Wednesday, May 31, 2006

School Memories: Unbecoming Parent Comments

This memory harkens back to student teaching, right as the first semester was ending for my freshmen and I was entering the scene. Grades had been earned by students and delivered home.

Perhaps I should alert you to the fact that this district I was in was very affluent; students spent spring break in Europe and in their second homes in the mountains. Parents were powerful, and they were quite involved in their children's education.

One particular parent had a bright daughter. This parent was a teacher in a neighboring district; if my memory serves me right, she was also an English teacher. Her daughter had received A's in all classes...except for English, where she received a B+. What a scandal. The mother had at least two meetings with my cooperating teacher about this, as well as a phone call. After all, it had to be discovered how this girl could have faltered and just let herself go. What depths she had fallen! In the words of her mother, words that prefaced the initial meeting, "How can we remove this blemish from my daughter's grade report?"

Being a perfectionist, I grew up with putting too much stock in my school performance. It took until college for me to fully recognize that my self-worth was not determined by my grade point. This epiphany came when I was faced with the possibility of receiving my first B ever. Never fear--I managed to get through that trying time, and my B didn't come until a later class. Although I put pressure on myself, it wasn't because my parents demanded it of me. In actuality, my parents just expected me to do my best, whatever that would be. Many times they made no mention of my grades when they came out.

So as I entered the teaching profession, I gained a larger perspective. Now I was in my own classroom, seeing firsthand students' efforts and their resulting grades. Some students do the minimum necessary to still get an A, whereas others do all the assignments and devote extensive time to each task, but with all their efforts, they will just skate by with a C. I was reminded anew that a C was average, not something demanding apologies and crestfallen looks. My feelings towards my students were not based on their grades in my class (although I still believe they should make an effort, whatever grade that results in).

With the evolution of my perspective, I was taken aback with this fellow teacher's comment. A B+ as a blemish?! Why start showing your daughter that even though she tried her hardest and turned in all assignments on time, but happened to fall short of an A, that you don't think it was good enough? What pressure that girl was facing. I don't envy living in that home when grades came or when big projects were due. What unnecessary pressure to pile on her, when students find enough ways to become stressed and overwhelmed. I'm not surprised to sense these expectations from parents, but I rarely encounter them from parents who are also teachers.

Needless to say, the B+ remained.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

School Memories: Paranoia in its Many Forms

I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Sometimes, if I am short on sleep, my active imagination takes over. Before I share with you the school stories, first I must set the stage.

Imagine one Sunday night last year. Eric and I are returning home from being with friends, and Eric, ever the gentleman, states he's going to stop at the gas station and fill my car with gas so I don't have to the next morning. He also wants to run inside for a gallon of milk instead of paying at the pump. Here I am in our car at 10:30 PM, people-watching from my location since I have a perfect vantage point of the whole gas station. Suddenly, I see a car haphazardly brake in front of the door, two young men jump out, leaving their car running, and rush to the counter. This is playing on all my associations of robberies and all the surveillance videos shown on television, so I quickly begin fearing for my husband's life. I begin committing their license plate to memory, perhaps even reaching for my cell phone. Fortunately, I was proven wrong. These men were both apparently just desperate for a nicotine fix. They'll never know how I almost called the authorities for an attempted robbery.

Fast forward to the next morning. Soon after entering my high-school classroom, I suddenly hear quick movement. I look back to the source of the sound, where I see the leaves of my peace lily plant mysteriously waving in the still air. Crouched behind the leaves, hidden behind the pot, I see a dark, furry creature. I'm on the opposite side of the room and I'm cautiously trying to get a glimpse of said animal. Is it a skunk? Perhaps a cat? I do wonder, How did it ever get inside my room? Sure, it's an older building, but there are no obvious holes to the outside. I'm mentally planning my morning: there's plenty of time to find a custodian and somehow evict this squatter before my students will be arriving for class. I want to have a clear description to paint for the custodian so we know what we're dealing with, so I try to approach the animal without spooking it before locking it again in my room. As I near, I see it clearly. There it was...a mask. Yes, a mask from our Romeo and Juliet unit that had fallen off of my bulletin board, immediately above my peace lily. It was covered in black feathers, and its fall, so perfectly timed with my entrance into the room, had given it bestial characteristics.

This year is not without its episodes. I'll leave you in ignorance for now of my most recent embarrassment. This one actually became known to others because of my own paranoia. The setting: Cub Foods. The event: paying with a credit card. Perhaps it will all be made known at a later time. I can only reveal so many examples at a time, as you can't expect me to incriminate myself all at once.
For now, you must be satisfied with another school episode.

Now we're in my middle-school room. In my room, in addition to my computer, I have a bank of four Macs against a wall. Each Thursday night, they are turned on and some updating is done. One Friday morning, I unlock my door and flip on my lights. I am presented with an unsettling noise. There I am, all alone early in the morning, hearing a ticking sound coming from the row of computers. I again tried to reason with my overactive mind, explaining how middle-school students have little reason to plant a bomb in my room. After all, they don't have access to the building after hours, no one has tampered with my door, and who has the wherewithal to collect all the pieces to make a working bomb? Yet I still can't shake why I'm hearing this ticking sound. I slowly inch towards the computer I suspect to be the culprit. The ticking increases in volume. I carefully lower myself and glance underneath the computer. I doubted I would see a small box with a timer fitted to it, conveniently visible, but I had to appease my raging thoughts. Okay, fine. Nothing to be seen. No new stash of wires. Now that I was convinced no hooded seventh graders had entered my room and planted a bomb in retaliation for having to learn the parts of speech, I could approach the keyboard full of confidence. I jostled the mouse and examined the screen. All I saw was a file folder icon with a question mark on top of it. Not very informative. I forced it to shut down and then restarted. Still, the ticking, still the uninformative question mark. Later I learned it was a fried hard drive. You'd think they could find a more appropriate sound than a ticking.
Foiled again.

So our final score is Excessive imagination, 0. Reasonable explanations, 3. Maybe one of these days I'll finally learn my lesson. But then I'd be stuck with mediocre conversations with myself.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Ode to Charity

My youngest sister Charity has just graduated high school, so Eric and I ventured down to Iowa for the weekend to partake in the festivities. After much last-minute preparation, including yours truly painting a porch on Saturday, we were able to eke out a pleasant open house. A last-minute idea was truly brilliant: in our den, we had two Dance Dance Revolution mats hooked up, causing several students to declare Charity's open house the best yet. And one frequenter (pegged as a teacher by my perceptive grandmother) rushed into our kitchen to thank us for the offered food. In her words, she was going to lose it if she saw any more food on buns. Charity opted to serve cucumber sandwiches, cheesecake, fruit pizza, and many other delectable treats.

Charity, by the way, is amazingly talented at whatever she touches. She is skilled at playing the saxophone and is picking up piano and guitar, she creates awe-inspiring paintings and sculptures, and she is adept at conveying thoughts in prose and especially poetry. In fact, as an Honor's project her senior year she composed a poetry book and gave friends and family copies of the finished product. I'm still early in my reading of it, but here is one of my favorites so far:

Ode to the Alphabet
Oh, Alphabet,
sung by little children who do not understand your purpose.
Yet they sing you--a collection of silly sound as small words:
the nonsensical chant of the nation,
one of the most sung songs of every English speaker.

Yet you receive no praise,
but are rather used to test the level of drunkenness
with the same song of children.
So, the drunk sings of you but distorts,
distorts the truest, most trusting song.
You are shamed.
Appalled by his forgetfulness.

Like an absentminded lover,
he has forgotten you.
You, his first and truest love and
yet he knows not how to sing your song,
Our song.
--Charity S.

She's great at playing with words, as seen in this second example:

Dating Pettiness
Pettiness crept into my heart and
I welcomed him. We sat down for
a chat as I flavored my tea with
tears and drank in remorse. He
was a very obliging listener,
nodding and falsely verifying my
worries. The longer I indulged
Pettiness with cakes of doubt and
unfounded pastries, the more at
home he felt. His visits became
more frequent and Pettiness and I
became an item. I began reserving
seats for him and together we
regularly dined, feeding on
concerns and superficial desserts.
We made quite the pair, but my
ever-so-soft-spoken conscience
encouraged the break-up. In
typical manner I delayed the
separation and watched our teas
grow into coffees, now more
bitter than bittersweet. But the
day finally came and I let go of
Pettiness and caught Regret on
the Rebound.
--Charity S.
Gosh, my sister's cool. I suppose it doesn't hurt her case that she mentioned me in her dedication, but I digress. I know several of my siblings and my mother have possessed the knack for writing poetry, but I find myself more inclined to be overly wordy in narratives. Perhaps I'll be more deliberate one of these days and dabble in poetry.

To acknowledge her graduation, I was domestic and made my first ever quilt, as seen here. I admit, I'm fairly pleased with myself. Good thing she's family, or it would be hard to part with my creation.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

School Memories: The Ogre English Teacher

As the school year comes to a close--only eight more days remaining--and I am about to end my time in this Minnesota district, I'm becoming reflective. I have so many memories from my time, many of them heretofore unmentioned. It is easy, as the students become antsy with the countdown and beautiful weather, to wish these days away. I've decided to be deliberate and focus on some of the defining moments of my past two years. Perhaps this will make me more patient and forgiving during these trying times!

I love the relationship I have had with my students. When students have mock-grumbled about a minor issue and jokingly called me on it, I retort with humor, often referring to myself as the Ogre English Teacher. It's pretty easy to assign homework or give tests when you're the Ogre English Teacher. This title can be altered for your own use, if desired. For instance, you can be the Ogre Computer Programmer, or the Ogre Patent Lawyer. Even the Ogre Art Curator could work.

One day in class, a middle-school student entered my room asking, "Are we doing anything fun today?" I countered with, "No, absolutely not. In fact, we're not ever allowed to do anything fun in English. It's part of the hiring process, to find the dullest candidate so they can beat out any love you formerly had for the subject. The moment I would ever attempt to do anything fun with you, men in trench coats, shades, and microphones in their sleeves will storm in here and haul me away. I can't take that chance." Another student, not understanding the banter that was going on, looked at me with his upturned face and puppy-dog eyes, "But Mrs. H, they haven't taken you away yet, and we've done TONS of fun things!" Needless to say, the original student was not amused by this show of devotion!

Sentimental Partings

Tonight was our last official meeting of our small group. Eric and I were so fortunate to get right into a group of couples from our church soon after moving to the Cities, and while there have been a couple changes in the make-up over this time, we have bonded closely with the other four couples. But this is the summer of transition. We're heading to Indiana, and one other couple is leaving as well, heading overseas. While my head is aware we're closing a chapter, I don't think it was real to me until sitting together tonight with the others in what may be the last time as a complete unit.

We closed our time together tonight with an exercise where we went around and shared memories and thoughts about each individual in the group. I'm a words-of-affirmation kind of girl, so it was such a meaningful and memorable close to our time. I loved sharing with the others what I appreciated most about them and nodded my head so many times as someone articulated exactly what I was thinking about another. Of course, when the focus was in my direction, there's the bit of me that wants to doubt all that was said about me, but I do take these comments to heart.

I recognize I've been so blessed in my life with relationships. Sure, times have been busy during the last two years, but I have always regretted when I had to periodically miss our small group times because of attending school conferences in the fall and spring or traipsing around Boulder, Colorado, for three weeks last summer. Small-group times are refreshing and encouraging and spur me on until the next time we meet. This group has been one that has seen us through our transitional time, and as Eric stated, without them, we likely would have left the Cities with no regrets. As it is, even though we anticipate the future, it aches to leave these beloved friends.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Wherein I Encounter a Misprint and an Incivility

One of my students was going to be gone much of this week, so he completed work in his absence. He turned in a news article that began as follows: "May 17, 2005, a day that will live in infancy." At least he's paying some attention in his social studies class.

On a more sour note, I had a phone conversation with a parent today. Her son has been struggling in my class all year and had been a discipline problem. The issue is motivation, not lack of competence. At fall conferences, she admitted that every year they have struggled with their son not wanting to do work in school and frequently being disrespectful and behaviorally disruptive in classes. So, "As a teacher, what are YOU going to do about this?" I didn't know how to tell her that the issue seemed to be more systemic then I could solve; it began at home years ago and couldn't be solved in a school setting. She had been bailing him out, finding excuses: inept teachers, a school system that was victimizing her son. But today, as we talked, she ended with this quip: "I think the main reason my son has struggled in your class is because of personality differences. And after this conversation, I think I know why." With that, she ruined my lunchtime. By sixth hour, I had healed, though. I was reminded what I meant to my students through a couple of spontaneous comments and that this was just one disgruntled parent. I had been professional and understanding on the phone, apparently to no avail. Throughout my two years in the district, I have received praise and support from many parents, and yet I allowed the dissatisfied parent in that time to make me doubt myself. It is so true that a harsh word needs many positive affirmations to counter it.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Poetry and Potatoes

While teaching poetry to my students, I've learned how preferences evolve over the years. My feeling towards poetry wasn't quite apathetic in college, but I struggled finding poets I enjoyed. Then I discovered Billy Collins and Ted Kooser, coincidentally the previous and the current poet laureate. They brought a newness to the genre, spanning from thoughtful to the tongue-in-cheek. I loved how they manipulated language and brought their sense of humor through to the reader.

While teaching poetry the last two years, I've tried to have a mix of older and newer pieces. The older ones are traditionally more structured and rhymed, while the newer ones were delightful in their word pictures. As students read the mixture, the majority were drawn to the ones with predictable rhyme and structure. I'm trying to recall when I made that switch. However, when students had opportunity to look through some anthologies and select poems they enjoyed, one kindred spirit found a "Mashed Potato Love Poem" that tickled my humor. As Eric and I indulged in sampling a new restaurant tonight, it was brought to mind. Eric had a spectacular baked potato, so this is only appropriate. While he knows my love for all things spud, he's confident I wouldn't go this far.

Mashed Potato Love Poem
-Sidney Hoddes
If I ever had to choose between you
and a third helping of mashed potato,
(whipped lightly with a fork
not whisked,
and a little pool of butter
melting in the middle...)

I think
I'd choose
the mashed potato.
But I'd choose you next.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Overheard on National Public Radio

In response to the controversial nomination of Air Force General Michael Hayden to the post of CIA chief, one individual was quoted as saying, "What we have are military people who don't have a human background." So, what exactly are they? Androids? No wonder they're having trouble recruiting.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Poetry Poker

Writing poetry can be daunting for everyone. For some, like my youngest sister, it comes naturally, but for most, being told to write a poem on command can bring about delightful visions of acquiring a debilitating disease that will leave you without the use of your hands until the deadline passes.

As a teacher, I feel underqualified to teach on how to write poetry, but I enjoy reading it and feel that I must do a unit on how to write it; I don't want to create students who are frightened of it because of underexposure. I've read many journal articles on this subject and have discovered some great lessons that have been used successfully in my classroom.

There is one exercise I especially like to use as an introduction. It introduces students to poetry in a non-threatening way and is called Poetry Poker. The teacher prepares in advance by creating word cards and directions for play. I like to use actual playing cards with words or phrases typed on the card, as they're a nice size and offer more stability and durability than unlaminated paper. Plus, there's something great about getting to pull out a deck of cards in class (although I have blank decks on hand for those that are more interested in the "poker" part of the exercise!).

Students are dealt cards that they must then arrange in an enticing order to form a line of poetry, and they can add some additional words as necessary to help the flow. After a day or two of playing, students look at the lines they have created and they can do some rearranging or minor editing as necessary. Then students rewrite their poems and decorate them accordingly. We display them in the classroom, and students are drawn to the walls, reading what their peers have written.

It's great to see them get into the exercise. They enjoy the word play and you end up with some poetic lines. I've done this with ninth graders and seventh graders. The only difference I've seen is that my middle-schoolers sometimes encountered unfamiliar words. When this transpired, they were more likely to discard than use the available dictionaries. Nevertheless, I was delighted to read what students had as finished products. Here are two for now:

Then she felt that fond
Yet dreadful rage coming on
Again and suspected people
Would throw streamers
At her

My rage will smother
Me with a stale piece
Of cake over the
Telescopic cliffs of

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Not Everyone Should Teach

I was again asked to substitute during my prep today. Alas, no orchestra this time! Instead, I was to cover for a sixth-grade teacher who had a doctor's appointment.

Unfortunately, while I generally have a positive view of teachers, especially after seeing them first hand, I have noticed this particular woman does not contribute positively to the profession. She is frequently losing student assignments, claiming they were never done (as a side note, I wasn't surprised to recall this fact when I entered her room, as the papers were haphazardly piled in a basket, and it looked as if the basket contained worksheets from at least a week, precariously stacked). Of course, intelligent students learn to never throw returned work away so they can pull it out, proving they had done it. Sometimes, though, it isn't returned and is found, months later, in a vent in the classroom. Or, she'll announce, "Everyone gets a B on the assignment" because she has somehow misplaced the pile. Although she has a decade or two under her belt, she still seems confused and frazzled. Frankly, I'm surprised she received tenure.

I entered her room with reservations, not sure what to expect. It was a circus. She was trying to finish up sub plans for the next two periods and students were creating havoc all around. The bell rang, and nothing changed. I was shocked. While middle-school students are active, they should have the decency to take their seats and quiet when appropriate. I waited until she left the room, as this behavior seemed normal to her, and I firmly told students to find their assigned seats. What a transformation. They did as I asked, and I started the class. During the first ten minutes, while students worked, one came up to me and admitted, "We're better for substitutes than our regular teacher. She never even notices when we leave the room." How do I respond to this? I let it go. While I had not allowed disagreement when I quieted the class to begin, apparently I was still approachable; some wanted to know if they would have me as a teacher next year, claiming that I seemed nice and like a good teacher. They were saddened when I informed them I was actually moving; however, I thought it was premature for them to already have an attachment, so I couldn't take it too much to heart.

Here I was, making the kids behave appropriately, and they loved it. I overheard, "Wow, it's never been this quiet in this class before." I was disgusted that they spent all year in such an environment. Parents expect their students to learn, and this teacher was doing a disservice by letting them act as they were. Furthermore, what about next year's teachers? These students will enter their rooms, assuming they can continue acting the exact same way.

The moral from the day: Students like a measure of discipline. They may not want a fierce taskmaster, but neither do they want to be in control. They flourish when there are clear expectations and appropriate consequences.

This is not to say I'm the perfect instructor. I am a perfectionist, so I tend to be hard on myself, but I know I still have much to learn. Even though I've received glowing reviews, I still seem to think I have pulled the wool over everyone's eyes. But one of the greatest compliments I received from a paraprofessional this year was the following: "You're leaving?! I was going to request you for my child next year. I have learned so much by being in here this year! You are so great at what you do." I was floored. Here this woman was, seeing me day in and day out, on the good and less-than-good days, and she was so complimentary. That went much further than comments from an administrator who sees me for a handful of times throughout the year.
Especially since she has been in my class that has those who are not academically inclined. I have been pleased with the alterations that have taken place in that class as we have grown to understand each other and what needs to be done to succeed. They are not the same class they were in September (although I still see remnants from time to time!).

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

More Writing Samples

I had to share some more aptly written passages from my students. Here are some more amusing dedications.

From a well-read student:

"I dedicate this to the tourists in pity.

'Why do they call it tourist season if we can't shoot 'em?'

Also to J.R.R. Tolkien for writing such literary legends,
Hayao Miyazaki for his imaginative animation,
And Garrison Keillor for using his mottos. All of them."

From someone who admires her teachers and gives them their due, all the while putting in some parallel structure to make it fluid:

"Dedicated to:
My mom, you were there,
My dad, you gave me the joy of books,
My dogs, you made me laugh until I cried,
And Mr. K., you gave me the gift of science."

Here's another one that is simple in meaning but expressive: "This book is dedicated to my friends for making me laugh so hard all the time I fear one day I shall explode from it all."

And now from a student who is an avid reader but struggles with writing: "I dedicate this to my sister, Issy, because it was as big a pain as she is."

I'm frequently amazed that these students are only thirteen. Sometime I'll share some of the short poems they did during a Poetry Poker exercise. It's astounding how imaginative and clever they are. Something happens to them as they get older, and they lose this innocence and confidence in their skills.