Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Issue with Barnes & Noble

Those of you who have been reading are probably well aware by now that I am a huge dork. I blame my father for much of this. Today, I became like him just a little bit more: I spent a good chunk of time this afternoon crafting a complaint letter to Barnes and Noble, which I have copied and pasted below. I'm hoping I get a letter back from them, and that they seriously consider my suggestion. If you have any thoughts on the topic, feel free to post them!

To whom it may concern:
I am a Barnes & Noble customer, and recently signed up for your educator card. I enjoy shopping at your stores, but my visit yesterday to your Hingham store left me feeling frustrated. I was searching for a copy of Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. I teach this to my 12th grade English class, and I wanted my own copy so that I may make notes in it. My search through the biography/autobiography section was fruitless. I next looked in the world history section, then finally stumbled upon the book in the religion section.
Yes, I know that this may seem a trivial thing to complain about. But I must say, the category that this book was filed under troubles me. While Wiesel is a Jewish man whose book is about his experiences in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, this is not a “Jewish book.” It is not about an issue that is purely about religion, but rather it is about an issue of humanity. Though the memoir does in part discuss Wiesel’s increasing loss of faith, it is most importantly a glimpse into the evils that human beings are capable of committing against one another, and the strength and endurance of the human spirit when dealing with the worst possible circumstances. These are themes that transcend religion and that are vital for everyone to learn.
The Holocaust did not just affect Jews. The Nazis also targeted communists, gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people, and anyone else whom they deemed a social deviant or threat. And genocide is not a problem that has disappeared from our world—it happened in Rwanda in 1994 and has been happening again in Darfur. At the back of Night, the publisher has included a copy of Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize speech. In this speech, he says, “If we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.” Well, the world seems to be forgetting what we learned from the Holocaust. Many people even vehemently deny that it ever happened. This seems ludicrous, but they certainly do have their audience, and that is a frightening thing. If we forget what has happened, we are allowing history to continue repeating itself.
 To get to my point, the decision to put this book in the religion section devalues its message and its power. It makes it seem as though it is just an issue of religion, and ignores the larger connections. We need, more than ever, to keep these firsthand accounts alive. We cannot be allowed to forget the nightmare that was the Holocaust. Please consider putting this great book with the other autobiographies, as this will help it reach its proper audience and better serve your customers.
               Thank you for your time and consideration.
Your loyal customer,
D. Greene

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

turkey talk

It's almost Thanksgiving, my absolute favorite holiday. After all, it revolves around food and family, and my family stretches out the awesome by making it a 3-day holiday. Day 1: Stuffing Day. And oh boy, does my auntie have THE BEST recipe for stuffing. Don't even try to argue with me on that. Day 2: The Main Event. Day 3: Leftover Day. This may be even more fun than the day before because we play games like Mexican Train Dominoes, cards, and Rummikub, sometimes with interesting/inappropriate house rules tacked on.

So instead of one of my usual teaching posts, today I would like to say what I'm thankful for:

My family--They provide me with lots of love, support, and laughter. I know they've always got my back no matter what.

My friends--They are great at putting up with my neuroses. They laugh with me during the good times and try their darndest to make me smile during the bad. I make an effort to surround myself with the best people possible, and I think I've done a pretty good job of that.

My job--In this economy, I'm definitely greatful to be employed, especially in my chosen field. I may not come home from work feeling happy every day, but overall I find my job fulfilling and challenging. I am thankful for my amazing colleagues who have been so supportive and taught me a lot, and who have also become my friends. I am also thankful for my students, for the times when, despite their best efforts, they find themselves enjoying learning and making intellectual breakthroughs.

My new apartment--This is a new chapter in my life, and boy is it scary. But after surviving my first year of teaching, I feel like pretty much anything is possible. I always used to be terrified of change, and it certainly isn't easy, but I've realized just how wonderful it can be.

The fact that some people are actually reading this blog of mine--When I started this, I wasn't sure if anyone would care. But I've received some good feedback about it, and hopefully that wasn't just to be polite. I'm glad to have this outlet to share thoughts about teacher and other things that interest me. Because we're in a classroom for most of the day with teenagers, a lot of us teachers really thirst for opportunities to start a dialogue with other adults about what we are doing and dealing with and excited about. So thanks for reading.

I hope you and your loved ones have a wonderful Thanksgiving, with bellies and hearts equally full.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What are books for?

Even though I am exhausted, this has actually been, overall, a pretty good week. Some of the projects and activities my classes have done have really gotten my students engaged and interested, and that's always one of my big goals.

One such project is a fundraiser and awareness campaign that my seniors are doing. We recently finished reading In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez. It is based on the real-life Mirabal sisters, revolutionaries who fought against the Dominican dictator Trujillo. Trujillo had three of the sisters killed, but their story has lived on. In the author's note at the back of the book, Alvarez talks about how November 25th, the anniversary of their deaths, is widely observed as International Day Against Violence Towards Women, as the Mirabals have served as an inspiration to women fighting against all types of injustice. Since I am always looking for ways to make my students more aware of important issues in the world and to get them involved, I decided that I wanted to do something for this day. The problem was what that should be. I thought maybe I could have them make posters about various women's rights abuses both domestic and international and put them around the school to raise awareness, but I wasn't fully satisfied with this.

When I asked my students to brainstorm, they were at first reluctant. They agreed to go with the poster idea because it sounded like it would be the easiest option. One student even asked why he needed to do this, because he's "one of the good guys." A female classmate quickly shut him down, saying that she had been a victim of abuse, and that this is an important issue to many people. I also told him that because he is one of the good guys, he has a responsibility to encourage other men to follow his example. I kept on pushing them to think of other ideas, until one student suggested doing a fundraiser for a local women's shelter. Brilliant! The class made the decision to both do this fundraiser and to create the posters, so not only will we be increasing awareness, but we will also be taking action with our own increased awareness.

Because the Mirabals were known as "Las Mariposas" ("The Butterflies"), we will be selling butterfly stickers that, if put on hats, will allow students to wear their hats on a specific day. We'll also be selling butterfly cookies made in the shape of butterflies. I spoke to one of the culinary department teachers, and she loved the idea. She's going to make the cookies for us, and even invited my students to come decorate them themselves! It's not often that two departments that are so different get to collaborate on a project, so I am super excited about teaming up with culinary.

During the last couple of days, my students have been hard at work on their posters (even I made a few of my own), some of which advertise what we'll be selling, and others which have facts and figures about violence towards women in the U.S. as well as women's rights abuses in places such as Somalia and Afghanistan. Even a couple of students who don't usually work in my class have been taking this pretty seriously. A couple of times I have been asked, "Are we getting graded on this?" I have replied, "No." They'll earn themselves participation points, but nothing else. I strongly believe that they need to learn the value of helping others without expecting any type of reward in return. Instead of a grade, they will have the satisfaction of knowing that they have helped people in need. Interestingly, after I told them no, they didn't put up a fight about it. They just went back to working hard, and continued to be excited about this project. I only had one kid who was reluctant to give up eating lunch with his friends in order to spend a couple of days selling stickers and cookies in the cafeteria, but a couple of his classmates showed their disapproval of this attitude. And, because I only have 10 kids in that class, and two have to leave in the mornings for co-op, I asked a couple of my sophomore classes for volunteers to lend us a hand. A bunch of hands instantly shot into the air, each student willing to help out all four days if necessary, and suddenly I had enough people to help out for all four days of sales.

Some people might find this endeavor odd because it only has a loose connection to the text, and seems largely out of place in an English class. So I pose this question to you: what does it mean to be a good reader? I don't want to only teach my students comprehension and analytical abilities, though those are certainly important. But if they gain these skills and can do nothing with them but sit and read book after book, then what's the point? John Coetzee said, "What are books for if not to change our lives?" While I think that it's perfectly fine for some books to simply entertain, we also need to use books to challenge our ways of thinking. Books teach us about different perspectives and experiences, and if we approach them with an open mind we can learn empathy. Sometimes, if we're lucky, we can even find a book that inspires us to do something with our newfound knowledge and empathy. Last year, when a group of my seniors wrote letters to President Obama arguing why our country should change its position on the Darfur genocide and genocide in general (after reading Night along with material on other genocides), they saw that they could make their voices heard in a forum outside of school. With this project, these students have taken something that I had originally envisioned would extend outside of the classroom, and found a way to take it beyond the school. They are proving that knowledge really is power.

*   *   *

Want to join my students in making a difference? Go to http://www.capecodshelter.org/ and make a donation to the Cape Cod Center for Women, which provides services for battered women and their children.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Protecting kids

A large and critical part of my role as a teacher is to look out for my students. The teacher who cares about these kids only as students and not as human beings is, in my opinion, not a good teacher. There are laws that state that we must report any suspected abuse, neglect, etc., but we should not do this simply because it is our legal responsibility. Rather, we must do whatever we can to protect these kids because it is our moral responsibility.

I have been thinking about this issue in the wake of the Penn State scandal that is currently all over the news. This case is so devastating not only because children suffered abuse, but also because nobody protected them. Students at PSU are rioting, outraged that their beloved coach was sacked, but the school made the right decision. Yes, Paterno told his superiors about the abuse. However, when it comes to such serious matters, especially in the case of children who have even less knowledge of how to help themselves, one cannot simply say, "I told someone, so my duty is done," and then wash their hands of the whole situation. Why didn't he follow up? Why didn't he question why the authorities were not notified, and make sure Sandusky was not allowed on school premises? His moral responsibility was not fulfilled. He put football before the well-being of children, and as an educator and a human being, that infuriates and upsets me. I won't even go into the cases of his superiors, Curley and Schultz, except to say I hope they both are convicted of all charges of failing to report child abuse, and that they are forced to spend a long time rethinking their decisions while they sit in a small cell.

I discussed this story with my advisory class today. We read the article together and discussed it a bit. One girl asked why the boys didn't just tell someone, and I explained to her why victims often do not report abuse. Another girl shared a story about a case of abuse in her family. Several expressed their disgust with the whole situation. I took this opportunity to tell them that if they are being abused, or if they know or suspect that someone else is being abused, that it is of the utmost importance that they tell someone. And if that person doesn't listen or do something, then they need to tell someone else until somebody takes action. Nobody should have to suffer and feel helpless. I reminded them that even though they often feel as though their teachers just torture them, we truly have their best interests at heart and want them all to be happy, healthy, and safe. That has to remain our priority. If only it had been the priority of those in charge at Penn State.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Grading, and moving, and books, oh my!

Lesson of the week: Do not move the weekend that you have to work on report cards. So. Not. Fun. However, I did it! It was uber stressful and crazy, but here I am, sitting on my new bed in my new apartment, feeling that sense of relief that comes after submitting grades.

One of the good things that came of all this? I graded a bunch of papers faster than I ever have before. I am, shall we say, a bit of a procrastinator. But these last couple of weeks, I had to fight against that instinct with every fiber of my being if these papers were to make it onto the first term grades. I had character diaries for two classes that had to get done before a new set of papers was scheduled to come in (in a way it's a good thing that a number of students didn't do that assignment...). I collected my honors class' papers (a research paper + allegory, an average of maybe 6 pages each) last Monday. That was 28 papers, and I finished them last night. OY. I didn't know if I would have it in me! Especially since a lot of them were rather underwhelming. (Ponderable: Why can one be overwhelmed or underwhelmed, but not just 'whelmed'?) Plus, I moved into my apartment on Saturday, and before that could happen I had to do a lot of shopping, cleaning, and packing. Not really the best timing in the world. But it feels good to have so much stuff out of the way now.

Speaking of moving, one of the first things I did to set up my room, even before putting clothes in drawers, was arrange my bookcase. I knew it wouldn't feel like home until it was all set up. When I was in college, I always took maybe at least 10 books with me, even though I didn't really have the space. As silly as this sounds, even though I rarely looked at them, it was like having some familiar friends with me. Now I've got a brand-new bookcase (assembled by my fantastic friends, because lord knows I have a hatred of things that require reading directions) that actually fits my books and some tchotchkes. It looks so pretty and homey, I just love looking at it. Being a nerdy English teacher is the best.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

"Help! I care about what I'm learning!"

The discussion was getting heated in my honors class today. It seemed like a straightforward lesson at first--the students had to create a list of what they think a good leader is/does and what an effective leader is/does. (This is meant to tie into our discussion of leadership in Lord of the Flies.) While I figured they'd have a good discussion with some deep thinking, they took it even further than I had anticipated. The question of morality came into play, there were questions of whether or not a good leader always has to be successful, and so on and so on.

Near the end of class, one girl finally turned to me, her hands on her head, and exclaimed, "This class is giving me an existential crisis!"

My response? "YES!" My mission had been accomplished.

Anytime a student has a strong reaction to a class discussion, be it anger, excitement, or a reassessment of beliefs, I've done my job. That reaction means that they are feeling invested in what we're learning, and that it doesn't feel like the material is a burden. Last week, another teacher told me that two of my CP1 students arrived at her class continuing the heated discussion they'd just been having in a Socratic Circle about utopias in my class. She obviously understood just how exciting it is for a teacher to know that their lesson is spilling out of their classroom, that kids are passionate enough about a topic that the passion doesn't just evaporate when the bell rings.

So even though I've been feeling rather frustrated lately, mostly due to the apathy I'm seeing with a lot of my students, these have been a couple of little signs that in some cases, I have been successful in getting kids to care. I need to keep developing more of these types of open-ended questions that students can make strong connections with, because I love how it takes their critical thinking to another level--and they don't even always realize it! Seeing them being passionate about the material reminds me why I'm passionate about my job.