Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Mad Whack Museum

When you're thirteen, very few things your teacher says are cool. Most things are, in fact, "whack." You might even go so far as to call them "mad whack," which is pretty much as far away from cool as you can get.

Even if, like one of my students, you have read all nine of the new young adult classic Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, you are required to abandon the Beaudelaire orphans and their mishaps at home, wear an oversized jersey to school each day, and regularly declare that the lesson is "mad whack."

These are just the rules of the game. Everybody knows them.

The kids in my classes are sitting out the summer in that strange and inhospitable space between middle and high school. They had just come into their own as eighth graders, but next year, everything will change all over again.

Their struggle to gain a foothold in the complex system of social castes means that a girl who tests through the stratosphere in the first week may suddenly switch her seat from the front row to the back of the classroom, where she will ogle the baddest boy in second period and refuse to do group work.

It means that a kid who declares, "My brother says 'Nerds are sexy!' " at 10am maybe calling me weird for wanting to read by 10:15.

It also means that, when I accompanied the rising 9th grade on a trip to the Brooklyn Museum last week, I was more than ready for the fact that they would declare every aspect of the visit to be "mad whack," even if they liked it. They're just playing by the rules.

Despite their protests that, "That museum is stupid. We go there every year and it's the same thing," most of them managed to show up to catch the train from their school to Eastern Parkway at 8am Friday morning.

And when I stumbled out of the station into the daylight at 9:45, there they all were, slouched around the courtyard and their real teachers, waiting for the guards to open up the doors. A few called my name and waved me over. One notoriously volatile girl (who is also one of my secret favorites) came up and put her arm around me.

From then on, it was one "mad boring" exhibit after another. One young man kept trying to touch the Monet paintings; I had to intercede on his behalf several times to keep the security guards from tossing us all back out onto Eastern Parkway. After we had a long talk about why it's not kosher to reach out and grab anything in a museum, the same kid tried to sit down on an Egyptian sarcophagus that some mad stupid person had forgotten to put glass around. Museums are so whack sometimes.

Still, as always, there were moments of success and flashes of interest. Two particularly shy faces lit up at the sight of the Egyptian jewelry on display, and one young woman went about the place checking off future acquisitions: "I'm going to have one of those in my house, and one of those, and one of those."

And one student, who is consistently angry and dis-engaged, was fascinated by a sculpture of a man wrestling with a minotaur. When I told her that the mythic critter was half-man, half-bull, she declared, "I gotta write that down." And she did. I think it was the only thing she wrote down all day.

cont. below

And though the museum proper lacked enough bathrooms and gift-shop items to satisfy my finicky charges, the fountain outside was a universal hit.

So my class trooped back down to the 3 train, some of them sopping, most smiling, and I crossed over to the Manhattan side of the platform to make my way to the rest of Friday afternoon.

Before the train pulled away, they spotted me across the tracks and called out in their echoey, just-changed voices, "Good bye Miss!" and I yelled back to them by name. All the people around me glanced over and knew I must be somebody's teacher.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Writing "I am the Grown Up" 100 times on the Board

When I was a little kid, I remember flipping through The New Yorker and deciding that only ancient, horrible people must read a magazine with so many words and so few pictures. It was stifling.

And now, ok, I still don't read the poems, but I get most of the cartoons, and I chuckle - not aloud - but on the inside.

I've also broken myself of the habit of wiping my hands on my clothing - and a good thing too, now that I actually have to wear dress pants every day.

I even capitalize most of my e-mail messages - a dead giveaway.

But my impending adulthood hit me square in the face yesterday when I marched up to a door with a sign on it that read,
"Anyone caught opening this door will be suspended,"
and swung through it without a second thought.

I must be getting old.

My kids proved it to me last week, the first time I got up in front of the class.

"This is boring!"

"Why we gotta read this poem?"

"I hate this. It's stupid."

I was trying to teach the concept of "theme," a surprisingly difficult sell, and a much trickier concept to explain than one might think, the night before, when one is contemplating what an excellent instructor one will be - how many lives changed, careers in English jump-started, etc.

My cooperating teacher had to jump in with a rescue and explain that theme is not actually "the main idea," as many of the kids (and, Ok, I) had thought, but is actually something more akin to "the author's message."

At this point, I decided that I would never be a good teacher, and would, in fact, be a total failure, destined to cause irreparable academic and psychological damage to millions of innocent youngsters.

Thankfully, subsequent periods have gone much more smoothly.

In fact, I had just reached a nice plateau with my students - a happy place where everyone knew one anothers' names and favorite baseball teams - a place in which we shared out the New York Times in the morning and read independently from the Sports or Business sections, or from the classroom library, for the first twenty minutes of class.

I had even gotten up in front of the room more than a few times and managed not to totally destroy any young psyches.

Then, yesterday, my principal decided I should move to a math classroom.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

How this works

Choose your own adventure:

To read about the awkward beginnings of my still quite young teaching career,
scroll all the way down;
the most recent post is always at the top.

To jump into the medias res, just start here.

Thanks for reading!

Summerschool 101

This week in summer school, I learned:

that kids love pigeons,

that if someone knocks on the classroom door, you can't just say,"come in" - you have to say, "COME IN" really loudly,

that, even in 8th grade, the biggest kid in the class might still have the highest voice,

that it's harder to do your homework when there's a blackout in your building, but it's still no excuse,

that sometimes when you ask a kid to read aloud and they say, "No," you have to make them read anyway, and

that sometimes you just move on,

that even teachers punch in and out,

that the janitorial staff makes way more than I do,

and that it's far better to read the sports page than not to read at all.

I've been paired with a high school English teacher who's been stuck into a pre-high school prep program. Ideally, these four periods of kids will be in ninth grade next year. Each class is supposed to have about twenty kids, but attendance usually tops out at around ten or twelve. Sometimes people roll in with only a few minutes left in the class.

Some of the kids are here for enrichment - they already did well on the end of grade test and are getting a jump on high school - while some others are here for remedial instruction because of a bad test score or a failing grade.

Nobody has told us which kids are which.

Still, judging from the writing samples they turned in on day 1, they'll all benefit from a review of (or an introduction to) literary terms like "simile" and "metaphor" and a crash course in Greek mythology.

The teacher - actually, I guess I should say, the other teacher - is great. He keeps the kids busy and interested, which takes care of most discipline problems right off the bat, but he's not afraid to drag a young man's desk across the room - with him in it - if the kid says he doesn't feel like working in groups today.

So far, I've been sitting at the back, participating here and there - nudging some stragglers, reading aloud when called on, and doing the "teacher walk" around the room.

This is a real power trip. I don't have to sit and wonder what the girl next to me wrote her homework journal entry about; I can just walk over to her desk, pick it up, and read it.

I know what everybody got on the test.

On Monday, I'm hoping to start teaching the third period section. I'll sit through two periods of a lesson, and then repeat it. It'll be exciting - and good practice, of course - to be the one at the head of the class.

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