Tag Archives: teaching

We’re #1… And I Feel Guilty

Newsweek posted its annual “500 Best High Schools” report.** Immediately after the list was published, my local district posted the results in its Fall 2011 Newsletter which indicated that one high school in the district ranked #73 and the other high school came in at #99.

That day, I went to the grocery store. And as I shopped, I ran into folks who were all in a tizzy. Here’s a sampling of what I heard:

How did our school drop from last year? And why is their school better/worse than the other school? And why didn’t our school make the list?

Meanwhile, I kept my head low and kept pushing my cart.

While other people griped, I was content. I mean both high schools in my district made the top 100 list in Newsweek.

Last week, my entire district was just ranked #1 in the State by this report that came out on October 27, 2011.

Awesome, right?

But I’ve been thinking about these lists.

About what they do to us.

How they make us anxious/frustrated/furious/complacent/content.

They get our attention, get us to react, get us to blame, point fingers, worry, obsess, gloat.

And even though I can now wear a t-shirt that proudly proclaims that my child attends the #1 public school district in New York State, there’s something that is making it impossible for me to ride get on my magical unicorn and fly away.

The district deemed “worst” in New York State is also right here in Rochester; The Rochester Public City School District, a District that serves over 32,000 children, came in dead last at #431.

Never has there been such disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

At my nephew’s graduation back in June, the administrators noted that the Class of 2011 was exceptional. Graduating seniors had received astronomical numbers of dollars in academic scholarships. It was surreal. Collectively, their SAT scores were redinkadonk. Sitting in that huge field-house surrounded by well-dressed, well-fed, financially secure families, I felt hopeful. I think everyone did.

In September 2011, The Wall Street Journal reported:

The results from the [2011] college-entrance exam, taken by about 1.6 million students… revealed that only 43% of students posted a score high enough to indicate they were ready to succeed in college, according to the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the exam.

When I read that report, I read its inversion: 57% of students are not prepared for college level work.

And I knew who they were talking about.

On the second day of this semester, I administered a written diagnostic to my Composition-101 class designed to determine if students could write a basic essay on-demand.

Guess what?

I don't like to fail people. But sometimes I have to.

About thirty percent of the class failed the exam.

What’s the big deal?

I’m glad you asked!

In the last four years that I have worked at my local community college, I have learned a lot about the demographic of my students. Most of these students are not as fortunate as the children in my home district.

Many did not graduate high school. Some do not have money for breakfast or lunch and eat out of vending machines. I have had homeless students; one admitted to me that he had been hiding and sleeping in Wal-Mart right before he was caught and arrested. I have students who look down at their shoes when asked to read aloud because they can barely read. I have had students whose mothers are abusive and whose fathers are in prison.

Some students are civilian veterans; folks who have served in the United States military and are now returning to the classroom to try to focus on academics after multiple overseas deployments. Some claim some kind of disability status; and for others, English is not to primary language spoken in the home. Too many come from families whose annual median income fell below the poverty line.

So what do these lists tell us?

They tell us what we already know.

That students who come from an environment where parents encourage education will value education. They will come to school with full bellies, having slept in a bed they can call their own. They come with backpacks stuffed with all the required materials and minds that are ready to learn.

Children who grow up with some kind of interference — whether it be emotional, cultural or fiscal — will have to work harder to get where they want to go. It’s not impossible, but it’s harder.

I hate this enormous social disparity.

Pointing out the disparity in reports and newsletters doesn’t seem productive, nor does it seem to result in changes for the people who need them the most.

Here is what I can tell you:

Colleges are spending millions on remedial courses to prepare high school graduates for college-level work.

Businesses are having to invest time and money teaching employees basic skills they did not learn in school.

Well-intentioned (but misguided) initiatives like No Child Left Behind as well as our over-emphasis on standardized testing in the core subjects have sent us in the wrong direction. Instead of teaching students to think across the disciplines, administrators have chosen to “cut the fat” — programs like music and art and drama — which are considered esoteric and unnecessary.

And no matter how much I may I want to, I can’t fix students in 15 weeks: not when 12 years of school has failed them.

** Did you see the Newsweek report?

Go ahead and look at it.

You know you want to.

America’s Best High Schools: The List – Newsweek.

What do you think about these lists? Do they get you worked up? Or do they make you feel helpless?

Tweet this Twit @ rasjacobson

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Sexy Semi-Colon Song

A while ago, I posted an email I received from a colleague about sexing up grammar so that people will use it more. I called it “Grammar is a Hussy.”

Since then we have even gotten into interrobanging. Can you imagine?!

Well, these cool kids seem to love them some semi-colons; I think that’s fantastic.

What’s your favorite punctuation mark and why? Or, for the love of Pete, show me that you know how to use a semi-colon properly. Go on; impress me!

The Day Flannery O’Connor Screwed Me

The Misfit

Image by haagenjerrys via Flickr

Someone really smart once said, “Kids seldom misquote; in fact, they usually repeat word for word what you shouldn’t have said.”

In fact, that person might actually have been sitting in my classroom the day I taught Flannery O’Connor‘s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to a bunch of 11th graders.

I had taught the story dozens of times and found the simple premise and the unfulfilling ending always led to great discussions.

One particular day, I asked my students to take out their copies of the story. A simple directive, right? Only this time, my students started snickering.

Initially, I assumed that perhaps someone had farted or something.

(What? It happens.)

We started to discuss O’Connor’s work, and everything was going along swimmingly. I asked someone what he thought the point or message of the story might be.

Four or maybe five people burst out laughing.

I wondered if I had pit stains or if I was dragging toilet paper around behind me as I walked around the room.

I couldn’t figure it out.

The laughing flared up again. And again.

Finally I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Why is everyone laughing?” I demanded.

Silence.

Of course.

I insisted, “Seriously, I’d like to know what is so funny.”

One brave girl tried to help me. “Mrs. Jacobson,” she said, “The story is called ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find,’ but you keep calling it… something else.”

She pointed at the blackboard behind me.

I turned to look at the board and sure enough, I’d even written it out in chalk: “A Hard Man is Good To Find.”

Oh. My. Holy. Embarrassing.

And did I mention that I was about 6 months pregnant?

Well, I was.

So they were all thinking about how I had gotten it on with a “hard man” and it was “good.”

Or something like that.

Teachers have to be careful to watch what they say whether in the classroom or out in public, and I have found the best approach is to assume that everything I say could be published or broadcast to the world. That way, I have to be sure what I am saying is appropriate, clear and concise. And cannot be misinterpreted.

But sometimes I stick my foot in my mouth.

So I’m guessing I was heavily quoted that night.

Unless, of course, that batch of students forgot all about my faux-pas.

Because teenagers do that.

I mean, a lot of stuff happens between 7:50 AM and dinnertime.

In her short story, O’Connor goes to great lengths to show her readers how meaningless many of the small things we concern ourselves with are in the grand scheme of things: how many of the things that we fret over are really not very important at all.

I mean, obviously, in the larger scheme, there are many worse things than jostling up a few words in front of one’s students.

So maybe that moment was not very important.

I can buy that.

So why do I remember it so vividly?

And can somebody help make that memory go away?

Done anything wildly embarrassing recently? Anyone like to predict some dumb things I’ll probably do this semester?

Spot Check

Teacher

Image by tim ellis via Flickr

I’m kicking off Wednesday #TWITS: a fancy-schmancy acronym for Teachers Who I Think Scored / Teachers Who I Think Sucked. (It only took me eleventy bajillion hours to think up that one.) So here is my middle school memory about one very specific moment. Obviously, I have changed the teacher’s name.

• • •

In middle school, I had the meanest homeroom teacher. Unfortunately, she was also my English teacher, which meant I had double doses of her each day. Mrs. Dour ran a tight ship. She liked her rows straight. She liked her students quiet. She hated boys who leaned back in their chairs. She also hated girls who wore clogs. “Too noisy,” she complained. She called on people when their hands were down, and when she wrote words like “onomatopoeia” on the blackboard, she pressed so hard against the slate that the white chalk often crumbled into dust. Mrs. Dour wore her reddish-hair in a tight bun every day, but by 8th period, when I had her for English, most of her hair had fallen down, giving her a slightly deranged look.

I was pretty scared of her.

One June day, Mrs. Dour gave us all a 7-minute writing assignment during which time we were supposed to do something in our black and white composition notebooks.

I can’t remember what we were supposed to do because of what happened next.

Mrs. Dour turned her back to the class to write on the board. She was wearing a lightweight, white top and a long, gauzy, white skirt that day. I remember this because at that time I was preoccupied by what everyone wore. I noted in my superficial middle school manner that white did not flatter Mrs. Dour’s pasty complexion, and I planned to deconstruct her ensemble after class with my two friends during our bus ride home.

Right about then I noticed a small, reddish dot on the back of Mrs. Dour’s skirt.

Initially, I figured Mrs. Dour must have sat on one of her red felt-tipped markers. She was the only teacher who wrote in red felt-tip marker, and her fingers were often covered with red lines by the end of the day. While waiting for inspiration, I stared at the red mark on Mrs. Dour’s skirt – and I noticed the stain had grown larger. I looked around to see if I could catch anyone else’s eye, but everyone was madly engaged in our teacher’s in-class activity. As Mrs. Dour’s hand carefully crafted perfect cursive letters, I tracked the red as it spread across her bottom. What started out first as a dot, morphed into a quarter-sized circle and rapidly grew into an asymmetrical patch of red, the size of my adolescent fist.

I remembered how, midway through that year during gym class, we girls had been made to watch The Movie, a film created to explain what was starting to happen to our female parts. Our innards. I learned why some of us had boobies already and why some of us would have to wait. (In my case, years. Stupid hormones.) I remembered how we had grabbed each other’s hands as we huddled together in the gymnasium, trying to stifle our giggles. And before we left the locker room that day, each of us received a plastic “goodie-bag” filled with a cute little free sample of mouthwash, some deodorant, two sanitary napkins, and two tampons.

So I knew what was going on.

Meanwhile, I waited for someone else to notice. Or do something.

But as I watched the hand on the clock do that backwards-to-go-forwards click, I realized I was going to have to be The One.

I quietly pushed back my chair and, leaving my clogs behind so as not to make noise, I tiptoed across the room to join Mrs. Dour at the board.

She saw me out of the corner of her eye but kept writing, her back to the class.

How I wanted her to turn sideways and look at me, but she didn’t.

“Is there a problem?” Mrs. Dour snapped without so much as glancing my way.

If she had looked at me, I could have been more discreet. Instead, I fumbled for words. It hadn’t occurred to me to get the words right and then approach Mrs. Dour. My feet had just moved me to where I needed to go. I figured the words would follow.

Imagine blood all over this.

“Yes,” I said.

Mrs. Dour spat, “Well, what is it?”

Heads popped up.

As inaudibly as I possibly could, I whispered: “There is blood all over the back of your skirt.”

Mrs. Dour, whom I had always assumed to be very old, was probably in her late forties. She was always so terse; she came off like The Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, which definitely added a decade of scowl lines to her deeply furrowed forehead.

So there I was, Dorothy Gale, stuck in the tornado that was Mrs. Dour.

“Come with me!” Mrs. Dour growled. She took my left arm firmly and escorted me from her desk to the door which she snatched open. Together, we marched directly across the hall to the student bathroom where Mrs. Dour disappeared behind a stall door.

I stood by a trio of sinks, waiting for directions. For divine intervention. For Mrs. Dour to tell me to go. Or stay. Or something.

I didn’t expect Mrs. Dour to cry.

But that is exactly what she did.

From behind the stall, I could hear her pulling the terrible, industrial squares of toilet paper and weeping.

For the first time, I stopped seeing my English teacher as Mean Ole Mrs. Dour, the persnickety disciplinarian with all those rigid rules: the woman who gave me detention at least once a week.

I saw her as a small, embarrassed, woman who didn’t know what to do.

I looked at myself in the mirror and found enough courage to ask Mrs. Dour if there was anything that I could do for her.

My voice echoed against the empty bathroom walls.

“Do you think many people… saw?” Mrs. Dour asked.

“I don’t think so,” I lied.

Truth be told, I suspected that nearly everyone had seen the mess on the back of Mrs. Dour’s skirt, and if they hadn’t seen it with their own eyes, the people who had were likely telling everyone who hadn’t.

I was pretty sure that would be the end of Mrs. Dour. After suffering such public humiliation, I was positive she would resign that afternoon.

Oh, yes she did.

But Mrs. Dour was in homeroom the very next day. She was not any nicer. She continued to do her job just as she had before.

She continued to complain about the girls who wore clogs. She continued to issue me my weekly detention. Mrs. Dour was not a nice teacher. I cannot remember any books that I read or projects that I did that year. I remember only that single incident. But I learned something important from her nevertheless.

I learned that sometimes a person has to push through her fear no matter how scared she might be and just keep moving forward. Sometimes, you have to take a deep breath and face the thing that you fear: which in this case – as is often the case – is the fear of ridicule or the laughing masses. Because sometimes that’s all you can do.

I suppose Mrs. Dour did teach me one other lesson.

A teacher myself, I can tell you I have never, ever worn a white skirt.

Ever.

And I never will.

When is the last time you were truly afraid? What got you to push past your fear?

A Twit Learns To Tweet

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Way back on Monday, April 25, 2011 at precisely 8:07 AM, I emailed Clay Morgan from EduClaytion.com. He and I had established an “easy, breezy, beautiful” rapport; we’d talked on the phone a few times, and for a while, we were on the same cyber-page. But suddenly, Clay had a Twitter icon on his page. And I didn’t.

What the deuce? I thought. So I tapped out a quick note.

Dude, I seriously need to understand Twitter. I either need a 15 year-old girl. Or you. Can you call me?

Clay responded like a firefighter would to a burning building. He emailed me and assured me Twitter was “pretty intuitive” and that I could probably figure it out. He said he had faith in me.

Whaaaat? Twitter? Intuitive? To whom?

Clearly, he did not read this article.

We set up a time to talk.

Then I lost his phone number.

Still, I had every intention of making Twitter priority #1 on my list of Things To Do. (You know, after I got back from Florida. And all the grocery shopping was done. And I had unpacked and put the suitcases away and done all the laundry and scrubbed the baseboards and taken out the garbage and fed the animals.

(Note: We have no pets. Not even a goldfish. Not even an ant.)

I was a little bit horrified that I had so easily morphed into one of the typical student-types: the kid who pretends the deadline hasn’t come and gone, but never goes to talk to the teacher about it.

But Professor Morgan was onto me.

Clearly I was delaying. We set up a time to conference around noon.

After my massage.

(What? I have a long-standing back injury, people.)

On the day of our exciting teleconference, we started with the simple stuff.

Clay explained that, for a writer, the purpose of Twitter is to help network with other writers, to acquire followers, and to spread one’s writing around to other interested readers. He said Twitter can be a place to gather with my fellow writers, where I can find people to hold me accountable to achieve my writing goals, and where I can find people willing to critique my work.

That all sounded good.

He explained it also meant supporting and promoting the people whose writing I adore.

I heard “cheerleader.” I was a cheerleader in high school. I may have lost my splits, but I can still cheer. And if tweeting and re-tweeting my favorite writers’ stuff was going to help them, I could drink that Kool-Aid.

So Clay taught me the basics. About the Timeline. And how to check my Direct Message Box — to see if anyone has sent me a private message.

“How do I know that?”

Clay patiently explained.

He also told me I should always check Mentions to see if anyone has tweeted any of my posts and, if they have, that I should be absolutely certain to send that person a short thank-you.

“It’s Twit-tiquette,” Clay explained.

He taught me about how to set up a list of my most favorite bloggers. And while we were on the phone, I understood everything perfectly.

Clay was extremely patient and gracious. And then, like any good therapist smart person with outstanding time management skills, after one hour, he announced our session was up.

Whaaaat?

“I haven’t mastered this yet!” I whined.

He assured me that I’d figure it out if I played around with it a bit.

I thanked Clay for “eduClayting” me, and I messed around on Twitter for a while.

I tried to send messages to the people I knew best.

Eventually, I got a response from Clay himself.

Whaaaaat? I was sending messages to myself? Awk.Ward.

I tried to figure out that mess. And I set out again.

This time I heard back from Leanne Shirtliffe aka: Ironic Mom.

After a few weeks, I saw I got my first retweet! And then I got a RT from Mark Kaplowitz, someone whose writing I really like:

And then that started to happen more and more.

Eventually, I figured out the secret language of hashtags: the weird letters that come after the numbers’ symbol (#). Like #MyWana. Or #IYKWIM. For a while, I felt like I sitting alone at a table in the middle school cafeteria, and everyone knew everyone else and everyone knew what they were doing – everyone except me. But then I learned that you can Google these letters after the number symbol and find out the inside joke. And boom, I was instantly sitting at the cool kids’ table because I was speaking the same language.

And guess what, writer tweeps are a lot nicer than the mean girls in middle school.

The big moment came when author Kristen Lamb sent me a tweet. I would post it, but it’s kind of like looking into the sun. Too much truth. Your pupils might burn, and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for that.

These days, I have myself on a strict Twitter diet. I check in three times a week,  spend 15 minutes responding to people, sending thank-yous, and trying to connect with one new person. I literally set a timer. It is really easy for Twitter to become a time suck.

Alas, now that all this time has passed, I don’t remember how to add people to that list Clay helped me to create. Also, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that list. I think it was supposed to save me time somehow. I’m not really sure. So that’s not great.

I told Clay that I was going to write a blog about how much he helped me.

I estimated that I would have that post written by late August.

So I’m a little ahead of schedule.

But I really need to work on my fall curriculum. And my book.

You remember, my book?

The thing that started all of this…

Yeah.

It’s calling me.

Gotta run.

Do you use Twitter? If so, who taught you? And what do you get out of it? Any funny stories about stuff that has happened to you while you were learning to tweet? What are your Twitter woes?

Tweet This Twit @RASJacobson

Monkey is Blogging

Last June, Monkey and I worked out an agreement. If I bought him the world’s most awesome double barrel water-gun, he promised that he would continue to practice playing piano, reading Hebrew and honing his writing skills over the summer. The first two were easy. The third was harder, but really important to me. I have seen how long summer vacations — while wonderful — can cause kids’ brains to mushify. I didn’t want him to forget his skills.

In an effort to capitalize on Monkey’s innate love for all things technological, I suggested that he start a blog. After all, last May my own blog was in its infancy, and I figured we could sit side-by-side and write together. It was a romantic notion.

“How long would these posts need to be?” the pragmatic Monkey asked.

“Just write as much as you need to say whatever it is you need to say,” I said cheerfully in an intentionally vague way.

Monkey is a Math/Science guy: not a fan of the “intentionally vague.”

He attempted to clarify. “So 150 words?”

“Sure,” I said, figuring any writing he did was better than none at all.

Then Monkey attempted to up the ante. “But I don’t have to write you when I’m at overnight camp.”

“What?” I challenged, a little miffed. “You definitely still have to write me when you are at camp. For goodness sakes, I would like to know what you are doing when you’re away for three weeks!”

“Okay,” Monkey relented, “but only one letter a week,” he said. “That’s three letters in 21 days. You get that, right?”

Thank you, Math/Science Monkey.

“Fine,” I countered, “But in the meantime, you have to make sure that every blog includes correct spelling, proper punctuation and some kind of image or video — for the reader’s interest.

“Fine,” Monkey agreed.

We shook hands like lawyers.

So this year Monkey is blogging again. And while last year, he wanted his blog to be “our secret,” this year, he wants readers. I told him I would pitch his blog — if he agreed to up his word count to 200 words per post.

So here I am, doing my part.

Only he seems to have forgotten his end of the bargain, seeing as his first post had only 157 words.

What’s a momma to do? 😉

Anyway, if you’d like to check out the inner-workings of the mind of an 11-year-old boy, click here.

If you’d like to subscribe to his blog, I can guarantee you there will only be six entries as he heads off to overnight camp at the end of July.

How do you keep your kids writing over the summer? Or do you just let them shut down?

Tweet this Twit @RASJacobson

In Praise of the Pencil

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In 5th grade, Mr. Zych lectured all of his students about how to properly sharpen a pencil. He wasn’t messing around. His speech was not short, and he covered everything from how to properly grip the pencil to the cranking motion – how it should be smooth and continuous, not jerky. He even discussed the perils of over-sharpening, which could lead to premature tip-breakage. Mr. Zych turned pencil sharpening into a science.

Personally, I have had a love-hate relationship with pencils. I first learned how to print my alphabet in pencil and then I learned how to write in cursive in pencil. That was Paradise. Finally, a way to write all the stories stored in my head. Later, I preferred to write with pens – preferably ones filled with purple or green ink. But ever since my son started school, he has been forever in need of pencils; they seem to always be around, and so I returned to the yellow pencils of my youth. I had learned to appreciate the feel of a pencil in my hand again. I even started to like the scratchy-scratchy sound of the graphite as it dragged across the page. After I recently stepped on a pencil, I became suspicious of them again and switched back to pens.

Meanwhile, my son is still on a steady diet of pencils. In middle school, the kids seem to devour them: literally and figuratively. I know my son nibbles on his; I’ve seen the teeth marks. I’ve watched him crunch while he contemplates before committing to writing an answer on paper. But sometimes I wonder if he actually eats them, too. I mean, where do they go? How many pencils does one kid need in a school year?

A few weeks back, Monkey came home in a tizzy.

“I’m out of pencils again,” he announced.

Nonplussed, I told him there were under three weeks of school left and that I was pretty sure he could make-do with his nubs until June 20.

He started at me with contempt.

“Are you serious?” he questioned. “I have exams! I need pencils! Ticonderogas. Now!”

He was not messing around.

The next day while in the grocery store – to my horror – I found plenty of office supplies, but they were only generic pencils. And even I know that those erasers don’t do the job. You need another eraser to get rid of the smears those lame pencils leave behind.

So I made an extra trek, this time to Staples – home of the Ticonderoga pencil – and invested in the Bulk pack. (Because that was all they had.) Let’s be clear. Ticonderoga pencils are like platinum. They cost a fortune. The only way a pencil could be more fabulous would be if you printed your name on pencils. A Ticonderoga is the Hum-V in the wonderful world of pencils. Teachers definitely prefer them. Definitely.

I rationalized that I could spend $15.77 + nearly 9% tax on pencils because they are non-perishable, so it is not like they will ever rot or mold. And I figured whatever is left at the end of the school year, Monkey can use in 7th grade, thus saving me some back-to-school shopping hassle.

A few days later, a good friend of mine called me and reported that her son – also a 6th grader – had run out of pencils. While requesting to buy more, she said my name was invoked. Apparently her son said:

“Can you just be like Mrs. J. and get the Giant Pack of 72 Ticonderoga pencils?”

Apparently Monkey had been bragging about his new stash.

I laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of it. Bragging about pencils?

And then I thought about how I had come full circle. Just one week before, I was cursing pencils as my husband dug around my heel with a needle in an attempt to get the lead out. (I know, I know. Pencils are made of graphite. I was going for the funny.) But now I found myself saying a silent prayer on behalf of all pencil-loving children everywhere. Uncharacteristically, I clasped my hands together and thought to myself:

Lord, may this be the worst thing my child ever desires. May this be his worst addiction. May he never see cocaine. May he never use LSD or heroin. May he avoid cigarettes and alcohol. May he avoid the ‘shrooms, the X, the meth. May he never huff. May he find the strength to avoid the Oxycontin and Adderall.

May he always be addicted to Ticonderoga pencils.

Because, honestly, I’ll happily help Monkey score his Ticonderoga pencils forever. I’ll even help him sharpen them. Mr. Zych schooled me on that a long time ago, and I feel confident I can help my son with his #2 pencil fix without any need for an Intervention.

Tweet this Twit @RASJacobson

Locked and Partially Loaded for Fall 2011

Look at all the out of print books. Sigh.

I recently found out what I’m teaching next fall.

I am elated.

It is the perfect schedule.

Then I went online to select my books.

The books that I have been using for the last four years.

Only two of the three of them were there.

My reader – the collection of essays upon which I have come to rely – is now out of print, so I will have to reinvent the wheel.

Hurgenflurgenshlurgen.

Women will understand this: this is akin to how we feel when we go into the store and find out that our favorite lipstick – the one that looks perfect on us, the one we have used for years, the one that helps to create our signature look – has been discontinued. Guys, I don’t know. This must be what it is like when your sports event has been preempted for A Sex in the City marathon and both your DVR and your computer are broken. So you can never see the game. Actually, I don’t know what this is like for guys. Maybe it’s like when they stop making your favorite hot sauce.

You get my point, though, right?

Immediately after I learned that my book was out of print, I received a lovely, gentle reminder that book orders are due as soon as humanly possible.

Right now, I’m in desperation mode.

I might chew off someone’s arm.

Part of me is considering not using a reader at all and just book-marking all the amazing blogs here in the blogosphere and having my students read them and respond to them. Perhaps use them as writing prompts.

It would definitely save my students a boatload of money.

And it would eliminate those annoying beginning of the year conversations:

Me: Where is your book?

Student: My financial aid hasn’t come in so I haven’t been able to buy some of my books.

Me: How about a pen? Where is your pen?

Student: Yeah. I didn’t have the money.

This conversation generally transpires while the bookless student is gripping the newest and most uber-expensive cell phone, leaving me to think: You manage to shell out $80 a month for that, right? The smartphone you can afford? But not my book? Yeah, you are goin’ places.

But this is just my desperation talking.

Because, you know, I have to revise my entire syllabus.

Which, in truth, isn’t the worst thing.

It’s good to freshen things up and shake things around once in a while.

Because no matter what materials I end up using, there are things that always remain the same.

I may be delusional, but (I think) most of my former students will tell you that I give off the vibe that I find them endlessly fascinating. Which, by the way, is true. They will probably tell you that I give them solid feedback and that I am willing to help them. Day or night. The reality is, I am good to them as long as they do not heckle me.

Because I am the show.

Yeah, yeah, I can run a writing workshop. I can create interactive activities for them. But if students want to excel in my class, they need, first and foremost, to have a good sense of humor. After all, I’m working my butt off to provide them with culturally relevant, fresh material. But my show only runs three days a week, so they’d better not miss my routine. Once they are invested, I expect them to work their tails off to try to impress me with their thinking and writing. I want to see those synapses a-firin’. Because nobody sees my show for free.

I was not a cheerleader in high school for nothing. I was in training. I was a gymnast and a dancer and I even danced (briefly) for money on a hydraulic lift. (Don’t ask.) I performed in plays throughout my life and, in graduate school, I got up on stage to sing. Why? Because secretly I wanted to be Stevie Nicks. Because I was honing my craft – learning how to deliver my lines, to speak with authority, with presence, with passion, with humor, with humility. I was learning to be fearless,  – so my students would,  one day, dare I say it, actually want to do things for me.

That sounds dirty.

I don’t mean like that, you pervs.

I mean students can tell when a teacher has prepared; they can tell which teachers genuinely care about what their students have to say, which teachers value their words, which teachers are working to give their students the skills they need to succeed in the future. And when students feel this, they generally want to please.

So my beloved book of essays is out of print.

It’ll be okay.

Things are looking good right now.

I’ve checked things out and my room for the fall does not have a pole in the middle of it, like the classroom I had last year.

Don’t get me wrong, the pole was fun. For a while.

But “obstructed view” is never the seat you would want at a kick-ass concert.

In this room, every seat’s a good seat.

Can’t wait to shake my groove thing.

So for now, I don’t rightly know exactly what I’m doing in the Fall of 2011.

I can only say with confidence, that the show will go on.

And now that I think about it, if I’m shaking things up, it’s probably time to get a new lipstick.

I’ve been wearing Malt for way too long.

The Giver: Is It A Happy Ending?

The magic in Lois Lowry’s The Giver occurs in Chapter 19 as the main character, the soon-to-be twelve-year-old, Jonas, realizes that everything is not as it seems in his seemingly idyllic community.

Up until Chapter 19, my l’il dude had been feeling really good about the community in which the characters lived their daily lives. He believed everyone lived in total equity. He loved how everything was shared communally, how everything was controlled by “the Elders,” right down to the vocations people were given, the people they were matched up to marry, and the children they received to raise. I think he was ready to up and move there.

Monkey didn’t seem to catch that individual identity had gone the way of 8-track cassette tapes, that no one had any emotions at all, and everyone was essentially just like everyone else.

In Chapter 19, Jonas makes a major discovery. The process of “release,” which is mentioned throughout the book, is nothing more than lethal injection. Needless to say, Jonas is horrified as he watches a video of his own father, a caregiver, performing the procedure on an otherwise healthy infant.

Monkey’s teacher asked the students to please keep the pace with fellow classmates for this book and asked them not to read ahead – something that was exceedingly difficult for my voracious reader.

I promised him there was a reason.

And then one day from the couch, I heard Monkey’s voice “Holy. Guacamole.”

I knew he had reached Chapter 19.

Sitting up, Monkey looked at me. “So…so…so… so… so if they kill people there must be other things that they do that don’t discuss, like who removes the bodies and what do they do with them? There must be tons of secret stuff that goes on.” He paused for a moment, “There are always helicopters flying overhead. I never thought about it. But maybe they are more about surveillance than transportation.”

He was putting things together, making connections. The synapses were firing.

“This book is creeping me out!” he exclaimed and then disappeared behind the couch again to continue reading.

A few nights after Monkey had finished reading The Giver, my son announced, at dinner, there had been a very lively discussion about the end of the book. Apparently, Mrs. English Teacher had asked her students the penultimate question: Do you think The Giver has a happy ending?

Best. Question. Ever.

Monkey reported that some of his peers thought the book had a very happy ending, that Jonas had successfully escaped from his community on his bicycle with Gabriel, a sick infant that his family had been caring for.  They justified their answers by saying they knew it was a happy ending because at the very end, Jonas was on a sled with Gabriel, and they were preparing to slide down into a cozy looking village where there were lights. Monkey said those students felt confident that Jonas and the baby were going to be able to survive in this new community called Elsewhere.

I held my breath.

Because that interpretation is soooooo not it.

Nervously, I asked my son if he agreed that The Giver had ended happily.

Monkey chewed his chicken about fifty times, then swallowed. Finally, he shook his head. “Not at all,” he said, adding that he thought that it was pretty much impossible for it to be a happy ending given that the vision Jonas had of his idyllic community was way too similar to a vision that the Giver had shown Jonas earlier in the book.

Monkey said, “Jonas was probably hallucinating and kinda holding onto one last bit of hope before he and the baby froze to death.”

Wow, if my Monkey was gruesome in his analysis, I didn’t really care.

He was spot on.

I asked my son if he had spoken up and stated his alternate interpretation of the ending and he said that he had. He said other students agreed with him, but a lot of people argued that Jonas had made it out and that he and the baby were going to be fine.

“Some people can’t face the truth,” said Monkey, sounding way too mature making me want him to go upstairs and re-read every book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

Whether or not all the kids agreed about the ending was not the issue for me. I was just happy that my son had turned the corner and gotten from the novel what I believe readers are supposed to get, the concept of dystopia. From the way he explained it, Monkey’s teacher facilitated an amazing discussion about culture and government, people and lies and truth, when people need to know things and when it might be in their best interest not to know things. I was so grateful that this discussion took place in a classroom with a responsible teacher there to facilitate things.

And while every teacher wants her students to have that epiphany about the literature, the reality is that folks will always have different interpretations of the ending of certain books and, frankly, that’s what makes those books delicious. In The Giver, one’s understanding is truly based on his intellectual and emotional willingness to accept that things are not always what they seem.

What makes The Giver a classic is that it is often the first piece of real literature that students read which allows them to look critically at our own government – which can be scary for kids. It forces them to ask uncomfortable questions: Has there ever been a time when our government has knowingly lied to us? Are there justifiable reasons for our leaders to withhold the whole truth?

As I washed the post-dinner dishes that night, I was happy that Monkey’s class had a great discussion and, from the way it was reported to me, none of the students were told how to think or what the “right answer” was. They were, instead, instructed to look to the literature to find the answers and then left to squirm in their own uncertainty, which can be a very good thing.

What’s got you squirming?

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Lessons From Annual Daffodil Day

Me, in the Daffodil Meadow

For the last ten years, my friend and I have taken our sons to the local Daffodil Park on May 1st. The park is a gorgeous, secret jewel hidden right on the edge of our town. And each time we go, there is something that helps us to mark the passing of time.

One year, we saw a partially decayed deer carcass, and the kids poked the flesh and bones and fur with long sticks and made up stories about what must have happened to the deer. There was the time when Monkey, while walking too closely to the water’s edge, accidentally slipped in and ended up with a wet pant leg and shoe. There was the year where it was unbelievably muddy and we mommies, unprepared for such conditions, walked out of the park looking like two muddy swamp creatures along with our equally brackish boys.

Then one year was different, calmer. The boys were older. They came and went from our picnic blanket as they pleased. That year our children could reach the sign that reads: “Daffodil Park: Beginning May 1.” For years, they had jumped, trying to touch that sign with their fingertips – and then, one year, they could stand, feet planted firmly on the ground, and just push up the sign and release it with a bang. How did that happen? my friend and I wondered as we watched our sons frolic like young foals.

Daffodil Day has always been a lovely way to kick-off spring: a lovely way to pass time, a lovely way to mark our friendship. Each year, it is renewed. It is greener. Each year, a new adventure.

Monkey beside the old trees.

I don’t know how it happened, but I missed it this year.

Daffodil Day?

Not. Even. On. The. Radar.

How did that happen?

Part of me thinks that it is because the weather has just been miserable in Western, New York this spring. My husband has certainly grumbled enough about the lost rounds of golf. Even today, on May 19th, it is still overcast and cool enough for a light jacket.

But another part of me knows that Monkey and his old friend aren’t quite the friends they used to be. They have gravitated toward other people. Which is fine. It’s natural for friendships to change. But it is kind of sad, too, so I can mourn that a little.

Looking out the window yesterday – beyond the raindrops that drizzled down the glass – I decided missing Daffodil Day is wrong. Even if my friend and her son didn’t join us, I decided to take Monkey on a muddy field trip. (This time, at least I’d be prepared.) I planned to take pictures of him in the usual spots. The yellow flowers would be gone. The yellow heads would be brown and shriveled. (I was mentally prepared for that.) But Monkey and I have always liked to get dirty, liked to get caught in rain-showers, and there is a bench in the park where I figured we could just sit and chat. Without phones or any electronic devices that ping or beep. Except maybe my camera.

Because I decided I am not ready to give up that ritual. Not yet.

When Monkey came home from school and announced he had completed all of his homework, I was elated. The sun had poked out just enough for me to feel hopeful. I told him to put on his worst shoes, that we were going for a ride.

“Where we goin’?” he asked.

“Just get in,” I said, “You’ll see.”

In seven minutes, we arrived and I pulled my car over to the side of the road and intentionally left my phone in the car.

Wordlessly, Monkey and I walked down the rocky slope to the Daffodil Meadow holding hands. We walked .2 miles and quietly noticed everything. Monkey was the first to comment on green everyone was. He noticed that the water in the stream seemed lower, which it did. He noticed that a lot of the old trees had rotted more. Slapping his neck, he noted that the mosquitoes were out.

Where have all the flowers gone?

And as we made the familiar turn to the spot where thousands of daffodils usually stretch their necks upwards with a kind of sunny glow, Monkey and I marveled in unison: “Whoa!”

The whole area was under water.

This was something new.

I pulled out the camera and took pictures of him and then he took some of me. And then, because we were alone, we realized we weren’t going to have any of the two of us.

Together.

“It’s okay, Mom,” Monkey said. “We’ll come back next year. We’ll always come back.”

And I hope this is true but it occurs to me that, one day, my soon-to-be-teenaged son might not want to accompany me to the Daffodil Park. Indeed, he might not want to accompany him anywhere. He is becoming someone new, to himself, to me.

Strange as it sounds, I fell into a weird little daydream where I imagined myself a very old woman, being pushed in my wheelchair by my son on Daffodil Day. I dreamed he had made a simple picnic – a basket filled with cheese, crackers and fruit – and together we looked quietly out at the water, the trees, the flowers. I allowed myself to consider for a moment that maybe my son was not wrong, that maybe he would “always come back” so that one day, my grandchildren might bring their own children to the Daffodil Meadow.

It’s a pretty good dream, right?

I think I’ll cling to it for a little while, if you don’t mind.

What are some non-traditional family rituals that bring you joy?

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