Saturday, August 25, 2012

How to be Popular, Part I

Last week, I projected the following Quick Write on the board:

It's from this tumblr which is my favorite source for thought-provoking, visual writing prompts.
So, when I first read them this prompt, they looked at me like this - 

So then we googled "hierarchy," "algorithm," and "variables". Myriad was already a vocabulary word. They were still unsteady. They needed more scaffolding, which is a fancy education word for what I was about to do - reference Mean Girls. I reminded them of this scene where Cady is informed of the tribes in the cafeteria.

We identified who we thought would be at the top of the hierarchy at North Shore High School and the bottom. Then we talked about the variables that pushed the Mean Girls to the top of that peak. After which, they were ready to write. I told them they could write a narrative or informative piece on this theme - that directly answers the questions or just touches on them.

Several of their Quick Writes were post-worthy, but I'll start with this one from the younger brother of a boy I taught my first year. Enjoy.

"Formula of Popularity"

Some people would say, “John Grisham*! What do you know about popularity?”, and I would say EVERYTHING because I am very interpersonal; it’s just that I don’t care enough to put it in action. But for those of you that are conceited enough to want to become popular, here you go.

The formula of being popular: [height (chest hair)² - grade point average / athletic abilities + 2(wit + immaturity) (muscle size)³ + shoe size / waist size – inability to talk to women (drugs that will ruin your life) + (swaggin’ vocabulary x texting grammatically incorrectly) + stupidity] how “bad” you are = Popularity.

I know some of this stuff only comes from time/puberty, but some of this stuff you can control. For instance, if you work out a lot, your waist size will go down, and your muscle size and athletic ability will go up, thus raising your popularity.

Keep in mind that if any of you are like me, you won’t really care about this stupid thing called popularity, and you life will be a whole lot simpler. And if you read this, but don’t use it (like me), you will be classified as a dork or nerd, but you will be very popular in my book.

*Name changed to protect the innocent.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

You Foul-Mouthed Trollop

So, this is the week of school when I look at the children and say, "Hey, that whole summer reading thing was not a suggestion, so how about you actually go buy the book at least." Luckily, this very timely news article made a showing in my Facebook feed before we had that nasty little conversation. 

Long story, short - 

A student logged into Yahoo Answers, where dumb questions go to fester and die, and asked the internet to do his summer reading for him:

Note that sahweet username, by the way.

Unfortunately for said student, the author, D.C. Pierson, is one of the few Americans who has access to wifi. And, basically, Pierson took this kid to the mattresses:

I saw this story as a golden, learning opportunity for my little angels, and promptly ran off a class set of the article. After I gave them time to read it, I assigned the following Quick Write - 

"Fast forward to when you're a published author. You're trolling the internet one day like D.C. Pierson and see a similar post where a student is trying to avoid reading your masterpiece. Do you confront him? If not, why not? If so, write your response."

Curious, I peered over their shoulders as they worked. One student raised her hand, "Ms. P, can we use the word 'trollop' in this class? Is that appropriate?" 

If I played soccer and my classroom was the Olympics and word choice was like a goal (follow that metaphor, and you deserve an A), this is what I would have done right then...

But, alas, I maintained professionalism AND dress code and just said, "Um, sure?"

Interest piqued, I traveled to her desk to skim what she had so far. And promptly had to apologize to the student across to her when I almost spit my Diet Coke in his face in violent laughter.

This is the stuff sarcastic, English teachers' dreams are made of. I'll be reading her piece to students until I retire.

Her Quick Write - 

        Well this is awkward. Hi, Dorothy Parker* here. That’s right. The author of the “but it’s so long, how can I finish this in 2 months with my ‘social life’ going on” book. Well, first of all, whatever social life you have won’t crumble and collapse at the astounding miracle that you read a book. It might, just might, better your social skills by providing you with the pride that you are the sixty-six percent that actually read and gain knowledge from reading. Heck, reading actual books might just teach you words other than ‘swag’, ‘YOLO’, and worst of all, ‘cool.’ 

       And with those new big-kid words you just might get a real job with better pay and better people. And, who knows? Your new job probably won’t require a hair-net. We want to keep those luscious locks free and flowing in the breeze, right? 

"Reading equals Freedooooomm."

     And if some dope walks into your new office saying, “My swag is enough to land me this job, brah,” you can just calmly say, “You foul-mouthed trollop, go read some real literature.” So all I’m typing is, if you read, you might just learn something.

At this point, remembering I taught her last year, I promptly pulled a Tina Fey. And high-fived myself.

*Name changed to protect the brilliant.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Didgeridoos and "Dencher" Glue

When the students came into class on the second day, this Quick Write was projected on the board:

In order for me to monitor who finished when and to get to know them a bit better, I had them write their favorite piece of advice on a sticky note and post it on a piece of chart paper.

There our collective advice sits - ready for tomorrow's Meet the Parents night. I'm pretty sure their folks are going to go wild when they see what they wrote.

(Note - I tried to maintain their original spelling/punctuation. Do forgive us. It's early in the year.)

We are dealing with middle schoolers here, so oftentimes their advice touched on the theme of "Lookin' Fly". You know -

  Keeping up Appearances:

"And if you don't wear your braces prepare not to have a wife. My teeth are so jacked up, when I smile, I scare every woman I see."

"One more thing, don't play bingo, you'll get bingo wings."

( wings...)

"Don't bathe and bake in your own self-made puddle of oil sheen and UV rays - you have been warned. You WILL be pale and wrinkly like a sun bleached raisin - dry and shriveled."

(She took Creative Writing last year, and it shows.)

"Use wrinkle cream so the 50 year old men will like you."

"Enjoy having no wrinkles, and eat as much candy as you can before you get diabetes or lose all your teeth."

Another common theme was 

Love and Marriage:

"If you ever feel drawn to cats ignore it."

"Ohh!! and don't get married, all they do is nag all day everyday."

"Don't ever have kids."

"Make sure you have a cat or some kind of animal as a backup plan just in case your husband does get tired of our shananigans."

And finally, like middle schoolers, much of their advice defied any sort of categorization whatsoever...

Grab Bag:

"Don't quit your job to fofill your lifelong dream of becoming a didgeridoo player. You didn't make it in the business. Now I live on the side of highway 51 and have a pet racoon names Chester."

(Note: do you know how to spell didgeridoo, but not "fulfill" or "raccoon"? Also, this child started his letter with something to the effect of, "That bachelor party in Vegas seems like a good idea. It's not.")

"Always! Always! Remember your dencher glue!"


"Make sure you know hoe to play checkers and bingo. That's about all you can do with a bad hip!"

"Your gonna get put in the crazy house."

(Note: With handwriting and spelling like that, YOU'RE going to put Ms. P in the crazy house.)

"Do me a favor and don't be lazy."

"When you get a chance to buy a library, please do. Because it turns out the library can be a pretty snazzy place to live, and there's only things like Early Arthritis to read here."

"By now technology has taken over. I'm sitting beside by holographic Border Collie hovering in my elevated chair."

And my personal favorite.....

"When the lady that drives the nursing home bus drops you off at Kroger...

Make a run for it."

Love and prune juice,

Ms. P

P.S. Any advice you'd like to give my middle schoolers? Please share.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Are you digital or tangible?

       Matthew Glover, who maintains a digital library for a living and just happens to be my real-life, down-the-street neighbor, wrote the perfect blog post to juxtapose against my recent post, "I Believe in Real Books".
        You can view it here at his tumblr. It's entitled "Digital Books are Real Books, Too". I love that ten to fifteen years ago Matthew and I, two voracious readers, would not even be having this conversation.
         Though we both love reading in equal amounts, we have different preferences about how we do it. I love spines and pages. He loves eReaders and digital libraries. What about you?

Are you digital or tangible?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

I believe in real books.

This post isn't directly about teaching, but it is about something that made me the teacher that I am.

         I believe in real books. 

Do you remember the kind I'm talking about? The ones with the spines and the pages. The ones that smell of ink and basement. The ones that you can dog-ear, even if it feels a little rebellious. Even if you hear the librarian, mother, teacher in your head blurt, "Use a bookmark, missy! That book didn't buy itself!"
        Admittedly, from birth to present, I have held seventeen different residences. My uncle has called me a gypsy, and on each of those moving days, the back-bending labor of lugging cardboard boxes spilling with stories has nearly driven me to a Kindle or Nook. 

        It would certainly make more sense for a semi-nomad to condense, but once I settle into the new apartment, dorm room, or house, the first thing I unpack are my books. It's a sacred ritual. I run my fingers along their spines, flip through dog-eared pages, and am transported back to the first, second, third time that I read that story. Inevitably, a memento or two will fall to the floor as I scan the text - a note from a neighbor in 10th grade English, my sister's posed picture at a Sadie Hawkins dance, a receipt for twenty dollars worth of gas which used to fill up my car, or one of the bookplates that my grandmother gave me. 
When I see oily stains splashed across the recipe for Nutty Apple Loaf in my Hummingbird Bakery cookbook, I think of Sarah. She was my college confidante who once sat beside me on London's Portobello Road as we stuffed our faces with two Hummingbird Bakery cupcakes each - embarrassing our country and validating the "gluttonous Americans!" stereotype.  

       I remember when she called me crying from graduate school, four states away because of the suicide of her close friend. In a rush to comfort her, I grabbed the cookbook off the shelf, and quickly baked Hummingbird apple bread to send in the mail - a reminder of better times. In the hasty process of greasing a loaf pan, I spilled oil on the pages - a reminder now, to me, of our friendship and how long distance has yet to stain it. My collection of "real" books preserves my scattered personal history. Each one of them holds more than the author's original text. It holds my yesteryear. Though to uninformed on-lookers, they're merely marked with smudges and chicken scratch. 
Last week, I moved into house number seventeen after the burglary at house number sixteen. Of all my worldly possessions, the crooks only deemed one worthy of their time - my computer. I laughed to myself as I noticed that, although they had lugged most of our belongings on the floor, they hadn't laid a finger on a bookshelf - where my most treasured effects are housed. Hidden in plain sight. 

        Now, a Nook might have peaked their interest, but the joke's on them.  What I've learned from those books has made me, as my Dad reminded me, "grateful that I'm not the one having to do the robbing."
When I glance at my collection on the green built-ins in the living room of house number seventeen, I see a timeline of my life that no one else can see. Once when stepping back after arranging them in an order that would make Dewey's head spin (summer reads, expatriate authors, cookbooks for carnivores), I was interrupted by my housemate who asked me my favorite question, "Can you recommend a book for me to read?" I turned around, sized her up, then furiously went to work. Me Talk Pretty One Day? Check. She's Come Undone. Perfect. Sandra Cisneros? Amy Hempel? Malcolm Gladwell? Of course. At seven books, she interjected, disrupting my literary fervor, "Okay, okay! I said a book. A book." 

I just know it will happen one day. It might be a birthday or Christmas, but someone I know who did not read this essay is going to give me an eReader. I'll smile, thank them, and I might even use it when I travel. But I will never deny my loyalty to the real books. When I crawl in bed at night, I want to pick a book out of the stack of them that teeters on my nightstand - threatening the lamp in a contest of height. I want to walk through a library and judge them by their covers. I want to shove off one too many novels on my friends. I want to grab my copy of One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty that I bought at her birthplace - two blocks down from house number fourteen - and read the words I've highlighted: 

        "Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them - with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself."

Ms. Welty's home library

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Hiding Place, part 1

       Much to my dismay, teachers don't stop working in the summer. Especially the summer before  they start teaching new subjects. Especially the summer before they work towards National Boards. Especially the summer before they start teaching Common Core. Especially the summer that they participate in a National Writing Project summer institute. 

No, I'm not stressed at all. Just tired after typing all that nonsense out.

       But, there are blessings that come from all this hard work. One being that I'm reading and writing about teaching on a daily basis. What follows is part one of a narrative piece about my middle school experience, and more importantly, one of my most influential teachers. Do enjoy, my dears.  

And think of me while you work on your tan, and my skin turns an unsettling shade of schoolmarm beige.

"The Hiding Place," part 1

       You haven't lived until you've been crammed into a 25-square-foot bathroom with fourteen of your 7th and 8th grade classmates.  

       It was the most ridiculous thing any teacher had ever asked any of us to do. But that's what we had begun to expect from Mrs. Morris. The unexpected. In retrospect, she actually had even more gall to tell us that, while in the sardine can that was the preschool bathroom, we were not to talk, cough, laugh, sneeze, or even whisper. That is, not if we wanted to remain "hidden." If you've ever met a middle schooler, you know that their silence - especially when the situation demands it - is as elusive as a Mississippi snow day. 

      Furthermore, upon leaving our classroom to hole up in the bathroom, we were expected to squirrel away all traces of our previous presence there. No math worksheet or lunch box left behind. Which, yet again, if you've ever met a middle schooler, you know that they normally trail more debris behind them than a fleet of floats at a Mardi Gras parade.

There I found myself with a frizzy bob and I'm guessing, if I had to bet money on it, wearing a sweater vest, in the darkness of the preschool bathroom with fourteen remarkably silent adolescent confederates - long after its three-year-old rugrat residents had gone home to juice boxes and naps. I squeezed my eyelids closed, then open, closed, then open again - willing my pupils to adjust to the darkness. With my back pressed to the cool tiles that lined the wall, I surveyed the scene. Miles took this unchaperoned opportunity to perch in the sink "to make room, of course". Kevin was crossing his eyes - his sole mission to force someone, ANYONE, to break Mrs. Morris's command of "No laughing." Sandy and Claire were dangerously close to fulfilling his wish - their shoulders bouncing up and down in silent, girlish giggles. Jonathan, the too-cool-for-school type, stood nonchalantly against the wall - well, as nonchalantly as one can stand when relegated to two yellow bathroom tiles of personal territory. The rest of the class filled in the rectangle of space that was beginning to smell of the quintessential pre-teen odors - too-sweet perfume, Chap Stick, Teen Spirit deodorant, and the sweat of those who had forgotten to apply it. Which is understandable, as it was a new hygiene habit for the bulk of us.

In an instant, our thoughts and antics were halted by urgent voices. We had been warned that this might happen. When Mrs. Morris reviewed us on the protocol of the activity, she said that sometimes our hiding would pass without disturbance. And then, as if nothing had ever occurred, we would return to the classroom and resume the math, science, or history lesson that it had interrupted.  But on the other hand, she said, we couldn't rest in the fact that the hiding would always be that easy. Sometimes we might actually be found. 

So, in a way, we expected what happened next. But, none of us expected it to affect us like it did.


Stay tuned for "The Hiding Place", Part 2. Truth be told, I haven't even written it yet. So I'll be tuning in as well.