Archive for the ‘teaching’ Category


I’m kind of a cranky, short-tempered person, or at least spending a few days back at school as the year is starting to creak into motion is making me notice that I am.  Maybe it’s just that these days are unstructured compared to the regular school year, and I don’t react well to the degree of unpredictability and the discovery of issues I didn’t know were issues.  I mean, on the surface I am polite, although sharp at times–measuring as a J on the Myers Briggs, I find my tension rises when people depart from a previously-agreed-on plan, particularly when they behave as though they don’t remember the original plan, or even that there was one!  So an event that turns out to be quite a good thing, really–a ThinkPad for me to use at my desk and also take home and use as a tablet if I want–is a series of small shocks.  (We agreed I was going to keep my old desktop. I particularly wanted to keep my nice large monitor. I didn’t realize that they were going to force me to run Windows 8–and why do they always make these big changes right before school begins?)  

In the end, it all works out fine.  The IT people are good, hardworking types, and we are so lucky to have access to resources like new hardware and software. All of these changes are essentially very good ones: I don’t need the old computer, they let me keep the large monitor–in fact, they are insisting on giving me a better one with sharper resolution–and Windows 8 is what people are running.  But those lovely people in IT are not good communicators, especially since the most communicative person in IT left this summer, and Tuesday was a comical sequence in which I kept leaving my desk, coming back and finding yet another change I didn’t know was happening (including being locked out of my machine twenty minutes before the kids in the college essay workshop showed up).  I’d also be willing to trade some of the great equipment for an actual instructional technology specialist, someone who has actually been, or is, a classroom teacher. 

Meanwhile, the college essay workshops are some of my favorite teaching experiences.  It’s fun to coach the kids without the pressure, on both sides, of grading, and to help them find topics and approaches that they feel passionate about.  I have 15 seniors, and I’ve taught everyone for at least one quarter except for a girl who was in my homeroom when I still had one, so I haven’t taught her but I’ve seen her at 7 A.M. five days a week after morning swim practice. Some amazing stories have come up so far, and as always when the kids write about their lives outside of the classroom, I’ve learned a lot–about quantum physics, cheerleading, kirtanadoption, the biomechanics of the knee.  I have to encourage them to tell us about the thing itself, not primarily about their emotional reactions to it (“I love it so much!”).  They never seem to believe in the power of detail in their own work–in other people’s work, sure, but not their own.  I told the girl who is writing about quantum physics that she should think about how she would explain the work she is doing to her grandma, and she said, “Actually, my grandma studied physics in college.”  I apologized for making an ageist/sexist remark, and she said, “It’s okay, I’ll just think about how I would explain it to my other grandma.”

Future shock

I’ve used this title a few times, the first of which is here–fun for me to see how much my life has changed!  This was just a few months before I started teaching at Starfleet Academy.  Anyway, I’m going to use it again.  (What are you going to do about it?)

I spent two and a half hours at SA on Saturday while the Snork Maiden did tech for the spring musical, just getting myself in order for the beginning of the week.  I actually still have some prep to do, but I am probably calmer than I would have been otherwise.  I think I’ve mentioned before that I have a friend who teaches at a school which schedules professional days for the faculty on what would otherwise have been the first day back from break–so the faculty return on Monday and the kids on Tuesday.  I still think this is genius and that I should bring it up to the calendar committee.  I dream that if we could split the day between some kind of organized professional activity and time in our classrooms to prepare for going back, we could go back in the perfect, serene state of mind.

As it is, we have to find our own ways of confronting the fact that when we go back, there are only SEVEN WEEKS left in the school year.  I know that on the quarter system, seven weeks is still most of the quarter, and on the semester system, it’s almost half the quarter–but in high school, when you’ve had most students all year long, it feels like very little indeed.  (If you’re a teacher, that is–probably to some of the students it seems like an eternity.)  And we know from experience that these seven weeks go crazy fast.  Teaching juniors and seniors, I know that two weeks will be riddled with AP tests and students disappearing from class for morning and afternoon exams.  Two or three days will also involve no seniors on campus–oh my gosh, I just realized right this minute that Friday is one of them and that my assignment sheet does not reflect this.  (Sigh.  Groan.  Secret thrill of delight.)  And after the AP test, I don’t know what on earth I will see from the seniors.

Speaking of whom, I guess they’ve all heard from colleges now (the last decisions came in over break).  I do hope that the ones I wrote for will come and tell me how it all turned out.  And there’s yet another reason why seniors will be missing from time to time: college visits, so that they can make their decisions by the national reply date of May 1.

And finally, a delicious task for me: summer planning.  Did I tell you I didn’t get the Thing again this year?  Never mind, I am kind of relieved.  I would have liked the validation but actually doing it would have been a bit of a pain, and it would have involved being away for a big chunk of the summer and I started feeling a little uneasy about that idea when the Mr. Tea situation happened.  So: no Thing.  But other things!

Breathing lessons

I used this title years ago, in very different circumstances, but I think it’s okay to use it again now.

The very best thing in my immediate orbit right now is that Stubb (in conjunction with my mom’s friend Ned) has finished all the major changes he was working on in the Snork Maiden’s room: paint on the walls, carpet up, flooring down, new bed assembled.  So all the belongings that have been stacked in the living room/library area are starting to migrate back into her room.  It will take a few days before that’s all done, of course, but it will feel good to have that finished.

The very worst thing is still Mr. Tea being sick.

A very, very, very distant second to that is that I didn’t get the summer Thing this year, either.  To be honest, I’m feeling rotten about that just now, but I will absorb that disappointment soon enough.  Here are two other true things: One is that I am also a little relieved that I don’t have to go and do it.  The other is that what is making me feel bad, then, is not that I don’t get to do and do the Thing, but that I fear that I will never again get anything as good as some of the other Things I’ve gotten in the past–fellowships, awards, that sort of thing.  Which is, let’s face it, not a reasonable or useful fear.  It could happen, but after all, the point is to have time to write, and to write the things I want to write.  And the summer can be good for that.  This will be my first summer with truly nothing–no teaching, no NLNRU advising.

I am also feeling pretty overwhelmed by school right now.  If you could listen in on my brain it would sound kind of like this: Teaching prepping grading next year’s staffing book orders literary magazine teaching prepping grading coverage emails next year’s books meeting email meeting grading staffing coverage.  (“Coverage” is Dr. Tea’s coverage, which is being provided by me and two other teachers–so I’m back to five classes.)

But: also, three days from now, spring break.  For two weeks.  And if I can get a good night’s sleep tonight, tomorrow will be that much easier to manage.


Just a quick hello.  Although I’m only teaching three classes right now, the administrative load has suddenly increased.  Hiring, the whole process of approving students for honors or AP classes, and various other issues for next year have all become daily realities.  I guest-taught one of Romola’s classes today, and I’m working with a student who is planning to attend university in the UK next year and wants to fill in some gaps in her knowledge of British and Irish poets.

But I’m loving teaching Crime and Punishment for the first time, especially being able to talk with Dr. Tea about it, but also just working with the AP students, who seem to be getting really into it.  I am calling them by their first names and patronymics, just to make it all a little more Russian.  I say things like “Here is your quiz, Emily Stefanovna” and “Please take your seat, Marcus Marcusovich.”  Hee.

Seriously, though, what a novel!  This is about the only level at which I could ever manage to teach it, but I’m also pleased with the way the discussions are unfolding, and with the students’ willingness to tangle with big and meaningful questions.  I’ve heard my colleagues complain about the flakiness and regression of seniors, but I am also struck by how open they are, at this stage of their lives, to certain books–C&P definitely being one of them.

Senior moments

So what is going on with seniors, anyway?

This year is another first for me (though these are getting increasingly rare as I approach the six-year mark): I’m teaching about 15 students for the second year in a row, from junior to senior year.  Some of them are students from last year’s AP Lang who are now taking AP Lit with me; others were in my regular second-semester junior American literature class last year, and are now in the first-semester senior world literature class with me.

In general, I would say that these are the major differences that I can observe:

  • They are older (duh, but a year makes a big difference when you’re still growing)
  • They are more experienced (we have to assume that some of these kids have had some major life experiences in the past twelve months, including but not limited to family crises, travel, important successes, important failures, and maybe big changes in friendships or romantic and sexual relationships.  The average age of first sexual intercourse in the U.S. is around 17 for both females and males, so I’m going to assume that some of our kids are–well, average.  And minor life experiences matter, too–a fenderbender, a summer job, a crush).
  • They are less anxious about doing everything well at school, in part because junior year is behind them (junior year being, supposedly, the big year for college admissions).
  • They are more anxious about college applications (again, duh).
  • Their behavior is looser.  The AP students come in ready to party–engaged, but sillier and chattier than last year.  One group of regular students is chatty, the other is somewhat inclined to be disengaged.
  • In AP, they are way, way less concerned about the AP test.

And these are the things that people (other teachers, college counselors, kids themselves) have told me:

  • They are getting a fantastic amount of pressure at home about the college process.  Their parents nag them about their applications.  Lots of conflicted feelings about leaving home.  Every adult they meet asks them where they want to go to college and/or what they want to do with their lives, and most of those adults are not shy about expressing their opinions about their responses.
  • They feel (and, to a large extent, they are correct) that grades don’t really matter any more.  They don’t want to start flunking everything, but kids who used to care about getting A’s now sometimes slack, get B’s, and shrug.  I’m not absolutely sure this is happening from B’s to C’s yet; the shrugging, that is–they are certainly getting some C’s.
  • They are going to stop doing most of their work in the second semester, once the first-semester grades are in the bag for college apps (say other teachers).  They are far more focused on their friendships and social lives (or so I’ve read).

So, how do these observations and this reportage affect–how should they affect–how I teach seniors, now and in the future?  I should add that I just read a thread on Facebook (on the page of an recent grad who had invited me to look at some of his college photos) in which a current student, probably one of the top three  in the senior class, commented that he’s coming to the realization that “nothing I do at Starfleet Academy matters anymore, I’m hardly learning anything (except in physics), and grades in particular don’t even matter now.”  I found this a little bit hurtful–and thankfully, he is not currently my student, though he is someone I’ve taught in the past, and a kid I have a nice rapport with.  He’ll probably be the valedictorian of his class, as long as he doesn’t really give up on earning the grades (which I doubt he will).

But aside from feeling stung and defensive, I also found his comment rather thought-provoking.  On the one hand, it is appropriate that the seniors outgrow us and go on to other challenges!  On the other, what a dismal thought that the last six months of high school don’t matter!  I might be reacting too much out of defensiveness–and of course a seventeen-year-old kid, even a very smart one, is not the best judge of what he is or isn’t learning–but I feel challenged to think about what I can do so that my students will perceive that they are learning something and feel that their time in my class is meaningful.

A lot of independent high schools have rethought the senior year experience, and do projects and internships and that sort of thing in the second semester of senior year.  We don’t have a schoolwide program for that, but we do have some students who propose and carry through independent projects for credit, usually culminating in a performance or presentation of research, something like that.  They have to show a fair bit of initiative, writing a proposal, assembling a committee, and so forth.

Then, too, in courses that are primarily for seniors, most teachers have developed projects for the second semester.  I’m thinking, though, about the day-to-day–about what we can do in the classroom that will feel different, relevant to their needs, engaging and challenging.  We already talk about how we try to shape our students’ lifelong communication skills, reading experiences, and relationship to language and literature.  And we try to think about what the experiences they’re having with us will mean to them five, ten, twenty years from now.  I guess now what I’m wondering is–how do I approach those questions now that I am teaching students who are already beginning to make the transition away from high school?

I am reading Michael Riera’s book Uncommon Sense for Parents with Teenagers, and one passage that has struck me is the one where he says that children think concretely, so they can answer the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” by selecting among a series of concrete possibilities: nurse, fireman, paleontologist.  Adolescents can think abstractly, so they are more engaged by the question “What kind of person do you want to be when you grow up?”

“What kind of reader do you want to be when you grow up?” is also not such a bad question for senior English students.  In AP, we do a certain amount of reviewing the books that they’ve read throughout high school, and I’m wondering whether an independent choice might work well in the second semester–a book they choose themselves, with consideration of what works have been most meaningful to them in the past, and read and journal about and read a little criticism of and come to possess on their own.

Anyway, I’m thinking about this stuff right now, and not a moment too soon, I’m sure.  The Christmas music is already on the damned radio.

The coast of utopia

Gamma is back!  And I am renaming her Lucinda.  The beginning of this week was so busy that I barely noticed I had dropped two classes, but it’s definitely starting to sink in now.  I feel as though I’m almost caught up on many things.

So, of course, it seems like a great time to do NaNoWriMo.

Seriously.  I’ve never really been tempted before, but what really attracts me this time is the immersion of it–the way I’ll be thinking about my novel-draft-in-progress all the time.  This is something I find very hard to sustain with poems during the school year, but the enormous expectation of 1667 words per day will keep my attention.

I don’t even WANT to write a novel.  What I want is to be thinking about writing all the time.

And I want to wrench a big chunk of my time back from a) work, and b) surfing the Internet.  I do a lot of reading on the Internet at night–fun things and long things like Paris Review interviews and features from the archives of The New Yorker–but an awful lot of time disappears down that rabbit hole.  I think I can afford the time it will take to write a messy novel draft.

Frankly, I’d also like to read a messy novel draft written by me.  Who knows what story I might have to tell!

I kind of know what the story is, actually.  No outline; I’m just floundering forward.  The thing is to keep floundering.

Clock without hands

Today was a day of sucking less (hat tip to What Now?), but only a little bit less.  Today what I noticed was that my time management has gone all to hell–I’d look up at the clock and think, “Damn, I only have five minutes left,” and it wasn’t exactly that discussion had been so enthralling that we lost track of time–no, it was like I kept forgetting that I only had 90 minutes or 50 minutes or whatever for a class.

But in the name of sucking less, I worked on another recommendation so that it will take fifteen minutes or so to polish that one off during PSAT Day—I might even finish it before the PSAT starts and I have to vacate the room so that Orsino and one of the art teachers can proctor there.  I’ll probably grade papers during the exam itself, then come back when it’s over to work on college recs.  My goal for the day is seven recs, only because one of the college counselors estimated that she could probably write six in that amount of time, and I figure I should be able to beat that.  It’s good to have a goal, anyway.

Pictures* from an institution

In addition to four classes of my own yesterday, I covered one of Viola’s** and taught “The Miller’s Tale”–which required a very brief recap of “The Knight’s Tale”:knights tale*Hat tip to Bardiac, doyenne of doodles related to class.

**Pseudonym for the teacher who has come back p/t after leaving to have a baby.

Light a penny candle

My failure to replace Google Reader with another kind of reader has meant that sometimes I forget to keep up with a blog I enjoy.  I was catching up with Undine at Not of General Interest and followed her link to the Chronicle article “It’s the Little Things That Count.”  This article was interesting to read as a former college instructor turned high-school teacher because some of the suggestions are about making college instructors more like high-school teachers, particularly the ones about exercising some control over the class environment and getting there early to greet students or staying late to chat afterwards.  (Undine’s objection that college classroom thermostats appear “purely decorative” certainly jibes with my own experience at several different institutions.) There were a certain number of “well, duh” items (act focused and enthusiastic even if you don’t feel that way?  How can I expect them to act focused and enthusiastic if I can’t be bothered even to fake it?), but I loved the image of this passage:

Entering the classroom is sometimes like entering a dark room with a lit candle. At first the room appears very dark and you cannot see much. But gradually the shadowy room fills with candlelight and objects become increasingly visible and identifiable. When you enter the classroom or start a new activity, give students a chance to warm up. Let the candlelight do its job.

One of my more hippie-ish SA colleagues had a practice of a moment of silent centering before class.  It was very effective for her.  I don’t do it all the time, but sometimes I do take the temperature of the room and have my students take a minute to take a few deep breaths and refocus on what’s in front of us.  Or, as I have mentioned, sometimes I will give them a couple of minutes to finish up conversations.

It occurs to me that I don’t always end as thoughtfully as I begin.  Sometimes I end a couple of minutes early, sometimes in a rush, and I have a terrible habit of forgetting to hand back graded assignments–a real annoyance when I have worked hard to finish grading so that I can hand them back!  It’s usually effective, though, to reflect on what we’ve done, to think about what comes next, and (of course) to remind them about the homework.  I know that as class ends, they’re thinking about what comes next–maybe I could occasionally try ending a minute early and giving them a minute to center themselves then?  Something to think about.

What I taught yesterday


Image: New Directions.

In high school, there are days when we aren’t all talking about a literary text that we’re all reading together.  We might be working on a paper, or grammar/vocabulary (though I rarely do those things in isolation), or writing on something other than a literary text.

But Thursday I taught:

Heaney’s poem “The Skunk” (in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, AP Lit)

Wide Sargasso Sea (also AP Lit–we had a double period)

The Scarlet Letter (in AP Lang)

Gu Cheng’s “Poetry Lessons” (in World Lit).  This is a series of five short, poetic prose pieces on the “lessons” he learned about poetry from nature and from reading.  I don’t have the book here ( Chinese Writers on Writingfrom Trinity UP) or I would quote my favorite, in which he describes how a hermit crab taught him to love language that moves in an original way–the shell unexpectedly moving among the shellscape of the beach.  Today I had them spend the last 15-20 minutes of class composing a “Poetry Lesson” of their own, in imitation of Gu.

Gu has become one of my favorite poets to teach in translation.  We read his poems in the Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, and we also retranslate, as a class, his poem “A Generation.”  The kids like his work, and they are mesmerized by the tragic story of his life, and by the odd detail of the tall hats he is wearing in many of the available photos, made out of the leg of a pair of pants.  My colleague who teaches Chinese talked to the students last week about her own experiences of being sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, as Gu was.  

It was a good day.