November 2012

Day 56: The last time ’round with another sure-shot piece of early Brit Lit–Duchess Margaret Cavendish’s “Female Orations,” in which Cavendish creates seven brief theoretical orations that express the various outlooks women of the mid-17th century held about male supremacy. I assigned each oration to a different student, and after each reading led a brief discussion. Amazing that non-fiction so old and British could produce spontaneous exasperated laughter–and outrage. I tried to Google a text to attach…but all I found were “free essays” on the piece. Ah, the times.

Day 57: In this profession, you can feel completely ineffective, even unnecessary–then a student asks, while discussing a true crime read-aloud and a lawyerless teen in an interrogation room, “What if the teen can’t AFFORD a lawyer?” Even if the rest of the week is a yawning educational void, your response to THAT ONE might be worth a year’s failures. That wasn’t an abstract example; all “Farewell Tour” entries are guaranteed fresh and authentic.

Day 58: As a student, I DESPISED group activities–I just wanted to be taught by an expert, and when an expert wasn’t available, self-educate. As a teacher, I have consistently violated the well-considered dictum that what worked for me might not work for all, or even most, of my students–by studiously avoiding group assignments, other than one cursory quarterly wave in the collaborative direction. Of course, I have had to incorporate more group work into my planning this year, with 90-minute (as opposed to 50-minute) periods to contend with. And, also of course, I have not only started to like it (a little), but also get better at facilitating it–it helped that today’s lesson was on John Donne. A little late for an addition to the kit bag, Overeem.

Day 59: I created a hyperlinked guide through Brit Lit as I have been teaching it for future teachers at Hickman and Battle. NERD ALERT!!!!! (As if you didn’t know.) (I wonder what these unknown individuals are going to do with Linton Kwesi Johnson and Samuel Beckett’s “Ping.)

Day 60: I guess I have become a dyed-in-the-wool literacy teacher. First question at 7:46 a.m. (from a VERY smart but quiet kid I have taught for a year and a half): “Mr. Overeem, who’d you vote for?” Me: “OK, let’s practice inferring.” I think they reached an accurate conclusion without me uttering anything close to a direct answer and without me impugning the dignity of the runner-up–objectivity ain’t easy, or possible, really. However, we closed down the discussion, one of the best of the year, with an investigation into the wisdom of voting for someone solely due to their skin’s melanin content or lack thereof, and they reverted to looking at me like a pack of cross-eyed penguins. Keep ’em guessing–that’s what literacy is all about.

Day 61: Followers of the tour may recall a certain feisty reading class I have referenced from time to time (last mention was my meta-pedagogical near-mind-imploding walk-through experience). An unfortunate truth about the biz remains that sometimes, if a certain one or two are absent, a class’ core chemistry can be unleashed. That happened today. We had a BLAST: great post-election discussion and journaling (I saw actual brows furrowed during scribbling), productive partnering up for fluency practice (they had to do four read-aloud reps of their favorite ‘graph in the current independent reading book), and EXCELLENT final “recitals” to me. Then…they read silently all the way to the bell without trying to line up at the door. Lagniappe: Mr. Kelson Floyd getting to sample The Graphic Canon!

Day 62: Scrambling around unfocused as a result of not hitting the sack until 12:30 (see concert below), awakening at 5:30 to discover someone had attempted to break into our house, and arriving at school at 7:25 (not my usual practice), I patiently assented to allowing an MU Language Arts fellow who’s teaching at Hickman to OBSERVE ME right out of the gate. (“No” and I have as many issues as Molly Bloom did with that word.) Leave it to my packed-out band of ragamuffin lit seminar kids to do an expert imitation of an honors class and bail me out–led by yet another kid I kicked out earlier this year. Hmmm…maybe I’m on to something…maybe you HAVE to kick them out to show them you care? Nah. Surely not.

Day 63: Hey teacher friends! You ever done Socratic seminars? That’s where you get to sit back and listen to and think about student questions like this one, posed during today’s discussion of an excerpt from John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “In what way does Milton’s representation of Lucifer’s fall comment on, or parallel, Milton’s political experiences during the [Cromwellian] revolution and the restoration of the monarchy?” Then you get to hear the rest of the class change the subject! (Sean Brennan, I’m paraphrasing, of course!)

Day 64: After my first two classes today, I just needed about 20 minutes (our lunch allotment, when it’s boiled down) away from students to return to serenity. The Hickman PTSA being so nice as to serve us harvest burgers and pie in the media center (did you ever see the “Pretzel Day” episode of The Office?), I loaded up a plate and picked what I thought was an inconspicuous table at which to dine. It was not to be. Two students, including a son of a former student, turned on their instructor radar and sat right down with me. At first…I repressed a sigh and a roll of the eyeballs and attempted to send Garbo vibes–all of which were not received. But eventually, those two goofballs had me laughing, and I ended up more Zenned than I’d been if I’d gotten the solitude I had craved. Kids–it’s too bad they have to grow up.

Day 65: Sean Jarvis, I thought it couldn’t be done, but someone just topped your standard-setting Ian McEwan/Saturday independent reading project from ’07. I shared with her that, in my estimation, you had risen to honorable heights, and I am sure she will follow. It made me miss you, and her, and she’s not gone yet! (By the way, her subject was Brave New World.)

Day 66: Well, on the plus side, I had a nice mini-conference with a student whom I’ve taught for two consecutive years in reading who’s really turning into a nice human being, and a student who has trouble being interested in anything school-related told me he thought what we did today was cool (watched part of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line). Down the ambivalent middle was actually filling out retirement forms in Jeff City. On the negative side, do you know what Gavilax and Bisacodyl are? I’d rather face Scylla and Charybdis.

Day 67: Shakespeare never fails to stir students. Seriously. I don’t think I’ve ever had a BAD experience (overall) with a unit on Ol’ Will, whom I’ve taught to grades 6, 7, 10, and 12. Today, in the midst of a reading and discussion of Act I of Hamlet, a student–perhaps the best writer I am fortunate enough to be teaching–spontaneously queried, “The quality of this writing is SO HIGH. Does he sustain it?” That’s one of those moments where you think, “If I could just lead them to a moment like this once an hour, I’d do this for free.” Or at least in exchange for food.

Day 67 (Revisited): Attended my first-ever Kewpie wrestling match–I did go to the state finals once with my dad–and saw one of my students slap a pin on his opponent to seal his status on the team! A nice way to spend a Monday night! (I left a little early, so I don’t know if the guy in the kilt did a demo afterwards.)

Day 68: Many rituals in this school biz, and one of them is the return of graduates to old haunts just before a hollerday. Some may ask, “Why would they do that?” but, in the school biz, we don’t get to see the finished product; we only get to hammer it a little when it passes our place along the line. So I’m glad that people like Kit Webster stop by to assure us we didn’t necessarily break anything–occasionally the dents are pounded OUT, rather than caused.

Day 69: People, after five days away, our vocabulary word for the day is one of my favorites. Logy (pronounced LOW-ghee) means “characterized by lethargy, or sluggish.” Today, it pertained to me; it pertained to four-fifths of my 3rd block and three-fourths of my 4th block. I do not know what my 2nd block was fed, but they appeared to have defied the law of educational science by being almost…academically perky. All they did was set me up for disappointment the rest of the day. Serious bright spot: a student who transferred from “the other school,” who has been a fantastic addition (thank you, “other school”), called the film adaptation of A Lesson Before Dying, which we saw a small chunk of, “cheesy”–then backed it up.

Day 70: Today’s radio station debate, stimulated by Mr. Brock Boland–Western-style education (“Help the student unlock the special inspiration inside him!”) vs. Eastern-style education (“Teach the student the value of struggle!”). And you thought all we talked about down there was Dimmu Borgir! Bonus props to ace DJ Ziggy, who at 17 loves KRS-One and won’t quit nagging me until I listen to his new album, which I will do now. Double-bonus props to the custodian who was moved to capture the aforementioned MC’s song “Black Cop” on his cell by using Shazam while we were playing it in the station–you know those guys and gals KNOW EVERYTHING!

Day 71: Those who have experienced my instruction know that I can launch a tangent of personal narrative from the base of a piquant literary moment at a moment’s notice. This is a weapon than can be used for good or ill, and I have had mixed success keeping it in the silo (and aiming it). In lit seminar today during our read-aloud, the introduction of a religious conflict between the main character (a backslider, to put it mildly) and his aunt (a true believer) triggered Defcon 1 and loosed the story of how the Sex Pistols got me kicked out of Mrs. Schull’s Sunday school class for good (I will leave that to your imagination). I feared the tale would destroy my lesson on an epic scale, but it set off a chain of several similar reminiscences from kids–and locked them in to the reading for an extra chapter. Seriously, it doesn’t usually work, and it IS always deliberate (though not always consciously so), but when it does–it’s fun. Bonus track: thank you to Daniel Johnston for reversing roles and encouraging ME in our shared battle with Hamlet earlier in the day.

Day 72: Much thanks to my former student from 1996, Helen Pfeifer, who, as a 7th grader, beautifully balanced academic excellence with joie de vivre and outreach to other kids, and who, currently, as a PhD candidate in history (15th and 16th century Middle East) at Princeton, is sustaining that balance, for visiting the radio station, enchanting the kids, and batting the old pedagogical ball around with her old teach. Good luck to you, though you always made your own, and don’t forget to recommend some Middle Eastern fiction to me! Ms. Pfiefer is just one of a particularly amazing Smithton Middle School class that also included Josh Parshall, Sam D’Agostino, Cale Sadowski, Anne Rodeman, the Facebook phenom known as Weird Danger, Nathaniel Taber Stebbing, Jackie O’Brien, and many, many other brilliant miscreants.

Day 73: A simple pleasure on a Friday afternoon with my reading class. We all read for 90 minutes–no one dozed–and I came away with this jewel, courtesy of George Eliot in Middlemarch:  “…what believer sees a disturbing omission or infelicity? The text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime.” Words for the wise….

Boots Boots Autograph

Boots Riley signs autographs post-show at The Blue Note, and his personal missive to us.

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