Archive for the teaching Category

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.

Thoughts on Freshman Comp.

Posted in teaching with tags , , , on April 16, 2010 by Mike

I teach Freshman Comp. to seniors here at the high school – they earn credit for college English and I earn a second paycheck (for each section!) from the college.  It works out well for all involved.

In this second semester, the focus is on writing about literature, and many of my students appear worried about having to take on Hamlet for their 1500-word research paper due in a couple weeks.  They’ve already signed up for their topics  – from a list of possible topics I gave them six weeks ago – and have written a paper responding to a piece of literary criticism concerning their topic.  We also spent about three weeks on the play itself.  Still, the worry is apparently there.

Here’s what I told them to assuage their fear:

1) This is Freshman Comp – I’m not expecting grad. level analysis from them in this paper. What I’m looking for is a clearly focused essay about a particular aspect of the play.  The thesis should be thoughtful and suggest the importance of their chosen topic to the play.

2) The whole purpose of Freshman Comp. is to prepare them for college-level writing, to get used to the demands and expectations that their future instructors will have.  Many of those expectations center on FOLLOWING INSTRUCTIONS.  No, you may not have to use MLA format in your upper-level chemistry classes, but you will be expected to follow some type of documentation format.  Knowing the rules of one will prepare you for others.

3) Research is READING.  Students can’t expect to spend 30 minutes on the databases and, voila, have all the sources necessary for the paper. Many of my students expect to find sources that say exactly what they want to say in their papers, but that ain’t gonna happen (and what would be the point of the paper if it did?).  The articles they find need to be read and information/ideas will have to be pulled to add to the discussion they are presenting in their papers.  It’s a time-consuming process.  Sorry if you were planning on knocking the paper out the weekend before it’s due – you’re setting yourself up for failure.

4) Your thoughts are important!  In fact, they’re the most important part of the essay.  Yes, this is a researched paper, but the research should add to your ideas, not be them.  Else, what’s the point?

5) A large part of Freshman Comp. is finding out what type of writer you are – how much time and effort needs to be invested on your part to come up with a final product that won’t be an embarrassment to you when your instructor reads it.  This is useful information to know before moving on to higher level classes.

6) Finally, that quality writing takes time. Yes, there are talented writers who can knock out engaging and clear 1000-word essays in just a couple hours, but these writers are the exception, and I often wonder what these students could produce if they did not rush through their work.  Still, most of my students dislike writing, and it shows in their essays because they approach it as a chore, and something to be done as quickly as possible in order to move on to more enjoyable pursuits.  And then they complain about their inevitable Cs and Ds.

I have  a quote on my door from Thoreau about reading, one that I pray my students read and take to heart:

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.

Substitute “writing” for “reading” and you have a pretty good idea about my philosophy of writing: it’s a skill.  Don’t use it, don’t practice it, don’t develop it  (as most students do not), and you can’t expect to be successful at it.