Wednesday, August 4, 2010

So What If I Don't Have A Penis?

"So what if I don't have a penis?!?!" the boy shouted across the room. The rest of the class immediately bursts into hysterical laughter. The teacher, who was expecting it, dissolved into a fit of giggles. The young man smiles proudly, and receives high praise from the whole class and the teacher for his excellent delivery.

Oh, and I suppose I should mention that this is not a fictional anecdote. Nope, not at all. This was the scene in my classroom about an hour ago. And, I must admit, I am immensely impressed with that student. Actually, I am impressed with most all of my students today.

Today was the culmination of two weeks worth of studying, analyzing, and reading drama in my summer school classroom. Today, the students got a chance to showcase their acting abilities, and their creativity.  Students broke into small groups to perform their version of David Ives' one-act play, "Sure Thing".  I am not sure which I found more impressive today: my group of all girls who performed a modernized version of the play complete with "grills" or my three groups of all boys who actually embraced playing the role of the "girl".  One thing I can say for certain, the class enjoyed the activity.  And that, I will gladly count as a success.

Oh, and it was pretty entertaining to hear all of them proudly shout across the room my favorite line from the play, "So what if I don't have a penis?"  ;)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Armed Robbery Makes Me... Nervous???

I am in the middle of trying to teach drama in summer school right now. Up until yesterday, I was actually quite pleased with the way the unit has been progressing. The students have mastered (mostly) the basic vocabulary, we have discussed and analyzed structures, and had some surprisingly interesting discussions based on themes and actions from the one-act plays we've read. Based on how well the kids have been handling the sprint through drama, I decided it was time to let them show their acting skills, and put on our own performance. *sigh* What is it that they say about best laid plans???

As any good teacher knows, you cannot just walk in on Monday morning and tell your class, "Hey, guess what? Today you are going to perform this entire play in front of the entire class!" You really need to ease into these activities. I thought I would begin with a quick review of the importance of staging, stage directions, and actors' expressions and gestures. Again, my students surprised me with a rather insightful discussion. Needless to say, I was growing ever more ecstatic, thinking that I just might be able to pull this off and have a great lesson AND performance. So, I introduced the warm-up activity. *sigh* And that is where the downward spiral began.

I had students count off, in order to put them into 5 groups. Unfortunately, as my luck would have it, FIVE of the most rambunctious students I have ever taught ended up in a group together. Looking back now, I know I should have split them up. However, I allowed myself to be swayed by their enthusiasm for the activity.

Ah... the activity... My brilliant idea... (Consequently, I do feel the need to admit that I came up with the idea for this particular activity while drinking a glass, or two, of wine.) Because the one-act play I wanted the kids to act out relies heavily on tone, facial expressions, and gestures, I thought the students needed some practice in matching their own tones, expressions, and gestures to corresponding emotions. So, I decided we would do a pantomime activity. The students would get into small groups, each group would be assigned 3-4 emotions, and would have to "mime" the emotion. The rest of the class would then have to guess the emotion. My goal was that my students would learn 1. how to over-exaggerate facial expressions and gestures for the sake of a stage performance and 2. appropriate expressions, gestures, and body language to convey emotions. (Sadly, many students today do not know how to adequately demonstrate emotion.) Lofty goal, apparently.

Group 3, the 5 rambunctious boys. And, because it DOES matter in this instance... 4 black kids, 1 white kid. Their emotion... NERVOUSNESS.

I call for Group 3 to come to the front. The lone white kid gets up and walks to the front of the room and faces the chalkboard. The four black kids arrange their desks in a 2 x 2 block and one pretends to be the "driver".

I can already see the impending disaster. But, before I can stop them...

The white kid begins to make gestures like he is withdrawing money from an ATM. The "car" rolls up and all four black kids jump out and rush towards the ATM, brandishing their "pretend" handguns. The white kid runs for his life...

The classroom erupts into wild laughter. I shake my head. Students begin calling out their guesses as to the emotion they were trying to portray.

Homicidal Mania!
Prejudice and Discrimination!
The five students in the group become exasperated with their classmates' guesses. "No, stupid! Nervousness! [White kid] was nervous." This, of course, causes the other students to laugh that much harder. I continue to shake my head, bewildered.

"Boys, I don't even know where to begin to explain all that was wrong with your performance."

"What do you mean? That was tight!"

"No, you completely missed the point. Pantomime is an over-exaggeration of facial expression and hand gestures, not a full on skit that perpetuates modern stereotypes. Seriously? You put the token white kid at the ATM?" I stifle my own laughter. "You jumped right over nervousness and plunged head first into terror, panic, and paralyzing fear."

"No way! [White kid] was nervous! Didn't you see his face when he saw us?"

"[White kid] was nervous when he first saw you in the 'car'. The minute you jumped out with guns waving he went straight to fear and terror. Again, you missed the point."

"But you said we had to over-exaggerate our actions."

I sigh, and shake my head. "No, I said you needed to over-exaggerate FACIAL EXPRESSIONS and HAND GESTURES, not kill someone in a drive-by shooting."

"Man, it wasn't no drive-by. It was armed robbery."

The class again erupts in laughter. Tomorrow, they work individually.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Jerry Springer IS Educational Television

As much as I may complain about the intelligence, or lack thereof, of students today, the truth is that they are not actually less intelligent than students were 5, 10, 15, or 20 years ago. This is a common complaint heard bandied about in teachers' lounges all across the United States. "What is wrong with these kids today? Don't they have any common sense? Who doesn't know ..." And you can fill in the blank with whichever piece of seemingly common piece of knowledge you want. I will admit to having been floored repeatedly in the classroom when I've made a reference to some seemingly common piece of pop culture or what I consider to be basic knowledge, and my kids stare at me blankly.

What do you mean "Who's Nixon?" You know, Richard Nixon? Former President of the United States Richard Nixon. Watergate Scandal Richard Nixon. What's "Watergate"? Are you kidding me?

Teacher: What do you mean, "What country is Jewish?"
Student: What country is Jewish? You know, Germany is German... What c
ountry is Jewish?
Teacher: No, dear. Germany is a country. The people who live in Germany are German, just like the peop
le who live here in America and Americans. Jews are Jewish because that is their religion, just like we call people who worship Christ, Christians. Germans refer to their country. Jewish refers to their religion. Does that make sense?
Student: Yeah... so... what religion is German?

Mt. St. Helens? The volcano? In the United States? The one that blew in 1980? Most catastrophic volcanic eruption in the history of the United States? What do you mean you didn't KNOW that there were volcanoes in the US?

You've never heard of Boy George?

These are common conversations in my classroom. Sometimes, in an attempt to help my students understand a theme in literature or poetry, or make sense of some literary skill, I will try to help them connect it to something modern. Occasionally, I fail miserably and only confuse them further when they do not have the necessary background experiences. It is at this point that I usually become dumbfounded by what I perceive as a devastating gap in their education. This, inevitably, leads to the questioning of what they have been doing in school the last 8-11 years, or if they have had their heads buried in the sand. (Which, by the way, is yet another reference that students seldom understand.)

Another very common complaint among teachers is that their students lack any kind of creativity or imagination. Teachers work tirelessly trying to develop lessons and activities that are not only relevant to the content and curriculum, but that are also culturally relevant and engaging for their students. When the students can relate to the material and find the activity entertaining, these lessons are raving successes. When the students cannot relate to the material or do not find the activity entertaining, ... well, those lessons are deemed miserable failures, leaving teachers scratching their heads at what went wrong.

Five years ago, I found a creative writing assignment that I just knew my students would enjoy. I was excited to take it back to the classroom with me, as I was positive that it was going to appeal to my kids. The assignment was a creative journal writing.

You wake up tomorrow morning and are the opposite sex. (If you are a girl, you wake up as a boy. If you are a boy, you wake up as a girl.) What are your first thoughts? How do you feel? Describe what your appearance, thoughts, and feelings. What would you do first? How will your friends and family react to your change?

My excitement was soon squashed when my students read the prompt; groans and moans were heard around the room. Really? We HAVE to write about this? I don't want to be a boy. I wouldn't leave my room if I were a girl. My coach would have a fit. I was stymied. After much complaining and whining, the entries were finished and volunteers read aloud their responses. I was utterly disappointed in the lack of creativity and imagination from most of my class.

If I woke up as a girl, I'd be a hot girl. But, I wouldn't like boys, because that would make me feel gay. I'd be a lesbian. I'd call my girlfriend to borrow her clothes. She'd freak out, but eventually she would calm down and become my lesbian girlfriend. I would change my name so none of my teammates and friends would know it was me.

If I woke up as a boy I would cry. I don't know how my boyfriend would react. I don't think I would tell him. I would move away so no one would know what had happened. I would still sit down to pee.

To say the least, they were not inspired. I was not impressed. I voiced my confusion among colleagues. We reached the conclusion that our kids just completely lack imagination, or worse, are just plain lazy. I scrapped the journal entry the following year, replacing it with something far less interesting and creative.

Often, when these assignments that are meant to showcase creativity and imagination fail, we believe it is because students are lazy or not intelligent or mature enough to handle it. But, the truth is that they are not lacking in intelligence or creativity; they are a victim of the technological advances for which we are so proud. Kids today do not need to be imaginative. They do not need to be able to remember obscure or past events, people, or stories. Technology makes those things obsolete. Have you actually sat down and took a good look at video game screens today? Let me tell you, they are a far cry from Space Invaders and Pong. The graphics are amazingly sharp and accurate. There is no need to "pretend" or "imagine" what the objects on the screen are supposed to represent. And, who needs to be able to remember where the 1992 Olympics were held when the answer can be found within seconds through an Internet search engine?

Okay, so what is my point to this whole rambling post? My point is this... Students today are not stupid. Modern technological advances have changed not only the way we live our daily lives, but also the educational needs of our students. Students need to be taught how to use their imaginations. And, content material needs to be related to current happenings. This is the information age. Think of students' brains as a continuous news feed. They only have immediate access to what is on the home page. Therefore, to make information relevant, it must be connected to current events.

So, when it comes time to teach Oedipus Rex to my students, I do not first introduce them to Sophocles, or Ancient Greece, or dramatic structure, or the tragic hero. All of that will come in time. No, first I introduce them to Jerry Springer, or Maury Povich, or Steve Wilkos. We hold a 15-20 minute discussion of our favorite, or most memorable, episodes. While discussing, I write up all the different topics for the show; who is my baby's daddy, incest, my child is a teenaged hooker, etc. Once I call a halt to the discussion, I start to circle all of the themes and topics that are in the play, Oedipus Rex. That is when I get their attention, and get them interested in reading "that old stuff". At the end of the unit, we hold our own version of the Jerry Springer show with all of the characters from the drama. We even bring King Laius and Jocasta back from the dead for a cameo appearance. You! You's the dead Jo-Casta! You ain't supposed to be here!

In this day and age, anything and everything can be considered educational, as long as you know how to spin it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Morning Routine

"James, Johnathon, Devontae, and Natalie, pull up your pants, please," the teacher says upon watching her students file into the classroom as the morning tardy bells sound. "Kiddos, do I really need to say that to you every morning?"

The students dutifully hike up sagging pants that are belted close to their knees, walk to their desks, and have a seat. The teacher introduces and explains the warm-up activity for the daily lesson. After checking that all students are working, the teacher sits down to take attendance, and do her required morning policing of the dress code. A quick once over around the room reveals that 10 out of 24 students are out of dress code. The teacher sighs audibly.

"Te'Ron, Alvie, James, John, Devontae, Natalie, Amy, and Amir, pull up your pants. Mary, button up your blouse. LaQuanda you need to go see the Dean of Girls."

LaQuanda stands up and shouts defiantly, "Why I gotta go see the Dean?"

The teacher audibly sighs again. "Because your skirt is too short and your top doesn't cover your midriff. And, if I wanted to get nit-picky about it, you are not allowed to wear clothing that depicts sex, drugs, profanity, or violence."

"I ain't got on nothin' wit that on it." LaQuanda tosses her head and smirks. The class tries to cover their laughter.

"Really? FUH Q? You don't think that is inappropriate?" The class laughs out loud. The laughter is due to the fact that the teacher over-exaggerated the pronunciation to avoid actually saying 'fuck'. However, LaQuanda does not pick up on it and believes the laughter is directed at her. She retaliates the only way she knows how.

"My momma buyed this for me. If my momma say I can wear it, you can't tell me I can't."

"Actually, the school can tell you that, and has told you that," the teacher says flatly. "Now, would you please go see the Dean?"

"You be trippin'. I ain't even goin' get in trouble for it. The Dean is just goin' have me call home and get new clothes. She ain't goin' write me up for it or nothin'," LaQuanda huffs.

"Yes, you is goin' get in trouble," a girl in the back of the room retorts.

Turning to face the new voice, LaQuanda verbally attacks, "No, I ain't. My momma don't care. They can't be tellin' me what to wear if'n my momma say its okay." LaQuanda adds emphasis to her words by rolling her eyes, sucking her teeth, and tossing her head.

"Be that as it may, LaQuanda, you still need to go pay the Dean a visit." The teacher stands from her desk, walks to the door, and holds it open. LaQuanda sits defiantly regarding the teacher for a moment. The teacher leans against the door and cocks an eyebrow, meeting the little girl's stare. LaQuanda, reluctantly, stands, and angrily prances her way out the door.

Once the girl is gone and the door has closed, another student announces, "She is gonna get in trouble. Her momma don't likes it when she has to come up to the school. And, the dean done tol' her if she got another dress code violation she was gonna get written up."

"That's between her, her momma, and the Dean. Now, who wants to volunteer to read their entry..." The students are re-directed back to the lesson and class resumes.

It is now the last 10 minutes of class. The teacher walks around the room assessing students' work and the success of the lesson. Students are finishing up the wrap-up assignment, asking for approval and clarification. The teacher is pleased that the lesson went so well, given the start to the period. She was able to re-focus the class after LaQuanda's departure and there were no further outbursts. Of course, LaQuanda has yet to return the room. Looking at the girl's books still spread out on her desk, the teacher sighs, again. "Deana? Will you gather up LaQuanda's..."

The teacher is interrupted by a hard knock on the classroom door. LaQuanda has returned from her trip to the Dean of Girls' office wearing baggy, ill-fitting jeans and a school t-shirt. She is visibly upset and carries a yellow form with her. As she walks into the room, she glares at the teacher and stomps back to her desk. The teacher goes to gather the work LaQuanda missed; LaQuanda's classmates grill her about what happened with the Dean.

"What'd'ya get? SIPS?"
"Did the dean call your moms?"

"Yes!" LaQuanda hisses. "My momma said she won't gonna come all the way up here 'cause she tol' me this morning that I couldn't wear the shirt to school. And that if I gots in trouble for wearin' that shirt after she done tol' me not too she wasn't gonna bring me no more clothes. The Dean says I could sit in SIPS all day or put on something from the Lost and Found pile. I wasn't gonna put on none of that stuff. Its all dirty and tacky. So, I went and sat in SIPS."

"Why'd you go sit in there? It stink in there, and you gets all crammed up together."

"I know, but won't gonna wear none of those old clothes. They ain't cute." A boy beside her snickers. "What you laughin' 'bout?"

"Them clothes you wearin' now ain't cute," he replies.

"You ain't cute neither!" LaQuanda tosses her head, rolls her eyes, sucks her teeth, and continues talking to her friend. "Anyways, Sheena was in there and she say she had a pair of jeans in her locker I could wear. So, I went and got 'em, and went back to the Dean. She made me put on this t-shirt. Then, you know what she did to me? She gave me SIPS! I got 2 days of SIPS for this shit. That's just stupid and triflin'. I hate her!"

The teacher approaches LaQuanda and hands her the work. "LaQuanda, this is what we worked on today. You can bring it in to me next class and I won't mark it late." LaQuanda rolls her eyes as the teacher walks away. The bell rings. On her way out the door, LaQuanda throws all the work into the trash.

The teacher walks to the door, takes a deep breath, puts on a smile, and turns to greet the next class of students as they enter. "Good morning! Come on in, the assignment is on the board. Trashawn, Amber, Nicholas, Miguel. Please pull up your pants..."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Avoiding the Insanity Defense

Just as the title suggests, this blog is an experiment to see if I can successfully avoid having to make an insanity plea in a court of law. I am dreadfully afraid that if I do not find a healthy outlet for much of the frustration, anger, and aggression I experience throughout the school year, I will end up facing a jury of my peers from the defendant's chair one day.

A jury of my peers... That is a truly interesting concept, isn't it? I mean, seriously, if I were to actually commit a crime and face a TRUE jury of my peers, I would be acquitted. If ANY person were to ever be tried in front a true jury of their peers, they would all be acquitted. Think about it. If the jury for Charles Manson were made up of 12 cult-leading serial killers, would they have sentenced him to death? Probably not. If my jury were made up of veteran public high school English teachers, I am equally positive that I would be acquitted. Hell, I'm positive I'd be given a parade, and maybe my own national holiday. Well, if a jury of my peers were consulted anyway.

But, I digress, as I often have a tendency to do, thanks to my chosen profession. Anyway, this blog is my attempt to find a way to unburden myself with the negativity I tend to gather as a public high school teacher. The last couple of years have been tough on public educators. The failing economy, change in national administration, and rise in popularity of reality television have all led to a steady decline in the emphasis placed on receiving a proper education. As a result, my job just keeps getting harder and harder, and my audience of students less and less receptive.

It gets frustrating trying to explain repeatedly to my students why writing "B4 u go, I's wonton yous to no y he be hatin" is not appropriate for English class. More specifically, I need them to understand that is not appropriate for a formal literary analysis of William Shakespeare's tragedy, "Macbeth".

Also, while I do love my colleagues, and find support and encouragement within our circle, I can only vent to and with them to a certain point. In recent months, I have found that I need to vent to people who do not KNOW exactly why I am venting. Venting to my close circle of friends and confidants generally tends to end up only increasing my already astronomically high level of pessimism and disenchantment. Plus, I don't want to always discuss negative work-related garbage with my friends. I want to be able to have, and maintain, a positive outlook, as I do truly love what I do. I cannot imagine doing anything else. But, it seems of late the only thing that spews forth from our mouths is negative. And, as we all know, negativity only begats more negativity.

So, hence, this blog. This is my outlet for all the insanity I am forced to cope with, treat, and overcome on a daily basis. I welcome comments, observations, commiserations, and criticisms. Just please, remember you are talking to a frazzled English teacher.