Archive for teaching

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–.

Stoner, by John Williams

Posted in Novels, teaching with tags , , , on March 31, 2010 by Mike

One chapter in, and I’m hooked.  William Stoner, a Missouri farm boy, is given the opportunity by his father to attend the University of Missouri to study agriculture.  Two years in he changes his major to literature, yet is uncertain about what he will do.  He doesn’t tell his parents.

Sloane,  an English professor there at the school, brings him to a realization a year away from graduation:

Sloane leaned forward until his face was close; Stoner saw the lines on the long thin face soften, and he heard the dry mocking voice become gentle and unprotected.

“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”

Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Sloane said softly.

“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”

“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”

Maybe it is.

My usefulness pondered…

Posted in teaching with tags , , , on March 29, 2010 by Mike

…no, this is not a woe-is-me, I-don’t-mean-anything-to-anybody type of post.  I know I’m valuable – if only to reach the dishes on the top shelves of the cupboard for my wife.  At least it’s something.

Anyway, our illustrious department head brought news of certain changes being planned/considered for next year affecting the way we do things around here.  I won’t start complaining about having to write lesson plans, as I’m not using this post to bitch and moan about such matters.  I’ll leave that for another time when I actually have lesson plans to write.  But our dept. head started talking about time frames for grading papers and then started talking about requiring a certain number of grades per six weeks then started talking about prohibiting all food/drink from the classroom (including water) then talked about something else that I forget because I was fuming about the other things mentioned.

Anyway, a respected colleague and friend of mine (Foxy, as they call her these days), made a suggestion that we look into starting up a charter school and get out of public school and its rules while the getting’s good.  Tempting, but it seems like a lot of work to actually get it going.  And I didn’t get into teaching to actually work (heh – that’s a joke, people).

It was at that point I started wondering what it is I would (let’s not say “could” – that would be too damn depressing, I think) do if I weren’t a teacher.  I’ve known a few teachers to leave the profession and go into various sales positions: real estate, insurance, pot… but I know that kind of job would kill my soul; I hate talking on the phone, much less attempting to convince someone to buy something (sidenote: we’re reading Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and there must be some Biff in me somewhere: “…salesman, business of one kind or another… it’s a measly matter of existence…to suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation”).  Outside of teaching I’ve only held part-time jobs, and being a sandwich artist for Subway wouldn’t be a very satisfying career path.  I fooled around with the idea of becoming a pastor at the end of my college career, but a winter in Minnesota wised me up in that regard. That and I don’t think God wants me talking about Mark Twain and Huck Finn every Sunday.  It’d be too damn expensive to go back to school, and anyway I’d end up getting a doctorate in English because that’s what I’m interested in.

Writing for a living is really the most attractive idea right now,  but I’ve got a wife and kids and a house and dreams of driving a Camaro in a year or two (they’re so pretty!).  And yet I’m feeling a real yearning to write, so much that I can’t stand to look at the stack of papers on my desk.

I’m starting to think it’s time to get serious about what I’ve always felt is a calling.  I’ve wasted a shit-ton of time already.

You would think…

Posted in teaching with tags , , , on March 7, 2010 by Mike

…that after being in my class for a semester my students would make DAMN sure to get the first sentence of their essays on the page without making any major stylistic or grammatical errors.

Of course, you’d think wrong.  What follows is a sampling of first sentences from the current batch of essays I’m grading…I don’t know whether to weep or gnash my teeth (laughing is right out).

“Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of her most famous story, The Yellow Wallpaper.” [yep, that’s the opening ‘sentence’]

“Despite the fact that there are many characteristics we cannot discern about the narrator, the decision by the author to write in first person allows the reader to view the internal thoughts and emotions of the young sixth grade girl.” [which story?  which author?  It’s a mystery]

“It can be described that in the nature of life that each human enjoys his or her life on this physical world beyond its limit.” [huh?]

In the WAY too broad category: “The theme of any piece of literature is affected by many literary elements.”

more as I come across them…

“Happy Endings by Mary Atwood is not just any ordinary tragic tale of two lovers.” [short story title should be placed in quotation marks, plus the author’s name is Margaret]

“In the past two centuries the role of women in society has almostchanged completely.” [does no one look at little red squiggly lines anymore?]

“‘Personally, I disagree with their ideas’ (Gilman 572), traditionally not something you would have heard come out of a woman’s mouth in the late 1800’s.” [huh?]

Those who can’t…?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on February 26, 2010 by Mike

There are many times I feel like I’m not a very effective teacher.  I don’t feel I’m particularly innovative – I tend to stick to what I’m comfortable with rather than try more “creative” approaches, particularly when I roll my eyes at these ideas that are suggested at conferences or staff days.  Many times I’ll think an idea’s too cheesy, too touchy-feely, maybe too “non-academic”, and I rationalize that my students would see right through me and not buy into something I’m not buying into.  And there’s probably some truth to that (still rationalizing), but also there’s the thought in the back of my mind that perhaps I’m short-changing my students by not venturing outside my comfort zone.

I’ve often wondered why students connect with me.  It hits me how little I know about my students outside of my classroom, and it makes me wonder how much I actually care about them.  I mean, I feel like I care about them, but then I find I’d be hard-pressed to find a student in my AP class I KNOW is involved in, say, band.  I don’t go to most extra-curricular activities – an occasional soccer or volleyball game, but never football, never dances, though I do enjoy being at the after-prom bash – so I’m a teacher in a room, to be honest.  But then there’s this: I don’t envy the teachers who do all those other things, but I sure as hell admire ’em for it.  It’s just not for me, is my attitude.  And sometimes I think that’s a terrible attitude for me to take.

So why do I teach?  I love reading and talking about literature.  I love writing (but find every reason under the sun not to write – making me wonder how much I really love writing).  Developing a passion for reading and writing among my students has been my stated goal ever since I decided to pursue it.  Everything else about high school, for me, is secondary. It’s trivial.  End of story.  And I have fun doing what I do, and I think most of the time my students are having fun, too.

But many days I wonder if what I do in my classroom is actually teaching.

I’m scared to death that what I’ve got going on here is more a “cult of personality” rather than teaching. I’m the eccentric English teacher who collects action figures and has the well-decorated  classroom. I’m the guy who bucked the system and wore a jacket with jeans on days other than Fridays. I’m the guy who tells them how much of a joke the TAKS test actually is, and that they shouldn’t worry about it. Yes, my students are having fun in here, and they’re doing well on the AP exams and their TAKS tests, but how much can really be attributed to me, and how much am I dependent upon my students’ teachers who came before me?

I don’t know that I want to know the answer to that one.