“To Essay”

As I discussed my notes about their first big essay of the year with my college students this week, it became clear to me that nobody had ever explained to them why we write essays. They saw the exercise as a pointless waste of time.

So I got some more mileage out of my trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. I read them parts of the entry for the word “essay.” Specifically, I pointed out the it entered the language as a verb, not a noun.

As seen below, “to essay” really just means “to try, to attempt, to practice, to accomplish.” Example sentenced: “The noble knight essayed the glorious task of eating a thousand fish tacos.”

Moral of the story: today, when we write an essay, we are trying, attempting, practicing, accomplishing…what? To prove an assertion, to describe a new idea to others so they can share in our experience, to communicate clearly about something important between writer and reader.

These are–and I say this with no sarcasm–truly crucial skills, demanding the very greatest of all our energies in both teaching and learning. The world needs these skills, and needs them to be developed and implemented widely.

So maybe the “noble knight” example isn’t such a joke after all.

 

oed

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Throwing Away Essays

Yesterday I read an essay by a college freshman that began with the paragraph below.

“Alright class, pick up your pencils and write me an essay about something that will bore you to death”. Those are the words that my sophomore high school english teacher told us one day when he had nothing planned for our class. The entire class was in shock, but that statement was only the beginning. Each one of us wrote our essays and when that sweet sound of the bell rang, we threw our papers onto his cluttered desk and ran off, escaping the torture of listening to the clock go “tick tock” for fifty-two minutes. Two class periods later, I witnessed something I never thought would happen. I watched my teacher throw a pile of paper into the trash, but it wasn’t just any pile of paper, it was our essays we wrote just two hours ago. It was at that moment when I felt that teachers really didn’t care about our creative minds and our writing talents. It was at that moment when I felt that writing was just a waste of time and that teachers made us write boring essays just to keep their job.

There are at least four big red flags here: the unprepared teacher, the callous nonchalance with which he or she appears to address students, the nonsense assignment itself, and the almost immediate disposal of nearly an hour’s worth of student work.

I get the impression from the student’s lack of surprise that this kind of thing was not uncommon.

I’m completely stunned. This is outrageous. I sent this paragraph to the principal of the school in question, for him to deal with or not as he or she sees fit. I won’t say what high school this student attended, but I will tell that it is one of the relatively newer, richer schools in the valley.

I’ve mentioned before a department meeting I attended about a decade ago where an older teacher freely admitted that she refused to read student essays. I think that’s a deal breaker, and anyone with such an attitude does not belong in the classroom.

Yes, it’s incredibly frustrating and time consuming, but bottom line, it’s our job.

And using essay writing as time wasting filler and then simply discarding it is nothing less than education’s version of malpractice.

And the student’s “lesson” learned at the end of that paragraph…it’s just absolutely heartbreaking. I teach writing because I love it and I know it’s important. Too important and lovely to be screwed up like that.

I hope I can help this student have a redemptive experience with writing instruction and practice this semester.

Student Notes, pt. 3

A few months ago a class took notes on a documentary about Moby Dick. One student turned in her notes with a message to me on the back. Part lament about her peers, part motivation directly to me, part celebration of the material we were studying, it’s that last part especially that makes me love this little letter.

Here it is, if you can’t read the text in the picture.

Looking around at students in this classroom, this regular, non-honors or AP classroom…I see some of the smartest people I have ever met, people who are witty and are charmed by life, but are not paying attention. They are either entrigued [sic] or completely indifferent, either way it’s because they are not encouraged. They see this book and they see a story about a whale, not a journey or the fight for truth; they have the potential, it’s all there, but no one asks them to care, they ask for completion, for quantity, to get things done. They are exhausted by the idea of looking deeper.

I see these students, full of wonder overshadowed by lack of will, then I see straight up uninterested, boring students who do the absolute minimum, sometimes less, and they are dumb. They don’t think about anything. They don’t think about any of this stuff. It doesn’t interest them. Instead, they are laughing loudly on purpose (for attention of course, to distract everyone else from the philosophy unfolding in front of them because it’s about them, and they like it that way).

Mr. Huston, don’t sell this stuff short, it’s exciting, it’s not uninteresting just because few people believe it is, this is important and wonderful.

IMG_20170228_134216249

“Secondary Literacy Instruction Non-Negotiables”

I got this handout at a training several years ago, and it’s one of the very few that I’ve ever liked. I keep this with a handful of other useful such things for when I do lesson planning. Everything on here is pretty sound. I recommend it for any middle or high school teacher looking for a firm curricular foundation for big picture planning.

The bit at the beginning about “70% non-fiction to 30% fiction” has always been controversial, but that’s meant to be understood as covering a student’s entire schedule, meaning that the burden does not fall on an English teacher to strike that balance–the readings in history and science classes, for example, will comprise a lot of that 70%.

That part about quarterly research projects is a tad ambitious, too, but I try to have smaller research-based assignments and mini-units throughout the year (source evaluation, internal citation, etc.), with one big project towards the end of the year. Right now, in fact!

Non negotiables

Non negotiables

An Open Letter to the Nevada State Senate About Senate Bill 225

To the Nevada State Senate:

Though Senate Bill 225 may have been introduced with the best of intentions, I must urge the Senate not to pass it, for three significant reasons.

  1. It could lead to an unsafe environment where predators may operate.

The mother of a transgender student (and a major proponent of this bill) was recently interviewed by the Las Vegas Sun about the “bullying” her child had been subjected to at school. It boiled down to not being allowed in the opposite gender’s locker room (https://lasvegassun.com/news/2017/mar/22/parents-lawmakers-want-anti-bullying-law-at-privat/). It appears, then, that this is the kind of situation SB 225 is meant to rectify (Section 6.3 of the bill, for example, can be read this way).

In March 2017, Kristen Quintrall, who describes herself as “pretty progressive and tolerant,” was at Disneyland with her young son and reported seeing an aggressive man in the women’s restroom, ogling them. This was not a transgender person—it was a man taking advantage of the current policies there about transgender people to create a hostile and dangerous situation for women. (http://www.thegetrealmom.com/blog/womensrestroom)

There have been many recent incidents of women being assaulted in public restrooms, particularly at Target, which has promoted itself as a bastion of “non-discrimination” regarding gender and its bathrooms (http://downloads.frc.org/EF/EF16F27.pdf).

Surely, Nevada does not want to create unsafe spaces for women and girls, much less open itself to the legal liability which will ensue from policies that set up the circumstances under which such tragedies could occur in the first place.

Please note that this objection has nothing to do with transgender people themselves. In the interest of serving their wants, we would also be creating a serious problem for many others. If this bill passes and leads to universally open locker rooms and bathrooms, heterosexual predators will abuse this policy and innocent women will suffer. We cannot stick our heads in the sand and ignore that.

  1. It could restrict freedoms of speech and conscience.

Continue reading

Student Notes, part 2

My junior classes are finishing Huckleberry Finn soon, and last week one student showed me something she found in the copy of the book that I’d checked out to her.

There were a series of notes sprinkled throughout–little motivational conversations left by a former student, intended to cheer up whatever random readers might come across it in the future.

It took me a bit, but I now remember the girl who put those notes in there a few years ago. Her plan to spread some joy worked–at least one student has appreciated her efforts.

Here is the note she left at the end of the book. It says, “It’s been an incredible journey and I’m glad I was able to share it with you! I hope my little notes of encouragement helped you finish the book by making the task a little more fun! All I ask in return is that you keep this note and all of the others in place so future readers can have the same experience you did! Have a wonderful rest of your high school career and remember to follow your dreams and make an adventure, like our friend Huck, here did. [heart] Alexis, 2014”

Further proof that I work at the coolest school in the world!

alexis

Two Nice Student Notes

One class recently finished a unit on Romanticism. After a couple of days on Transcendentalism, I sent them out into our quad to take notes on as much “nature” as they could find there, with directions to imitate the style of Thoreau. The last section of the notes focused on drawing life lessons from these observations, like Thoreau did in Walden.

One girl turned in her notes with this awesome little addendum at the end. Clearly, she got the point. I drew the smiley face.

note1

Another girl turned hers in with this attachment:

note2

Yes, It Was An Ambush

The latest article causing a self-righteous kerfuffle in the ever-outraged teacher blogosphere is this one: a group of students met with a Texas state senator to discuss school vouchers, and the exchange became combative.

The usual suspects are scolding the senator for his tone, and praising the students for being so well prepared for the meeting. However, this one line in the article makes me very worried: “They were given articles to review about private school vouchers before meeting with the senator.”

I have some questions about this:

  • Which articles were given to the students?
  • Were they taught to analyze and evaluate those sources, or just to absorb the ideas in them?
  • Were materials representing both sides of the issue provided?
  • Were the students encouraged to question the motives of their own teachers in this situation or not?

But I think we all know the answers. And thus we see the death of critical thinking.

A PTA mom quoted in the article said that the event was not an ambush, but clearly, it was.

Literacy Victories!

One of the best things I get to be part of as a teacher is introducing young people to great books they love. Granted, 99% of what I do in this department falls on deaf ears, but those glorious moments of success–few and far between though they are–really do make it all worth it.

Here are a few recent ones:

Last semester for a book project, one girl chose to read The Handmaid’s Tale from a list of options I gave. She loved it and, when they all had to do presentations on their books, she was overjoyed to learn that it’s being made into a series on Hulu.

Cormac McCarthy is always a safe bet. I often recommend his books to students, and they tend to love him. So many kids read his various books last semester that some classes had spontaneous compare/contrast discussions where they picked up on stylistic and thematic trends across his works. They did this on their own.

Earlier this month I had classes take notes on a documentary about Moby Dick. At the end of class when they turned their notes in, one girl was so excited about it that she had already put the ebook on her phone and said that she’d start reading it that weekend. This wasn’t assigned–she just wanted to read Moby Dick on her own. For fun.

Why This Teacher Isn’t Afraid of Betsy DeVos

Some opinions are universal. “Bacon tastes good.” “Adam Sandler movies are stupid.” “Oxygen is totally the best atmospheric gas for human respiration.”

Among teachers, another example would be, “Betsy DeVos would be bad as Secretary of Education.” But I don’t agree.

I’m not pro-DeVos, I’m just not anti-DeVos.

As is usually the case, many of the arguments against her are spurious. One meme I saw criticized her for her personal donations to Christian schools. That was it–the menacing specter of Christian schools must clearly be a minus. And the bear thing? Besides being exaggerated by a hostile press, if everybody who’d ever choked under pressure and said something dumb were disqualified for public service, nobody would ever be able to do anything, including me, and including you.

“DeVos will destroy public education!” my colleagues say. I spent last year saying that the similar argument for Trump (“Electing Trump is our last chance to save American from total destruction!”) is likewise misguided: if something–be it education or America itself–is in such sorry shape that one person can easily save or destroy it, then we truly are already doomed. If Betsy DeVos is capable of destroying public education, then public education certainly needs to be destroyed. Let’s scrap this rubble heap and rise from the ashes.

Not that I really think such will be the case. Her administration will not damage public education…but neither will hers or anyone else’s help it.

About a decade ago, during some other school issue-related kerfuffle, I heard a teacher complain about how the right wing wanted to end the Department of Education. She ranted and raved a while, then stopped and shyly asked a group of us, “When was the Department of Education started?” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this august, esteemed institution harkens all the way back to the days of…Jimmy Carter.

To put it another way, the Department of Education is younger than Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.

This government boondoggle actually does have some significant power to plague teachers with pointless paperwork, but that’s about it.

So, whether DeVos gets in or not, I really couldn’t care less. Somehow, I expect that my classroom will proceed just the same.

 

Some Funny Student Writing

Last month I taught a lesson on parallelism as a rhetorical writing tool. At the end, I assigned students to come up with some examples of their own, based on templates I gave them. Here are some of my favorites:

  • There should be a woman in tears, running from the past; a man in love, chasing the girl; and a person in agony, awaiting the end.
  • It is not nice to play with dead bodies, to talk with them, or to dance with them.
  • Kermit the frog abuses his fame, ignores his children, and denies his dependence on PCP.
  • There should be a cat in labor, birthing the kittens; a dog in heat, attracting the males; and a centipede in solitude, contemplating the electoral college.
  • Obama created life, destroyed the housing market, and ate my parents.
  • Mr. Huston was a huge fan of showing the “relevant” episodes of The Simpsons, spoiling the Star Wars episodes, and disappointing the sociopaths of fourth period with bad jokes :)