Category Archives: From the seamy underbelly of rm 33

Live every week like it’s Shark Week.

Or so a wise man once said.

And that’s just what I’ve been doing since 5.30 Monday morning when I loaded up two charter buses with 85 sweaty 14 and 15 year olds and set off for a week of traveling and college tours around Texas and oh dear Lord am I about to lose it. It’s a fact I learned very shortly after I started teaching, but it’s never more salient than on spring trip week – as the chaperones get more tired, the kids get more exponentially more irritating.

Actually, the kids are quite good. They’ve been attentive during college information sessions, they’ve held doors for each other on campuses, they’ve even gone to bed and stayed there at reasonable times. Thank heavens they’re all much better kids than I was at their age. Not a one of them sneaked liquor on the bus in a Pepsi bottle, nor have any of them jumped out a window to go make out with some wierd guy they just met. Both of those are highlights from a youth group weekend retreat, by the way.


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What work is.

At the end of my certification course in Louisiana each member of the certification cohort was assigned a project addressing our view of the relationship between teaching and learning. Three women in my group (two of whom were cheerleading sponsors at their high school) did an interpretive dance. One very strange man who had a fictional wife who turned out to be a fictional boyfriend who turned out to just be fictional baked a cake. My project involved a vase, Christmas lights, and slips of paper with text on them.

The final project was a paper written by a man who had been a religious studies and philosophy major in college. He turned out to be a bit of an ass – he was of the pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps school of thought and figured that since he, a white, lower-middle class farmboy from Indiana, had gotten himself to college, his students should do the same – but damn did he write a mean paper. It was a veritable philosophical treatise on the nature of the teacher-student relationship. He read the paper to us the evening of our last seminar as we sat around the coffeetable of our mentor teacher’s house, wine glasses cozied in our palms.

And when he was done we all just sat and stared at each other.

Finally, someone said, “I feel like teaching has made me dumber.”

Of course teaching had made none of us dumber. We all had learned a countless number of things that year, from how to write project directions so our students could understand and follow them to how to break up a fight (or when not to – hint: when it involves girls) to how to get kids to sit down and stop talking.

But that one year – just one year away from university and a certain kind of discourse – had changed the kind of language that was available to us. I learned what “chirren,” and “hot fries” were and I learned new meanings for “messy” and “disgusting,” and my use of language, my way of using language as a means of observing and interacting with the world changed. I was aware of this change as a kind of flattening in my head. Some of it was exhaustion, some of it was the emotional strain of being a complete failure in an arena in which I had expected immediate success, and a great deal of it was the simple fact that the language in my daily life had changed.

That first year in New Orleans I was too exhausted and too horrified most of the time to write in the way I had in college. All I could think to do most days was record the place and time I was sitting and then write whatever story my students had told me that day. My notebook from that year is full of entries like, “Starbucks on St. Charles and Washington. Exhausted. Today N. told me she was stabbed in her knee and that’s why she couldn’t participate in the geography review” and “CC’s on Maple. B. is pregnant, four months.” The world flattened out and I wrote what I could write and it became extremely difficult to look and read and listen in a way that allowed me to write more.

Two years later I read more and I write more. I have the energy and, to some extent, the time, to think about language in a way that I sorely missed my first two years of teaching. But I do still struggle with the question of how to make writing sustainable when I’m not in a field that directly supports it. It seems to be a question of both time – the only time I write is before 6AM, when I get ready to go to work, or times like now, when my students are taking standardized testing and I’m engaged in minimal supervision – and of language and of community. It’s harder to write and to feel compelled two write when no else in your daily life is talking about writing.

If you’re a writer who isn’t in grad school or working at a university, how do you make your writing sustainable? How do find the time to write and how do you stay connected to a community that values writing? Has the language that’s part of your daily life (and your workplace, if your job and workload is anything like mine) changed your way of observing and writing? How do you, to borrow a phrase from my favorite bookstore in New Orleans, fight the stupids?

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Filed under From the seamy underbelly of rm 33, The written word.

Get up and go to work.

E., a favorite student of mine, is heartbreakingly intelligent and perceptive, actually one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known. I gave a pre-AP field test a few weeks ago and E. scored higher, by a large margin, than any other 9th grader in our district. He has fascinating thoughts about the role of fate in everything from Oedipus Rex to his own life. He reads his sister’s college textbooks and likes to discuss Freakonomics and independent film.

And yet he has a lower GPA than almost any other student in the ninth grade. He failed 7th grade because he couldn’t be bothered to do work he wasn’t interested in. He failed health because he thought the fake baby made out of a flour bag simulation was beneath him and refused to do it. He’s earned more detentions than any student save one in the whole high school.

I like E. so much personally and have such sympathy for his frustration with the busy work and daily grind of high school. My most prominent memories of high school, at least the actual school part, are of a grinding boredom, of shuffling from one classroom to another and being profoundly uninterested in a lot of what was happening in class. I realize that for E., reading his geography textbook and answering the chapter assessment questions (a lame but potentially useful activity for some of his peers) is mind-numbingly boring for a kid who spends his free time doing independent research on a variety of topics. So he doesn’t do it. Making vocabulary flashcards and writing vocabulary sentences every week for my class is a useless activity for a kid who already has a larger working vocabulary than most college students. So he doesn’t do it.

E. and I made a deal earlier in the year that he isn’t required to do most homework assignments in my class because he doesn’t need the additional practice most of the time and he’s doing so much serious reading on his own. He has a variation on this deal with most of his teachers (including the health teacher, who told his mother during a parent-teacher conference that most of the homework she assigns is just “busy work, since we have to turn in grades” – but that’s a whole other issue).

And he’s still failing several classes.

I also teach E.’s cousin, C. C. is also very bright, though not in quite the same off-the-charts innate intelligence way. But she’s the classic kind of “teacher-pleaser” gifted student. She’s smart, she’s hardworking, she’s pleasant. She raises her hand and has the right answer. She gets along well with her classmates. Even if she thinks an assignment is silly, she does it. Even if she thinks a rule is arbitrary, she follows it. I doubt she’s ever gotten less than an A in her life. She reminds me quite a bit of myself at that age (although I was far more self-conscious and uncomfortable with my nerdiness than she is).

Sometimes I wish she’d take a cue from her cousin.

I admire E.’s independent mind, his determination to do only what he thinks is worthwhile. I respect his love of learning for the sake of learning and the breadth and depth of subjects he’s interested in. I want to tell C. that getting the A doesn’t actually mean you’ve learned anything.

But lately, I’ve been thinking that I’ve really been shortchanging E. by having such respect for his lackadaisical work ethic and failure to comply with the bell schedule, uniform, and homework policies.

So much of life – and this was a very difficult realization after I graduated from college, and one I still struggle with sometimes – is just getting up and going to work. You get up and go to work because that’s what people do. You organize papers in file folders and sharpen pencils because the papers have to go somewhere and the pencils won’t sharpen themselves. Your boss asks you to fill out paperwork that you think is silly and you do it because that’s your job. And you do it on time, because that’s your job, too.

All those As I earned in college, my scores on the SAT and the GRE, all the things I cherished (and still do, to be entirely honest) as proof of what a smartypants I was – they have very little to do with success outside of school. But the other lessons of school – coming to class on time, turning in work, raising your hand when you have something to say – have everything to do with success outside of school.

As bright as E. is, I worry that as an adult he’ll continue to struggle with getting himself to work on time and completing a project once he’s started it. I worry that he won’t get into the kind of college his brilliance merits. I worry he’ll lose the opportunity to study with the kind of intensity I know he craves.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that between now and 2010 he learns a lot more about all the things that interest him – and a little more about just getting the work done.

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Un pedazo de coraz√≥n


The (blurry) picture is of the bulletin board in my room where I posted the Valentines my students (9th graders! smelly, snotty, too-cool-for-school 9th graders!) gave me yesterday. They’re in Spanish, which I can read just badly enough to make out. “Mi maestra favorita,” anyone?

It’s the kind of warm fuzzy stuff that reminds me why I became a teacher in the first place (other than graduating from college with a degree in poetry and an overpowering feeling of panic). Soon I’ll be wearing holiday-themed sweaters, tapered jeans, and a brooch that says, “Teachers have class.”

Heaven help us all on the day after Valentine’s Day, though – the children have all the energy and motivation of cokeheads in the morning. Many a cavity was lovingly begun yesterday, I have no doubt, and by me as well, starting with the frosted and pink sugar topped cookie a student gave me at 7.30 yesterday morning.

The alarmingly large baby head is my adorable baby cousin, the only child sweet enough to make me think that own of my one might be a good idea some day. Since she and the rest of my family live in Pennsylvania, I never met her until after her first three months of nonstop colicky screaming. She’s nothing but giggles and fat baby legs every time I see her.

* * * *

Let no one forget, however, in this season of love, that we are also beginning the season of standardized testing. I’ll be subjecting my kids to the first round of the TAKS on Tuesday. Standardized testing isn’t a big deal at my school because our kids tend to do pretty well, but it’s a huge deal in most of the surrounding districts. After all, teachers have been copying and administering practice tests since September, in the vain hope that working on one more set of sample multiple choice questions will somehow edge a child who can’t really read or write into a passing score. And to be fair, most of the test-drilling is forced on teachers by their district, who don’t really know what else to do when everyone’s fate is tied to a score that’s the result of a few hours of high-stakes testing.

The most clever and telling assessment of this system I’ve heard lately came from a woman who’s in one of my graduate education classes and had recently traveled to Austin to lobby for the education budget. She said, “Weighing the cow doesn’t make it heavier.”

* * * *

In other news, Grouchypants made good this Valentine’s day. I came home from Target where I bought his last minute gift (a popcorn popper, continuing a tradition of small appliances, after I gave him a mini-chopper for our last anniversary – let no one say romance is dead) and found him cooking a delicious dinner of stuffed shells and garlic bread. Then we snuggled in with a bottle of red wine to watch this week’s Lost and realized, ugh, they pushed it back an hour, which kept us up long past our usual 9.30 bedtime.

It was all worth it at the end when Desmond revealed that it’s Charlie and not Claire he’s been trying to save from various untimely deaths. Now I’m just counting down until whiny Charlie’s final moments. Think he’ll turn back to the drugs once he realizes his days are numbered?

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A woman’s place is in the House

And in the Senate.

A snippet of life inside my classroom:

P., the child in question, is the kind of fourteen-year old whose hair has clearly never met a comb and whose lips and hands are constantly streaked blue because he just can’t keep pens out of his mouth.

Me: Why do you think it is that so many other nations – Great Britain, New Zealand, Germany – have been able to elect female leaders, but we have yet to have a woman even run for president?

P.: Because they use the metric system!

The title, incidentally, is from a shirt that my very best girlfriend all through high school wore at least every other day our sophomore year. When I was home this past Christmas, she met another friend and me for coffee, but couldn’t go out because she had to go home to cook dinner for her husband. Oh, the irony.

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