out anyway, so I saved myself the trip. CT is very practical about illness: if you're sick, you stay home. I've watched her boot kids out of class and send them to the nurse's office when they tell her they don't feel well. Yesterday, she practically walked a girl there herself, as the child is protesting that she can't miss any more English class because the AP test is coming up and she doesn't feel ready. I've decided I'm going to find out when this student has free time and let her know I'm available to help her if she needs it.

Anyway, I'm here, wishing I were feeling better. CT is having a meeting at 10:00 (which I've been told I'm not to come in for even though I promised not to breathe on anyone) about one of the students from period 5 - the child who so occupies quite a bit of my thoughts and concerns. He's been escalating lately; he's gone from brushing off whatever he's doing with his sweet smile and "just kidding" to being outright defiant and confrontational. His case worker suspects there's something going on at home and arranged a meeting today with him (the case worker), CT, the child and the child's mother. I'm hoping to get a full email update when the meeting's over.

So I'm going to put my sick day to good use. I have some college work I need to do (it's about time to start compiling the portfolio) and I've got some correcting to finish. I'm also going to try to get some reading done; CTs been handing me an average of about two books a week and, even though she doesn't expect me to read them NOW, there are a couple that are intriguing that I want to get into (one is about a town in France that openly sheltered Jews during the Holocaust - Lest Innocent Blood be Shed by Philip Hallie - is first on the stack)

Oh, and I'm going to try to have a nap, because I want to go back to work tomorrow.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Poetry; Take Two

I'm still thinking about poetry over here, and about interpretation and about how every one of us brings a unique perspective to whatever we encounter.

Sure, there are some things that are pretty obvious as to what they mean - it would be difficult to misinterpret my WAFFLES! limerick** or Shakespeare's 116th sonnet, though we all might take something slightly different away from the piece depending on our mindset at the time of reading. As long as you don't ADD anything to a poem that isn't there and come up with an interpretation that is essentially made up - if you take your cues from the text and whatever the words mean to you - then you're doing it "right." (One of the things that annoyed me about my college poetry classmate was that he insisted that the speaker in Frost's Acquainted With the Night poem was a rapist fleeing capture, and there's NOTHING in the text to suggest that kind of violence. But I digress...).

I find, though, that students want to know the "answer" more than they want to find out what answers they can generate on their own. I'm constantly being asked what the author meant when the piece was written. Granted, I'm working with freshmen who may not have had much experience yet in challenging textual authority, but I'm working hard to get them to understand that there may not BE any answers beyond the ones that come from their own experience with the text and the meaning they make from it. More than that, I sometimes find that I don't WANT to know what the author was thinking at the time he or she composes a poem; very often - and more than a little obviously - my personal interpretation brings far more meaning to me than whatever the "real" meaning of the piece was intended to be.

Case in point? Jonatha Brooke is one of my favorite singer/songwriters. She put out a song called "Is This All" that I LOVED. It's beautiful and lyrical and, well, it sort of spoke to me. That is, until I read what she was thinking about when she wrote it. I couldn't help but feel that the song was kind of "ruined" for me, since knowing that little bit of information supplanted my own interpretation of the song. I've vowed to never again go to artists' websites or liner notes or biographies to find out what they were thinking when they wrote a particular song or poem or novel; I have enough faith in my own ability to make meaning that I don't feel I need to rely on others' truths - even the authors'.

It happened to me once by accident, though, that I learned the background to another song after I'd already made an imprint of it in my mind. Patty Griffin's "As Cold as it Gets" is a
painfully gorgeous song that I interpreted through the lens of my less-than-healthy childhood; It resonated in me as the adult child of emotionally abusive parents. It was interesting to me to find out later, though, that the song had been written about Simon Wiesenthal and was almost titled "Nazi Hunter." Strangely, my feelings for the song didn't change after learning this, though - I felt as though my thinking about the song was in line with the original intent in a strangely sort of cosmic way - unlike my feelings about Jonatha's song.

My point is that, in neither case is my interpretation "wrong." It may not be what the artist intended, but I'm not sure that I buy that the artist has any say over how their work is viewed anyway. I stand by my assertion that literature in its broadest sense - poetry, novels, music, short stories, art, you name it - doesn't really exist until someone looks at it, "reads" it, and makes meaning from it. I'm going to quote Probst again here:

In a very important sense, it (literature) does not exist outside the individual reader in the same way as do the physical phenomena studied by scientists. A volcano is there, regardless of who sees it or fails to see it, and it will erupt or lie dormant whether anyone cares or not, but a literary work has no significance at all until it is read. The ink on the paper is nothing until a reader picks up the page, reads and responds to it, and thereby transforms it into an event.

THAT's what I'm talking about. Am I making sense?



I woke in a mood mean and dour
My orange juice spoiled and sour.
WAFFLES! I thought,
would cheer me a lot,
though it seems I am quite out of flour.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Poetry; Take One

Last week was Poetry Week over at verb-ops. Since I am almost pathologically addicted to Vanx's site (I'm getting quite an art education; I highly recommend you take a look), I check in and comment regularly.

The other day, he posted a lovely poem by Patrick Kavanagh and one of his readers commented that s/he wished s/he "understood poetry better." This got me thinking and here's what I've come up with:

I've always liked poetry, but not in the way that I think many of my English teachers wanted me to - at least not how many of my college English teachers wanted, anyway. To this day, I can't define, off the top of my head, what constitutes iambic pentameter or what enjambment means (though it SOUNDS like something one would wish to avoid, doesn't it?). I don't really care about how skillfully someone can choose words to fit into a specific meter or know how to count stresses in lines of verse. What I care about is how a poem speaks to me.

One of my favorite quotes about the study of poetry comes from "Response and Analysis; Teaching Literature in Junior and Senior High School" by Robert E. Probst:

The poem gives each of us an opportunity to look at ourselves, putting our ideas and our attitudes into perspective. The poem is, in a sense, something that we create as we read. (my emphasis) We bring to the text our understanding of the words, our expectations of the behavior of people, our ingrained biases and predilections, and from them create the experience that becomes for us the poem.

I'm in love with the idea that each of us creates poetry as we read. Perhaps more than any other belief, the idea that we all come to our experiences - in literature and everything else - with our own set of expectations, beliefs, histories and personalities and create meaning from those facets of ourselves is a concept that guides and informs my teaching practice. I am very mindful that every student is going to see something slightly different in every literary experience that I provide in my classroom, and I strive to be aware that, beyond the dictionary meaning of the words themselves, each student is going to create meaning from the words that they will (hopefully) integrate into themselves; something that they can store away and use later to help them make meaning of another new experience.

One of the things that alternately thrills and annoys the crap out of me about language is the way in which it can convey meaning that transcends the words on the page. The ineffable - that which we feel and know in the deepest recesses of our being but cannot adequately express with mere words, is one of the reasons I so love what I do. What makes the ineffable so fascinating to me is my understanding that something that speaks profoundly to me may not move you at all, even though we may have similar beliefs or experiences to bring to the interpretation of the words on the page. I offer, as evidence, the following line from Justice Jackson's opening statement in the Nuremberg Nazi war crimes tribunal:

The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.

This collection of words speaks so eloquently, to me anyway, that I've been turning them over and over in my head for about two weeks now (one of my freshman classes is watching the TNT production of the trials, and I went to the web to look up Jackson's entire speech because I was so enthralled by Alex Baldwin's delivery of just a few words of Jackson's seventy-five page statement). They call up so much more than the idea of war crimes or concentration camps or any of the things about which Jackson was specifically referring. The words, for me, anyway, also evoke the idea of humanity as a whole banding together to protect the weak and helpless, of the belief that we have a profound responsibility to the future, and the idea that even the most horrendous of criminals must be treated with fairness and justice lest we - civilization - descend into the same behavior we seek to punish in the first place. All that, and much more, are transmitted to my by those thirty two little words.

For me, that's poetry: words put together in such a way that they constitute more than just words. Poetry, in my view, has little to do with stanzas and meter and enjambment (whatever that is) and everything to do with feeling and depth and ineffability. It's not a matter of whether or not you "like" poetry or whether or not you "get" poetry - what matters is whether or not you recognize poetry when you see it.

Poetry is not an all-or-nothing proposition, though many people have been wrongly given that impression by some overzealous English teachers. You may not like a particular poem because there's nothing in your experience that you can use to relate to it and you know what? That's okay! I, personally, can't STAND Jabberwocky. Hate it, absolutely despise it! I'm not particularly wild about a lot of the English Romantic poets, either, though some of the pieces really do work for me. My "thing" as an English teacher is to try to get my students to understand that poetry has to be taken one poem at a time, and to recognize that a frustrating experience with one poem shouldn't dissuade them from poetry altogether.

To finish this line of thinking - at least for tonight - I leave you with one of my favorite poems and a little story to go along with it:

I have this "thing" about darkness. In most literary settings, the idea of darkness is used to imply danger or despair or fear; it's a symbol whose implications are almost always negative. I have a hard time seeing it that way, though; I'm very comfortable in the dark and always have been. I'm not sure what it is about me that makes this true, but it is. Anyway, one afternoon I got into a pretty heated conversation with a classmate of mine in a poetry class in college. We were reading this poem - one of my favorites - and this classmate had decided that the poem was about a criminal escaping after committing a terrible crime. While I was able to see where his interpretation would make sense, the poem has always held for me a kind of gentle quietude, the impression that the speaker, like me, is comfortable in the dark. Both of our interpretations are "right."

And yours is, too.

Acquainted with the Night
by: Robert Frost

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

From "New Hampshire", 1923

Friday, March 17, 2006

Ready or Not!

Here we go!

I'm going to submit my application packet today for a job in the English department.

I have all the required components; the cover letter (reviewed by CT, so I know it's not only acceptable, but grammatically correct!), my resume (thank you, Wayfarer, for such a lovely job!), my transcripts and several letters of recommendation. The only thing I don't have is the letter from the University saying that I'll be qualified for licensure by the time I'd be taking a job in September, though. Sam, my university supervisor, told me yesterday - with not a little bit of rueful sarcasm, I have to add - that there's a better than even chance that I'll get my licensure documents before the University gets around to sending out that letter. I'll explain during whatever interviews I'm asked to attend that I'm expecting to be fully licensed before the fall, though I'm expecting that most people would assume that in the first place.

I had a dream last night that I had missed some sort of deadline and was, therefore, disqualified from consideration. I hadn't realized that I was so invested in this little adventure that I'd dream about it, and be so bothered that I'd blown it.

Stay tuned. When there's news, I'll post about it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Is "Surrealty" a Word?

CT, as I've mentioned before, is one of the reasons I became an English teacher. I was a student of hers in high school and, in spite of a traumatic experience I had in her class with The Grapes of Wrath, I was nevertheless inspired by her. She pushed me in just the right ways, she encouraged my writing and sought out my input in class and was a listening ear when I needed to ask guidance about difficult situations in my personal life. She made me believe that I was smart, that I could be eloquent, that I had something worthwhile to contribute. She is someone that I looked up to long after I graduated.

I was afraid, coming back to her as an intern, that the polish would somehow wear off the image that I'd carried of her these last nineteen years. I'm not being poetic or overly sentimental when I tell you that it hasn't. I have seen her be disorganized, frustrated, even downright angry, but I still see in her the same things that made me admire her in the first place. She is thoughtful. She understands that learning is a process that students move through at different paces. She always seeks to accentuate what students CAN do before she moves to correcting or instructing students about what they haven't quite got yet.

I'm not sure I can adequately describe how strange it is, then, to be the recipient of this recommendation. It is oddly surreal to be praised so by someone to whom I so aspire.

I'm not boasting by publishing this; I'm just trying to get my head around the idea that CT is actually talking about ME.

It is somewhat difficult to write a recommendation that seems overwhelmingly complimentary toward a novice teacher without losing some credibility; however, my experience co-teaching with Mrs. Chili has been nothing but a true pleasure, personally and professionally.

Mrs. Chili is a former student of mine. Twenty-something years ago, she sat in a sophomore class and her wit, her intellect, and her articulateness remain memorable. Now a mother of two young girls, she comes to teaching with a refined, skilled capacity for working well with adolescents and, particularly, for eliciting their own perceptions and insights, assisting their movement into more sophisticated readings, analysis, and written expression. She has demonstrated each day a natural patience, encouraging students to become comfortable in the silence of thought. As an instructor, she moves easily between students and material, always following the needs of the class. Although she feels that her sense of timing is not yet well-developed, I am impressed with her ability to transcend the agenda and to create opportunities in which students learn.

Mrs. Chili is a professional. An avid reader, she offers a profound understanding of reading to students who know little about ways to approach text. Her resourcefulness has enhanced our team teaching experiences: she is able to pull out a poem, an excerpt from a film, a textual reference, a website, song lyrics—and she has a connection with students through her knowledge of pop culture. Mrs. Chili has developed a rich repertoire of literature from her own love of language and literature. She has proven to be a creative, imaginative, intellectual teacher. Furthermore, and perhaps just as telling, she is “having a wonderful time.”

I hope that Mrs. Chili will become a colleague at our school in the near future. She has already brought a fresh new energy to our department, a strong philosophical and theoretical bent, and a way of being with students that encourages them to become thoughtful learners.

Resumes and References

So, I'm getting ready to submit my application packet to the school system. There's to be at least one opening for September, possibly three, in the English department in the school where I'm interning. I'm being strongly encouraged by CT to apply.

I'm a veritable cauldron of feelings about the whole process.

I'm terribly excited about the prospect of working in this high school.
**I'm not sure if I've mentioned it before, but I graduated from this school nineteen years ago. CT was one of my favorite teachers and one of my primary inspirations for becoming a teacher in the first place. I can't imagine a better position for a new teacher than working in the same department with her inspiration and mentor. I've also found the English department in general to be very supportive and encouraging, and I'd like to have my fledgling year as a teacher be in a place where I can comfortably seek help if (who am I kidding?! WHEN!) I need it.

I'm nervous about the prospect of working in this high school.
**There is a particular administrator there, who happens to be tasked with overseeing the English department, who is a particularly difficult personality to get along with. I haven't had any personal encounters with the man, but people whose opinions and judgments I trust have made a lot of noise about this man's ability or, more importantly, his lack thereof, to deal with people. There's been talk of his being transferred to another department in the district, but the possibility exists that he'll still be in his position next year. I also think he'll have a say in who gets hired for the coming school year, and I wonder what he thinks of me, given that the general consensus is that he doesn't think very highly of CT.

I'm uncertain about the commitment required to take on the job.
**BIG confession here, people. I haven't had a "real" job in fifteen years. Yes, I've had part time work - I've been employed by the same health club as a fitness instructor for six years - and I've had the profound responsibilities of motherhood, but I've not had to report anywhere from nine to five (or, in this case, seven to three) in slightly less than two decades. Even though I know I can do it, and have been doing it since September, I still have to admit that it gives me pause (especially when we're deep in the heart of daylight savings time and it's dark both when I'd have to leave and when I'd get to go home).

I have a mild twinge that accepting a job now would somehow be shortchanging my children.
**My husband mentioned the other day that my taking a teaching job would mean that I would quite probably miss many of the girls' school functions; I would be unable to chaperone field trips and I would likely miss plays and assemblies. While this is certainly true, I'm not sure how much it would reasonably play into my decision to take a job or not. As it is, the girls only rarely go on field trips, and I don't volunteer to chaperone if I'm required to ride on the busses with the kids anyway because I get TERRIBLE bus sickness. Add to that the fact that we've missed the last two assemblies anyway because the girls have told us about them AFTER the fact and it doesn't seem like my being unavailable during school hours is going to prove to be a hardship for my daughters. My husband is still willing to handle the morning routine, and I WILL be home when they get home. I'm pretty sure that will mean more than my being available for the occasional special event. Besides, CT pointed out that I would be afforded personal time that could be used when the need arises.

I can do this job.
**Not only can I do it, but I can be great at it. I enjoy it, I'm excited by it, and I think I can make a difference. I'm not going into this work with a high idealism quotient; I know better than to think I can change the world by teaching literature and grammar. I do know, though, that I likely wouldn't have survived my high school years without the care and guidance of a few key adults in school. As a teenager, I was trying to function in a very troubled home and had it not been for the stability and the rationality I found in school - and, of course, the love and care of the family that adopted me as their own - I would likely have been a statistic. I can't change the world, but I may be able to touch one or two lives in a way that matters just enough.

I'm off to print out my resume and cover letter. I'll keep you posted.

Reflections on Solo Week

It's strange for me to see that I've not posted in a while - my mind has been so focused on the work that I'm doing that it seems strange that I' haven't yet have put it in writing.

Solo week went very, very well. I can't really say that I was nervous about the experience, though there was an odd feeling of apprehension going into it. I'm getting to know the students and have a pretty good handle on the dynamics of the classes, I've been primarily responsible for lesson planning for a couple of weeks now, and I knew, going in, that I would be well supported. I've been reflecting on the week, though, and here's a sampling of what I've learned:

-It is, for the most part, very easy for me to develop relationships with students, both individually and as a class. There are really only two kids out of about ninety that I haven't quite connected with yet, and I'm fairly certain that I never will, so I'm not beating myself up over it (though there WILL be other posts about those two, so stay tuned).

-I am very easily distracted. Take, for example, the AP class. On Wednesday (their block day, so it's a long period), I had a list of things planned out to do with them. I was first going to talk about Hamlet, the reading they'd done the night before. When we'd talked about three specific things (the students' perception of Hamlet's true state of mind, the scene in which Claudius finds he cannot pray, and Shakespeare's lack of stage direction and what implications that has for artistic interpretation), I was going to show a clip of Gibson's film and ask the students to write an essay comparing the scene to the same scene in the text. When we had finished that, I was going to ask them to define a few of the rhetorical terms we'd given them to investigate earlier in the previous week, then give them homework asking them to choose a character from Bel Canto - another book we'd read together - and write an interior monologue from that character's perspective.

We got SO involved in the discussion about Hamlet that we never made it past the first issue; we spent almost the entire class talking about whether or not Hamlet was actually crazy. It was such a rich discussion, and the students brought up so many fine points about the text, that I didn't WANT to change the topic. I had almost 100% participation, the students were debating amongst themselves - it was beautiful. I finally stopped them toward the last 10 minutes of class to show them the clip, and gave them the comparative writing assignment as homework.

-There are a lot of policies that I'm going to establish in my own classroom when (if) I get a job as a teacher. It is very easy for things to get confusing - for students to claim that they've turned something in when they really haven't, to forget to take attendance, for it to take ten minutes for the students to get settled into their work - when there aren't set expectations in place from the very beginning. I find that I crave a bit more order than the students are used to under CT, and I've been formulating what these should be and how they should be implemented for the last week or so.

-While teaching full time doesn't necessarily make me tired, it does make me hungry. I was told to expect a very difficult week - that I wouldn't sleep well, that I'd be preoccupied and overwhelmed and would have little time to be with my family for all the planning and correcting I'd be doing. I found that not to be the case, though I do really wish that I'd stocked the faculty room refrigerator with yogurt - I found I DID need extra protein.

There were a few things I would change if I could, but this happens to me EVERY DAY, so I'm not dwelling too long on that. My hindsight is perfectly 20/20 - I drive home every day thinking that I SHOULD have said this or brought up THAT point or made THIS reference; it's sometimes very difficult to consider all the possibilities in the moment. Overall, though, I'm very satisfied with the job I did.

I'm pretty sure I can pull this job off for real.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Solo Week, So Far

So, I'm into day two of my solo week and it's going remarkably well.

Everyone I've ever talked to about this internship thing has told me that solo week is EXHAUSTING. Not just tiring, not just exhausting, but all-caps EXHAUSTING. It saps your strength, it taxes your ability to think clearly, it wrecks your sleeping patterns. "Nightmares! Nausea! It's horrible," they tell me!

You know what? Not so much. Now, I know that it's only my second day, but I've got a lot of stuff working "against" me that should, by all rights, be making this experience of teaching by myself even harder. I'm fairly new to the environment; I don't really have relationships with the kids yet and they don't know quite what to do with me. I don't even know all their names yet, for crying out loud. CT doesn't have her own room, and she shares a TINY office with another teacher, which means that I have ZERO real-estate to put my stuff. That means I've got to be hyper-organized and make sure that I carry all my books and handouts and stuff WITH me (my chiropractor is NOT pleased).

Top all that off with the fact that I was observed today.

I think it went remarkably well. I was able to get into a groove with all the classes I taught by myself. The AP class had a really good discussion about the differences between "freedom fighters" and "terrorists". We're going to be working with the text of Hamlet tomorrow during the block period - I'm looking forward to that. Period 2 freshmen and I had a great conversation about forgiveness (we're working with Weisenthal's The Sunflower) and retribution. I had them write last night about the concept of "justice" and was AMAZED by the number of kids who talked about 'eye for an eye' kind of stuff. It was a fun class.

Sam came to see me period 4 and 5 today. The period 4 freshmen did some REALLY good work reading some scenes from Romeo and Juliet (these kids have got a pretty good handle on the Bard - I continue to be impressed). They willingly (yes, willingly!) read the final scene aloud and did a fantastic job. They were able to dissect the language and made some really good observations about the differences between the text of the play and the film version they've been watching. It was very gratifying, ESPECIALLY since I was being watched.

CT and I team-taught period five - they're not ready to have me by myself and I know for SURE that I'm not ready for them, either. They were an exuberant bunch today - I think Sam left with a pretty good feel for why I didn't take the class on my own. I'm hoping that, sometime before the end of the semester, I'll be able to handle them by myself. Not today, though, and probably not tomorrow, either.

So, I'm off to do a little more planning. I'll update again in a day or so.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

More Musings About the Canon

So, I'm still thinking about the idea of a literature canon. I'm not sure what kind of form this post is going to take - I'm kind of free-writing here, so bear with me. Please note that none of the lists is complete...

Here are some of the books I imagine would be on a list of "great literary works" that I HAVE read:

The Scarlet Letter (love this, and love the intro to it, The Customs House.)
Moby Dick (I read this one on my own after seeing the Patrick Stewart version on t.v.)
Jane Eyre
Frankenstein (LOVE this)
Great Expectations (hated it)
The Grapes of Wrath (hated it more than I hated Great Expectations)
The Pilgrim's Progress
The Odyssey (hated it the first time I read it - it grew on me after I taught it to freshmen)
The Faerie Queene
Paradise Lost
The Canterbury Tales
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
The Inferno (though I haven't read ALL of it from cover to cover, I did take a good crack at it)
Wuthering Heights
Heart of Darkness
To Kill a Mockingbird (though I JUST finished reading this a few months ago)
A bunch of Shakespeare

Books, that I bet are on someone's canon list, that I HAVEN'T read:

Tale of Two Cities
The Red Badge of Courage
Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man
Portrait of a Lady
Animal Farm
Farenheit 451
Catcher in the Rye
Little Women
The Lord of the Flies
Mrs. Dalloway
A Room of One's Own
Pride and Prejudice (not only have I never read it, but I've never even seen a movie version!)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (I saw Disney's interpretation, but I'm pretty sure that counts against me)
Anna Karenina
War and Peace
The Great Gatsby
The Last of the Mohicans (which started all this stuff in the first place...)
Don Quixote
Cry, The Beloved Country
(the list goes on and on and on.... GOD, this is embarrassing! I'm about to graduate with a Master's degree in ENGLISH, people! HOW could I have come this far without ever having read this stuff??)

Works that I've read that I think SHOULD be on a canon:

Lord of the Rings
A Dry White Season (love both the book AND the film)
The Country of the Pointed Firs
The Secret Life of Bees
Ahab's Wife
Beloved (though I suspect this is part of someone's canon)
The Kite Runner (though I'm not through this one yet, it's shaping up to be a hum-dinger)

I'm sure there are more to add to this last list, but I'm up past my bedtime and my brain's not quite so sharp as it should be for this kind of work. Check back later in the week - I'll keep turning this around in my head and update when I've got more to add.

Please - no lurking on this post - COMMENT!!

Opening a Can O' Worms

Someone who works at the school loaned me this DVD when he learned, to his horror, that I'd not seen the film yet. He was sure I would love it, and he was right.

I think, though, that I'll want to watch it again very soon. I feel like there were a lot of things I missed, I think, because I was multi-tasking at the time. I shuffled back and forth in an effort to tidy up (and those of you who know the current condition of my environment know that this is no small task), was up and down in the process of cycling laundry through the machines in the basement, and was interrupted several times by phone calls. When the end credits rolled, I felt distinctly as though I'd missed something important. so I'll go back and watch it again - maybe this weekend - to see if that feeling has merit.

So, here comes the can opener I reference in the title of this post: I have to admit to never having read the book. Actually, the number of "classics" that I haven't read is really quite shameful, given that I'm to receive my second degree in English teaching in a little more than ten weeks. Shouldn't all English teachers have read Last of the Mohicans? Shouldn't we all have read Red Badge of Courage and The Great Gatsby? I haven't. Maybe I should.

Here are my questions for you, Dear Readers: how do YOU feel about the "canon"? Are there certain books that SHOULD be read, either in high school or in college? Are there some "classics" that should be compulsory? Or is it enough just to READ, and the content shouldn't be dictated, either by tradition or publishers who make deals with school boards? What have you read that you think would be on a "canon" and what have you read that wouldn't be, but should be?

Talk to me....