Musings of an Old(er) Teacher

Thirty-three years ago, in August of 1986, I was a new teacher. Yes, I had a $14,600 contract…still living at home, still driving Mom’s old brown Pinto (with a gold racing stripe), still excited to start the first day of school. I went to school a few days before the first in-service to ready my room. There was my teacher desk–large, solid, stately. Scattered about the room were the thirty student desks, the rigid straight-back chairs, unyieldingly attached to the desks. The first thing I did was arrange the desks into orderly rows using the lines on the tile floor as my guide.  Perfect, an orderly room, an orderly class.  My next task was to move the ragged textbooks from the closet to the window sill. They were big old tattered-edged texts, each with a register of names and dates on the inside cover, a testament to a history of learning in this very classroom.  I made a note to gather the grocery bags from the garage at home, so the kids could cover them. Those books were to be cherished.  I took a moment to throw open the windows because the room was getting soupy. I wedged myself into a student desk to glance through the book’s table of contents.  Oh shit! There were Adventures in English Literature that I hadn’t yet taken or even heard of. All right.  Stay calm.  OK, there’s Chaucer. I can teach The Canterbury Tales; I’ve read The Canterbury Tales, of course not all of them.   Maybe I’ll teach my bright, young literary scholars some Sir Thomas Malory. Yes, they’ll love the Knights of the Round Table, and there’s a movie; I can rent that from Blockbuster. Good. I’m good. Wait.  Who’s Thomas Hoccleve? Fulke Greville? I can’t teach a guy named Fulke; I’d definitely slip up and call that guy, F#%^k. Again, rapidly fanning my face with splayed hands, I thought…stay calm.  The teacher desk!  Surely, the retired teacher left some files.  No no no no. Clearly, it had been time for her to retire.  Next task– into the trash with these files. A fresh start. Oh. Frustrated, panicked, I thought about my college classes.  Had they prepared me to teach?  Had student teaching prepared me to teach?  Again, no no no no no. I wondered if high school juniors and seniors would be interested in Horace Mann or Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains. I was clearly on my own; no cooperating teacher to sweep in and save me.  Day by day. I’ll just take it day by day. I’ll take the teacher text home (where the Fulke is that?), and I’ll prepare the first few days’ lessons. Right now, finish the room.  It must be 90° in this room! I covered the bulletin board with some wrapping paper and stapled a poster to it. I wrote “Miss Smith” on the blackboard in perfect cursive. I taped up some torn and faded posters I found in the closet. Good enough!  I had to get home and read 1,576 years of British literature. And, I should probably have some vocabulary exercises, and grammar worksheets.  I’ll have to teach a research unit to the seniors. There are some novels in the closet. What were those titles? Brave New World? I never read that.  I have to read that! A Separate Peace? Of Mice and Men? Where was Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues?  I spent hours reading, discussing, and writing about that for my now worthless feminist lit class. I thought I was so cool. Why was this room so hot? Why didn’t I take the “Books You’ll Need to Know if You’re Going to Teach High School English” class. Oh yea. That class wasn’t offered.  I decided to stop at the mall bookstore and buy Cliff’s Notes.

I got home and went right to work.  The Anglo-Saxon period and Beowulf.  First, the kids should read the introduction to the age and complete reading comprehension questions. The ladies in the office gave me a pile of that carbon paper where you take the tissue out from between regular paper and the gummy purple carbon paper, carefully insert it into the typewriter, and create a master copy to run through the ditto machine, so each student can catch a little buzz huffing the reading assignment. No, not that last part, but, no not that last part. I gently rolled the paper into my fancy electronic typewriter. I couldn’t make mistakes on carbon paper or I’d have to start again.  Fortunately, my fancy typewriter had a feature where I could type a line and it wouldn’t actually strike the paper until I hit the ENTER key.  I meticulously pecked out my questions line by line. Day one activity…done! The second day, I can go over the answers. I’ve got this! The textbook has questions at the end of Beowulf and even some essay prompts. Oh crap! Must I teach these kids how to write an essay?

In-service opening day came too quickly.  I wasn’t even through the Middle Ages. I arrived early to run my copies.  I found the archaic forlorn ditto machine in the faculty room. It was held together with erasers torn from the tops of pencils. I reverently placed my master into the clip of the cylinder. I put paper in the feeder tray, pumped the rubber toner button.  I checked everything before snapping the toggle switch. Ready? No no no no no. We need more erasers!  The sound was the most alarming part of the experience: thudump, thudump, thudump, and swoosh, swoosh, swoosh, then phlet, phlet, phlet. I flipped the toggle, but I was too late. I had a clump of wet, purple-smeared, illegible, stinky “worksheets.” Worst of all…my master was ruined. What would I do? My career was over. Goodbye $14,600. No time to agonize, the opening day meeting was about to begin.  I passed on the donuts and coffee because I was sure I was going to vomit. I arrived in the auditorium and sat in the first empty seat.  As it happened, I was sitting next to the new math teacher, Maria. Great, surely, she can commiserate with me. But, she seemed so confident, so at ease. Well, of course, stinking math people; they don’t have to read anything. But, I needed a friend. I told her about my ditto experience, and she told me that there was a machine in the library (a thermo-something) and the librarian could take a regular typed sheet, place it in the carbon paper, run it through the machine, and create a master. Great! She said that she had done that with her class rules and syllabus. Shit! I needed class rules and a syllabus. In-service was a blur (of course, I later came to realize that all in-services are a blur). I had to stand and be recognized as a new teacher.  The principal gave me a pin with an eagle on it.  I would have preferred a state-of-the-art Xerox machine or a stupid set of stupid class rules.

Day one with the kids also came too quickly.  I arrived early and visited the library to have the librarian use the thermo-something to make a master of my Anglo-Saxon intro and Class Rules.  The syllabus didn’t make it to school that day.  Flawless endeavor. Shout out to the best high school librarian of all time, Mr. Kowalski (my Special K)! All I had to do was conquer the AB Dick Model 217 Spirit Duplicator Ditto Machine held together with erasers and probably some gum and Scotch tape, and my career would be off to a magnificent start.    I was wearing a dress, slip, pantyhose, and heels. It had to be a million degrees in the hallway. I opened the door to the faculty room, and a tremendous cloud of smoke rolled out. Everyone was friendly, asking me if I was ready; I lied saying I was all set, fearlessly adding, “just need to make some copies.”  I think I heard someone snicker, and maybe even gasp.  I felt all eyes were on me as I gingerly placed my thermo-somethinged master on the cylinder.  Before I hit the toggle, I turned and said, “Somebody’s gotta help me.  I can’t lose this thermo-somethinged master.  If I do, I’m going home and never coming back.” Laughter. Cigarettes snubbed out. Coffee mugs set on the table. Chairs scraped back. Oh, please don’t leave me!  But, no, it was an all-out move to help the new girl. Everything changed. Everyone had my back. I was still nervous as hell, scared, exhausted, and ridiculously overwhelmed, but I wasn’t on my own.

I survived that year, 31 after that, and hopefully will enjoy a few more to come. In 1986, I spent each night preparing the next day’s lessons.  I never took a personal day or sick day because sub plans were impossible.  I signed out a TV and VCR on the days that I just couldn’t do it. I borrowed activities from other English teachers. I assigned reading days for the kids, so I too could read the material.  I made it. I made lasting friendships with colleagues.  I was maid of honor in Maria’s wedding that following summer! Today, my students’ parents come to open house and remind me that I was their teacher when I was “Miss Smith.” They tell stories that I vaguely recall. None of them say I was awful or that they didn’t learn nothin’.

I still get nervous as hell, scared, exhausted, and ridiculously overwhelmed before I start a new school year. I continue to go to school early to ready my room.  My students still sit in desks arranged in rows (an orderly room, an orderly class).  I still distribute textbooks and have kids cover them. I still have students answer comprehension questions on paper. I still create activities the night before I need them.  In-service, well, yea…still blurrrrrr. Somethings have changed and stayed the same. Special K retired, but I still rely on the librarian. The building’s now air-conditioned, but I’m still hot because now I’m freaking 54 years old. I show DVD movies through the projector onto the white board. I sometimes refer to Spark Notes for lit discussions. I give kids time to read in class, so I can get my work done. I create my activities on the computer, send them to the copier, and magically have a class set. There’s no smoking in the faculty room, but plenty of coffee and camaraderie.

Certainly, the obstacles in teaching are different now than they were in 1986. Challenges range from the simple, silly bean bag chairs alternative seating, to the annoying clandestine cell phones, to the frustrating over-testing and obsession with numbers, to the outright terrifying armed intruder drills.  One thing about teaching remains, your best resources are your colleagues.  I’ve been fortunate to work with people who are passionate and compassionate, knowledgeable, empathetic, and generous.  My advice to young and old(er) teachers, “Appreciate and rely on teachers. We are Fulkeing awesome!”

Love you, Lori

 

 

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Embracing Diversity in High School English Classes

I teach white and brown juniors and seniors in a small rural school.

There’s no overt acknowledgment of cultural diversity unless the kid wearing the “Make America Great Again” baseball cap (in violation of  the no hats dress code policy) makes an ignorant comment to his Mexican classmate about “the wall.”

Ignorance.

I recently met with administrators to get permission to add The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas to my seniors’ curriculum.   I implored, “Certainly our goal is to graduate kids who aren’t stupid, but what are we doing to graduate kids who aren’t ignorant?” Not my most eloquently stated point, but I was becoming emotional. One day I heard kids discussing “All Lives Matter.”  I recognized that they had no idea what “Black Lives Matter” means. After reading Thomas’s novel which so beautifully demonstrates the distinction, I decided to push for the novel’s addition to our class. I got rejected. There’s too much f-word, which is precisely how I responded to the rejection. Nevertheless, I was inspired to inject activities and discussions focussed on cultural diversity into my  existing curriculum.

I began with Othello.  I always pointed out racial slurs and had kids find other examples of racism in the play.  We discussed the inter-racial marriage and the varying reactions of the characters.  Now, we’re going a step further to examine stereotypes, race and gender. We’ll discuss xenophobia, a term unfamiliar to some students.  We look at stereotyping, xenophobia, racism, discrimination, and the unfairness of it all in our own world.

A Raisin in the Sun, clearly a play about discrimination and gender roles will be enhanced to include discrimination and gender roles that exist in white culture or Latino cultures, or Asian, Muslim, past, or present, her or there.

Our research project this year will prompt kids to explore the diversity of cultures that exists in America. The list of topics includes prominent people and significant events from categories labeled black, Latino, and Americans of Asian descent.

Our independent novel project offers choice of titles that immerse students in different cultures: The Joy Luck Club, The Kite Runner, Three Cups of Tea, and Love in the Time of Cholera to name a few.

The classroom is decorated with inspirational quotes about the benefit of living in a society made of people from diverse backgrounds and cultures.

I’ve got the materials ready to go, and I’m excited to dispel some of the ignorance.

I’m starting the year with “The Danger of a Single Story” the Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  If you’ve not seen it, take a look.  It’s changed the way I approach teaching literature.  I think it will serve as a great launching pad for the exploration and discovery I hope to achieve this year in my classroom.

Thanks for visiting.

Please suggest titles or leave ideas for cultural awareness enhancement in the classroom!

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Othello Unit

A Raisin in the Sun Unit

Exploring Diversity Research

Culture Globes Novel Project

Embracing Diversity Posters

The Danger of a Single Story Activity

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Are You Fascinated by Your Students’ Fascination with Their Smart Phones?

I had a student ask me if we were “doin’ anything important today.” When I ask him why he would ask, his response was, “Cuz I’m right in the middle of a movie, and I wanted to watch it in here.” Yep. He wanted to finish his movie in English class, wanted to listen with ear buds and watch a movie on his tiny screen. I cannot be the only teacher who is utterly mad over kids’ transfixation on their stupid phones!

Interestingly enough, the lesson that day focused on characterization. In the middle of our activity I spontaneously asked, “What songs do you think Daisy would have on her playlist? Do you think Tom follows the news? CNN or Fox? How about Nick? Do you think he has an Amazon wish list?

It then occurred to me that I could turn kids’ obsessions with social media and phones to account.  I created activities for a variety of literature that require students to imagine the cell phones of characters, historical figures, and even some contemporary characters in the news.  The reaction was enthusiastic and the response was overwhelming.  Students love this activity.  I get great results with accurate content to represent characterization and tremendous creativity.

Please visit my TpT store to browse these Creative Characterization Cell Phone Activities!

Creative Characterization Cell Phone Activities

 

 

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oh what a year!

 

Orwell’s “1984” and Trump’s America

In January of 2017,  The New Yorker published Adam Gopnick’s article, “Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Trump’s America,” comparing Orwell’s Oceania to today’s America.  The author begins with a confession that he was never a real fan of the novel. Potnick quotes the British author Anthony Burgess who long ago, noted that “Orwell’s modern hell was basically a reproduction of British misery in the postwar rationing years, with the malice of Stalin’s police-state style added on.” Potnick also takes a stab at another popular dystopian novels in our high school classrooms, Huxley’s Brave New World, calling it a permanent playground of sex and drugs persist[ing] in a fiercely inegalitarian society. Gopnick perceived Huxley’s England, AF 632 the better representation of our contemporary world. That was then…this is now.

It’s a year later, and we’ve amassed quite a collection of parallels between 1984’s society and our own.  Beginning with Kellyanne’s “alternative facts,” staggering through “fake news,” and crashing up against “the wall,” we been reminded of Orwell’s novel almost daily.  But what can we do with these parallels? How can 1984 and 2017 serve as a lesson to Americans?

If you never read the novel, read it.  If you’ve not read the novel since high school, read it again now.  If you not taught the novel in your high school English classroom, do it (or at least consider it). 1984 is an intense novel, and there are challenges to preparing and executing lessons that engage students and expose them to those ubiquitous and ominous parallels.

I am just wrapping up the 1984 unit with my seniors.  Their culminating activity is a group research and presentation project where they find the parallels between Oceania and America.  This past year’s coverage by real and fake news outlets has made the research component effortless.  Students are astounded, then afraid and often furious about their discoveries. The topics they are exploring include: Thought Control, Relationships, Propaganda, and Patriotism.  Their presentations are amazing and cannot be contained in the 45 minute period allotted to each group.  The conversations that this activity has initiated are some of the most intelligent and insightful exchanges that I’ve experienced as a teacher. When asked if our society would end up as oppressive and rigid as Oceania’s there was a resounding, “NO!” followed by comments such as “we’re too aware,” “we aren’t that weak,” and “not under my watch!” These responses demonstrate the power of teaching dystopian literature such as 1984 and Brave New World in high school.

Consider teaching dystopian literature.

It’s compelling.

It’s motivating.

It’s necessary.

Visit my TpT store for resources for teaching 1984 and Brave New World.  Enjoy!

1984 Resources

Brave New World Resources

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A Bundle of Activities for Christmastime

Here are SIX beautiful and engaging PowerPoint presentations in a bundle.  They are great for when the kids get wound up in anticipation of the holidays.

Bundle of Christmas PowerPoint Presentations

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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Christmastime is here!  Merry Christmas everyone!

Don’t you love the traditions of Christmas? Finding the perfect tree, laughing over the crafted ornaments from the kids’ elementary years (the wreath made of puzzle pieces with a picture of my beautiful toothless kid in the center… Bless you, elementary teachers!), lining up the nutcrackers, wrapping garland around the bannister, hanging stockings, writing greetings, displaying the santas, the snowmen, the angels, unraveling the light strings that we say every year we’re going to bind so they don’t get tangled but we’re too tired to bind in January because of the many Christmas traditions that have demanded our attention….

And at school, midterms. Ugh, perfect timing: sitting at my desk watching kids complete the mediocre essays that I will have to grade, thinking about how school is an obstacle in my day, keeping me from sustaining those Christmas traditions at home.

However, Christmastime is a wonderful time to sneak in some lessons about being a decent human. That’s a concept not addressed on any midterm. And…a good activity or movie will clear some time for me to do some grading. Genius! (I realize I am not the first teacher to strategize this way). The traditional sources of those lessons reminding kids of their humanity are the best. I have a few in my TpT store that can help.

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

This is the letter from a little girl, Virginia, asking the newspaper editor if there is a Santa Claus.  His response is perfect and universal.  The activity diminishes the cynicism that’s become too prevalent among our kids.  It’s appropriate for middle school kids, but I’ve used it with my seniors!  It’s just a great message about believing in the good in the world.

Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory

This is not a very well known story or movie.  It’s the tale of a young boy, Buddy, living with his older distant cousins. There’s one who is is particularly fond of, his cousin, Sook, who is a bit dim-witted, but has a huge heart.  The movie is fun to view and has a beautiful message about appreciating love, growing up, and the beauty of Christmas traditions.

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol Movie Guide

To me, Christmas is not complete without a dose of Scrooge. Too many of us are muttering, “Humbug” these days.  Our students aren’t muttering, “Humbug,” but they are indeed muttering. Too many kids have reason to be sad; however, A Christmas Carol brings perspective to those who complain for the sake of complaining. Look at Tiny Tim! Does he complain? No! A Christmas Carol is an annual reminder of our responsibility to be human, what that means, and that we must sustain our humanity throughout the year.

 

There are other activities available in my TpT store; please browse.

Holiday Resources

Merry Christmas!

Click here for free gift tag/bookmarks for holiday gifts for your students!

Free Holiday Gift tag/Bookmarks

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