Saturday, May 05, 2007

My MTC Experience

Looking back on my experiences in Mississippi, I can honestly say my students in Mississippi treated me in ways that my students in Massachusetts, Vermont, and California never did. Sadly, most of these ways were bad.
In Mississippi my students defied me, ignored me, angered me, enraged me, lied to me, cussed at me, and even sexually harassed me. The things they did to each other were much worse, if you can believe it. I broke up arguments, shoving matches, play-fights, fist fights, food fights, and even a monkey knife-fight (alright, I made that one up).
Let me lay down my favorite defense mechanism, humor, and be frank. The environment of my school could best be described as a perfect storm of animosity, poverty, and apathy. I observed dozens of female students progress through the stages of teen pregnancy while the boys tried to prove their masculinity by fighting, cussing and drawing graffiti. I witnessed far more hate than love during my time in the Mississippi Delta, and I saw too many gifted students waste their talents. When Dr. King said he had been to the mountaintop, he wasn’t talking about Hollandale, MS. There are no mountains in the Delta, and the bright future Dr. King predicted cannot be seen from my desk at Simmons High School.
I leave the Delta knowing that it will only get worse in the years ahead. As I take inventory of my time here, I try to make sense of what I accomplished and what I failed to do. To my knowledge I did not save anyone from drowning or talk anyone off a ledge. I didn’t deliver babies or balance the budget or help a candidate get elected to office. For fifty minutes, six times a day, I did the only thing I was paid to do: I taught to the best of my ability. I coaxed, I encouraged, I threatened, I bribed, I pleaded, I shocked; I tried everything I could to ignite the spark of knowledge in my students and keep that fire lit. In some students I leave with that fire raging like an inferno; in many others though, the fire could be snuffed out the moment they leave school.
This leads me to a question I often ponder: how do we measure the impact of a teacher? I know about a hundred students passed the English II state test because of the lessons they learned in my classroom. Many of them could have passed that test with another teacher though. So what difference did I make? That’s why I came down to Mississippi, to make a difference (and earn a teaching license and Master’s degree). Next month, I’m leaving the Delta with that license and degree: but what legacy do I leave behind?
When I first arrived at Simmons High School, I was often compared to my predecessor, Deslin Chapman. She too had been a MTC teacher, and by the rave reviews students showered upon her, I could tell she had been admired. It used to drive me crazy in my first year how the students would compare the two of us, with me often suffering by comparison. On many days I felt as though Ms. Chapman’s ghost haunted my room. By the end of my first year of teaching, I was glad to leave behind my students, my school, and my specter.
In this, my second year at Simmons, I haven’t heard much about Ms. Chapman. Perhaps they’ve forgotten about her, although I rather doubt it. More likely, to my students I have become Mr. Hebert instead of “that white dude who replaced Ms. Chapman.” I’ve proven I care about them and now I have been accepted among them, like Kevin Costner’s character in Dances With Wolves. Some days when I think about leaving I realize whoever replaces me next year will be bombarded with exaggerated anecdotes about my teaching ability, antics, and wit. It’s funny, but knowing this makes me smile.
In another year the students will find someone else to talk about, and the cycle will continue again and again. Besides conversation fodder, what am I leaving behind for my students? Skills, of course, those necessary abilities to read, write, speak, and think. I’ll leave behind plenty of pithy maxims, like “Some things that are hard are still worth doing, and some things that are easy are a waste of time.” And while I did not literally save anyone from drowning, I hopefully sent enough life jackets adrift through my lessons, my talks, my discipline, and my rewards that some of my students will make their way to a friendlier shore. Until they reach this destination, I only hope their mind receives enough firewood to keep them warm.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Why teach English?

Teaching English is more than a career; it forms an integral part of my identity. Below is a list of reasons why I choose to teach English rather than another discipline.

  • Communication is the foundation of human relationships. As an English teacher I equip my students with the tools to successfully communicate in a myriad of ways. At a basic level they learn the essentials of grammar and essay writing. My students also learn the different modes of writing as they practice crafting persuasive, narrative, and informative essays. English class is a rich environment for discussion, debate, and presentation of ideas. No other class focuses so whole-heartedly on the importance of meaningful communication.
  • Opportunities for critical thinking abound in an English classroom. Literature can be examined on a variety of different levels using different critical lenses. "What would a Marxist say about this work? A feminist?" Students study diction to gain an understanding of the power of words and connotation. Metacognition is another tool invaluable to the English teacher: I can see the lightbulbs going on over my students' heads when they realize that thinking about reading amplifies their understanding of the written word. When students begin taking notes while they read, they see a difference in their understanding which often translates into better grades and test scores. The opportunities to think critically are limitless in an English classroom and these skills extend into other facets of a student's life.
  • What subject can elicit more passion than the study of English? The beauty of words and their power to capture the human condition is at once awe-inspiring and accessible to English students. My students produce written work that makes me laugh out loud, and I have been moved to tears by their oral presentations. English teachers provide students with an outlet for expression that can open up a new world to them by providing a mirror with which to examine their heart, mind, and soul in earnest.
  • English is easily applicable to the world outside the schoolhouse. How do we use English lessons on a daily basis? On the same day a person may write a grocery list, memorandum, personal letter, e-mail, diary/blog entry, and business letter. They may tell a story, profess their love to a significant other, and argue persuasively (perhaps all at one time). They might summarize a reading, evaluate a work of art, and present their ideas to a group of colleagues. All of these incidentals of life require skills sharpened in an English class. It is my fervent belief that knowledge learned in English class is as directly relatable to a student's life as those learned in Driver's Education or Home Economics.
  • English is MY passion. I cannot imagine living in a world where I wasn't surrounded by books. I love reading fiction and non-fiction encompassing nearly every genre. I even take out movie scripts from the library and pore over them, dissecting the dialogue and reshooting the film with the camera in my mind. As a budding author I encourage my own students to, as Faulkner put it, "kill your darlings." If your writing can be improved, strike down your wilting words and replace them with writing that shows rather than tells. I am currently working on my second novel and actively shopping my first manuscript to agents, a process that gives me even greater appreciation for the authors we study in English class.

The study, consumption, and creation of English is an integral part of my life that I feel compelled to share with my students. I teach English because I believe firmly in the power of critical thinking and communication. I believe English class more than any other gives students passion and utility at the same time. As much as I am a man, or a New Englander, or anything else I may profess to be, I am an English Teacher. No other part of my identity instills me with more pride than that.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Raven and the Diamond

Ravens, like many bird species, are attracted to shiny objects. I read a story once about a homeless man who stumbled across a raven's treasure trove of objects inside a hollowed out elm tree. The stash included broken watches, discarded bottle caps, and a diamond ring. It seems so impractical: I mean, what's a raven doing with a diamond ring? I found myself thinking about this story at a staff meeting today. Months ago expensive new television sets, cameras, and speakers were installed haphazardly in our classrooms. We were given a remote control and told training would commence shortly. Today that training finally took place.

The idea is that the camera will videotape our lessons and students in the alternative school can get their lessons even while not physically in the room. We are expected to control the camera by remote control, zoom in on the board, and otherwise operate the camera while starring in the lesson. Oh, we're also supposed to teach 20-30 students who are in the room while we do this. I am skeptical about all this to say the least.

In my opinion, this is another example of school districts (not just mine) doing everything they can to cover their butt. If a child in alternative school failed a test or class, they could blame the school for not delivering instruction. Now, schools can give that child a live feed of our lessons. Realistically, this may have an extremely small positive effect for a small group of students. In other words, tens of thousands of dollars (perhaps more) have been spent to potentially help trouble-makers learn a little better. Maybe this would be less frustrating if we had the money at our school to buy copy paper.

No Child Left Behind really means cover your butt. Schools (and this is a generalization that does not only apply to my school) will do whatever it takes to keep up the appearance of progress. There is no incentive to innovate or try meaningful school growth, because you don't get any points for that. Cover your butt, teach to the test, and make it look like you are helping every student. It's not all bad, all this documentation and assessing, and schools should be held accountable. I just think we need to find practical solutions that help the largest number of students possible, rather than throwing out large sums of money to help a small group of students who chose to violate school rules.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Red Sox Predictions: Not Quite a Championship Squad

Spring training is over, and it’s time for baseball—America’s pastime, no matter what the NFL and NASCAR claim—to commence. Red Sox Nation will watch Curt Schilling take the mound in Kansas City on Monday to kick off the 2007 season. Here are my predictions for the Red Sox this season.

Starting Pitching
This appears to be a major strength. Looking into my crystal ball, I see Curt Schilling missing a few starts but still turning in a solid season. Ditto for Tim Wakefield. Daisuke Matsuzaka, the most exciting Japanese product since Hello Kitty dolls, should baffle hitters, particularly the first time they face him. I predict he will make the All-Star team but struggle in the second half of the season. Julian Tavarez (or “Skeletor,” as I call him) begins the year as our fifth starter, but he is only keeping the spot warm for Jon Lester, 23 year-old cancer survivor and the left-handed anchor of our rotation for the next decade. (Sidenote: Chris Elias, Meredith, Lisetta and I witnessed Lester’s first major league win).

The Red Sox typically have abysmal bullpens. This year will hopefully be different. Jonathon Papelbon recently decided to return to the closer role, which makes a lot of sense for the 2007 squad. A mix of veterans and young bucks will try to get the ball to Paps in the 9th inning with a lead. I see Brendan Donnelly and Hideki Okajima having successful seasons, with J.C. Romero and Joel Pineiro being busts and Craig Hanson, Kirk Snyder, and Manny Delcarmen yo-yoing between the minors and big leagues. One or more of the young pitchers may be traded during the summer as the Sox prepare for a post-season push.

Ortiz and Manny are the best 3-4 combination in the game over the past three seasons. They’ll continue bopping this year, with new shortstop Julio Lugo and first baseman Kevin Youkilis setting the table in front of them. Perpetual injury risk J.D. Drew will offer Manny protection in the lineup that he did not have last year. Glove stud Mike Lowell will have another adequate post-steroid year at the plate.

The three big question marks are at the bottom of the order. Captain Jason Varitek, who continues to be masterful behind the plate, looks lost standing next to it. I see his offensive struggles continuing. Coco Crisp, incredible in spring training last year before a finger injury started a horrible regular season, will bounce back. Call it a hunch. Dustin Pedroia, our 120 pound second-baseman, will be a singles hitter and hustler in the mold of David Eckstein, and hopefully swipe a few bases while playing adequate defense.

We have some power sitting on the bench in the form of Willy Mo Pena and Eric Hinkse. Unfortunately, both have a penchant for striking out, not something you want in a pinch-hitter. Alex Cora is a solid utility player and will spell Pedroia if he struggles. Doug “Caveman” Mirabelli, who is even more lost at the plate than Varitek, will catch Wakefield’s knuckeball and do little else.
There’s a lot of optimism surrounding this edition of the Sox. On paper, the team looks deeper than the Yankees in the starting pitching department, and they saying pitching wins championships. However, with the question marks in middle relief, a weak bench, and potentially three non-producing hitters, I don’t see this squad topping the Yankees during the regular season.

Prediction: 91-71, 2nd place in the East, no wildcard

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Venting after a frustrating day

Teaching at my present school is a trying experience. My biggest complaint about the school is that students do not show respect to themselves, their classmates, or their teachers. They don’t listen to me at times, and they don’t give me the respect I know I deserve. Sure, there are reasons why they behave this way: their parents yell at them and treat them like shit, for example. But why should I bear the ill effects of this malevolent upbringing? I treat my students with kindness and respect, and I do not get this returned to me. I know I signed up to teach here, but the biggest culture shock to me is the chronic insubordination students show teachers.

I’m going to a new school next year, and there are two possibilities waiting there for me. One: the students at my new school will be different. They will treat me with human dignity and, dare I dream, respect. They will understand I care about them and truly want to help them succeed in life. The other possibility is the one that keeps me up at night. What if the students at my next school are just like the students at my current school? What if they slap each other, cuss at teachers under their breath, and openly defy you just for laughs? If that is the case, I suppose I will find out quickly whether I am cut out to be a teacher or not.

What is the author’s tone in this passage?
a. content
b. frustrated
c. hopeful
d. nostalgic

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Keep your hands to yourself

Should students be allowed to touch each other? I'm not so sure. In fact, if I ran a school system I think I would enforce a strict no-touching policy. Here's why:

1. Students constantly push each other into lockers, into walls, into other students, into teachers. A junior pushed a freshman boy into me yesterday...hard. Needless to say, I did not appreciate it.
2. Male students slapping girls on the backside....and vice versa. Allowing this behavior condones sexual harassment and escalates sexual violence outside of school.
3. Pushing and horseplay often lead to "real" fights. Example: two students are "just foolin' around" when one of them pushes the other a little too hard. He responds by pushing his friend a little harder, and soon they are throwing punches and wrestling in the hallway. Some bystander, rather than stopping the fight, encourages them on, and soon everyone within a three-block radius is rushing to watch the entertainment.

People who oppose a no-touching policy might point out the benefits of a hardy handshake or a well-timed pat on the back. I would respond by saying for every handshake I've seen at my school, I've seen about five or six pushes, slaps, and punches. If I were a student, I would not feel safe in the hallway, where full-sized men-children push people around and girls constantly slap and trip their friends and enemies alike. School should install a love of learning in children; when there is too much touching, the only thing installed in students is fear. And maybe some bruises.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Wiley Coyote

I have a student who is sneaky. EW loves to stir up trouble, but he flies under the radar because he wears a quiet, respectful-to-adults veneer. Other students tell me of atrocities performed by EW, but when I question him, he looks at me with innocent, innocuous eyes that make me feel bad for suspecting him in the first place. He has gotten away with countless misdemeanors over the two years I have taught him simply because proving he committed a crime is like pinning jello to the wall. Nothing sticks. He is the Road Runner to my foolish Wiley Coyote. However, unlike the hapless Coyote, I finally was able to catch EW for the first time this week.

A week ago I had created a wonderful overhead sheet that demonstrated different dialects. I used it with my first four classes, and they loved it and learned a great deal from it during a bellringer activity. At the beginning of fifth period, the overhead was on the projector. Two minutes later, it was gone. EW was one of only a couple students in the room, and my suspicions fell upon him immediately. I could not prove it however, so i simply put up a different bellringer and went on with my business.

This week, I again placed an overhead on the projector. I went into the hallway to talk to Ms. Wysopal, but this time I kept my eye on the overhead. Sure enough, right before the bell rang I saw EW snatch the overhead and crumple it up. I felt like Elliot Ness when he cornered John Dillinger. "Where are you going with that overhead?" I asked, confident even EW could not talk himself out of this one.

EW: "I was going to copy it into my notes."
Me, not buying it: "That's why i put it on the overhead, so everyone can see it."
EW: "But I can't see it from the back of the room."
Me, waffling a little: "You haven't had a problem with the other bellringers."
EW: "Yeah, i just haven't said anything about them."
Me: "Go sit down, E."

He put on a nice little show the rest of class, moving to the front of the room, raising his hand, and participating like never before. I know though, that he was purloining that overhead just to throw a monkey wrench into my teaching plans. He pulls these hi-jinks to entertain himself; sadly, literature and intensive test-prepation doesn't hold a candle to the creation of mayhem. In the end I did write EW up, because I cannot tolerate a student actively underming the educational process in my room. I understand EW's reasoning, and I even respect his guerrilla tactics and skills. I just hope that he learns to use his powers for good, say as a spy or undercover police officer, rather than as a grifter.