Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How students are like hostages and bar patrons

Sometimes chuckling at a little irreverent teaching advice is the only thing that can get me through a day of A+ adversity.

"Just yell at your students... Not that they are in trouble, but they are hostages... Beat them with knowledge."
-said by my brilliant friend Bess, who is student teaching, plays in a washboard band, and has a daddy that resembles Mr. Miyagi...a lot

"After lunch the clock moves much slowly than our students do. Your class begins to remind you of a bar full of little drunk people: They want constant attention and often don’t realize how loud they are talking. They have short attention spans; rarely think of the consequences of their actions; and, as you will find out tomorrow, they don’t always remember what happened the day before.” 
-From the brilliant book, "See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers" by Roxanna Elden

Cheekily yours,
Ms. P

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Retrospect Project 3: Beth Kander

That’s What Friends Are For
By Beth Kander

(Read her introduction here.)

Ah, thirteen. The age of secret crushes, awkward body changes galore, and insecurities so pumped up it’s like they’re on ‘roids. Thirteen is basically a year you want to survive, and then erase. What makes the whole survive-and-erase tactic difficult for those of us who number among the Chosen People is the fact that thirteen is also the year of the Bat (or Bar) Mitzvah. Thus, in my middle school years, many hours were spent studying for my own Bat Mitzvah, and attending the B-Mitzvah ceremonies of my handful of Jewish friends. I had Torah verses to learn, orthodontia to work around, and inevitably, an epic crush on one of my Hebrew School classmates.  

He had a biblical name; for purposes of anonymity, let’s say it was Abel. (It wasn’t. No one is named Abel.) He had giant glasses and perfect teeth – the lucky bastard! – and sandy-colored hair that fell onto his horn-rimmed frames. He wore Cosby sweaters and a watch. He looked like a miniature grown-up. The consistent cracking of his voice did mar the illusion, but only a little. 

While the other two boys in our class drew boobs on the matriarchs in our textbooks and looked up swear-words in the Hebrew dictionary, Abel sat with the other brainy girl (let’s call her Peninah, because how many Peninahs do you know?) and me, and the three of us actually went over the prayers we were supposed to be learning. We were the Goody-Goods, but it was more than that: we each carried some extra adolescent baggage. Abel was bullied at school; Peninah was painfully shy; I was enrolled in an “alternative distance learning” program (aka hippie version of homeschooling). In other words, we were the hard core nerds.
Once, for a class project, we had to film a news segment covering “Breaking News of the Bible.” Of course, Peninah, Abel and I worked together. We borrowed a giant old camcorder the approximate size and weight of Texas, created a set for the news desk of WJEW (I wish I were kidding), and filmed our segment. I don’t remember what Breaking Biblical News we covered. I do remember that Abel and I were the news anchors, and when we sat down behind the desk, he complimented my haircut. It was the early 90s; I had just gotten The Rachel; I thanked God and “Friends” that Abel finally noticed something about me beyond my mad Hebrew skills.

December 10, 1994: Abel’s Bar Mitzvah.  His was the first in our class. We all attended the service, watching in terror, knowing we were next. He wore a bright red suit with a black tie. I’d never seen anyone but Santa wear a red suit before, and I seriously doubted that Santa attended many Bar Mitzvahs. Still, Abel pulled off the red suit with aplomb. His voice cracked its way through the service and he did all his nerd friends proud. After the luncheon, there was a recess; his party wasn’t starting until dinnertime, so I went over to Peninah’s to hang out for the afternoon. We curled each other’s hair, put on our fanciest dresses (hers had sequins, mine probably incorporated a vest of some kind), and she assured me over and over that Abel would DEFINITELY ask me to slow-dance at his Bar Mitzvah party. 

The party was in the synagogue’s social hall. Red and black balloons, matching Abel’s distinctive suit, crowded every table. There was pizza, there were glow sticks, and there was a deejay with a ridiculously big moustache, who was playing Ace of Base like they were going out of style. (They were.)
The slow dances were few and far between – and though Abel enthusiastically bounced around the dance floor flailing his glow sticks during the fast numbers, he seemed to disappear for the slow ones. Finally, it was midnight, December 11, 1994: my thirteenth birthday. Peninah came up to tell me that her parents were ready to leave – and they were my ride, so I had to go, too. We went to find Abel to say one last mazel tov. Right as we walked up to him, something magical happened.

“Let’s slow it down for a minute,” said the deejay, smiling beneath the ‘stache. 
“Want to dance?” Abel asked me.
I looked wildly at Peninah. She nodded, go for it! Her parents would wait! This was THE MOMENT!  Abel put his hands on my waist. I put my hands on his red-suited shoulders. There was definitely plenty of room between us. We began to sway, stiffly, moving rather like migrating penguins. I wanted to tell him I liked him. That I LIKED-HIM liked-him. Instead, I said: “It’s my birthday.”

“It is? I didn’t know today was your birthday,” Abel said.
“Not today – I mean, tonight – like, right now –  because, y’know, it’s after midnight – and my birthday is the eleventh, so technically I’m thirteen now…” Dear heaven above, why do I sound so stupid?
“Oh, I gotcha,” said Abel. “Well. Happy birthday, Beth.”
I pictured a birthday kiss, a confession of his love, my own first moment as a teenager somehow managing to transcend the requisite angst and instead be a moment of something beautiful. But there was nothing; he just smiled at me, I smiled back, and we continued our awkward-penguins routine until the last notes of the song. Then I ran off to find Peninah so we could get into her parents’ mini-van and begin dissecting every moment of what had just happened.
I never did tell Abel how I felt about him, which wound up being okay, because a few years later, he told the world how he felt about men: turns out, he felt like sleeping with them. That would be true of many of my closest male friends in the coming years – but luckily, after Abel, I only fell for guys who were actually interested in persons of my gender. And now, looking back at my awkward unrequited love, I have to smile. The song Abel and I danced to that night was “That’s What Friends Are For.” I mean, seriously. The truth was right in front of my eyes, jumping around with glow sticks, wearing a bright red suit. Thirteen-year-old-me would have been humiliated to learn that my epic crush was probably checking out the guys snorting Faygo at the table behind us as we danced. But almost-thirty-year-old me is glad that we nerds had each other … even if we didn’t really know who we were yet. 

"Like" Beth's professional Facebook page for a chance to win a free copy of her book.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Retrospect Project 3: Meet Beth Kander

Tomorrow, I'll run the 3rd installment of The Retrospect Project. I feel extremely lucky to introduce this next Retrospect Project writer. Meet Beth Kander, a writer from Jackson, Mississippi.  

This girl has some serious writing credentials...
from plays...

to a children's book.

Recently, she was voted "Best Jackson Writer" in the Jackson Free Press's Best of Jackson awards. Do you know what that means? She received more votes than The Help's Kathryn Stockett, Sweet Potato Queen Jill Connor Browne, and icon Ellen Douglas.
 See the Jackson Free Press write-up below.
Best Jackson Writer: Beth Kander

Author, playwright and educator Beth Kander won this title amid stiff competition including Jacksonian Kathryn Stockett, author of the No. 1 New York Times bestseller "The Help." Kander's latest play, "Unshelved" is about a women suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and just finished a run with the Fondren Theatre Workshop at the Eudora Welty Commons. Her life and history shines through her writing, as does her penchant for creative prose, imagery and even the occasional groan-inducing pun. While she acknowledges the importance of writing what you know, Kander believes the imagination can paint just as poignant of a picture. 

--Carl Gibson

Second: Kathryn Stockett / Third: Jill Conner Browne / Good Showing: Ellen Douglas
And, now for the official Best in Class Interview:
  • CD or tape most likely found in your radio in middle school- The Beatles: Abbey Road 
  • A fashion trend you participated in wholeheartedly- Overalls (sad, but true)
  • An outfit we would find you wearing at the time of the story- Overalls. I meant it when I said overalls. Probably accompanied by black tennis shoes, a plaid and/or flannel shirt, and a bright, colorful scrunchy. Did I mention I also had braces? Sigh.

  • A poster on your wall or a celebrity crush – Dean Cain. I still love you, Clark Kent/Superman.

  • What you thought you “would be when you grew up” – A writer. Or, failing that, Vice President of the United States. But not in a Sarah Palin kind of way.
  • Sum up your middle school experience in 1 word – Over-thought (is a hyphenate word okay?)
P.S. If you're the 500th person to "like" Beth's professional Facebook page, you get a free book! Only four likes to go. It could be you!

Looking forward to tomorrow's harrowing tale,
Ms. P

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Get This Kid a Book Deal, 2: Ghost Town-

I never let my kids write fiction in class.  Perhaps it's a personal hang up. I know all my adolescent experiments in fiction were filled with stereotypes and cop-outs like "And then I woke up. It was all a dream." 

But they beg and beg. So this week, I finally gave in...a bit. We've attempted spurts of fiction. For example, when working on describing setting, I gave them the following prompt:

"A group of teens are exploring dark woods when they stumble upon an abandoned village."

Here are some of their sentences:

"The trees in the woods looked like skinny arms grabbing for lost visitors."

"The grass acted as spikes on the ground, protecting the land from intruders."

"The woods were so dark, it was as if God forgot to turn on the lights."
(Another variation of this one was, "It was so dark that it was as if someone had forgotten to pay the light bill.")

"The dark clouds swirled above them like moths as they stared at the abandoned village."

"The radiant moonlight skimmed over their heads like flashlights in the trees."

"The animals were as terrified as two-year-olds at the dentist."

"You could almost hear the forgotten hum of the villagers."

They make the hard work of original writing look so effortless. 

Basically, I issued up the fiction challenge, and they responded with a, "Ain't no thang, lady."

Yet again, they prove me wrong. Each day, they show me how very little adults, like myself, truly understand about their capabilities.

Ms. P

Monday, February 21, 2011

Eyebrow Emergency: What They Don't Teach You in School

The following post is probably the single-most blog-worthy moment to happen to me since this whole self-indulgent charade began. Let me tell you. It is good. Hold on to your eyebrows.

What Had Happened Was.....

I am not one of those teachers who wakes up at 5:00 AM to walk the dog, do the crossword, and perform twelve sun salutations before making my way to school. I am much more akin to one of my high school Lit survey teachers who occasionally found herself blow drying her hair behind the desk as class began. It's just my way.

Because of this, I recently found myself loaded down with fresh copies and tearing around the corner of the 7th grade hall precisely ten minutes before the morning's first bell. There I ran into a boy who will be referred to Spock. The nickname will click later. 

A little back story....

Spock is the only student that I've ever run into at a roller derby bout. He's less Justin Bieber. More Marilyn Manson. He is less Southern Baptist. More Wiccan. He's more likely to be caught in knee-high, lace-up Converse than Wallabees. He is the only student who's ever asked me, "Ms. P, do you think I could get away with elbow-length fishnet gloves here?" He's less Twilight.  And more Tim Burton. In a word, he's unexpected - as was his coming request.

"Oh, Ms. P, I am SOOOO glad to see you!" he wailed, with an exhale befitting a marathoner crossing the finish line.

As he normally errs on the dramatic side, I continued my hustle to the classroom barely making eye contact. "Okay, what's up? What do you need, Spock?"

"Okay, seriously, this is an emergency. Do you have any eyeliner?"

Aware of his musical leanings and fashion experiments, a certain image flashed through my mind before I continued...

"Now, Spock, you know I'm here for you, but I'm not your cool aunt! I can't give you eyeliner. Talk to your parents about it."

Exasperated, he responded, "Oh, Ms. P, it is SO not like that. This is an emergency." Suddenly, he grabbed my arm with one hand and, with the other, pointed to his eyebrow - or should I say, where his eyebrow had once been. 

What remained was a sort of half-eyebrow. The remainder ran from the top of his nose to where the arch had once began. The effect left him looking permanently befuddled. It was social suicide. 

Like Lauren Conrad faced with a life-or-death fashion emergency, I cringed. 

I dropped my purse and set my copies down, dragging him into my classroom. "What DID you DO? Did you wax it? Where did you get wax? What was your goal? Were you BORED?!" I fired a barrage of endless questions at him.

He cut through my curiosity with basic brutal truth, "Ms. P, I really can't go into it. No, not wax. I shaved it. But the point is this...I'm 13. I'm in middle school. I cannot, will not go to class with half an eyebrow, or I will never be anyone but the boy with one and a half eyebrows."

He had me there. 

"You're right. But look, Spock. I don't have eyeliner on me. However, I do have something else." I pulled him to the back of my classroom where I have an organizer full of school supplies. I rummaged around and pulled out two Magic Markers. Black and Brown. "Take your pick, buddy."

When they said "preferred by teachers," I'm pretty sure they didn't have this in mind.

Ever the goth, he chose black. 

"Hold still," I demanded, summoning all the eyebrow-sculpting advice I had ever read in beauty magazines. I uncapped the marker, warned him against laughing, and went to town.

In that moment, I thought: No education college in the land could ever prepare its graduates for such a time as this. They really don't teach you everything in The Art and Science of Teaching.

And let me tell you, as I stepped back to admire my handiwork, I realized that I had drawn him an eyebrow that would make a drag queen proud.

With that and a warning to not scratch, itch, or even think about sweating, I sent him off to homeroom. At lunch when he saw me, he pointed excitedly to my masterpiece and asked, "Is it still there?!"

The next morning, he walked proudly into school with a fresh brow, drawn with eyeliner. I grinned and asked, "Oh! Did your mom give in? Or did you walk to the drugstore to buy it yourself?"

He shrugged, "When I came home yesterday looking like I did, she offered to fix it for me until it grows back in."

Apparently Mama Spock didn't appreciate my fine handiwork. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thirty Dollar Throwdown: Leopard Cardigan

Today's Thirty Dollar Throwdown still incorporates the inspirational wedges, but this is a casual Friday outfit.

Even though I'm not much of a holiday sweater lover, like your traditional teacher, I do adore a good cardigan. It's classic English teacher without looking dowdy.

Throw some red, patent-leather heels on this matronly 'marm!

A conservative estimate of how many I own would be in the 20s. Rain, sleet, snow, sun...I find a way to work a sweater into my outfit.

Today's look features one of my favorite knit finds in a long time - this TEN DOLLAR leopard number from Wal-Mart. That's right, Wal-Mart. It's got to be a scientifically-proven fact that wearing leopard makes you happier. Just ask this girl:

"This leopard leotard is makin' me feel fierce."

And middle school teachers need all the fierce they can get on Friday.

Some less adventurous dressers may fear that a leopard cardi wouldn't get a lot of wear. Au contraire! The trick is this: Treat leopard like a neutral.

You can mix it with any color:



Other neutrals


Subtle prints

Red, etc.

My second favorite thing about today's outfit is the Nancy Drew t-shirt from Out of Print, a brand that sells t-shirts emblazoned with classic book covers. How teacherrific! 

P.S. Out of Print tees are for sell in my store's Teacher Apparel category.

Behold: the Outfit

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Conflicting Feelings of Nyeeehh

Lately, my students have been writing persuasive essays on these topics. While they've been doing an incredible job writing persuasive anecdotes to sprinkle throughout their arguments, they have had trouble stating their opinions with conviction. 

For instance, I've gotten a lot of sentences that start like this:

"It's possible that..."
"One might think..."
"It could happen..."
"I can't promise..."

I want to scream the famous (within my family at least) line from the Brady Bunch, "SAY WHAT YOU MEAN, GREG BRADY!"

Why are they afraid to write with conviction? If they're not convinced, their readers will never be. Luckily, people exist who are more eloquent than me. One of them is Taylor Mali.  

Poet and Teacher Taylor Mali

If you are a teacher, a poet, a thinker, a breather, he and his words are going to be your new best friends. He wrote an incredible poem entitled, "Totally, Like, Whatever" that beautifully illustrates the point that I want to make to my students about using convicting language. 

Watch it here:

Typography from Ronnie Bruce on Vimeo.

Perhaps, watching and discussing this video tomorrow will help us eliminate those invisible question marks, ya know? Hopefully, his words will encourage them (and me!) to be, like, personally invested in our own opinions.

And if that doesn't work, then I'm going to have to hang this poster on my classroom door. I am SO not above it.

I would be remiss if, as a teacher blogger,  I did not direct you to Taylor's most notorious poem "What Teachers Make." You can watch it below. His words and delivery will have you laughing appreciatively and nodding in agreement. 

"Be honest. What do you make?"
And I wish he hadn't done that 
(asked me to be honest) 
because, you see, I have a policy 
about honesty and ass-kicking: 
if you ask for it, I have to let you have it.

If you are a teacher and happen upon a down day, watch this and get rejuvenated. Take account of all the important things you do that cannot be measured or quantified.

Power to the poets,

Ms. P

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Drunk Ladies and Expired Licenses

The kids were funny today. Really funny. 

Exhibit A: Pre-writing for persuasive essays

Student 1: Ms. P, can we start persuasive essays with a short narrative that makes a point?
Me: Sounds like a pretty good idea. Use your creative license.
Student 2: (mutters) Mine expired last month.

Exhibit B: Working on similes

Me: I'll write the beginning of a simile, and you write the end. Okay, let's see...."The endless dripping noise was as irritating as...."
Student: ....a drunk lady at a golf tournament!

He does have a point.