Thursday, July 27, 2006

Back to blogging after an extended layoff caused first by lack of time, then by lack of electric power, and then lack of internet. But, now I'm back in the saddle. It's amazing how disconnected I felt even though I only didn't have internet for 5 days.

School district orientation was this week; I only had two days of orientation, as compared to the entire week for some of my peers in the Corps, and I am thankful for that. Despite the fact that it was well-organized, the orientation was still boring and repeated information I already knew. I was surprised (as well as disappointed, perhaps?) to hear the quality of the questions my peer teachers were asking. It seems like 70% of them did not need to be asked; they could have been answered just by listening and thinking more carefully. I hope this lack of thought does not bode ill for my students.

Since I have missed the news for the past few days, here is my commentary on what I have just read. Although I am a Red Sox fan(atic), I still feel bad for A-Rod. Sure, he plays the game like a pansy and Babe Ruth would eat him if they were teammates. Sure, he tried to slap the ball outta Arroyo's hand during the 2004 ALCS. Sure, he's not clutch, and is totally over-rated and over-paid, but the guy has hit 451 career home runs! And he's 30! Nobody else had 375 homers at age 30! And yet he gets booed at the Stadium. Just shows how little Yankees fans know about baseball- they really gotta stop booing the guy. Also, I believe he leads the league in 2-out RBIs. So, although he does choke in the big games, his status as a major run producer and scorer cannot be doubted. That said, I'd take the TRUE 2005 AL MVP (Big Papi) over A-Rod any day.


There's a blog entry that has been swimming in my head for awhile. It's a long, rambling river of thoughts about family - how it is made, how it is retained, what it does, what it means. I don't have the time or energy to write that blog right now, maybe I won't have the energy to write it for awhile or even ever. But the key is this: everyone needs a support system, and we are most likely to call that support system "family."

My biological family has always been my primary support system. All issues, hopes, dreams, goals, fears, challenges, and celebrations run through them. The greatest effect my parents have had on me - what I would call their greatest achievement as parents - was getting me to believe in the importance of education and family. Over the years, my family has changed and grown. I have picked up many "uncles," "aunts," and "brothers" along the way, and I am happy for it. Since moving so far away from that family - biological and otherwise - it seems I have grown closer to them (as evidenced by last month's phone bill). I lean on them for support and advice in all kinds of situations, but more importantly I depend on them to provide smiles and laughter. The responsibility to keep me smiling rests the most heavily, and is fulfilled most consistently, by my "brothers," one I’ve known for 20 years, five others I have only known for two years (but it seems fifty times that long). I shudder to think where I'd be without them.

I also shudder to think of the "family" situations of my students. Not only biological families, but also the emotional support system "families." Do my students have what I have? Do my students have what I need to survive?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Last week, during the 'TEAM' teaching practice lessons, we had another opportunity to film ourselves teaching. For class, our assignment was to evaluate ourselves, using the same sheet and criteria utilized by the TEAM teachers (who were evaluating us).

The lesson I recorded was the continuation of a lesson I had taught the day before, one that asked the students to critically analyze Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop." The goal was to introduce students to persuasive language by having them encounter what is perhaps the best speech by a man who was the 20th century's best persuasive speaker. The speech is surrounded by an additional shroud of drama and nostalgia considering that King was assassinated the day after giving it. Those of you who know the last paragraph realize how poignantly eerie the speech is, particularly when viewing a video recording of King delivering it.

It's too bad my lesson could not live up to the reading material I had chosen. Though the teacher who witnessed and graded my lesson that day seemed to enjoy it, I had major issues with it after watching the video recording. My delivery is still weak, my lecture time still punctuated with various "um"s, "ah"s, and pregnant pauses. Overall, my oral presentation is so awful because you can see from miles off how under-prepared, nervous, and unconfident I am.

Though all the required parts of the lesson were present - bellwork, set, formal and informal assessments, and closure - I feel as if the lesson did not truly deliver any information. My assessments did not assess what the lesson was supposedly teaching, and though disparate portions of the lesson were related in my own mind, I am sure my students would have had difficulty making connections on their own. The students were not nearly as involved as I had hoped they'd be when lesson planning, and I fear that I have fallen into the trap of designing lesson plans that are, as Ben Guest says, "teacher-centered" instead of "student-centered." The problem is, with English, I don't know how to escape from this trap. Having students work on their own is all fine and good, but I fear that their skill are so weak that they will not be learning anything unless I am beating it into their heads. And there's the rub.

In short: I felt like the students weren’t learning anything, which is a consistent problem with how I view my lessons. Regardless of how much time I spend lesson planning, regardless of how interested my students are or seem, I still fear that they are not learning enough, or anything. Maybe - at least, I hope - this is just my lack of understanding of my students. Maybe I expect to see something, some spark of understanding, that only happens in movies and dreams. There is a huge difference between having students interested and having students learning. Though I can accomplish the former, I fear that I will never achieve the latter.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Somebody from my class quit Teacher Corps earlier this week. It would be very easy to sit here and bash that person, but it would also be a waste of time. Not really much that can be done now but hope that the district can fill her position before school begins in two (!) weeks.

Perhaps it took a bevy of courage to leave the program, perhaps it would have taken more courage to stay. I don't know. I can't tell you what this girl was thinking. I do know that the people I most respect stick things out when they hit a rough patch. Best advice I ever received: "The true mark of a man is how he reacts when everything around him is falling apart." Then again, I know from experience that those helping others must always be mindful of their own feelings and desires; if they don't fully believe in the task at hand they will not perform as well as they should or could. This fact certainly holds in regards to those people working with children; a kid can see through your bullsh*t quicker than anyone.

As for the person who left, I can't say I knew her well, or really at all. She did not seem to make a concerted effort to integrate herself into the Teacher Corps Class of 2006. There was a certain social awkwardness displayed by this young woman from day one. I think you could make an argument that this occurrence is good evidence pointing toward the need for interviews in the selection process, but perhaps such a connection would be an example of me seizing on a singular situation that proves my point. Regardless, I hope all works out well for her, but mostly I hope the kids whom she was scheduled to teach this year are assigned a teacher that will excite them, inspire them, challenge them, and do a better job than this young woman would have.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Over the course of summer school we were supposed to videotape ourselves teaching and then react to what we saw. I thought it was a pretty solid idea, given that perception and reality are two completely different things when it comes to public speaking.

I decided to videotape my first of three 50-minute lessons on Wednesday. I had conceptualized my day as "the essay as a museum," and used an extended metaphor about the planning and building of an art museum to get across the main points of "building" an essay: outlining as the blueprint, museum patrons as your audience, etc. The first period - the one I videotaped - was all about the planning/blueprint of an essay, and we spent all 50 minutes designing an outline to answer the following question:

"A group of local parents has become concerned over the content of your class after they learned Mr. E. had assigned “The Tell-Tale Heart” for reading. The school board will meet tomorrow night to decide whether or not “The Tell-Tale Heart” should be banned from local schools. You have been asked to make a presentation at that meeting so that the members of the school board can hear a student opinion. What do you tell them?

"Please outline and write a well-developed essay that makes a strong, clear, and well-supported persuasive argument either for or against banning the short story from school. The essay should be in the traditional five-paragraph format: An introductory paragraph with a good topic sentence, three body paragraphs giving evidence and support for your argument, and a closing paragraph that provides a good review of your argument."

Given that we had read "The Tell-Tale Heart" a week earlier, I thought the lesson topic tied prior knowledge together with a somewhat new approach (most of these kids had never encountered the 5-paragraph essay before this summer school).

To be honest, I thought my lesson plan for that day was the best I had developed the entire summer, and looked forward to viewing the film of myself teaching it. I immediately noticed that I continue to stumble over numerous words, use horrible grammar at points, and commonly make some words run into each other. This, more than anything, is what I must work on. Every time I pause to say "umm...", to think of a good example, or to plan my next move, my students have the opportunity to do thinking of their own, which is commonly along the lines of, "what should I do Friday night?" instead of, "is the 'Tell-Tale Heart' really that violent?"

Moreover, I am not as exciting as I thought I would be. I constantly try to alter my voice, sing, dance, and yell to keep my students involved. Perhaps that lesson did not lend itself to such theatrics, but I found that I bored myself. After a month of teaching high school I realize this: if I had to go back to high school and be a student again, I'd go insane. Paul Simon had it right: "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all..." (Kodachrome is a great song, but I think I'd take the Boxer over it any day. My Dad used "I Am A Rock" to teach metaphor when he was teaching high school English. I think I might have to try that, though my students would probably think I was alive when the song was penned.). Speaking of high school: even my extremely limited experience teaching high school has shown me bunches about my own high school teachers. Ms. Moynihan (sophomore and senior year English) was excellent. A little quiet and not as demanding as I would have liked, but really a great teacher. I remember a ton from her two classes, and I actually read the books we were assigned. On the flip side, I was right about Mr. Welch, my junior year English teacher. He really was awful, just a terrible, terrible teacher who thought he was great. At least Mr. Cowie knew he was a poor excuse for a teacher and had no qualms about the fact that he had been phoning it in since 1973.

Anyway, why don't we get back to the original point? What I enjoyed about my teaching style was the fact that I tried to involve every student, made it a point to walk around the classroom and talk to all my students while they were completing their outlines. If you can get to a kid, look him or her in the eyes, and show them that you're willing to work through whatever problems they are having, they'll put their faith in you and actually learn something. In this sense, I will try to envision my class as a series of 1-on-1 interactions, not a 1-on-30 interaction. I thought I also did a pretty good job with classroom management; there was very little chatter and nobody fell asleep.

As far as my persona in the classroom and my ability to speak more clearly, I am not sure how to go about improving. However, I hope that an awareness of the problem will lead to an implicit improvement.

A few thoughts on a lazy Sunday morning, some of which are from a letter I just wrote to a pair of my professors from Brown...

Summer school ended on Friday. Though I am happy I will have a month's respite from getting up at 5:45 AM, I was sad to see the classes end. I felt as if I had only really began to understand my students over the last week of school; they were now comfortable joking around and being honest with me. They seemed to look forward to my lessons and trust that I would not put them to sleep. Though I thought it would be inappropriate for summer school and eventually decided against it, I did want to give my email address to a number of my students - TG, TM, TJ, HS, and CW especially - to keep up with them during the school year. Some of them are basketball players, so perhaps I can read the papers and keep up with them that way. On the last day of school I commented to TM that, although I enjoyed having him in class, I wanted to see him perform well enough so that he would not be in my summer school class next year. "Oh don't worry, Mr. E," he told me, "I'm gonna be in the League next year." I told him I'd send the Mavericks and Celtics scouts advance warning of a hot young prospect coming out of Holly Springs, Mississippi.

Aspects of Mississippi are growing on me, other aspects are beginning to really attack my nerves. The people of this state are very kind, very open, and very welcoming. My summer school students, in particular, were always smiling. Tomorrow evening there will be a 4th of July square dance in the center of town, with a traditional jug/string band. The area seems to have a certain down-home goodness that brings to mind the music of (Bruce Springsteen's recently released folk album) The Seeger Sessions.

That said, traditionalism has its price. Racial issues remain huge here, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that nobody seems willing to discuss them. A bright pink elephant that stands in every room in the South. Last night I was at a bar, and at closing time (11:45 PM on Saturday night, so that there is absolutely no serving of alcohol on Sunday, God forbid), the bar flashed the lights, rang a bell, and began to play “Dixie,” the nostalgic, slower version that plays during the end of Gone With the Wind. The crowd – 90% white – began to sing along, sway their arms, and perhaps dream of a better time when the other 10% of the bar’s patrons were picking cotton. More fascinating was the fact that “Dixie” immediately turned into “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a song commonly recognized as the North’s counterpoint to “Dixie” during the Civil War. Is there hope yet? Could reconciliation be in sight?!?!

Also maddening, on the topic of the Civil War, is the monument to the Confederate dead that stands in downtown Oxford. “To the Confederate dead,” it reads, “they died for a just and holy cause.” Hmmm, what was that cause again?

Across the entire South, many cars display small bumper stickers that sport a large white “W” atop a black field. Underneath that single letter are printed the words, “THE PRESIDENT.” I am not exactly sure what these bumper stickers are supposed to mean, but to me they seem to say, “George W. Bush is the President and, right or wrong, his decisions are law, so keep your opposition to yourself and respect his authority.” Maybe I am reading too much into this, but the bumper sticker seems to represent a certain mindless subservience and lack of critical reasoning that would allow an individual to support the current administration.

Sorry to inject politics into this discussion, but it is all part of the journey.