My Students Feel Hester Prynne’s Pain

My juniors just started reading The Scarlet Letter, that tale of the poor Puritan Hester Prynne, who has an affair, gets pregnant, and is subsequently shamed by society ever after. In chapter 2, she must mount a scaffold and spend part of the day being stared at and scorned by the entire town, in an act of public shaming meant to punish her sin.

After reading that part with them, I asked my class, “Can you imagine what that must have felt like for Hester? To be forced to stand on a stage while a thousand people stare and judge you for your human mistakes?”

They all looked a bit amused as the answer to my clumsy rhetorical question finally became clear to me.

You see, I teach at a school for the performing arts.

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How I Do A Semester Review

Last week my school district had semester exams–we’re halfway through the year! The week before, my classes spent a day doing this review of the semester’s units.

I put up six poster-sized sheets of butcher paper around the room, one for each of the major units we’ve done so far. In the center of each, I wrote the theme (Romanticism, logical fallacies, Revolutionary rhetoric, literary analysis, etc.).

I broke the students into groups of 4 or 5, assigned them to a poster, and gave them ten minutes to create a mind map on the poster, using markers I’d asked them to bring. They could use our textbook, online notes, whatever.

After ten minutes, I spot checked each poster, gave some quick editing advice as needed, and checked off that they were all contributing seriously (I’d told them that relevant illustrations were fine, but random nonsense like “buy my mix tape” was not).

Then they rotated to the next station, where they could edit what was there and add on more. Each team cycled to each station accordingly. Each student in each group had to contribute to at least one poster as a “scribe.”

By the end of class, they had produced mind maps like these below. I also posted these to our class web pages to help them study for the test.

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Sick Day Origins

Teachers: “It’s 3 A.M. and I’ve thrown up five times.  Maybe I should call in sick?  But the juniors have that big project due today, and I want to be sure I hold them to it.  Besides, a lot of them worked really hard and they want me to see their final product.  And I have two parent conferences I need to be there for.  And if I stay home sick, I’ll just have to go in for a bit anyway, because I’ll have to switch out half the materials for 3rd and 4th period for stuff the sub will be able to use.  And I have three kids coming in for detention today–no way do they get off the hook!  Plus, I’m doing my favorite lesson of the quarter with the sophomores and I don’t want to miss that, or push it back, or have a sub messing that up.  …Oh!  And I wanted to talk to those guys in 1st period about the game yesterday!  *sigh*  I’ll just go in.  It’s too much hassle to take a day off.”

Students:*Achoo!*  Sweet!  I have the sniffles.  I’m gonna take a week off!”

A Teacher’s Week

I’m still tired.  Last week was a big one, work-wise.

For my main teaching job, I show up by 7 AM, and the last class ends at 2 PM.  That’s a 35-hour week.  Not bad.  Most years I sell one of my two prep periods and teach an extra class–it lowers class sizes for the school and boosts my paycheck–but this year my school didn’t do that, so I have even more productive time during the school day (but, alas, a lower salary).

I also teach part time at UNLV–usually two freshman writing classes per semester.  This time I have those classes on Tuesday and Thursday, from 5:30 until 8:15.  On those nights, I get home around 9:00.  I use the time between the two schools for office hours–grading papers, mostly.

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Two Imperatives in Teaching Writing

As the new school year starts and I assess what my new students need, I find myself growing ever more convinced of the wisdom of these two great axioms of educating:

  • Nobody ever became a good writer before they were a great reader.
  • It is far better for students to write five 1-page papers than to write one 5-page paper.

Friends, instruct accordingly.

A Lack of Failure In Schools

Some current received wisdom: failure is good for us because it’s a strong teacher, and American kids today don’t get to experience it enough because they’re bubble-wrapped through life.

Both ideas have a lot of truth to them, but there’s another that needs to get out there, too:

American kids do still experience failure–constantly–but it’s been completely neutered.

Young people don’t fear failure, nor do they learn from it, though many of them will fail test after test, class after class, all the way through their school career.

Why?  Because what happens after those failures?  Increased practice?  Shame?  Loss of privileges?

Nope.  Nothing.  After the vast majority of daily school failures in this country, for the average teenager, life will proceed normally, as if nothing bad had happened at all.

We, as parents and school personnel, not only don’t hold their feet to the fire, we actively intervene to soften the natural consequences of failure.

In a climate like that, how could students possibly be expected to learn anything about academics, much less life?  Where’s the incentive?

If anything, they learn that failure is harmless and that hard work is pointless.  These lessons would prove terrifying in the real world if the real world itself weren’t increasingly so bent on maintaining that status quo…

 

Teaching Metaphors

I find that most students, at first, want to call any old description a metaphor.  After I give a definition and examples, when I ask for their own examples, they give me things like, “The dog is old.”

“What two things are being compared there?” I ask.  They pause, then say, “Dogs and old.”

To help alleviate the confusion, here’s little graphic:

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18 Passwords

Last week I sat down to record in one place every user name and password I have for work.

I have fourteen for my day job.

One gets me on the desktop in my classroom.

Another gets into a laptop / projector system for class use.

Others get into my email, my grade book (Easy Grade Pro), our school’s program for recording grades and attendance (ClassXP), and another grade and attendance program (ParentLink).

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“More Analysis, Less Commentary”

This was the advice I wrote in the margin of a couple of dozen college papers I returned to students last night.  I put the directions for their recent assignments back on the projector and showed them again that they both called for evaluating an author’s evident strategies, based on things like structure and style, for effectiveness.  Nothing in their assignments asked for personal reflection about the topics of their texts, and yet, that’s the majority of what I got.

Coincidentally, I just read this excellent essay by Mark Bauerlein, which perfectly echoes my experience.  In short, students need to be guided to write analytical work, not fluffy reactions.  Amen.

 

At one point in the discussion, Coleman paused to note a problem in the teaching of writing in English classrooms: the dominance of “personal writing … the exposition of a personal opinion … the presentation of a personal matter.”  Continue reading

Does Teaching Make Us Dumber?

While student teaching during college, an older veteran complained to me about something I’ve wondered about ever since.  She said that years of teaching basic, remedial English had atrophied her own higher thinking skills.  Bitterly, she said that she could no longer remember how to analyze things like she could in college, because she hadn’t had to use any mental ability more complex than explaining simple grammar in decades.

That scared me.  But it’s wrong.

It may have been true in her case, but it’s a choice she made.  Why didn’t she read more, or exercise her mind in other ways?

“Because teaching takes too much time!” might be implied.

But that’s a choice, too.   Continue reading

A Retiring Veteran Teacher Looks Back

A few months ago a veteran teacher and administrator I know retired.  When she left, she sent out a wonderful, long message to the staff, sharing a lot of experiences and feelings.  I thought people might like to see some of these, so below is an edited version of that email.  Impossible to read this and not respect good teachers:

 

 

I.  A History Lesson

 

1.  When I graduated from high school in 1960 (I WAS young for my class and I skipped 4th grade based on an IQ test), the government tried to hire me for the BIA at $4800/year because I took shorthand at 190 wpm and typed at 110 wpm with accuracy,  THEY NOTIFIED ME IN A TELEGRAM!–ever seen one?

 

2.  Education was important in my family so I went off to Augustana….no going to work after high school.    4 years later I got a teaching contract at  $4600/year–so much for 4 years of education, but the passion I’d had to teach since 8th grade was finally put to use.  I went to school with Garrison Keillor, Mary Hart, and David Soul (Solberg–Starsky and Hutch).

 

3. I was student teaching the day John Kennedy was shot.   Continue reading

The Value of Term Papers

The brilliant professor Mark Bauerlein scores yet another direct hit in a recent post about the value of those old-fashioned writing assignments:

In my classes I include both types of assignments, short, one-page writings and longer 7-page papers (I rarely go over 10 pages these days, but I try to make the class have 25-30 pages of finished writing overall.)  I also make students bring in their rough drafts so that we may go over them sentence by sentence, word by word.  (I’m lucky to have small classes.)  It is a novel experience for many of them.  To have a reader pause over the placement of a modifier, and to have to think about such things as a writer, is altogether new.  The deliberation simply doesn’t go along with digital communication habits.  Until we see students paying closer attention to diction and syntax, we should keep traditional writing assignments as a good portion of the work.

Actually, this quote is more of a defense of revision than word count, but it’s still the money quote in a great piece.  By far the single biggest factor holding back anyone’s writing is lack of sustained effort–we naturally feel that a simple first draft gets the job done, and that’s that…and we teachers all too often reward such sloppy work by letting it slide by.  Teaching students to care about and focus on every word is the best writing training we can give.