Archive for the teaching Category

“Grading Flu” and grading burn-out…

Posted in teaching on November 14, 2014 by Mike

I’m in my sixteenth year of teaching high school English.

I’m well beyond the national average length of a teaching career (11 years), and I attribute that mainly to the school I work at.  For the most part, Consol is supportive of its teachers, gives me a reasonable amount of latitude in how I approach my classes, and, most importantly, has some pretty great students – I get to teach them everyday.  Sure, the school has its fair share of knuckleheads (in the student population and elsewhere), and if I’m honest I could do without having to write up lesson plans each week (I’m not entirely convinced anyone looks at them), but I enjoy coming to work, by and large.

It’s the going back home that blows.

Now, before my wife starts filing the divorce papers, let me clarify – it’s not the home life I dread, it’s what is CONSTANTLY in my Bag of Holding that brings me down.

Papers. Quizzes. Projects. Homework. Newspaper stories. Annotated Bibliographies. Timed writings. Ad infinitum.

Right now I’ve got a set of Huck Finn exams (22 students), a set of timed writings (22 students), three classes’ worth of quizzes (58 students), three sets of annotated bibliographies (58 again), 15 news stories from my journalism class, along with some in-class work they did, and some other miscellaneous debris that, honestly, will probably be given a completion grade (which accomplishes nothing except grade inflation).

Later this week I’ll get 15 feature stories from my journalism class, and shortly after Thanksgiving break I’ll get my seniors’ research papers (58). At some point this six weeks I’ll also be asking my AP kids to write a formal rhetorical analysis (22 more papers), and we also want them to get a third timed writing in for a major grade.

Now, to be fair, the administration isn’t MAKING us assign these papers (though, certainly, the Texas TEKS requires various types of writing at each grade level), although there are two to three major grades required each six weeks. In an English class that really means writing.  Unless, of course, I want to give them some sort of exam, which is going to be short answer/essay, anyway, or some sort of creative project that ends up inflating grades and in the dumpster a week after it’s turned in. So I suppose there are other options for assessment.

Here’s the thing, though: students don’t become better writers UNLESS THEY WRITE.

And it’s not just the writing – it’s the feedback that’s needed.  If a teacher is merely assigning informal journal writing each week and checking it as a completion grade, his/her students’ writing won’t improve.  Same thing with formal papers – giving them a once-over, checking it for length and slapping a grade on it doesn’t count. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for informal writing and encouraging students to put pen to paper, but instruction in writing actually requires someone who knows what he/she is talking about to give feedback/correction/evaluation for it to actually improve (and here’s where I’d also grumble about students needing to actually read my damn comments).

But I’m TIRED.

I’m tired of a lot of things, actually, but I’m tired of reading essays that were written in two hours the night before the rough draft was due and then considered finished.  Yes, we edit in class, but peer editing is too often the blind leading the blind, or the uninterested reading the unconcerned’s.  I don’t have the time to edit all my students’ papers (I focus on those I identify as struggling), so I offer them examples of papers and editing sheets with guiding questions and hope that at some point in the semester they realize that if they read my comments on their earlier papers, their future essays will improve.

It happens, but not as often as I would hope.

But I’m mostly tired of having to take days off to complete my grading.  I’ve managed to avoid the “grading flu” this year so far, but I don’t think it’ll last.  The amount of work I’m bringing home just becomes insurmountable considering I have 1) a family at home I enjoy spending time with: kids who are involved in extracurriculars (piano lessons/recitals, soccer practice/games, choir concerts, confirmation classes, etc.) but who I also like being able to interact with when I pick them up; 2) a wife who works 9 or 10 hour days more often than not and doesn’t need to come home to a house that’s a wreck or having to figure out what’s for dinner every night because I’m grading; 3) a workout schedule I try hard to keep up with because I want and need to – I have diabetes, and regular exercise helps control my blood sugar; and 4) a desire to actually get away from the drudgery of grading and actually practice what I teach – I want to write more, but I feel guilty doing so because I know I have so many other things I can be doing. And I’m not alone: I know of no English teacher at my school who has NOT taken a personal/sick day to grade this year.  Isn’t there something wrong with the system where the district ends up having to pay a substitute to come in while the teacher stays home and grades – something the district is paying him/her for in the first place?

And then there’s the fact that whenever I take a day off to grade, I need to create lesson plans that will keep my students busy and productive that day, which often means more things to grade when I return.  You might say, “Just show a movie, that’s what my teachers did when they were gone”, but that’s not what I’ve been contracted to do.  There’s my damn INFP-idealism acting up again.

I don’t know about the practices of other teachers, whether math teachers or social studies teachers face this kind of regular demand on their time.  I don’t know how much of their time away from the school they have to spend grading assignments (I do know that Pratzilla once said he can get all his grading done during his conference period –  I don’t know if he still holds to that). But I am aware of the demands I have as an English teacher, and I do believe there’s a huge difference between grading a 3 to 5 page essay  (10 to 15 minutes/paper) and grading some other type of assessment. Particularly if you’re doing it right.

A couple years ago some members of the English department asked the administration to consider the time demands English teachers faced with their grading, and to their credit, our administrators responded with some changes to Consol’s grading policy.  My friend and colleague, BRP, however, has made the point, one I agree with, that decreasing the number of major grades required during the first/fourth six weeks didn’t really solve the problem.  The problem is time: we as English teachers assign work that takes time to grade – moreso than any other discipline, I’d argue.  Many of us are teaching 6 classes during the day (out of eight), some out of choice, others because we didn’t hire any new staff and we had unanticipated numbers of new students at the beginning of the year.  And unless we sacrifice some of the standards we’ve held our students to in the past, it means just as much grading.

Combine that with two five week six weeks to save the precious children from having to remember information over Christmas break, instead having our Fall finals in December, and time is at a premium.

What I’d honestly like to see is a recognition that, yes, English teachers, due to the nature of the work they assign, need to be granted a period a day to do nothing but grade.  Not a duty period or a conference period, but a period where we’re told “You will be allowed to be undisturbed for 50 minutes to grade the work you assigned.” Four hours each week.  I could get about a third of my senior essays completed during that time. If I’m just scoring timed writings I could get through a class in one period, easily. I’d even agree to check-ins from the administration – making sure I used my time wisely. I think the entire English department would agree to it.

And I bet it would serve as an effective inoculation against the grading flu.

Update: Reading Nerd Contest

Posted in Novels, teaching on September 17, 2014 by Mike

I’m thinking I’m in a bit of trouble.

Last May I had the brilliant idea [need sarcasm font] to enact a draft of “important” books with several other high school teachers. Read about it here.

Well, four months later and I’ve read exactly one and a third of my four choices. And really, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus barely counts because it’s the shortest of the four I selected and I read it FOUR MONTHS AGO.

I’ve been reading The God of Small Things off and on [emphasize the OFF] since then and I’m finding it easy to find things to do other than read it. That does not speak too well of me as an English teacher, I believe. And now that school’s started, I’m staring down multiple stacks of homework that need grading and lesson plans that need forming and miscellaneous other things needing to take priority, and this doesn’t even include my family and their demands, which take priority over the former.

I should have read the description of Roy’s novel first: it compares “favorably to the works of Faulkner and Dickens.” I never cared for Dickens, dammit!  C’mon, I’m an American lit guy!  (Yes, I’m conveniently ignoring the Faulkner reference there).

The even worse thing is that this book was gifted to me by one of my favorite students YEARS ago, and I still haven’t read the thing.  Don’t get me wrong, what I’ve read shows promise, but Roy has an ornate style that is not my typical fare.  Here’s a sample:

Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Limits have appeared like a team of trolls on their separate horizons. Short creatures with long shadows, patrolling the Blurry End. Gentle half-moons have gathered under their eyes and they are as old as Ammu was when she died.

The writing is lush with similes, metaphors and other figurative language. At times I feel like I’m wading waist-deep in her prose, her intent at times breaking the surface, other times brushing against my legs and other times passing by me in the current unseen.  It’s definitely rich, rich prose, but at times I’m swallowed by it.

The other two works I drafted are sitting by my desk, unopened, as of yet.  It doesn’t really help that BRP has continually heaped praise on one of them (Tobias Wolff’s Old School); I’m eyeing that one constantly, tempted to put off Roy’s novel even longer. And now, here at my newspaper late night, I’ve discovered I don’t have my copy of God… in my bag.

I’m going to break into BRP’s room and grab a copy and resume reading.

It’s better than grading.

Reading nerds: The Literature Draft

Posted in Entertainment, Novels, teaching, Vacation with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2014 by Mike

A few weeks ago I was watching the NFL draft waiting to see where Johnny Football would be drafted when I started thinking (it’s a problem – it usually leads to all sorts of work for me). My initial thought was what a literature draft would look like; that is, if a group of people were drafting works of literature, who would pick what first, and how would those choices be justified? I mean, James Joyce’s Ulysses is considered by many to be the single most important work of the 20th century, but I wouldn’t take it in a draft because it’s nigh-unreadable (I tried once). Okay, maybe that’s a little unfair to Joyce, but there are other novels higher on my list.

It was this thought that led me to, on a whim, post to my “Books” Facebook group (a cadre of English teachers who post about what they’ve been reading) the following:

Silly idea: let’s have a novel draft. We could use, say, Time’s Top 100 list (or something better) and compile our own squad of books, then read them (if we haven’t already).

This might have been the end of it, as it got only 4 “likes”, but then eLaffint commented with

Yes let’s do that. But please explain more.

So eLaffint forced me to think about this some more, and closer to the end of the school year I woke up one morning with the following rules in my head:

1) There’s a $10 entry fee – this will be important later.

2) We will each choose 4 works from one of two lists: either the AP title list or the “Top 100 Works in World Literature” (

3) The four works must include a) an American author b) a female author c) an author whose original language is not English and d) a play. None of the choices may be a work taught at the school or something you have already read (you’re on your honor).

4) The draft will be done by email – the order will be pre-determined and everyone in the group will “reply all” when it’s your turn. It doesn’t matter what order you “draft” your works, but no repeats are allowed.

5) Once your list (“team”) is complete, you have pretty much the rest of the year to read them.

6) Once finished, you must write a brief essay (3-5 pages) that reflects on what you’ve read. 10 point font, Times New Roman, double spaced.

7) These essays are due to me by December 12, 2014.

8) An independent panel of three judges (three people not in the draft) will read these essays and determine the winner. All essays will be published to this site, as well as to any blogs the participants might have, with the “winning” essay designated as such.

9) The winning essay’s writer will receive all the money collected from the entry fees. There is no second place. If we have 10 people enter, the winner will receive $100.

A couple notes: I decided on the AP list because it’s quality literature and diverse.  Selecting from that list could also benefit teachers who are looking for literature for their class libraries and want to branch out from young adult fiction and the more common works that most high schools already have on their reading lists (I’m looking at you, Gatsby).  Plus, it’s a pleasure to read. [bonus points for identifying the allusion]. The other list I found through Google, and thought it might help find works that help fulfill requirement “c” on number 3.

The essay requirement was a bit of a worry as I thought that might turn off possible participants, but I wanted something more to happen than “I read it, and it was _____” posts on Facebook. The opportunity to reflect on what you’ve read is an important part of the reading process, and I wanted to give everyone a chance to demonstrate their writing chops.  Hell, it’s something we ask of our students all the time, so, physician, heal thyself, IMO. Let’s put ourselves in our students’ shoes a bit, but also show off what we can do. We’re English teachers for a reason (okay, one of our group is not, but J-ROY’s a reader).

Eight of us decided to give this a shot.  We held our draft on Saturday, and, after a bit of delay due to J-ROY’s travelling, we each have our four works selected:

RAINY Invisible Man The Color Purple In the Time of Butterflies Glass Menagerie
E-E-RON House Made of Dawn When the Emperor was Divine History (Elsa Morante) Zoot Suit
JAX A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Handmaid’s Tale Purple Hibiscus Trifles
DEE-DEE Love Medicine Alias Grace A Thousand Splendid Suns Hamlet
eLaffint Cat on A Hot Tin Roof Wide Sargasso Sea Lysistrata Equus
J-ROY All the Pretty Horses Cat’s Eye The Trial Mother Courage and Her Children
BRP In the Lake of the Woods Member of the Wedding Gargantua and Pantagruel No Exit
ME Old School – Wolff God of Small Things Blindness Doctor Faustus

I think we’re all looking forward to reading our selections, but I’m particularly anxious to read their essays.

I’ll periodically post on my progress here.

The Ceiling Tile Assignment

Posted in teaching with tags , , , , on July 25, 2013 by Mike

At the end of each year I allow my students to add to the panache of my classroom by decorating the 2′ X 2′ ceiling tiles in my classroom.  The only real rule to this assignment is that the tile they create should reflect something from the class that they found important/memorable/inspiring, but many times they ignore this and just make fun of me (those tiles don’t stay up long). This has been going on for about ten years now so I’ve got quite a collection of student artwork hanging above my head, and the nice thing for me is seeing the tiles from years past that make the cut each year, reminding me of those students who are at this point probably finished with their college undergrad careers.

Anyway, I thought I’d show off a few of them here (click on the pic for a bigger size)…

What Would Twain Do?

Mark Twain is a common inclusion on these tiles, as  I make no secret of the fact that he’s my favorite classic American author. This one obviously is a rip-off homage to the “WWJD” bracelets that were popular a number of years ago, although this tile’s sentiment is probably a bit easier to achieve, if only because Twain wasn’t, you know, God.

Time tile

This one has a number of quotations concerning the passage of time swirling around a working clock that the student had placed in the tile.  The hands of the clock are made from balsa wood, and I remember the student complaining about the time it took him to get the weight correct.  I need to get up in the ceiling to replace the battery…

Many times the tiles students create (they aren’t actually using the tiles themselves – they use posterboard cut to size) reflect some dominant image from a novel we read.  Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s disembodied eyes are a popular choice each year.

 … above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.   The eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high.   They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose … But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.

Silver Surfer

Other times students pick up on the fact that I am a Marvel Comics fan.  The student who created this work of art knew that I put “SSURFR” license plates on my silver Camaro  (I was tempted to go with “Radd“) and ran with it. Yes, that’s a three-dimensional Silver Surfer hanging upside down from my ceiling.  I’m amazed at the time/effort she put into this – it’s so much fun to look/gawk at.

Captain America makes numerous appearance each year, for some reason.  The above is from this past year, as well.  I don’t see myself taking this down…ever.  I think I’ll have it buried with me. And, yes, that says “Mr. Williams is a HERO.” Future students, take note.

Then there are tiles that reflect something so specific to that class/year, that for future students and other observers they’re cryptic and/or nonsensical. Such as the above.  Yes, that’s a psychedelic-colored picture of  a younger, thinner-faced me, the words “Sin is Tasty” and a pie beneath that.  It relates to this AP prompt borrowed from Gary Soto.  In this class’s discussion of said prompt, the allusion to the original sin committed in the Garden of Eden drew attention, and I had them look at how the young Soto relished the stolen apple pie:

But even that didn’t stop me from clawing a chunk from the pie tin and pushing it into the cavern of my mouth. The slop was sweet and gold-colored in the afternoon sun. I laid more pieces on my tongue, wet finger-dripping pieces, until I was finished and felt like crying because it was about the best thing I had ever tasted.

“Sin is tasty” I apparently told them, and for a group of about four students, that’s what stuck.  I have my moments.

Other times I don’t.  This tile has been up since my second or third year of teaching AP juniors. That year, a few parents (two, I think) complained to my principal about a novel on the class’s reading list, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.  One parent went so far as to type up every passage from the novel she deemed offensive and gave it to the principal.  This was a few months before we were even going to get to the novel, and I remember thinking, “I don’t have the time to fight this battle” [actually, it was “time for this shit”] and some other ruder thoughts about the intellect of the parents who complained. So I made the decision to pull it off the reading list that year to avoid the hassle.  That decision’s one of my biggest regrets of my teaching career. The school paper at some point  that year did a story on book banning and the English class reading lists (the newspaper staff is always chock-full of AP English students), and I was interviewed for it.  That quote on the tile came from the story and it’s something I believe with all my heart. The pictures are the covers of the books we read that year.  All of them are open except Cold Mountain.

Vindication came the next year (my juniors’ now seniors): Cold Mountain was a title referred to on the open-ended question of the AP Literature exam.

Why I don’t need to get involved in Valentine’s Day at the high school…

Posted in teaching on February 19, 2013 by Mike

So, a student comes into my class last Thursday with a few roses in his hand.  He proceeds to ask me if I’ll give one of them to Hannah in my second period. “Hannah?” I ask, quickly trying to picture her and where she sits.  “Yeah, Hannah – but don’t tell her who it’s from,” he replies and gives me the rose.  “Thanks!” and off he goes.

No problem, I think. I put the rose on my desk and get ready for my first period.

Second period comes around and the bell rings to start class. I pick up the rose and announce out loud that Hannah’s getting a rose, followed very quickly by clarification that it’s not from me and that the person did not want to be named.  Hannah comes over to take the rose looking very surprised.  She goes back to her seat and I overhear her say she has no idea who it’s from, “maybe my dad?” she says to a classmate.

Warning bells begin to go off in my head.

It’s at that point that I look over to another area of my class as I’m taking attendance  and see Anna sitting there.  Yeah, Anna.  Sounds incredibly like “Hannah.”

“Oh, shit,” immediately runs through my head. Several times.

My students are busy getting their rough drafts out and I’m suddenly wondering what hole I can crawl into and hide in. Now, mind you, I don’t KNOW that I gave the rose to the wrong girl yet, but I have a sneaking suspicion I did. I have to figure this out quickly.  So I walk over to the other side of the room and tell two guys to follow me out into the hallway – they might know something.

Out in the hallway, I tell them my dilemma. They laugh. For a while. One of them then catches his breath and admits it’s an easy mistake to make, then proceeds to laugh again. I ask if they know if the rose-giver is dating Hannah or Anna, and neither know.  So I ask if they know if either Hannah or Anna are dating anyone – again, no dice. So the other guy pulls out his cell phone to check with a friend of his who he knows had talked with him about Anna.  There’s no immediate response (dammit, what’s wrong with students?) so we head back in the classroom to continue class and await any information.

I get busy checking their rough drafts, keeping an eye on the guy with the phone with the friend.  They, of course, relate the problem to others sitting around them through texts, so there’s a definite buzz going around as some know and others aren’t sure what everyone is talking about.  Finally, he looks at me deliberately.  He sticks out his arm, thumb up, and then immediately points it down [he got a text saying he had been interested in Anna but “someone was giving her flowers”].


I’m stuck. I have to figure out how to tell Hannah the rose isn’t hers, and then give it to Anna. Or I could just let it go and let them work it out on their own.  Then another guy tells me he has a solution.  We go out in the hall.

Student: “Mr. Williams, I can go get a rose…I can find one, get one from someone who has some, and bring it back and then you can give it to Anna so both get a rose.”

Me: “You think you can get a rose?”

S: “Yeah, and all I ask is that you let me drive your Camaro.”

Me: “Get back inside.”

Back in the classroom, I decide I have to go ahead and tell Hannah I made a mistake.  So I ask her to go out to the hallway with me where I explain what I did. She says, and I quote, “Oh, that’s okay. Anna and I are friends.”


Back inside Hannah gives the rose to Anna, and the whole class is let in on my mistake.  They proceed to laugh at me for what I feel is an unreasonable length of time.

Somehow I don’t think Cyrano de Bergerac and Emma will be losing any sleep anytime soon…

Presentation on bullying last night…

Posted in teaching with tags , , on June 24, 2012 by Mike

I’m sitting here in a t.u. dorm attending an ILPC workshop with the newspaper staff, my first official event as head adviser to the school’s paper.  Probably will have more to say on that at some point, but currently am thinking about a presentation made last night by Barbara Jane Paris on cyber-bullying.

Her presentation revolved around several kids who were bullied and took their lives after not finding any other way out of the crap they were dealing with daily.  She also included some of her own anecdotes as a principal here in Texas. Some of the vileness that these kids had thrown at them on a daily basis…it was hard to hear.  And the recurring theme kept coming back: if one kid had said something like “Hey, lay off, that’s not cool” or “Stop it”, just once, many of those kids might still be around. Graduated. Off to college or wherever and away from the shit that high school sometimes  is.

I tend not to reflect back on high school too much – I didn’t involve myself in it very much beyond the soccer team and a few AP classes.  I did take one semester of journalism which must have made enough of an impression to make me consider majoring in it (I didn’t), and I wrote for the creative writing magazine. I’ve always loved writing but apparently not enough to take the risk of actually devoting time to it.  A personal shortcoming that I kick myself for, but not yet to the point that I’m tired of the bruises.

I also faced a bit of bullying in high school.  And, of course, those memories tend to come back to me more often than the good stuff. Some crap in the cafeteria early on by two guys I didn’t know then but can still see their faces today. Then there was a time at a public pool where I got spit on by a kid trying to goad me into a fight.  I walked away – his friend stood right behind me and I thought I would get teamed up on. I regret walking away, though.

As I said above, it’s this kind of crap that stays with me, moreso than the better stuff. I now think back to participating in Powderpuff my senior year and a game of T.A.G. in the hallways (our rubber dart guns got confiscated pretty quickly), soccer road trips and graduation, but only now, when I’m deliberately thinking back to my high school days.  It’s the other stuff that comes back when I don’t want it to, the stuff that, even at 40, I’ve apparently not quite gotten over yet.  They’re scars.

And they’re the reason I can’t abide bullies.

The New Adolescent Threat…

Posted in Entertainment, teaching on February 12, 2012 by Mike

As a teacher I’ve been trained to be on the look-out for risky student behavior; as school administration and staff are legally considered in loco parentis (“crazy parents”) by the state, it is incumbent upon us to be aware of dangerous trends our students might be engaging in and, as Marv Albert might say, nip it in the butt. Or at least adopt them as our own hobbies to appear youthful and hip, “with it”cool, krunk,  relevant.

It is this training (a five minute talk given to us by one of our new young counselors right before we left for lunch) that allowed us as a staff to recognize several new fads among our student population and ensure we had proper policies in place to maintain safety and proper decorum.  Last year we recognized the Twilight series was inspiring a number of teens to decorate their skin with glitter, and, after an unfortunate incident in the cafeteria involving a wooden stake, we adopted new policies forbidding both glitter AND stakes. 2010 saw a spike in certain subsets of our male population joining local gangs, so each of our male teachers (90 out of 210 total teachers) was asked to volunteer as “sponsors” to our at-risk youth. I’m currently sponsoring Ramón, a clean-cut young man who actually has taken the time to introduce me to his “posse”.  Nice guys.  Hey, Ramón, if you’re reading this – LATIN KINGS SIEMPRE! ; D.

Unfortunately, we acted too late on guys wearing skinny jeans, but now there’s the latest fashion trend of low-cut, v-neck t-shirts being worn by the girls, and, in a 120 to 90 vote, the staff decided to include the shirts on the list of prohibited attire for next year.

But now I’ve noticed an even more disturbing trend among my students in my classroom, and in conversations with other teachers I’ve discovered it’s quite widespread. I call it “crotch-watching”: during class, often times during lecture, I will notice students at their desks,  staring down at their laps, utterly absorbed by what they’re looking at. One or both of their hands are also in their laps, but nothing untoward is occurring based on the fact that the students sitting around them do not react at all to this behavior. The students afflicted by this behavior just sit, chin at their chest, and stare. The posture can last anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes, and when I ask them what they’re doing, all they say is “nothing”, their hands immediately coming up from their laps.  Usually they won’t go back to their crotch-watching for the rest of the class after I’ve shown some concern, which is good, because I want my students to know I care (and Ramón is always telling me to keep an eye out for new blood prospectives).

I thought at first that these students might be having some self-esteem issues, as they are avoiding eye contact and personal interaction with their peers while they navel-gaze, but typically these crotch-watchers are the more extroverted students – they always seem to have a lot of friends and constantly know what each other is up to.  Just the other day, for instance, I had a student ask to go to the restroom and, as he left my room, I noticed that his girlfriend from the class right down the hall had been let out of class, too.  One of the assistant principals was patrolling the hallway so he made sure they didn’t waste any time getting back to their classrooms. Fortunate, because we were discussing carpe diem poetry that day, including Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Robert Herrick’s “To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time”. Fantastic poems – both present such strong messages to young people.

Anyway, I’m trying to figure out the next step to take to try and curb this alarming trend among our students.  Some teachers might argue it’s a lost cause; there are reports that this kind of behavior is now being seen in the middle schools, though of course not as commonly as it is here at the high school.  I also hear that “crotch-watching” is widespread on our local college campuses, though interestingly enough students who bring laptops to class are seemingly immune to this scourge – they’re obviously too busy taking notes on their machines of modern convenience.  But perhaps that’s the solution – maybe the district needs to assign laptops to students  so that they will have something to keep them preoccupied during class and not fall victim to the empty pursuit of crotch-watching.  We all know how teens love technology.

I’ll be sure to suggest this at the next faculty meeting.  Tonight, though, Ramón tells me we’re going to be playing tag, although he called it “tagging”.  He asked me to buy some spray paint, since he’s not 18 yet, to help mark “boundaries.”  Funny, though, I would’ve expected him to have outgrown that game at his age. Maybe it’s a cultural thing – but it’s another way I’m staying relevant to today’s teens.

Big Mike’s Top Ten Student Writing Pet Peeves – Part II

Posted in teaching with tags , , , on January 1, 2012 by Mike

I teach English, and therefore I am tasked with the responsibility of reading and grading  hundreds of student essays each year.  Along the way I’ve developed some pet peeves – a number of student peccadilloes that perhaps earlier in my career might have been just that – small and rather inconsequential – but now drive me absolutely nuts.

Here are my top 5:

5. “‘bias’ rather than ‘biased’; ‘prejudice’ rather than ‘prejudiced’; ‘use to’ rather than ‘used to'”

A couple errors from numbers 6 – 10 might occur more frequently, but this one irritates me more.  Too many students don’t seem to understand the idiomatic use of these words – they mistakenly use the noun rather than the adjective.  For example, “I might be prejudice against them” or “They are bias against the idea”.  Grates on you, doesn’t it?  Now imagine seeing it at least four times in every batch of papers you grade.

Some students say I am biased when I grade their papers, but it’s not so.  I show bias against those who don’t carefully edit their papers.

4. “Their vs. they’re vs. there”

Dammit, this is taught in the third grade, people! On occasion I’ve been tempted to bring my fourth grade daughter to class to demonstrate the proper use of the three homophones for my seniors.  That’d show ’em.

This error is high on my list because it’s not an error my students make out of ignorance – they KNOW the differences between the uses.  This error is reflective of their writing habits – waiting until the last minute to write their papers, and thus not having the time to proof-read for simple errors such as this one.  When I see this error repeated in a paper (anyone can have a typo) I know the paper was written in a half-assed manner (btw, it’s not manor) and the essay shouldn’t make any higher than a low C.  Unfair?  Petty? I’d argue that it’s a reflection of a student’s ethos, and if he or she is going to make this kind of mistake, why give him or her any benefit of the doubt on the rest of the paper?

3. “your vs. you’re”

This one ranks higher than “their/they’re/there” because there are only two of them this time – fewer to confuse, and therefore more irritating when someone interchanges them. Your is possessive: There are reasons your grades on your papers are so low.  You’re is a contraction for “you are”: You’re going to fail another paper if you don’t edit your papers more carefully.

Again, my students know this difference; the errors come from a lack of concern/lack of proof-reading.

2. “its vs. it’s”

It’s a hard and fast rule, people: its is possessive, meaning something belongs to the ‘it’ in question: “The cheetah cub cried for its mother but the momma-cheetah was hunting for dinner.” It’s is a contraction for “it is”: “It’s a certainty that this paper, with all of its careless errors, will receive a mid-D.”

I’m not so sure the students who make this error know the difference between the two.  And the hell with them if they’re still getting it wrong by the time they’re seniors, because if it didn’t take when they were elementary-level sponges, it’s not going to take now that they’re jaded, disillusioned teenagers.

And, for the love of God, there’s no such word as its’!

And, finally, my number one pet peeve.  I think English teachers all over the world will agree with me on this one:

1. “could/would/should/might of vs. have

I remember the first time I saw this error in a student paper.  It was my first semester as a English grad student and I was T.A.-ing for a senior level technical writing class, and grading their final papers. Some guy had written “should of” in this formal proposal and it floored me – I mean, it absolutely ASTOUNDED me that a senior in college could make such an egregious error.  I was naive –  I saw the error a half dozen more times that day, and on that day I wept for the English language and recognized how great a threat it faced in the form of student writing.

Let me illustrate this: this is a grammatical error that Mark Twain wouldn’t allow Huck Finn, an illiterate white trash southern boy, to make in a novel of over 300 pages.  Go ahead, check.

“Could/would/should/might of” makes no sense whatsoever as a grammatical construction.  It’s a transcription of our saying “might’ve” or “should’ve” which, of course, are contractions for might have and should have.

I suppose I could try to blame Cormac McCarthy and the legion of other authors who write in the vernacular, but my students don’t read McCarthy until I assign him (and, admittedly, they may not read him even then).  But I’ve seen their writing before then.

Now that my teeth are grinding nicely, I’m reminded that I’m currently on semester break and have no papers to grade, and it will be another month until I do.  Until then, perhaps you, my reader, can keep these common errors in mind when you write your emails and facebook posts, and together we can make the world a more pleasant place…at least for your former English teachers.

“Ignorant people think it’s the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain’t so; it’s the sickening grammar they use.” – Mark Twain

Big Mike’s Top 10 Student Writing Pet Peeves – Part I

Posted in teaching with tags , , , on December 14, 2011 by Mike

[this one’s for my brother, Matt – sorry it took so long to get to it]

OK, first the nickname – I’m 6’4”-ish and I teach high school students.  “Big Mike” is their nickname for me, not one I gave myself.  To be honest, they probably have other nicknames for me that they don’t use in class.

I teach English, and therefore I am tasked with the responsibility of reading and grading  hundreds of student essays each year. In fact, counting in-class essays and formal, process-driven essays, I grade around 1500 essays each school year.  I’ve been doing this for what is now my fourteenth year, so, if my out-of-practice math serves me correctly, I’ve scored at least 20,000 essays  in my career so far (and this is not counting the summer school courses I’ve taught at the local college).

Along the way I’ve developed some pet peeves – a number of student peccadilloes that perhaps earlier in my career might have been just that – small and rather inconsequential – but now drive me absolutely nuts.  I feel pretty safe in saying that most of these errors  are a result of a lack of attention to detail (i.e., laziness), as there’s NO WAY educated people who actually edit their papers should be making these kinds of errors.

For the purposes of this blog, I’m not going to dwell on broader errors such as “lack of organization”, “not developing ideas” or “weak thesis statements”, though those kinds of problems certainly exist.  Instead, these are my top ten indicators of student laziness/ignorance, ordered by how much they annoy the shit out of me (pardon my french).

10. “Possess/Posses”

Admittedly, this first one doesn’t happen too often, but when it does the resulting sentence is always nonsensical. See, the problem with the word “possess” for many of my students is that damnable fourth “s” – there are obviously too many “esses” in the word (and therefore subversive), so it’s on occasion left out.  Of course, this results in an entirely different word that spell-check wouldn’t catch:


The same problem can occur with the word “assess”, but to more hilarity for me/embarrassment for the student.

9. “‘Scientist’ is not plural”

Another careless error, but I see it too regularly to think it’s just that.  Too many students seem to believe that words that end in “ist” are treated as plural, therefore I see sentences like, “Muslim terrorist try to impose their religion on the world” or “Some scientist believe that global warming is a myth.”  Now, not to be an elitist, but as a realist I have to be a pessimist about such students’ attempts to be essayists.  I don’t know, maybe they’re attempting to be satirists or maybe just nonconformists, but I suspect they’re just sadists.

And I’m a masochist who’s gonna need a psychotherapist.  Get the gist?

OK, enough of that.

8. “nowadays”

In the past few years, it seems, someone has been teaching my students that ‘nowadays’ is an acceptable substitute for “currently” or “today” or “now” or any other of  a dozen synonyms that don’t make them sound as if they have just stepped off the front porch of an antebellum Mississippi plantation. Jesus, they might as well start their essays with “Well,” and end by singing “zip-a-dee doo-dah”.

Academic writing is formal, not conversational.

7. “Attack of the egregious homophones”

I’m not talking about “too” and “to” – I don’t see that error too often, or at least not often enough to list it here (see what I did there?).  I’m talking about words that have NO BUSINESS getting mixed up.  “We take our right to free speech for granite.”  Dead serious – I’ve seen it. More than once.  “Accept” and “except” are commonly interchanged – “We just need to except the fact that __________ is here to stay.”  “Homosexuals should not be aloud to marry because that’s what my mom and dad believe.” Another one that grinds at me is “lead” (read (‘reed’) it as ‘led’) and “led”, which leads to all kinds of leaden writing. “Lead” (pronounced, er, ‘led’) is a metal. “Led” is the past tense of “lead” (pronounced “leed”).  See also: mislead/misled.

6. “Indefinite pronouns”

This one rankles me if only for the fact that I specifically tell my students to be cautious about this error, and they ignore me (BECAUSE THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT MY FEELINGS). Quick English lesson: pronouns are words substituted for the nouns that they represent.  For instance, in the sentence, “Daphne jumped out of the Mystery Machine, taking the box of Scooby-Snacks with her.”, “her” is the pronoun substitute for “Daphne.”

OK, now that I’ve insulted your intelligence, here’s the real problem.  There are a number of pronouns out there that seem to be plural but are really treated as singular.  You use them all the time, and, unless you’re a 67-year old retired English teacher, you’re not speaking grammatically correct English.


“Everyone needs to bring their book tomorrow” – most of us won’t bat an eye at that sentence, either reading it or hearing it spoken, but the truth is that that seemingly innocuous sentence is grammatically incorrect. ‘Everyone’ is one of those indefinite pronouns, and is treated as singular when substituting pronouns.  It should actually be written/said, “Everyone needs to bring his or her book tomorrow.”  But nobody says/writes that because that would sound pretentious.  Other indefinite pronouns include anybody, anyone, each, everybody, everything, neither, and nothing – all of them treated as singular.

This is one of those errors that, given a few more decades, will become grammatically acceptable, I suspect.  Because we’re lazy and don’t like rules.  But until then, I’ll still count off for it when it occurs in my students’ essays.

My top 5 will be posted within the next few days.  For now, it’s back to grading/stamping out ignorance.

A former student’s email…

Posted in teaching with tags , , on August 5, 2011 by Mike

This is why I teach.

Hi Mr. Williams,
You might not remember me. I was in your English III AP class in the 20**-20** school year. I was also on the Roar Staff. Anyway, I’m writing to you because it took me five years to understand a comment you wrote on an essay of mine, and it feels important. I’ll explain. The first paper you assigned that year required us to define a term. I chose equality, and my conclusion was a metaphor about how equality wasn’t that everyone had equal water in their glasses but instead that everyone had a glass with equal potential to contain water. You gave me a C (my lowest paper grade ever, even to this day), and wrote at the end “not everyone has equal access to the water.”
I thought you didn’t understand my point. I railed against that comment. You misinterpreted my metaphor. You had some sort of bias. You were just plain wrong. I didn’t understand at all.
Well, now I live in Houston’s Third Ward and take the city bus twice a day every day. I think I get it. Folks can have all the glasses in the world, but it won’t stop them from dying of thirst. My point is that I think I was raised to think poor people were entirely to blame for being poor. I appreciate that you represented a different perspective to me, and I’m embarrassed that it took me this long to figure it out. Thanks for being such a fantastic teacher.

Thank you, S–.