Archive for the teaching Category

Scoring the AP exam

Posted in teaching with tags , , on June 22, 2011 by Mike

1030 essays.

This is the number of essays I ended up scoring this past week (June 11 – 17) for the AP Language Exam in Louisville, KY. Not counting Saturday, when we ended up spending most of the day looking at sample papers and calibrating our scoring, that comes out to about 170 a day. At the end of the week, the essays started looking really similar to one another, and a heavy glaze seemed to cover my eyes each afternoon. But despite this, I would jump at the opportunity to do it again.

And, yes (hell, yes), the Collegeboard paid me to do this.

I had found out I had been selected as a scorer in early April, and knowing I wasn’t teaching summer school at either Consolidated or Blinn, this was going to be the only chance for me to make some money for the family during the summer, unless I took a part time job as a sandwich artist or something. My wife was a bit tentative about it – she wasn’t sure it would be worth the time and wondered about expenses, but airfare/food/hotel expenses are all paid for so my out of pocket expenses would be rather minimal. So she agreed to my going out there.

Airfare was taken care of through email – they sent me instructions and I had to select the airline/times myself. It was a little overwhelming – a lot of information was being thrown at me and I basically just took the first itinerary I saw with what I thought were convenient times (ha! more on that in another post). My good friend J-Roy drove me out to Houston Intercontinental Friday morning and I was off. The flight and the connecting flight went smoothly – in fact, I was only really stressed out about what I needed to do after picking up my bag. But they had a guy with a sign at baggage claim so getting to the hotel was hassle-free.

A little background – there were over 400,000 students who took the AP Language exam, making it (for the first time) the largest AP testing group this year – normally it’s AP History. This means, for those of you unfamiliar with the AP Language test, that there were over 1.2 million handwritten essays waiting to be scored on a 1-9 scale (3 essays written by each student). The Collegeboard hired around 1200 scorers for the AP Language test, and another 1200 or so for the Literature Exam (scored at the same time) – Louisville saw such an influx of high school and college English instructors – enough to make the average high school student’s hair turn white. Surprisingly, in my time there, I didn’t meet one jerk. I was among “my people”.

The organization that this type of event must have is extraordinary. I never had questions about what I needed to do or where I needed to be. Of course, the meals could have been better, but serving 2400 people over a week without some misses is probably expecting a bit too much (note to meal organizers: scratch the Turkey Pot Pie). And there was a lot to do in Louisville after 5:00, when scoring ended. I took in a AAA Louiville Bats game (vs. the Toledo Mudhens), visited the Louisville Slugger Museum, went to Churchill Downs and lost $4 on a horse that couldn’t even show (I HOPE YOU’RE GLUE, YOU NAG), and frequented a couple bars only three blocks from the hotel.

Me at Churchill Downs before I lost $4 on a slow-ass horse that couldn't even show.

For those interested, scoring the essays involves dividing the 1200 into three groups and assigning each group a particular question. I drew the rhetorical analysis (I got into Louisville dreading scoring the synthesis prompt) – this year it was a speech by suffragette and child labor activist Florence Kelley. The groups are then divided into tables of 8 or 9, with an experienced table leader leading the scoring efforts at each table. I was one of three first year scorers at my table, and I’ll admit I was slow the first couple days (or so I thought). We are given folders containing 25 tests, and read the essay once and score it according to the AP scale. During the first two/three days, after we got done with a folder, it was given to our table leader, Ann, for her to back-read the essays and make sure our scoring was accurate. After those 2-3 days it became more spot-checking. One guy at my table, Charles, seemed to lap me in scoring – he seemed to do 2 for every 1 folder I completed for those first 3 days. My speed got better over the course of the week, of course, and at the end of the week Ann told me that I had been very fast and accurate. I was just happy that I was accurate.

Reading the essays was an eye-opening experience. One, I’m spoiled – my students are, more often than not, very well taught/prepared prior to coming into my class and their in-class essays prove it. Two, the disparity between schools across the nation is vast and it is troubling. I scored essays where students had no idea what to do, and they admitted as much in their essays. I scored essays that could not string two grammatically correct sentences together. There were essays written that detailed what students had done the previous night (I never saw any of these), and there were essay packets that had dollar bills taped inside as bribes (sadly, I never saw any of these, either). I went through folders where the highest score of the 25 was a four (“inadequate”), and regularly saw folders where the highest score was a 6 (“adequate”). All of this led me to think about Texas’ top 10 percent legislation, and while well-intentioned, it completely disregards the fact that all high schools are not equal, and treating them as such is an injustice to students who excel at high-performing high schools but are just outside the top 10 percent. The top 10 percent legislation was/is a band-aid cure for a system that requires open-heart surgery.

The Bats would end up losing 3-1 to the Mudhens, giving up 15 hits.

I also read some pretty terrific essays (though very rare), and feel confident that our AP classes’ scores will be solid once again. The experience of scoring so many essays and talking with others about the essay will strengthen my own ability to prepare my students for the exam. I also met some pretty fantastic people while there, and hope to run into y’all again down the road (Rory, Jane, Sal, Bill, Brad).

Overall, the week was a damn good time, and the scoring not nearly as tedious as I thought it would be (though, I admit, Wednesday was a beat down). I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to doing it again next year.

Though Delta Airlines can kiss my ass (post on that debacle coming soon).

To the Senior Class of 2011…

Posted in Entertainment, teaching with tags , , , , on May 19, 2011 by Mike

This year I wasn’t a candidate for graduation speaker (thank God), but I still have some words of wisdom I’d like to impart to this year’s A&M Consolidated graduates, and in fact to all high school graduates this year.  So for right now  go ahead and imagine me in a mortarboard cap and a long black gown stepping up to the podium to deliver your commencement address…For those of you who aren’t graduating this year, you’re invited to pretend that you’re a friend or loved one of one of the graduates…keep the babies quiet, please.

***

Mark Twain once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  He also said a lot of other things, most of which he actually didn’t say, but which are now attributed to him because the internet has no editors.

But I digress.

Responsibility is the word tonight.  It’s a word that’s thrown around in the presence of 17 and 18 year olds quite a bit, mainly after you’ve disappointed your parents in some way.  And, really, up until this point, your responsibilities have been rather minimal, unless you’re raising a kid or helping your family pay the bills by working two part-time jobs.  But for you others – the slackers who didn’t have kids while in high school – responsibility is now creeping up behind you with a sock full of nickels about to brain you.  And he won’t be charged with assault, either.

See, now that you’re legal adults, the world expects you to be accountable for your actions and decisions – unless you’re entering politics, when responsibility is at first a nice surprise, and then grounds for suspicion.  In high school, turning work in late would only lead to a point-deduction on your final grade. In the real world, late work results in pink slips and unemployment lines – unless you’re in politics, when deadlines just get extended because everyone’s scared you’d actually do something, anyway. In high school, planting a dead skunk in the school’s ventilation system is a “prank” and results in admiration from underclassmen.  In the real world, you’ve just committed an act of domestic terrorism and go to jail for 30 years. In high school, sending risqué pics to someone else’s smart phone is seen as juvenile and disgusting. In the real world, it’s still considered juvenile and disgusting, but standard behavior for Hall-of-Fame-bound quarterbacks.

But I digress.

As high school graduates, you now enter a world which will place expectations upon you to perform and achieve – unless you enter politics.  In other words, you have responsibility.  A responsibility to yourself to meet your potential, a responsibility to the parents and teachers who brought you to where you are today (figuratively, not literally – I know y’all can drive), a responsibility to society.  It’s that last responsibility I want to discuss here tonight, and by “discuss” I mean lecture at you since you’re supposed to be quiet and listen right now.  Which would be a first, judging by your behavior in my classes, but try anyway.

Sitting before me I see a wide variety of people with a diverse array of talents and interests.  It is these interests and talents that your parents, your teachers and I hope and pray you take out to the world to make it a better place, to show ingenuity and originality and integrity in the realms you choose to take on.  God knows we older generations have run out of ideas. Look at the state the world’s in – you’re seeing the best we can do, and isn’t that frightening? So it’s you we’re shifting our attention to, knowing that at some point we’re going to have to blame someone for all of this, and it’s damn sure not going to be us.  You’re younger and have less money, so you’re an easy target.  That’s how the world works.

But we’re giving you a shot to fix things, because that’s what America is all about – reworking things when they don’t work out the first time.  Look at Thomas Edison – he created the light bulb only after a long series of failures, whereas any reasonable person would have given up after, say, three failed attempts.  Don’t be that reasonable person. Your responsibility, while you’re young and full of energy and optimism, is to keep failing until you succeed, or at least until you have a family to support.

Beyond this admittedly broad responsibility to not give up, you also have more individual responsibilities I’m going to set down, organized by the fields you may eventually enter. These responsibilities have been identified only after much consideration, and fulfilling them will lead to a prosperous, happy life (this is by no means a guarantee, however, as I cannot be held liable for the state of your life.  I’m part of the older generation – it’s not my fault).

We’ll start with those who want to go into the medical field.  You have a responsibility to not screw up.  Forget what I said about failing until you succeed – get it right the first time. No one wants a doctor for whom “Let’s see what happens when I do this…” is a mantra.

For those of you who want to be engineers, you have a responsibility to keep the trains from running into one another (I’m actually surprised at the number of students who tell me they want to be engineers – I would think that jobs would be scarce.  Maybe it’s those caps that are the draw.)

If you’re a writer, you have a responsibility never to use vampires in your fiction.  Also, forget about reworking a classic work from the point of view of a minor character in said work.  Find an original idea or go sell insurance.

Future psychology/art history/sociology majors, your responsibility is simple: keep working on that screenplay so you’ll be able to move out of your parents’ house before they die.

If you’re into computer animation, you have  a responsibility to get a job at Pixar and then, once there, crank out a turkey, b/c that damned company is making us all look bad with their success rate.

Keeping with the tech careers, if your plan is to go into IT, you have a responsibility to get Adobe to finally stop updating.

Future journalists: you’re responsible for the dissemination of information regarding the most important issues facing this country today, but Americans don’t want to read that crap. It’s probably the root cause of our political divisions – y’all keep dredging up political corruption and all that other “bad” stuff – no wonder our government can’t get anything done .  Instead, concentrate on celebrities and cute animal stories, throwing in the occasional cannibalism story to underscore just how horrible the world is.  The reunification of America is sure to follow.

If you’re a musician, you have a responsibility to stay the hell away from American Idol.  As AC/DC put it, “it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll”, and no one respects people who take short cuts, except damsels in distress who are tied to railroad tracks waiting for a hero to come rescue them (think about it, I swear it’s funny). Pay your dues in the clubs, get some groupies, get signed, and then write ironic songs about how the record company doesn’t care about your music while college students steal it from BitTorrent. Live the dream.

If business school is in your future…well, actually, responsibility (fiscal, societal) is something the attorneys can worry about.  Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Speaking of  those future lawyers, you have the responsibility to demonstrate integrity in selecting which cases you choose to take on, to consider the possible societal implications of the judgments you are arguing for, to view your clients as people and not as billable hours, to make arguments that are fair and rooted in objective truth, and, finally, to pursue truth zealously and honestly…in other words, you have a responsibility not to go into law.

If you plan on joining the noblest profession, my profession, teaching, you take on the vast responsibility of preparing our youth to become the leaders of tomorrow.  Molding young minds to think for themselves; putting in the extra time to provide genuine and helpful feedback on the assignments they turn in; counseling them in their times of need; preparing coherent and engaging lesson plans each day that reach a wide range of learning styles; modifying assignments and tests for students with various learning disabilities, leading them to be successful on state and national exams; being observant for any indications of alcohol or drug abuse; writing college recommendation letters for students whose names you’ve forgotten since the previous year; attending staff meetings; filling out discipline referrals as necessary to remind them there are consequences for setting fire to the sink in the bathroom down the hall; attending the extra-curricular activities your students participate in to show them that you care about them as people, not just as students…and if you’re still listening there’s still time to change your mind. Maybe business school has some openings.

And, finally, if your goal is to enter politics, to get elected to office and work for change that reflects the will of the people and betters society, you have a responsibility to do just that. We won’t hold our breath.

Congratulations to the class of 2011 – may we hear of your future accomplishments in all the proper publications.

/if you enjoyed this, I spent four or five days writing it when I could take breaks from my grading

//if you didn’t enjoy this, it was slapped together in 20 minutes by someone other than me and proofread by monkeys.

The reading habits of my students…

Posted in teaching on March 3, 2011 by Mike

I’m not sure how many of my students would be considered “readers”, but I’m fairly certain it’s not many. Less than half, certainly, probably not much more than a third (though maybe that’s just me being pessimistic).  I would define “reader” as someone who reads novels outside of assignments for class, and, more than that, does so consistently; i.e., always has a novel with a bookmark in it.

It probably shouldn’t be all that surprising, knowing the multitude of distractions we have available to us today: readily downloadable movies, smart phones, video games, instant messaging, etc.; the opportunities at which  a novel can be cast aside (figuratively or literally, you pick) for something more immediately stimulating, perhaps a bit less challenging, are legion.

And it saddens me, though I admit I’m often victim to the same distractions.

Prompting these thoughts are the reactions many of my seniors seem to be having toward Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated and acclaimed plays.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not apathy to the play or to my class  that I’m seeing (at least I don’t think it is, though they are just 10 weeks away from graduation), but many are complaining that reading the play is too difficult.

It would be easy for me to write this off as laziness, and in a few cases I think that’s true. I have to squelch the urge to say “millions of people for centuries have enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays, so what does that say about you?” because that would be unfair. Blank verse can be challenging for anyone, and even moreso for students who don’t read often. Still, I do think it speaks to a limitation held by  many of my students, but not one of intellect.

Rather, their limitation is one of empathy, meaning it appears many of my students don’t attempt to connect emotionally with the characters.  Not that what Hamlet is experiencing is outside the realm of their own experience – I don’t believe one need lose a parent to understand what Hamlet is feeling – but because they don’t read (often) in the first place, they have not developed an ability to empathize with fictional characters. They can’t, or don’t, look at what they read as works that present “real life” because that’s not what they look for when they read.  Real life to them is separate from what they read – they’ve grown up on Harry Potter which has given way to Twilight.  Beyond that what do they read?.

To illustrate, we were looking at Act I, scene iii of Hamlet where Polonius gives some good advice to his son, Laertes, who’s leaving for France, and then turns his attention to Ophelia:

LORD POLONIUS

What is’t, Ophelia, he hath said to you?

OPHELIA

So please you, something touching the Lord Hamlet.

LORD POLONIUS

Marry, well bethought:
‘Tis told me, he hath very oft of late
Given private time to you; and you yourself
Have of your audience been most free and bounteous:
If it be so, as so ’tis put on me,
And that in way of caution, I must tell you,
You do not understand yourself so clearly
As it behoves my daughter and your honour.
What is between you? give me up the truth.

OPHELIA

He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders
Of his affection to me.

LORD POLONIUS

Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?

OPHELIA

I do not know, my lord, what I should think.

LORD POLONIUS

Marry, I’ll teach you: think yourself a baby;
That you have ta’en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly;
Or–not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus–you’ll tender me a fool.

We had already mentioned that Polonius appears to be a very loving father when looking at his relationship with his son, but here I asked them how they felt  about how he was treating Ophelia.

Silence.

After waiting a bit, I then posed a question to the females in the class: how would you feel if your dad asked you to explain your relationship with your boyfriend? The reaction was immediate and vocal: they’d feel it was awkward and embarrassing. Exactly!  That’s exactly what Ophelia is feeling! Then why didn’t they pick up on that while reading? They weren’t putting themselves in Ophelia’s situation because that’s not how they think about literature.

And I should note that what I see is not just reflected in their reactions to Shakespeare and his blank verse – I can’t write it off merely because the play might be difficult. The short fiction we read over the past four weeks also suggested this inability to connect with the characters: my students read John Updike’s “A&P” to begin the semester, a story about a nineteen year old cashier at a grocey store who ogles some girls in bathing suits and then quits his job in an act of chivalry when he feels they’re insulted (go ahead, read it). Many of my students came in saying they “didn’t get it” or thought that the narrator was a “creeper” (what, some of the girls in my class don’t have boyfriends already in college?). It’s as if they’ve never known a teenage boy before.

I suppose what I’m saying is that for far too many of my students, reading is viewed as an activity to be kept at arm’s length (heh). Emotional investment in the characters is rare, and this hurts their ability to truly understand what they’re reading.  As a reader, you have to be willing to get involved in the story and think about the characters as real people, attempting to understand their motivations, their desires, their strengths and weaknesses, all which lead to their actions. Reading’s a richer experience this way, and it ought to be a lesson that is learned early.

Naguib Mahfouz’s “The Lawsuit”

Posted in teaching on February 3, 2011 by Mike

When creating the syllabus for this spring’s Intro to Lit class, I, in my infinite wisdom, decided to change up the readings from what I had done the past two years and throw in some new selections. Apparently, at the time, I didn’t want to talk about Cather’s “Paul’s Case” again, nor did I want to return to Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies”, both stories I enjoy and am comfortable discussing. No, I decided to go with a new story, one that was new to the 11th edition of our text (a decision more than likely prompted by the idea that my students would HAVE to get the new text that way). So I leafed through the anthology’s Table of Contents and came to Naguib Mahfouz’s “The Lawsuit”. The blurb hooked me…

He thought he’d seen the last of his late father’s second wife, but now she’s back to trouble his peaceful existence.

…and here’s where I should say I read the story, did some research on it, and made an informed decision as to whether to add it to the syllabus. But my intuition told me it would be a nice addition so I skipped a couple of those steps.

Here we are, three weeks later, and I’m recognizing that I have some ideas about the story, but that’s a bit distant from having some real thoughts about it. So I’m writing this trying to work some of those ideas out.

The story centers on the first-person narrator, a man whose 55 year-old father had married a younger woman (20). Complicating the situation is the fact that his family (his two sons, the narrator’s mother, and some sisters) worry that this will affect their “rights” to any inheritance, as he keeps his money locked in a cupboard in the house. The story, as you might guess based on the author’s name, is set in Egypt, so there are one or two cultural questions I have (namely since, as far as I can tell, the father has not yet divorced his first wife, does this mean he’s a polygamist?)

I should look this up (Egypt apparently frowns on the practice, but I can’t see that it’s illegal, so that answers that question…somewhat). The rest of the story relates how angry the son is at the young woman b/c of the trouble her relationship causes: the older brother dies in jail after a bloody fight with his father, and the woman ends up taking the money after the father dies due to a stroke. Years later, the woman re-enters the narrator’s life when she attempts to bring suit against him for “rights” – apparently an attempt to finagle money. Also another cultural difference – this claim would be laughed out of an American court.

Of course he’s furious, but here’s where Mahfouz starts making his point, through the son’s lawyer: the lawyer explains just how bad off the woman now is – she’s destitute after having been divorced several times, which is a mark of shame in the culture. The divorces resulted, more than likely, from her inability to have children, and she herself was scammed by a younger man. The lawyer also suggests sympathy would lie with the woman in any hearing b/c of the situation of her marriage to the much older man.

Anyway, the narrator is smug when he hears this – karma’s a bitch, it seems (note to self: don’t use that in class). He goes to court with the intention of seeing just how bad off she is, and more than likely rubbing her face in his success.

But then he sees her, and finds that she is truly a broken woman, who actually apologizes to him for causing him trouble, but tells him she has no other recourse.

His anger melts – he finds an “inner peace” – and it seems this change of heart might be key to finding a theme. The narrator wants vengeance so bad, yet when he has the chance to gain it, he seems to realize what an empty pursuit it really is. He tells the woman not to worry, that what the Lord wills will be done. He’s regained a level-headedness that had been lost to him for years.

I’ll work on that a bit. Interested to hear what my kids have to say about this.

Yelled at a class today…

Posted in teaching on January 31, 2011 by Mike

…can’t stand that I did now that it’s after the fact, but felt so righteous in my indignation at their behavior.

I had been talking about Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” for the fourth time today and the class, which tends to be talky anyway, just got on my last nerve. Several students didn’t have their texts, some of them who I’m unsure if they’ve actually bought the book yet, three weeks into class.  Some were having side conversations, which is irritating but something I don’t really snap at.  Then there was the student who had her head down and eyes closed but when I called her on it told me she was “still paying attention.”  The last straw came when another student tossed a mint toward the “still-paying-attention” student.  I lost it, a bit, and berated them all for their lack of attentiveness and all-around rudeness/disrespect.  Tossed the “still-paying-attention” student out to the hall telling her she was wasting my time.

Stopped the class for a while and sat at my desk to calm down.  Then went on with the lesson.

Sometimes I think, “what do I expect from 17 and 18 year olds?”, but then I think, hey, I was never rude to my teachers like some of these students.  I guess I should emphasize that it was only four or five who were getting on my nerves, and the rest of the class was fine, but still, when it’s a class of only 18 (and a college class at that), I’m a bit less understanding.

The other problem is that I let these things build up  and then blow up.  They’ve been talky all year long, but it never got to the point that I thought they were disrespectful until this past week.  We’ll see how they behave the rest of the week.  I’ve been told that when I lose my temper (which is rare), I’m quite intimidating.

Huck Finn without the “n word”, Part II

Posted in Novels, teaching with tags , , , , , on January 6, 2011 by Mike

A few years ago a member of the Dallas School Board (Ron Price) raised a ruckus about Huckleberry Finn for the same reasons Gribben is publishing the edited version.  I wrote about the situation on a previous blog attempt, and was reminded of it by a long-time reader (read:  my brother).  I’ve decided to post it again here as it’s still very much relevant to today’s “controversy”, and, in my opinion, is a bit more memorably put.  Enjoy!

[note: some works listed here are no longer on my school’s reading lists, not b/c of complaints or challenges, but because we like to vary our reading lists up from time to time.  Needless to fear, any novels we read today could very easily be added to this post.  We’re rebels like that]

***

In an article about the current controversy surrounding Adventures of Huckleberry Finn up in the Fort Worth area, Ron Price, a Dallas school board member, states, “We are here today to say we will not tolerate the N-word being used by any educators anywhere in our school district, throughout our region or the state of Texas. It’s critical that we examine all of our textbooks to ensure that the language is proper and that the language is not being used to abuse any child in any school.”

As an English teacher for ten years, I find Ron Price’s statement scary, and not just because of my feelings about Twain and Huck. His statement suggests that any word deemed offensive by any student can and should be removed carte blanche from the curriculum. With this threat in mind, I started looking through my high school’s reading list in an effort to determine which works could be targeted.

Let’s start with the word “nigger” – obviously, Twain’s Huck Finn is gone.  Tom Sawyer is, too.  So are any number of his short stories and essays, including a scathing condemnation of a southern lynching entitled “Only a Nigger.” But Twain’s not the only author whose works will be culled. So, too, will Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is removed, as are any number of his novels.  Flannery O’Connor is also guilty of using the word in a few of her stories. Catch-22 is gone. A few Hemingway works won’t make the cut (including The Sun Also Rises) and, to be consistent, neither will Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, Richard Wright’s novels Black Boy and Native Son, and Frederick Douglass’ Autobiography (and most other slave narratives I’ve read).  So right there we’ve effectively silenced four of the greatest African-American voices in American literature.  But, hey, at least students won’t be exposed to the word “nigger,” right?

Swear words (not just racial epithets) are offensive, too.  Good-bye, Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, Cold Mountain, Catch-22, Invisible Man, A Lesson Before Dying, and Fahrenheit-451 (oh, the irony!).  The boys of Lord of the Flies should have their mouths washed out with soap, and Orwell’s 1984 is horrid.  Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima is gone (and I haven’t even mentioned the witchcraft in that one…oops), as are Seabiscuit and A Separate Peace.  Don’t even get me started on Grendel, that monster (why can’t he act civilized?).  No wonder I hear all sorts of curse words in the hallways – the literature students are reading is setting the standard.

Let’s move on to not just words, but actions (actions speak louder than words, you know).  I know many people find sex offensive, particularly between unmarried people.  So, so long, Scarlet Letter and Cold Mountain; good bye, Romeo and JulietThe Great Gatsby has an affair in it, so scratch that, and the trouble in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible all starts with an affair between John Proctor and Abigail (but maybe we can leave that one in, since John is hanged at the end). Wait a minute – Willy Loman has an affair in Death of a Salesman – obviously Miller has some strange fixation on sexual trysts so let’s ban ’em both.  Catch-22, A Lesson Before Dying, and Invisible Man are now three-time offenders, so perhaps we can burn them and drive home the point (I mean, do they have ANY redeemable qualities?  Oops, that’s beside the point).  Dances with Wolves – Dunbar masturbates!  And then he fools around with Stands With a Fist (this is after being fondled by some young indian women). The senior level reading list is chock-full of sex (implicit and explicit) — Kate Chopin, you’re not fooling anyone.  Nude women abound in The Odyssey, and The Picture of Dorian Gray is scandalous (the foreword Wilde writes notwithstanding). Not a sexual episode, but in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the titular Gulliver actually pees on a house to douse a fire – how lewd!  Students don’t need to be reading that, it’s distracting and they’d laugh, and then the next thing we know THEY’LL be peeing on house fires (maybe we could just excise that portion).

And what about witchcraft?  Of course there’s Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, but we’ll also say goodbye to Macbeth, Hamlet and Julius Caesar (is there ANY Shakespeare work that would be safe?) and The Crucible centers around it.  If we throw in religion (don’t want to start in with what any religious books say, as it might make some students uncomfortable) we also have to get rid of The Poisonwood Bible, any Puritan readings (Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, for example), and let’s just ignore any allusions made in any other works (“Mr. Williams, what does Patrick Henry mean when he says ‘Don’t be betrayed by a kiss’?” “Just ignore that line, student of mine, it could be offensive if I explain it”).  Practically nothing Abraham Lincoln wrote could be read (he was President!  How dare he quote the Bible!), and more recently published novels being considered by our English staff like Life of Pi and The Kite Runner (both finalists for a local community reading program) are immediately verboten.  Oops, perhaps I shouldn’t use German because of the negative connotation it might have.

Strangely enough, graphic violence doesn’t seem to offend anyone.  But violence is usually accompanied by swearing (people who get shot/stabbed/poisoned are generally nonplussed) so it’s a moot point.

Some reading this might reply that I’m descending onto a slippery slope.  Perhaps a bit, but I would also point out that every specific work mentioned above has been challenged at a school somewhere in this country for the exact reason given. So here’s the question: if we shouldn’t include anything in our curriculum that could possibly/maybe/might offend someone, what exactly do we read? Does context not count anymore?  Does authorial intent not mean anything?. My entire AP reading list is gone, based on Ron Price’s argument that began this missive.  Most of the works included in my school’s English curriculum are questionable because they could make some students uncomfortable, and apparently that’s not what some in high places believe literature should do.

But I would argue that this is EXACTLY what it should do.  This is what great literature (i.e. education) does: it makes us question our society, our world, our selves, and questions without immediate answers are uncomfortable.  When we read any novel, we come into it with preconceived ideas and if the book makes us question those ideas, we’re forced to think about WHY we believe the things we do.  Huck Finn makes us think about race (which will ALWAYS be an issue in the U.S., even if we abolish the word ‘nigger’) and how supposedly civilized people treat one another.  It’s a tale of how difficult it actually is to overcome the supposed “truths” society feeds us from day one, and it’s a tale of friendship.  To ban this book (and others) for the use of deemed “offensive” words, disregarding entirely the context of such use and the author’s intent, is a crime far greater than making a student uncomfortable.  Yes, some ideas we encounter in our education can be offensive, but if teachers are just in the business of reinforcing preconceived notions/ideas, playing it safe, why the hell are we here?

Huck Finn without the “n word”

Posted in Novels, teaching with tags , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2011 by Mike

Saw an article this morning that reported on a new edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that would replace every instance of the word “nigger” with the word “slave.” For instance, an excerpt from the new version’s chapter 2, where Huck comments on Jim’s behavior after Tom plays a trick on him (placing Jim’s hat in a tree while Jim sleeps), would read:

Jim was monstrous proud about it, and he got so he wouldn’t hardly notice the other [slaves]. [Slaves] would come miles to hear Jim tell about it, and he was more looked up to than any [slave] in that country. Strange [slaves] would stand with their mouths open and look him all over, same as if he was a wonder. [Slaves] is always talking about witches in the dark by the kitchen fire; but whenever one was talking and letting on to know all about such things, Jim would happen in and say, “Hm! What you know ’bout witches?” and that [slave] was corked up and had to take a back seat.

This is not the first time such an edition has been published.  Huck-critic John Wallace published a similar version a number of years ago which was much lampooned by academia, but now this new version has a much-respected Twain scholar on its side, Auburn University American literature professor Alan Gribben, who is leading the effort in an attempt to introduce more “general readers” to the classic, without the distasteful epithet.

It’s a misguided attempt.

Twain knew from the get-go that Huckleberry Finn would be considered by many to be an unsavory book.  That’s the point of the novel.  Slavery/racism/prejudice is detestable, and readers of the book SHOULD squirm when Huck starts throwing that word around.  Many defenders of the book (myself included) make the very valid point that “nigger” was the operative term for blacks in the South circa 1835-1845, when this book takes place.  But Twain’s use of the word goes beyond just “realism”.

When Huck uses the word, we squirm because it’s a 12 year old boy using the term, and to our 21st century sensibilities (as it was for Twain’s readers in the late 19th century) the term has no place in polite society.  It’s vulgar and hateful, but Huck just keeps using it.  There’s the point – Huck has been raised in a society that in Twain’s eyes is vulgar, is hateful, and Huck can’t help but use that term.  The prejudice has been taught to him – by Pap, by the Widow Douglas, by Miss Watson, by the church, by his school-teachers.  If Twain were to use another term (such as ‘slave’), the ugliness of St. Petersburg and the rest of the slave-holding South is white-washed (as it were), and instead of throwing its ugliness in our face, he’d be concealing that truth.   We as readers NEED to see the South as it was, and, more importantly to the novel’s progression, see just how deep Huck is influenced by his upbringing. Changing the language makes Huck’s decision to go to hell for Jim, despite all the shit society has taught him is “right”, less profound. No, Huck doesn’t stop using the word at that point in the novel.  But he has done something greater – he has attributed humanity to a “nigger”, shirking everything he has been taught.  And that’s why I teach the novel to my students – because of Huck’s decision to rise beyond the limitations and pettiness of what we call civilization for love.

Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel about the devastating effects of hate disguised as a boy’s adventure novel.  Perhaps if so many people did not carry such romanticized notions about Huck and Jim on the journey down the river there wouldn’t be such a fuss over the book.  We could better accept the novel as the biting satire it is, rather than a depiction of the halcyon days of youth that better describes Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a thematically inferior yet more pleasant read (because Twain is not challenging us in this one). Huck would be treated as an “adult” novel, and perhaps then it would be read with the understanding that it’s meant to make us uncomfortable, rather than indulge our nostalgia for a simpler past.

The controversy over Huck Finn will not end with Gribben’s new edition of the book.  Hell, the controversy’s been raging since 1885, when it was first published.  What the new edition will do, I’m afraid, is water down Twain’s message, water down Twain’s truth.   And I’m afraid it will fit right in in a world where even the risk of offending someone is an intolerable crime.

Twain knew this when he wrote: “Truth is the most valuable thing we have.  Let us economize it.”

Gribben’s edition does just that.

Do as I say, not as I do…

Posted in teaching with tags , , , , on October 14, 2010 by Mike

…seems to be our admin’s policy these days.  Not to complain too much here, but the admin. has lately made a few decisions regarding the daily running of the school that have been relatively unpopular among the staff.

I’m not too upset about the lesson plans they have us submit each week – I (now) think that lesson plans can be valuable, though I often find myself diverging from them by the end of the week due to the fluid nature of English lectures/discussions.  If I (or the students) want to spend more time discussing a particular idea about The Tempest, I should have that ability to adjust the schedule.  It happens, and, without sounding arrogant, I hope, it happens all the time in “good” classrooms.

But then there’s the attendance issue.  We take attendance on the computer, which involves clicking “PRE” or “U” beside each student’s name.  We USED to have an “ALL PRESENT” button, but the admin. took it away b/c some teachers weren’t taking time to actually take roll (which blows my mind, honestly – HEY,  IT’S PART OF YOUR JOB), which resulted in some students being counted present for two weeks when, in fact, they had never set foot on campus.  So we’re all being punished for that.

The admin. also decided that all classes should have a minimum number of grades by the time three week reports come around and then a min. number of grades when the six weeks ends.  They decided upon 5 and 12, respectively.  Four of those have to be major, er, excuse me, “academic achievement” grades (another decision by the admin to change the terminology) as opposed to “academic practice” grades (once known as daily grades).  It doesn’t work too well for English classes because we like to have our students write, and grading writing in a meaningful way takes time.  It also doesn’t help that the six weeks periods this semester are actually “five point two” weeks due to a desire to have finals completed before Christmas.  Less time, more grading.  Yay.

Another decision made by the admin. concerns their attempts to curtail fighting at our school (it seems it’s a problem this year, though I don’t recall as many fights in previous years compared to the numbers that we’ve had this year).  The admin. has attempted to bribe the student body with off-campus lunch if we have no fights for a certain number of days (I think it’s 30 –  a fight resets the countdown).  Hasn’t happened yet – I think the longest fightless span we’ve had is eight days (could be wrong here).  Something about the futility of not thinking about a blue-eyed polar bear occurs to me at this point.

Of course, like many school districts, we have a “zero tolerance” policy w/ regard to drugs and weapons.  However, this policy often leads to  ridiculousness extremes, as evidenced by a kid who brought a toy gun to school and was expelled for a year, and another nine year old girl who brought a small swiss army knife with her sewing kit (for the scissors) and was narc-ed on by a little boy who will probably go dateless through high school.  Zero tolerance allows for no room/trust for a teacher’s discretion, allowing legal liability to commandeer common sense.

The point – that I’m admittedly incredibly slow in getting to – is this, raised beautifully by my classroom neighbor and fellow newspaper advisor: “If we are expected to differentiate and modify and motivate the unmotivated so that a ‘one size fits all’ education in our classes isn’t acceptable, why doesn’t the administration have this same standard for themselves?”

I love it when a plan comes together…

Posted in teaching on May 14, 2010 by Mike

…I’m speaking about the AP Language Exam and the year’s preparation BRP and I led for our AP students.  Want some proof?  Here’s a prompt we gave the AP kids earlier this semester after studying Catch-22 (I created this one a few years ago and come back to it on occasion):

Mark Twain, in a short work entitled The Chronicle of Young Satan, wrote the following.

Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them–and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon–laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution–these can lift at a colossal humbug,–push it a little– crowd it a little–weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.

Write a thoughtful and carefully constructed essay in which you use specific evidence to defend, challenge, or qualify the assertion that laughter is the “one really effective weapon.”

Now, here’s the argumentative prompt from this year’s AP exam:

In his 2004 book, Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton argues that the chief aim of humorists is not merely to entertain but “to convey with impunity messages that might be dangerous or impossible to say directly.” Because society allows humorists to say things that other people cannot or will not say, de Botton sees humorists as serving a vital function in society.

Think about the implications of de Botton’s view of the role of humorists (cartoonists, stand-up comics, satirical writers, hosts of television programs, etc.). Then write an essay that defends, challenges or qualifies de Botton’s claim about the vital role of humorists. Use specific, appropriate evidence to develop your position.

I am REALLY looking forward to seeing the mean score for our students on this prompt.

You know the line...

The AP Exam…

Posted in teaching, Uncategorized on May 13, 2010 by Mike

…my students apparently feel like they kicked the test’s butt up and down and back again yesterday.  Without telling me specific prompts, they suggested that we had covered many of the ideas reflected in the three essays they were asked to write.  Makes me all fuzzy inside to see them actually excited about how they performed on a test.

Now the waiting begins…we’ll get the results back in early July.