Twilight Saga, Abridged

BELLA: “I’m so smart and emotional, but I just wish some macho yet mysteriously sensitive guy would come and rescue me.”

EDWARD: “Hi, I’m basically a girl’s fantasy: a superhero emo kid who won’t take advantage of a girl no matter how much she throws herself at me.”

BELLA: “That’s true.  I also know that my friend Jacob really likes me, and I let him think there’s hope for us, even though there’s not.”

JACOB: “I’m a loser.”


There, guys, I just saved you about two thousand pages of reading.  Seriously, that’s about all you missed.  You’re welcome.


Finally: My Two Cents On Obama Vs. Clinton

Last Spring, when the street fight between the two major Democratic contenders was really getting dirty, I had just started this blog and wanted to opine on it.  As an outsider looking in on that fiasco, I wanted to point out Clinton’s obvious superiority, but after Obama became the unofficial nominee, I thought it might come off as tacky.

But as the Democrats’ convention winds down, I can’t help but think of it again.

Why in the world would any liberal support Obama over Clinton?  What does he have to offer that she doesn’t?  She has experience and success in her work; Obama is the poster boy for satire: a figurehead model who spouts vague platitudes and wows the masses with a smarmy charm that poorly covers his lack of depth.  His campaign is so vapid that it’s frankly beyond satire.  No conservative, trying to invent an exaggerated campaign of shallow nonsense to caricature American politics, could ever have imagined anything as silly as Obama.  I’ve seen high school class elections with more substance.  He might as well just make his slogan, “Vote for me and all of your wildest dreams will come true.” Continue reading

Quotes, Pics, and Clips IV


Several years ago, I noticed a poster on a friend’s wall: John William Waterhouse’s Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece The Lady of Shalott:

I was impressed by the passionate atmosphere in the piece, and could only wonder at the story behind it until I heard Loreena McKennitt’s hauntingly ethereal setting of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great poem, “The Lady of Shalott.”

This is still one of my favorite songs, and the lyrics (just Tennyson’s words set to music) are some of the best English poetry I know.  For example:

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot;
Or when the Moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed.
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.

Perfection.  I know that feeling; it’s why I love The Truman Show.  No emo band ever wrote anything half so honestly heartbreaking.

And I’m also impressed that such a minor anecdote from the Arthurian legends could spawn three great works of art in such disparate genres: poetry, painting, and pop music.  That’s significant, methinks.


Have you ever heard of Eric Coyle?  He was a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, around the same time I was.  He was a self-described average student who “woke up” one day and decided to become extraordinary.  He worked his way up to taking 64 credits per semester, and got A’s.  He graduated with five degrees and went to Georgetown. 

When this all happened in 1998, I remember seeing it on the NBC Nightly News.  Here’s an excerpt from a story about him from The New York Times:

”It was then that I realized that there was injustice in the world and that if you wanted to be in a position where you could fight against it you would have to work terribly hard,” Mr. Coyle said. ”You would have to make sacrifices. In my case, I would have to go to law school — one of the top law schools. And to get in I would have to exceed any demands that any law school could make on me.”

”I have fun going to school,” Mr. Coyle said. ”I’m not this smart guy. I’m just average. But I got motivated.”


This isn’t a great video, but I remember my parents playing a record of this song for my brother and me when we were little kids.  I thought it was hilarious then, and now, listening to it tonight for the first time in at least twenty years, it still made me laugh.  Ladies and gentlemen, Harry Belafonte and Odetta singing, “There’s A Hole In The Bucket.”


When William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he gave a speech that was only a mere four paragraphs long.  You can listen to it at the Nobel Prize Web site; it only lasts three minutes. 

Like many short works, though, it packs in a power whose magnitude leaves me blissfully dizzy.  A quote:

I decline to accept the end of man….I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.


Did you know that The New York Times puts a classic crossword puzzle from its archives online each week?  Of course, I’m assuming you’ve seen the riveting, rollicking documentary (really!) Wordplay.  If not, watching it might help inspire you to tackle those NYT toughies. 

“You and I are told increasingly that we have to choose between a left or right, but I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down–up to a man’s age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order–or down to the ant heap totalitarianism, and regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.”

-Ronald Reagan, “A Time For Choosing,” 1964


“Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace. Whoever will lose his life in the service of God will find eternal life.”
-Ezra Taft Benson, “Jesus Christ–Gifts and Expectations

School Budget Priorities And A Satirical Analogy

So my school’s budget for this year was cut by six figures.  Other schools had even more cut than we did.  This trickles down to my English department, among other ways, in the form of getting far less paper for copies than we have had in the past, which was pretty meager to begin with.

Meanwhile, one of the several videos that every school district employee was forced to watch this week featured a custom built, three foot tall remote control bus with multiple moving accessories.  It helped to teach us, seriously, how not to get hit by a bus.  They can afford to waste our time with this kind of thing, but we can’t afford paper?! 

I responded to this outrageous farce on our school’s email bulletin board in my typical idiom: satire. 


In this election year, I know we’re all worried about our constant need to fill up on that supply that we need to function, especially since it’s getting much harder finacially to do so. Therefore, I want to offer this plan for our future…my Paper Plan.



First, we need to unlock our leaders’ stockpile. It’s time to dip into the Strategic Paper Reserve.



Second, we have no choice but to engage in offshore drilling. Studies have shown that areas off the coast of Florida are rich in crude paper, and we need to get to it before China does. We also need to start getting paper from our federal lands in Alaska. The caribou will just have to adapt; the Alaskan Paper Pipeline will be able to alleviate our shrinking paper supply as soon as 2025.



Third, we need to wean ourselves from our dependence on foreign paper. The terrorists in PPEC have had us on a leash long enough. Besides, they’re all in bed with the corporate fat cats in Big Paper who are getting rich off our desperation to have fuel for our copy machines to run smoothly.



Fourth, we need to find a new resource to replace paper completely. Research into alternatives like solar paper and wind turbine paper are promising, but we have to admit that hydroelectric paper just won’t work. It ends up either getting too soggy to use, or catches on fire.



Fifth, copy machines need to become more fuel efficient. Japanese engineers have perfected a smaller, hybrid model that combines a sheet of paper with creamed corn to get more material printed on each page. It’s the wave of the future. Sorry, but those cool Sport Utility Copy Machines are no longer in style.


Don’t forget to make sure the wheels on your copy machines are inflated properly. That alone could save us thousands of sheets of paper a year.


Regarding those several mandatory videos that each employee is subjected to (what a great use of our time as we try to prepare for teaching new students–and haven’t we been told by countless administrators that showing people videos is not an effective method of teaching?  Why use it to teach us something then?), the subjects covered included the following:


Anything that you say that any student chooses to feel offended by is an “aversive intervention” and will get you sued and fired (after endless paperwork), try not to spread disease by coming into contact with, quote, “blood and semen” (I swear I am not making this up), and, apparently, according to our intensive trainings this week, you’re actually not supposed to sleep with students.  Huh.  Well, glad they cleared that up.  No doubt that some pedophile saw that and cheerfully changed his mind.


Your tax dollars at work. 


Recommended Reading: Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire

I first read about Rafe Esquith in an article in National Review.  After that, I read and enjoyed his book, There Are No Shortcuts.  Esquith espouses a teaching ethic that is heavy on emotion and personality, but that is more than balanced out by incredibly high academic standards and a work ethic that would make your average Marine cry. 

I don’t think everything in Esquith’s methods would work for me, but I can’t help but respect someone who gives 150% of himself to teaching, not to make kids feel good, but to guide them into becoming truly intellectual giants.  (Esquith is most famous for putting his students through a full professional production of a Shakespearean play each year, a task that, especially considering his many other ambitious units, has him running his classroom about twelve hours a day, six days a week.  And these are fifth graders.)

As I’ve been gearing up for the new year, I wanted to read something that was inspirational, practical, and not a bunch of warm fuzzy gobbledygook.  So I checked out Esquith’s more recent book, Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire.  Where There Are No Shortcuts focused on Esquith’s philosophy and anecdotes, this newer volume is a nuts and bolts how-to of teaching like he does.

Like I said, a lot of this stuff really wouldn’t transfer to my high school English class, but after reading the first two chapters–one about reading and the other about writing–I did go back and take some notes.  For someone whose language is often so reminiscent of PC nonsense (Esquith says the priority on the first day of school is to “establish trust”), his actual work routines are strenuous, and completely dedicated to independent achievement.  Rock on. 

Actually, I recommend this book for everybody, not just for teachers.  For one thing, even though we all went to school ourselves, unless you’ve spent time in the profession, you have no idea just how much corruption, stupidity, and heartbreak really exists behind the scenes of a school.  Esquith has great stories about these institutional failures, and isn’t afraid to name names.  Second, his class ranges the gamut of curriculum, from humanities to hard science to pop culture to character development, and his many specific examples are a joy to consider. 

Read the chapter where he describes, in painstaking detail, how to get the most out of a visit to Washington, D.C.  He bases this on decades of annual field trips there.  I’m going to copy it and use it as my official travel guide the next time I go.  And the chapter about his after-school classic film club…priceless.  My wife’s had a copy of Charadeon her shelf for years; I never thought I might like it until I read Esquith’s praise of it.  I think I might try to start something similar at my own school.  (Last year, during a discussion with a class, I made a passing reference to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  The class came to a grinding halt as I faced thirty blank stares.  They had never seen it.  They had never even heard of it.  And this was an honors class.  Sad.)

One quibble, though.  Esquith makes a big deal out of how his success comes in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood where most homes don’t have English as a first language.  The implication is that he’s teaching “disadvantaged” minorities, yet this book has lots of pictures of his students…and virtually all of them are Asian.  Most every picture looks just like the one you see on the cover here.  There are a few Hispanic kids in the book, but only a few, and not a single black kid.  I have to wonder if Esquith’s school population is really a tough to teach as he suggests; all of the kids in the pictures have nice, preppy clothes, are clearly well nourished and groomed, and show no physical sign of coming from lower class homes. 

This isn’t a bad thing, of course, but it would be disingenuous of Esquith to sell himself as a master teacher of poverty-stricken youth if he’s really teaching primarily the children of hard working first or second generation Asian families with stable homes, a strong work ethic, and who place a high value on education.  I could be wrong, but the pictures make me wonder.

Still, it’s a great read, and it gave me exactly what I wanted: a boost of enthusiasm sprinkled with a few practical ideas.  It’d do the same for you, no matter what kind of teacher you are, or even if you aren’t a teacher at all.

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Unless you’re a devoted fan of Star Wars, this one could probably wait until it comes out on disc.  Other than the great sequence with a proto-Walker climbing a vertical cliff face, there isn’t much in this little movie that’s especially visually spectacular.  In fact, there isn’t much that’s spectacular in it at all.  (This review gets filed under “Random.”  The movie isn’t good enough to warrant getting included with “Arts.”)

George Lucas conceived of this Clone Wars movie as a pilot for a new animated series, but it feels just like a regular episode of such television fare.  At no time does this new entry in the saga rise to the ambitious levels set by all the other big screen entries.  Remember those two Ewok movies in the mid 80’s?  This movie doesn’t aim for too much bigger of a scale than those did, which is sad considering the quality animation and larger narrative background available for Star Wars now.

Yes, this movie should have been direct to video.  Fans of this new generation of Star Wars cartoons would be better served to see the excellent volumes of Clone Wars videos produced in 2005

Perhaps the biggest problem with this new movie, though, is its insistence on continuing to plumb the depths of ethnic stereotypes.  After the laughable “trade federation” stooges of the prequel trilogy–and, of course, Jar Jar Binks–2008’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars gives us, in the first half, a grizzled alien general with a thick Scottish accent and, in the second half, a ridiculously vile and corrupt Hutt…who sounds like somebody’s Big Momma straight out of New Orleans.  (I sometimes think that the vanguard of our culture’s obsession with demonizing our own heritage lies with the fact that virtually every major Star Wars villain has had a British accent.) 

So, to summarize, the new Clone Wars movie in theaters is visually uninspired, with almost none of the new vehicles, weapons, and creatures that draw in fans of the series, adds practically nothing to the mythology of the saga (alas, this “big screen event” amounts to no more than a mere footnote), and what little it does give us dwells on trite rehashes of the weaknesses of the series.  The “remix” theme music is likewise lame.  And the conclusion…it fizzles out with an appropriately dull whimper. 

Final Grade: D

Things I Love About Autumn

Tomorrow I go back to work to prepare for the new school year, which starts on Monday.  I’m certainly not bursting with ecstasy that my little break is over, but I will be grateful to see the 110-degree weather start to fade (in another four weeks or so we’ll start leaving the triple digit temperatures behind–hopefully!), and this summer hasn’t been all that productive or relaxing, anyway.  I won’t shed any tears to see it go.

But at this landmark in the calendar, I want to focus on some of my favorite things about the upcoming stage of the year.  Due to my work schedule and the weather here in Las Vegas, I define “Autumn” as the period between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.  Here, in chronological order, are some of the things I’m most looking forward to in the coming three months, including the days I expect to be there:

  • The new school year.  This is even better than New Year’s for making resolutions.  I was a little disappointed with a lot of details about the last school year, and spent the last week of school drawing up a list of new ideas and procedures for myself to make this year more effective.  I’ve added to it over the summer.  Even aside from that, this is the part of the year when nobody can resist the optimism of a fresh start, of meeting new students, of the unlimited potential that new classes imply.  I enjoy the rituals of beginning a new year, and intend to hit the ground running.  Further still, after a few months of summer school and work around the house, going back to work will offer a much welcome slower pace!
  • The Harvest Festival.  Saturday, September 6.  I’m not a very crafty guy, but I love going to this whenever I can so I can try all the food samples!  After a few hours, I’ve had enough quality dip, cheese, cocoa, Chinese food, soup, stew, and other goodies to keep me full for another year.  The entertainment is corny, but always fun, and I do sometimes buy things: I got a CD of medieval Celtic music once.  Actually, some of the crafts are also worthwhile: I always make a point of admiring the statues of crystal dragons, and sentimental landscape paintings, and of getting a whiff of all the different scented candles.  Time well spent.
  • Football.  I’m not a huge sports fan, but I’ve found myself getting more into it the last several years.  I might even try some fantasy football this year.  Football is always a fun way to relax and enjoy a few hours, though I rarely get to watch an entire game.  I also try to take the family to some of my school’s games each Fall, which is an irrepressibly wholesome bit of Americana. 
  • New baby.  My fifth child and third son, Aiden John, is due on September 23.  I spent a lot of my “honey-do” time this summer getting things ready, and we’re all excited about the new addition to the clan.  A baby’s first year goes by so quickly, because it’s so eventful, and I want to savor each moment.  Honestly, I don’t know how people can only have one child, because these magic hours become such a blur.  Not to mention, nothing makes you realize how settled into a rut your life had become than an infant.  It’s life’s most rewarding challenge.
  • General Conference.  Saturday, October 4-Sunday, October 5.  I love Conference; I recently wrote a blurb about about literacy among the Latter-day Saints that made a big deal out of this.  Nearly every one of these assemblies for lecturing challenges me, inspires me, and gives me plenty to talk about and work on.  I enjoy the speaking styles of various people, and Conference almost always offers a few stories that stick with me.  I try to take copious notes on it, and refer to them often.  We Mormons really do have a treasure trove of powerful and useful oratory in our midst, one that we should do more to appreciate.  Hearing the Tabernacle Choir and a few other select performing groups doesn’t hurt, either. 
  • Boulder City Art in the Park.  Saturday, October 4.  I’ll try to visit this for a few hours before General Conference, but it might cut into the first session.  Well, that’s what the archives on the Church web site are for.  I’ve only been to this for the last two years, but I wonder now at how much pleasure my life missed out on before it.  First of all, Boulder City is a beautiful place.  It has a cozy, inviting, back East small town feel to its shops and sidewalks, the kind of atmosphere you also see in Northern Nevada and Utah…basically, everywhere but Vegas.  *sigh*  But the art displays themselves are even better than those at the Harvest Festival, having far more variety in their wares.  The weather is pleasant, the homemade tacos are delightful, and there’s just no better way to spend a Saturday morning than strolling around a leafy park with your family as you browse the cornucopia of paintings, sculptures, and some other forms of artwork.  It’s always interesting to see a tent with, say, pastel portraits of Jesus set up next to another tent featuring 3-D murals of electric, lighted neon figures of unicorns and elves. 
  • 9th Annual Something Scottish.  Saturday, October 4…which is shaping up to be a pretty busy day.  Luckily this production is relatively small, and I should be able to squeeze it in during the hours between Conference sessions.  This annual ritual features bagpipe players, step dancers, Celtic genealogy tables…and haggis.  Seriously.  I once tried calling most of the butchers in Vegas to get some haggis; half of them didn’t know what it was, and the other half laughed and said that it would be impossible to get.  *sigh*  The little kids can pick up crayons to color a picture of Nessie, while I munch away at some bangers and mash. 
  • Cooler Weather, Shorter Days.  No specific day here, but after the hectic pace set by the long days of summer, it’s a refreshing treat to put on a sweater in the morning, or have to cut some work short because the light is gone.  This time of year encourages us to spend more time lounging around in the back yard, or enjoying the kind of vigorous outdoor activities that you just can’t do during the five months of the year when it’s 115 degrees in the shade here.  October and November really are the best months of the year to live in Vegas…though I still wish I lived somewhere where the leaves actually changed color.
  • Renaissance Festival.  Friday, October 10-Saturday, October 12.  I’ll refrain form the ale, but nothing will keep me from lending an ear to the strolling minstrels here, or from examining the many sword blades available for perusal and purchase.  A genuine joust is a must see, and every other booth sells scones.  The costumes are worth the price of admission alone–it’s just not every day you can see some corseted wench tending to the cape and boots of her lord fair.  Unless, I suppose, you live in California.  *cough, cough*
  • Halloween.  Possibly October 31st.  Nevada was actually admitted to the Union on October 31st, so we get this as a holiday.  Though it’s usually moved to be a three day weekend, this year it’s on a Friday, which means I get Halloween off work!  In the weeks leading up to it, I’ll spend hours going up and down the aisles of everyplace from party stores to costume stores to Hallmark soaking up all the silly schmaltz.  I also try to read a classic scary novel each October.  My street is only a few years old, and only has one outlet, so traffic is low, but I’ll still carve a jack-o-lantern (I like to think I’m pretty good at it), and gussy up the kids to go out and collect some sugar.  My church also does a “trunk or treat” the weekend before, and that’s always a hoot, too.
  • My Birthday.  Sunday, November 2.  Of course I’ve long since passed the point where anyone makes much of a fuss about this, but I still enjoy it.  It’s a great excuse to indulge yourself for a day–I’ll take the family out to dinner wherever I want–and maybe even get a nice surprise or two.  Also, I have this delusion that life will get easier as I get older, so I’m looking forward to middle age soon.  Knock on wood.
  • Election Day.  Tuesday, November 4.  I take this seriously.  I even did all the research I could and voted in last week’s primary election.  In November, I’ll do more research and, as per tradition, take my kids with me to see me vote.  The workers are always happy to give the little ones pencils and “I Voted” stickers.  I’ll wear my sticker to work the next day.  It certainly makes an evening of watching the news more exciting.
  • Thanksgiving.  Thursday, November 27.  I likewise take this seriously, seeing it as a religious holiday to offer gratitude to God for specific blessings (as, incidentally, Washington and Lincoln also saw it).  Accordingly, my family and I will discuss things for which we’re thankful.  However, there are plenty of other things to enjoy about it, especially…the Macy’s parade.  I love this parade.  I watch it every year.  Not every float is great, and not every performance is worthwhile, but enough of them are that I make this a priority.  The kids sure do get a kick out of seeing Santa at the end. 

Of course, much of this plan depends on new baby Aiden.  We might not be able to go out and do all of this with him, but we’ll do what we can.  If nothing else, I know it’ll be easy to love getting the fireplace going for the first time this season as our new baby sits on the rug, and I’ll read Dracula as I listen in on a football game and sip some of the flavored hot chocolate I just got from the Harvest Festival.

Five Classic Movies I’ve Seen In The Last Month

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

I heard an interview on the radio in the early 90’s with rap group Public Enemy where they were asked about cursing out John Wayne in one of their songs.  Chuck D said it was a protest against Wayne “going around shooting Indians” in his movies.

I thought about this as I watched She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, where Wayne stars as an old cavalry commander who finds himself about to retire just as a conflict is escalating with nearby Native American tribes.  At the end of the film, desperate to stop the brewing fighting, Wayne goes to see the old chief of the Indians.  Showing an easy familiarity with and respect for their culture, Wayne asks this longtime friend to help him stop the younger men from starting a war.  The old chief tells Wayne that there’s nothing they can do because they’re too old.  In one of the most moving, stereotype-defying quotes I’ve ever heard on film, Wayne chuckles and says, with the kind of gentle chiding we use to disagree with good friends, “Old men should stop wars.” 

Wayne then risks his career, just hours before retiring with full benefits and honors, to go against orders and lead a run on the Indians’ camp and chase their horses away, thus averting the crisis without violence. 

I suppose Chuck D never saw She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

Incidentally, it was a terrific movie.  I especially enjoyed the shots of a wagon company moving along the plains under a gathering thunderstorm.  Very atmospheric. 


Singin’ In The Rain

There’s a lot to recommend this classic musical.  First of all, it’s hilarious.  As Gene Kelly recounts his career at the beginning of the film, I was surprised to see such a relatively old movie sporting such a pitch-perfect satire of Hollywood’s excessive foibles.  Jean Hagen’s work as the ditsy, scheming, annoying-voiced bombshell is still unsurpassed.  That alone makes me wish more people would see this movie now: that character will always be funny.  And Donald O’Connor’s athletic slapstick during the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number was impressive as choreography and as comedy.  It certainly makes anything Jim Carrey or Jack Black has ever done look like child’s play.


Howard’s End

I was apprehensive about this one, because I was underwhelmed by Anthony Hopkins’ and Emma Thompson’s other joint effort, Remains of the Day.  I needn’t have been.  This slightly soap opera-y web of social criticism takes on class divisions in early 20th century Edwardian England.  This may be the only movie where the upper class British bad guys are actually portrayed realistically, even with some sympathy, and not just as cartoon monsters.  A young Helena Bonham Carter is a joy to watch as Thompson’s fiery younger sister, whose passion ranges from indignation to biting wit to spontaneous romance.  Really, it’s a wonder I didn’t like Pride and Prejudice more than I did. 

Not to short change the cast, but I was equally thrilled by the cinematography and score here.  Howard’s End reminds us just how subtly beautiful the English countryside is; verdant green is always gorgeous, especially when veiled by a misty gray breeze.  And the music!  The delicate piano throughout the film was more than just a complement, it was symbiotic.  This is one of the few movies of which I know where the music truly is that important, and stands well on its own (Hitchcock’s Rear Window is another example).  I could see myself buying this soundtrack and listening to it on the way home from work.


The 39 Steps

Speaking of Hitchcock, this was the latest entry in my efforts to screen his oeuvre.  This very early work is just typical, ordinary Hitch, which is to say, brilliant.  One of the great joys of seeing his movies is finding those elemental devices that influenced later cinema so thoroughly that it’s like discovering an ancient Ur-text (North By Northwest and Strangers On A Train might be the best examples here). 

Sadly, since we’ve all been raised on those derivative movies that are so saturated in Hitchcock’s legacy, seeing his original visions can leave us feeling flat, since the celluloid for which we have such nostalgia was usually so much more exaggerated than those earlier classics.  Such is sometimes the case with The 39 Steps, but it will still surprise you. 

Our Everyman protagonist is on the run from a sinister cabal of spies that he has haplessly crossed (naturally), and some of his exploits rely on more coincidence on his part and negligence on his enemies’ part than we would find credible today.  Still, the pacing and plotting here is taught, and the scene where our hero wows a crowd with an impromptu speech at a political convention as he evades the authorities is worth two hours of your life by itself.  And a tasteful “bedroom” scene where he is handcuffed to an equally hapless heroine is a touching reminder that this world used to be a simpler, sweeter place, and made for better entertainment than the lowest common denominator sludge we see today.

Last year I saw this movie in a bin at Wal Mart for a dollar.  I wish I would’ve gotten it.



I’ve read that this 1972 science fiction psychodrama was Russia’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The similarities are obvious: these are both ambitious stories using space travel as a metaphor for humanity’s civilizational journey, though Kubrick’s was extroverted, whereas this Russian gem is almost painfully introverted.  The slow, moody pacing of both films certainly stresses our attention spans, but also allows us to savor the style of presentation, if not always the heavy handed ideas.

In fact, one scene in Solaris has an old cosmonaut being driven down a monotonous, sterile city highway, a scene which stretches on for minutes.  I started asking myself what the point of that was, until some sonic sound effects began erupting at us from the vanishing point of the road up ahead.  We were probably being taken into the cosmonaut’s quietly tortured psyche (as a result of a shocking experience at Solaris years before), but I couldn’t help but also be reminded of Dave Bowman’s psychedelic space flight at the end of 2001.  Two sides of the same coin, perhaps?

Solaris makes explicit references to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky near the end, and clearly wants to be taken as seriously.  I respect the audacity of a film this somber, but found much of its emotional pontificating to be trite.  Still, the film is well made and worthwhile, though not something I plan to see again.  But maybe I should; the last time I saw 2001 I got much more out of it than the first time.  I suppose films like this, slow and sparse as they are, might still need time to grow on you.

Ten Best Atheist Arguments?

Presented here for your convenience, for the first time ever and after countless hours of painstaking research by eavesdropping on actual cafe conversations and Internet chat rooms, are the top ten reasons I overheard secular Americans give for dismissing faith.

Well, not really, but it sounds about right.


10. “If there truly is an infinitely powerful and all-knowing God, then why can’t I easily understand him right away? He may well be an omnipotent and eternal deity ruling over a universe larger and more complicated than the mortal mind could ever possibly envision, much less comprehend… but I do read The New York Times, you know.”


9. “Why are all Christians such closed-minded morons? Their attitude towards atheism is marked by perpetuating generalized misconceptions about honest seekers of truth like me… often in the form of pitifully sterile insults. They should celebrate those whose opinions differ from their own, like we do. Stupid Christians.”


8. “Completely unlike us, Christians never demand any more evidence for the validity of their belief than bandwagon appeals to common knowledge. Everybody knows this is true. How could anybody even entertain conclusions drawn about an opposing point of view from such ridiculous ignorance? Hypocrites!”


7. “And what about the Bible? If there is a God, reason dictates that the Bible should have compelling, dynamic theological and ethical innovations unlikely to be conceived by human beings alone. It should also offer strong circumstantial support for divine inspiration. Of course it does not. I know this because I heard somebody quote a verse from it once.”


6. “The Bible has been proven many times through scholarly critical analysis to be nothing more than a biased collection of fairy tales written for the sole purpose of subjecting the superstitious masses under a code of moral liberty and civil enlightenment. This conspiracy is what allows monsters like Mother Teresa to rule as the despicable despots they are, breaking the spirits of proactive altruists everywhere.”


5. “Why is there any degree of disorder and injustice in the world? It’s not like a perfectly black and white world would make the existence of God obvious, thus removing our crucial need to develop faith in God and would reduce us to mindless automatons forced into conformity!”


4. “The complex worldview that Christianity posits suggests that humanity is an intricate tapestry of interdependence working towards a fundamentally greater collective good. That selfishness cannot distract us from the more neutral, objective conclusion that life is simply a series of random events, the inevitable result of a physical system that developed completely by chance and that ends in death, rendering life ultimately pointless and devoid of any obligation to improve ourselves or the world in general. I know how ennobling this sounds, but it is merely a fact, unadulterated by any ulterior motive.”


3. “‘By their fruits you will know them?’ So has anyone ever abandoned a materially abundant lifestyle or altered behavior inconsistent with their beliefs because of religious conviction? Nobody that I know of! This is because religion is only a selfish delusion of convenience, not a vigorous and vital dimension of life whose empirical validity empowers adherents to make vastly positive personal change. Their wanton mental self-indulgence is starkly revealed when placed in contrast with those of us who so stoically bear the Spartan torch of atheism.”


2. “I read this in the correspondence of a European philosopher and scientist to his brother in 1895: ‘If there were in existence some Supreme Being, why has he then withheld from his own children that most natural of blessings, automated wheeled transportation? For, as any fool can see, such a marvel absolutely must be commensurate with the existence of God. If not for this insurmountable flaw, however, I would gladly become a Christian.’ This perfectly logical query was never satisfactorily addressed, and he died a happy atheist in 1948.”


1. “Clearly, belief in God amounts to no more than wishful thinking. Simply put, while those of us who accept atheism only do so after the most stringent open-minded research into every possibility, and then often reluctantly, those who embrace any faith-based belief system always do so blindly. The more they explain their opinion, the more they reveal their fundamental ignorance.”


Recommended Reading: Shogun

I haven’t posted anything in nearly a week largely because I’ve spent most of my spare moments engrossed in James Clavell’s epic Shogun.

I don’t remember the groundbreaking 12-hour 1980 TV miniseries based on Shogun, but I clearly remember seeing Pierce Brosnan in the miniseries version of Noble House later in the 80’s.  When that came out, I was visiting my grandparents’ house, and lo and behold, Grandpa had a copy of Clavell’s massive novel on his shelf.  In all of my elementary school earnestness, I picked it up and opened to page one.  Bored and confused, I never made it to page two. 

I recently rekindled an interest in reading Clavell’s Asian Saga, or at least Noble House.  I figured I should start at the beginning, so I picked up a copy of Shogun.  I began reading during a Spring Break trip with the family to Disneyland.  At first, I picked away at it while enduring endless lines, but soon my nose was buried in between the pages as I tried to navigate crowds and follow my wife as we walked around the park from ride to ride.  

Near the end of that trip, I had come across the relatively early scene where one samurai suddenly flings himself off a cliff just to get the attention of a more important samurai stranded on the beach below.  I stopped in the middle of a walkway, backing up lots of foot traffic around me, but was totally oblivious as people started to go around me because I was still in shock from what I’d read.  That’s when I realized that Shogun was something special. 

I’ve read my share of military thrillers–the Tom Clancy type–but Shogun is easily the most macho story I’ve ever read.  The constant dwelling on honor, strategy, and a nonchalant attitude towards death and violence make this one seriously masculine novel.  Over the course of eleven hundred pages, Clavell demonstrates that he is a master of narrative.  In fact, the only thing I’d ding about Shogun is that sometimes the spying, reversals, scheming, and plotting–in both senses of the word–get to be too dense. 

But it’s worth it.  Read it if only for the wealth of detail about medieval Japan and the stark beauty of Clavell’s prose–he deftly combines the testosterone of the main narrative with occasional moments of crystal clear poetry (literally, a few times, by including a handful of haiku).  That aside, it’s still a juggernaut of action.  One scene that forms a crucial part of the climax has an attack by ninja on a castle just before dawn, including a protracted battle with hordes of samurai.  I couldn’t take my eyes off the pages until the battle was over, thirty pages later.  Such addictive storytelling is rare, and valuable…and fun. 

I just put the DVD of the Shogun miniseries on hold at the library.  After that, on to Noble House!

Ten Literary First Lines Translated For Text Messaging

Just this morning I came across the brilliant web site The English-to-12-Year-Old-AOLer Translator.  Let’s see what happens when we take some famous literary first lines and translate them:


Now is the winter of our discontent    



Call me Ishmael.

is translated as


All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

appears to go back into its native Russian as

!11!!!1!! LOL

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.

desecrates the memory of Thoreau when rendered as


I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.

looks suspiciously like a psychotropic beatnik first draft as


In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

isn’t that substantially worse than some modern “translations” when communicated to us thusly:


The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.

guarantees that schlocky pulp will thrive for another generation when written like this:


In the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.

loses ever such a minuscule degree of Gibbon’s elegant grandeur here:


riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

is, perhaps not surprisingly, no noticeably more obscure after translation:


Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

is now ready to penetrate the deepest reaches of the adolescent soul:


Obama “Air” Conspiracy Revealed!

So a lot of conservatives have been making fun of Obama’s pre-Presidential directive requesting Americans to save gas by checking that their tires are properly inflated.  This may seem funny at first, but have we thought about the sinister motives behind this?

How does Obama stand to profit from telling us to use more air? 

“But air is free!” one might scoff.  Yes, but those air pumps at the gas station aren’t.  In fact, the little place down the road where I’ve filled my tires for years used to have a machine that charged a quarter.  Today, that place and most others like it charge a whole dollar.  That’s an inflation rate of 400%, people! 

Somebody’s getting fat off of the air dollars of struggling, working class Americans. 

Then, of course, there’s the ancillary equipment related to this endeavor: those air pressure gauges.  RNC operatives in Washington are giving those away as gags right now, but when the Obama administration jacks them up to fifty bucks a pop, you know who will be laughing then?

Big Air.  That’s right, America.  No more worries about Big Tobacco or Big Oil; Big Air is about to bankrupt us all as it makes Obama’s corrupt cronies in Washington even richer.  You don’t think he has connections that have some vested interest in the success of air?  They all breathe it, you know–him and his whole inner circle of good old boys!

And what about the increase in tire rotations this action will create?  Tire rotations are no walk in the park, friends; all automotive work is dangerous, and people will get hurt doing this dirty work.  How can Obama sleep at night knowing that he plans to send people’s cute little babies into the trenches to do the grunt work that will lubricate his plan, all while he kicks back in the White House dining room, quaffing his brandy and passing around the cigars?  No blood for air, Mr. Obama!

Hey, don’t call this baseless fear-mongering for political purposes.  I know, you liberals have never indulged in snide, sleazy smears about leaders making policy decisions for the benefit of shadowy sweetheart deals that have never been shown to have any merit even as theory, but just because you guys refuse to lower yourselves to such tactics because superficial coincidences in extended relationships present you with an opportunity to take cheap shots, doesn’t mean I won’t. 

More to come as we find documentation that will bust this libelous speculation wide open.

On Teaching Literacy

A parent of a student recently sent me this survey as part of her masters’ program, and asked for my input.  Following up on my last post (and trying to make up for the deficit of education-related posts this summer), I thought I’d share some of my meager thoughts here.  Perhaps they’ll be of interest to someone.  My replies to the questions are in italics.


Upper Elementary through Middle School and High School


What grade do you currently teach? 10th–Sophomores

What grade have you taught? All grades 6-12 (and college)

What subjects have you taught? English I-IV, English R/W I-II, Composition, Forensics, American Literature Honors, Modern Literature (college: English 101 and 102, World Literature)


1. What aspects of literacy do you hope that your students have been exposed to prior to your level? These could include activities, state objectives, or materials (pieces of literature). By high school, the most important aspects of literacy would be reading fluency, genre awareness, basic literary terms (setting, plot, figures of speech, etc.), and, ideally, some memorization of literature.


2. What Reading deficits and disabilities do you encounter most? Comprehension, fluency, willingness to engage difficult material.

A. What are your most used remedial tactics for these problems? Reading aloud to them is the best overall intervention, as well as guided practice using strategies like making predictions, evaluating an author’s methods of narration, and identifying themes and encouraging students to analyze and apply them.


4. In regards to phonetic awareness skills, what theories of practice do you support and/or not support?

C. Do you see phonics facts like Math teachers see addition/subtraction/multiplication/ division facts; that if a student does not master these early, he or she will continue to have difficulties? Yes; for example, early training in Latin and Greek word roots is essential to development of advanced vocabulary.

B. How do students at your level need to use their phonics skills? Primarily for decoding difficult new vocabulary; at another level, for tracking complex sentence structures in difficult texts.

C. Do you see any outside influences that detract from phonics skills; such as popular language among peers or media influences? TEXT MESSAGING!


5. What are you feelings about parental involvement in Literacy? Describe your ideal situation. I’m unsure about this: we might be able to instruct students without parental help, but certainly not against parental illiteracy. Have you read Freakonomics? The best statistical predictor of student acquisition of literacy is a language-rich home environment, established by the parents’ own habits. As such, if schools are going to advocate for improving their communities, I sometimes wonder what we could do to “reach out” to parents better; offer more classes and activities that involve them in reading with their families, perhaps (maybe sponsoring family/community book clubs?).


6. What are your personal theories on literacy instruction; its practices and goals for you level?

A. What reading programs have worked best for you? Describe what element(s) of the program were the most beneficial.

B. How do you approach multi level reading groups? At the high school level, this is difficult. For independent reading projects (which I try to do quarterly), I encourage individual students in the library to select books of an appropriate difficulty level; I’ve even offered different reading lists to different groups of students based on their ability.

C. What are your best/ favorite reading comprehension instruction techniques? See my answer to 2A.

D. What are your major checkpoints/milestones throughout the year, and how often do assess; such as beginning, mid-year, and end of year? For literacy, I would my “major checkpoints” would be the tests I give on each our quarterly in-class novels(Huck Finn, Ender’s Game, etc.), which focus on comprehension of major aspects of writing (plot, character, style, etc.); and, for their independently-chosen novels, a report that focuses on summarizing those things, and responding to the text in various ways, including evaluating it and illustrating scenes from it. So, each quarter should have at least these two differing major assessments of their literacy, as demonstrated by how they’ve interacted with two differing texts.


7. What proportion should be given to literal questions vs. high order thinking questions? This might sound like a cop-out, but I say “lots of both.” Heavy doses of questions and activities that hit all six areas of Bloom’s taxonomy offer the best means of making the most of a text. I’ve found that if I offer “question starters” to students based on all six levels and have them finish the questions with material from their reading, then trade papers and answer each other’s questions, they usually impress me.


8. What proportions should be given to reading materials such as short story, novels, and nonfiction? Before the 20th century, fiction was often seen as little more than a toy, but I would argue that it should predominate in our humanities studies. Reading fiction invites students to track character and plot development over time, as well to grapple with understanding narrative devices such as metaphor, theme, and satire, which are more rarely used in fairly direct non-fiction works. In addition, literate fiction can convey much the same factual information that non-fiction can, but with a greater artistic care and narrative craftsmanship that helps improve student interest.


9. List which written works you would consider classic, whether they are novels, short stories, novellas, or an author in general, for your grade level. Contemporary “young adult” literature is often touted as increasing student interest; my experience does not bear that out. Besides that, I’m an inveterate classicist, and prefer assisting students in studying the Western canon as much as possible. That being said, I also think it’s worthwhile to introduce students to superior, worthy materials in the world of current literary criticism, such as Harold Bloom. These two approaches reinforce each other quite well.


10. How much time do you devote to independent reading in your planning? How much would you with complete freedom? As implied in my answer to 6D, I use both assigned class readings as well independently-chosen works. However, the essays, stories, and novels used for class are obviously covered in greater depth. The “outside” readings are mostly offered to help spur lifelong reading interests. To that end, (I should append this to my answer to 6B), when I give lists of titles to be used as a guide for independent reading, I try to mediate small “book club” discussions in class based on groups arranged as per same/similar titles/authors/subjects. This works quite well. “Complete freedom” in a classroom only results in anarchy—titles for independent reading must always be approved by me before they begin. If a title is inappropriate or below their level, I try to redirect them to options that are more suitable.


11. Summarize the reading skills necessary for a student to be fully ready to pass your grade level. For the sake of space, I might refer you back to my answer to 6D.


12. How would you describe a student that is a fluent reader of any age? “Rare.” Ha! Sorry. Seriously, such a student can identify favorite genres, even specific titles and authors that interest him/her. He or she would likely have a library card. He or she would also likely be able to give examples of books that he/she “liked more than the movie version.”


13. How do you avoid being in a vacuum in your field? Um, I suppose by not getting inside a vacuum. Sorry, but I don’t know what you’re driving at here.


14. Do you have any comments or input that you think are necessary for Reading teachers of levels beyond yours are important to know about the students’ prior training, skills, or anything else? One important thing I can think of that hasn’t been covered yet is this: promoting lifelong reading interest is important and worthy, but not something that we can ultimately control. As such, expending too much energy on stimulating student interest is unproductive. We might want students to love reading as much as we do, but if there doesn’t seem to be much hope for individual students, or even whole classes, to attain that characteristic, we shouldn’t let it be a barrier for us. We need to be able to continue immersing them in the literary canon and reading skills that form the core of our civilization without feeling that we must “convert” students to our love of the subject.


50 Things New Teachers Need To Know

[Update: Please be sure to also check out 50 MORE Things New Teachers Need To Know.]


Now that August is here, I’m thinking about the imminent start of the new school year.  For years I’ve watched new teachers start their first year with no clue about how to manage all that gets thrown at them, and I’ve wanted to have something to give them, samizdat style, that lets them in on what really matters, what really works, and what they should studiously ignore.  This list represents a first draft effort at some of those ideas.

Minor disclaimer: I’m a high school English teacher in Las Vegas.  Therefore, my advice is specifically shaped by that background.  To the degree that your experience differs from mine, take these suggestions with a grain of salt.  For instance, a new third grade teacher in Vermont may not find this very helpful at all.  Still, there should be a few ideas in here that anybody could adapt to their use.


  1. Sit your desk in the front of the room, not the back: the thinking that students will act more maturely if they don’t know if you’re looking at them is wrong–they couldn’t care less.  Also, make sure there is enough room by the back wall for you to walk around behind them if you need to.  Letting students sit up against the back wall, with no other access than from coming down an aisle, is asking for trouble.  “Creative” seating arrangements, except in rare circumstances like class discussions and debates, don’t work: just arrange them in ranks and files. 
  2. As the year starts, you’ll be overwhelmed by the paperwork and routines your administrators demand.  Ask a couple of people who have been at your campus for a while what’s really important to them: most of that rigmarole is just your administrators doing what their bosses told them to do; they don’t care about it any more than you do.  Veterans at your school can tell you what you can safely ignore.  You have enough to worry about without jumping through hoops for the office.
  3. Kids will complain all the time, about everything, and there’s not much you can do about it.  Learn to screen out the groans, the whining, the muttered complaints of “boring” and “sucks.”  Don’t take it personally, because they don’t mean it personally.  They’ve been trained by the media and their hormones to automatically hate everything at school.  Just go ahead with your lesson anyway.  They’ll be fine.
  4. Every time you get a note or an email from a parent thanking you–or saying anything positive at all–print it out and save it in a file where you keep things like your teaching license, contract, and resume.  When somebody complains to your supervisor about how you do your job–which, if you’re doing it right, they will–providing copies of such recommendations might come in handy.
  5. All “staff development” and “teacher in service” days exist to promote fads.  If you get to attend a really useful one every two years or so, count yourself lucky.  You might have to go through the motions of adopting some gimmick presented at one of these meetings, but don’t worry–everybody will forget about it soon enough and go back to normal.  Don’t feel bad about skipping some of these if you can get away with it so you can do something actually productive: planning rigorous lessons and editing papers.
  6. I say “editing papers” because it’s more constructive than “grading papers.”  Written assignments should be graded like this: Read through them and mark the first five grammatical/mechanical errors.  Grade the paper based on that much: the style, voice, organization, and, of course, how far you got in the paper before you found five errors.  If five errors appeared within the first half page, make them do it over before you give it a grade. 
  7. Resist the urge to try to edit every error in every paper: there just aren’t enough hours in the day.  For this reason, short assignments are better than long ones, most of the time.  They need drilling, not marathons. 
  8. As much as possible, provide written directions for your assignments to students.  Oral directions alone are worthless, and just putting them on the board isn’t much better.  Students today seem to work best when they have individual copies of instructions, especially if they can keep them.  Also, you’ll be surprised by how many students will understand directions better if you simply explain them directly to them, one on one.  Even if you only repeat exactly what you just said to the whole class, some kids will “get it” better. 
  9. No matter what you teach, read out loud to your class.  A lot.  Most students these days have so little positive experience with reading, and so little ability to realistically “hear” a story in their heads as they read, that this training is truly essential, at any age.  Even for teenagers, move around and use dramatic or silly voices as you read; again, such exaggeration models the kind of active screening of written words that they probably lack.  Your poorest readers will want to watch you instead of reading along.  I used to be a stickler about making them look at the pages of their book, but I’ve since come to think that this is counterproductive for them.
  10. PC Myth #1: “Don’t worry about the smart kids.  They’ll take care of themselves.”  If I had a nickel for every time I heard this lie in college, I’d be able to supplement my income enough now to live like my friends in real estate did a few years ago.  The problem with this line, and a lot of other popular thinking like it, is that so many teachers subscribe to it now that the smart kids have almost nobody left rooting for them.  Their intelligence often gets wasted in our schools, with so few of us willing to challenge and expand it.  Please, do not ignore the smartest kids (even though they may be among your most annoying students). 
  11. The last five minutes of every class should look like this: a quick review of that day’s content (either by calling on a few kids to answer simple questions about what was done that day, or quick written answers done on scratch paper and handed directly to you as they leave), a reminder about that day’s homework (you should also check at the door that they have this written down somewhere, preferably with a time set aside to work on it), and have them help you pick up the room by checking around their own areas for any garbage or materials that need to be put away.  When the bell rings, make a show of inspecting the room, then stand at the door and check their review work (if applicable) and homework reminders as they leave.  If it’s not satisfactory, send them back in to do it correctly.  They’ll learn quickly enough.
  12. “Inspirational” posters are worthless.  Decorate your room with some artwork and some things that reflect your professional personality, but mostly with excellent student work. 
  13. Make lots of referrals to counselors.  Best case scenario: students get useful advice.  Worst case: you can document an intervention that covers your liability if they get in real trouble.
  14. If a student submits work that is illegible, incomplete, or that didn’t follow directions, don’t grade it.  Return it to the student and tell them that they have three days to correct/finish it and resubmit it to you, but emphasize that it’s “on them.”  You won’t remind them again, and if they fail to turn it in, they will get a zero.
  15. Keep a file of IEP and 504 plans you’re given on students.  Highlight the things that you’re obligated to do.  Be sure that you implement them enough to justify compliance if the student still fails or if a parent complains.  This isn’t meant to be derogatory to those students or parents, but most of these accommodations, in my experience, are unnecessary and ultimately counterproductive.  Most of the useful ones are things that, as a good teacher, you do anyway.  However, some parents demand IEP’s and 504’s as ways of “insuring” that their children pass classes, and if they don’t, the parents will come for your head.  Since you can expect no sympathy from the staff at your school (these are, after all, legally binding documents) be ready to defend yourself.  If you can’t explain how you’ve complied with the requirements of a student’s accommodations, you’ll be hot water, and you don’t need that kind of grief.
  16. PC Myth #2: “Students must be comfortable with their environment to learn.”  Horsefeathers!  Learning entails growth and change, which demands sweat.  You don’t need to purposely embarrass students, but you do need to hold them accountable to high standards.  This might take the form of pop quizzes, oral quizzes, or making them re-do poor assignments.  If students fail to turn in an assignment and the class is ready to move on to the next one, make the “slackers” do the first assignment before they’re allowed to progress. 
  17. As soon as possible before school starts, ask the counselors for a student aide.  Every day, have him or her grade at least one set of papers, but make sure it’s something simple: questions from the textbook with concrete answers, or worksheets or quizzes.  Don’t give them writing assignments or anything especially creative to grade, or projects.  Don’t worry about “having one more kid to babysit;” a good student aide is priceless.  Be sure to get him or her something for Christmas and their birthday.
  18. When possible, segregate boys and girls.  Separating students by grade level, race, income, etc. is pointless, but separating them by gender always gets academic results.  If the teacher next door teaches the same subject, consider collaborating on some lessons, and each of you takes all the students of one gender.  Sorry if this offends anyone, but it works.
  19. If some 17-year-old boy enters your class of freshmen, do not sit him next to some 14-year-old girl.  Her father thanks you.
  20. Every subject should require a lot of memorizing.  Not just names and dates, but entire poems and speeches, etc.  You’ll know it’s valuable because they’ll complain bitterly.  It’s when students are complacent that you should worry.
  21. A quick turn-around time on returning graded work is a must.  If this means grading some assignments on completion (which is OK sometimes, if the nature of the assignment is such that simply doing it necessitates doing it right), so be it.  Some assignments can be graded on every other question, etc.  As I said before, keep writing assignments short.  If students get work back in a timely manner, they’re more likely to care about it.  If an assignment comes back after about two weeks and they don’t even remember it anymore, it’s worthless.  Only return assignments that a) they’ll need to study, or b) they put a lot of effort into (or should have).  Not all work is worth keeping track of.
  22. Keep some blank greeting cards in your desk to scribble notes on for students who need cheering up or special congratulations, etc.  Get Thomas Kinkade covers if you can.
  23. When studying a play as a class, do not assign parts and have them read out loud.  They’re terrible at it, and it will kill the play.  If your department doesn’t have audio performances of the play for them to listen to while they read along, your public library will.
  24. Please, please, please don’t show a lot of videos.  Whenever you do, make sure there’s a graded assignment tied into it, even if it’s just listing ten facts from a documentary, or filling in a Venn diagram comparing a film to a novel.  No work = no accountability = no learning.  I can’t think of any good reason to devote more than three hours per quarter to videos. 
  25. Avoid group work.  They’ll usually just copy or play around.  Or both.  People who insist that students need practice “cooperating” and “working with others” are wrong.  They already know how to manipulate such systems and blend in.  They need practice being focused and responsible.  If you do give group work, please make sure that each individual has a specific product or element of the whole for which to be responsible and graded on.
  26. If you’re teaching punctuality, or if you simply want to lessen your load of papers to grade, don’t accept late work.  However, if your priority is educating students about the content of your field, then you must learn to deal with it.  Of course you’ll only accept it one day late, and for half credit, but even then you should be willing to make exceptions.  It’s not fair to you, I know, but if you cared about fair, you wouldn’t be a teacher.
  27. PC Myth #3: “All students can learn.”  Well, maybe they can, but many won’t.  Everybody loves an underdog, and you’ve probably been inspired by some movie where a misfit teacher doesn’t give up on some slacker with a heart of gold until said slacker unleashes their amazing hidden talent and excels.  In the real world, we can’t afford to dwell on those who choose to fail.  In any given class, about 5%-15% of the students will be unreachable.  Don’t waste your time trying to “save” them.  Meanwhile, the majority of your students are getting C’s and D’s when they really should be getting A’s and B’s.  Those students, the fat middle part of the bell curve, should be your priority.  Teach them.
  28. Administrators might insist that you have your lesson plans ready far in advance, which is pointless.  It’s too easy to look a month ahead and plan something so ambitious that it will never work.  Then, when that day comes, you’re stuck with a pipe dream that you can’t actually implement.  The best lesson plans are written two days in advance.  I suggest preparing some pages of generic lesson plans ready to show off at a moment’s notice so they’ll think you’re jumping through their hoops.  Life is just too fluid and unpredictable to plan further ahead than that and set details down in stone.  Be ready to adapt and improvise!
  29. However, you should plan your year like this: before school starts, chart out which novels, units, projects, major objectives, etc. you want to hit each quarter.  As that quarter approaches, add detail to your chart by breaking it down into each of the nine weeks, and add more specific goals and assignments at this time to build toward the major ones you outlined before: this is where you pencil in the smaller assignments that eventually become daily lesson plans.  This will make your “two days ahead” planning much easier.
  30. Have routines: every Friday morning is for independent reading, every other Tuesday is for literary response journals, Monday is for grading last week’s work in class and returning it, every Friday at the end of class is for notebook checks, the last two days of the first half of each quarter are for reviewing for unit tests, etc.  This will help big time with lesson planning.
  31. Never let students be in your classroom when you’re not there.  Lock your door when you’re out.
  32. Mentoring is the ultimate teaching.  Model the kind of adult you want your students to become: carry books around with you, don’t swear, discuss world events, etc. 
  33. If a student is copying another student’s paper, take both papers and give them zeroes.  Do this even if the papers were for another class, and give them to that other teacher.  Further punishment than this is not productive.
  34. Post on your board that you will not accept any kind of late work or even discuss grades during the last week of each quarter.  This will save your sanity.
  35. Have a file set aside somewhere to put papers with no names on them, for students to look through when they wonder why they got a zero on something “they swear they turned in.”  Give them half credit when they find it in there.
  36. Let them prepare an index card of notes to use on major exams.  This is about the only way to get them to study.
  37. Fewer projects, more writing.  Projects don’t teach nearly as much as we’d like to think they do, and they need more practice writing, anyway.
  38. Wake them up with a warning the first time they fall asleep.  Don’t yell or bang anything to do it, just nudge their shoulder with your knuckles. 
  39. Cell phones and iPods are evil.  Period.  Get yourself a reputation as an inveterate hater of all electronic toys in the classroom.
  40. Unless you’re reading out loud to them, there is never a good reason for you to be talking for more than five minutes at a time.  If they’re not working hard independently, they’re not learning.
  41. PC Myth #4: “Students must be able to relate to content to understand or care about it.”  How condescending!  They’re not here to be pandered to, to have their warped, manufactured view of the world reinforced.  They’re here to expand their horizons.  That means intellectual humility borne of introspection brought on by exposure to challenging new ideas.  Shock and awe, baby.
  42. Bloom’s taxonomy is useful for planning assignments, but the “multiple intelligences” theory is not.  Every student wants to be a “people-oriented communicator,” and thinks they are…but they aren’t.  This world revolves around numbers and written words, and the things that radiate from them, and to the degree that we diverge from that in our training of our students, we do them a disservice.
  43. Keep a journal where you record funny moments in your class, memories of students who genuinely gained something from you, photos of themselves at dances that they give you, and anything else that’s positive.  It will save you when you’re ready to tear your hair out.
  44. The perfect balance between professional and approachable behavior is impossible.  In general, lean towards more professional.  Assume that every student is out to get you; don’t give them anything to use against you.  This might appear extreme, but after your first few angry parents, you’ll learn to be cautious.
  45. Most students will need very frequent grade updates to stay at all motivated.
  46. Go into every parent conference armed with copies of updated grade reports, recent samples of the student’s work, and any disciplinary paperwork related to the student.  If they have an IEP or 504, bring it and be ready to explain how you’ve complied with it.
  47. If you have a problem with a student, email their other teachers for advice: someone knows how to deal with him.  If the student is in ROTC or plays a sport, go to the officers or coaches.  They will get you results fast. 
  48. Detention is rarely worth it.  If you do make a student come in, make them use the time to do homework for your class, or clean your room.
  49. Collect homework as soon as the day starts.  Anyone who was “finishing” it after that gets half credit.
  50. Never, ever, ever take any work home with you.

Recommended Reading: The Last Lecture

You’ll notice that this post is being filed under “living well,” rather than “language and literature” or “arts.”  Don’t let that fool you into thinking that I recommend this book merely as inspirational fluff–despite the gushing tributes this book has received since Professor Randy Pausch’s untimely death two weeks ago, The Last Lectureis not primarily designed to choke you up and give you a warm fuzzy feeling, nor is it a pity party for Dr. Pausch. 

In fact, even though it’s far closer to the truth, I think we’d be wrong to characterize it as a “seize the day” manifesto for making the most of our lives.  Certainly most people will look at it that way, and they’re not entirely wrong to do so, but The Last Lecture has much more in common with Life’s Little Instruction Book or even The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People than it does with, say, Chicken Soup for the Soul or I’m OK, You’re OK.  It’s not inspirational–it’s didactic.

Pausch is a teacher, and throughout the book he explicitly tells us that he is using this opportunity to teach; he’s teaching his children how to live well and, through that project, us as well.  I picked up The Last Lecture wondering if it would have been such a big deal had not the author been dying; as I read it, I realized that it probably wouldn’tbe such a big deal if the author weren’t dying, but not for the reason I’d feared.  This book is absolutely not a sensationalist exploitation of a man’s own death; if not for Pausch’s cancer, I wonder if most readers would have been bored. 

Dr. Randy Pausch, 1960-2008 <i>Ave Ate Vale</i>
Dr. Randy Pausch, 1960-2008 Ave Atqe Vale

Pausch only mentions his disease relatively rarely, and only then to help illustrate a point about something else he’s already telling us.  In fact, the book would work just as well if he never mentioned it at all.  The Last Lecture is a practical, sober, down to earth manual of ideas not for feeling good so much as for being productive.  Granted, that productivity is meant in terms of relationships as well as career goals and general self-improvement, but we sell this wonderful little book short if we only view it as a sappy ode to “living in the moment.”

For example, there’s a chapter about Alice, a free online download that Pausch helped develop that teaches people how to program animation.  Being fairly computer illiterate myself, I was happy to learn about this and have already set it up on my own hard drive.  He also has some good advice about using Girl Scout thin mint cookies to help people be productive with you, and to build relationships by expressing gratitude.  It’s a great idea, and next year I’ll stock up on those cookies. 

There’s even a chapter on time management (see, I told you it was like The Seven Habits). 

But if it’s not a syrupy Hallmark card, neither is it a cold-blooded textbook.  Pausch has an engaging, accessible style that lends itself well to this kind of counsel; at one point he writes, “this is just the stuff that worked for me.”  No heavy-handed pontificating here.  His many anecdotes are clever and his constant self-deprecating humor is often laugh-out-loud funny. 

So when you read The Last Lecture, you might need a box of tissues, but I sure didn’t.  What I did need was some paper for taking notes on Pausch’s many great ideas for working hard and enjoying it, and an eraser to get rid of the scribbles I made while laughing at his story of painting his childhood bedroom…very poorly.

This book is a testament to how much Pausch achieved in life, and how he did it.  The book itself is a worthy accomplishment, one whose lessons are worth imitating, and a monument to a life well lived.