Monday, October 29, 2012

Of bibliophiles, Studebaker-lovers, and decorated pumpkins

Happy Hurricane Day, everyone! All the schools are cancelled, and everything in Massachusetts is pretty much coming to a halt--even the MBTA is shutting down at 2pm. So this means I now have time to get some important things done: grade lots of papers and blog. (I could have done some of said grading last night, but chose instead to celebrate the upcoming day off by playing Cards Against Humanity with some teacher friends. I stand by that choice.) And this past weekend was FANTASTIC, so I have plenty of great things to share with you.

On Saturday I went to the Boston Book Festival in Copley Square. It was my first time going, and I am already looking forward to the next one! I didn't get to visit too many of the vendors, but maybe I'll block out some time for that next year. I attended several talks, the first of which was called "The Short Story," with authors Edith Pearlman, Jennifer Haigh, and, one of my favorite authors, Junot Diaz. The discussion was very interesting, and thankfully I'd had the foresight to bring a little notebook in which to record ideas and quotes from the authors throughout the day. A few from this one:

Jennifer Haigh:
  • "I write the stories that fascinate me."
  • "A sentence in a short story has to travel a very long way."
Junot Diaz:
  • Said something about "the multiple realities we all exist in." Don't recall the context, but thought that was a really interesting idea in itself.
  • When talking about how some people don't like to read much while they're writing, but he does: "I totally don't give a crap if other people's voices are in my head."
  • Talked about how novels can't be perfect, and they reflect our imperfections. Short stories, however, can be perfect, because they are short enough that the writer can hold the whole thing in his/her head and consider each sentence carefully. He says short stories are "strangely inhuman." Also, if you're too controlling, you can't write a novel.
  • Mimicking reviewers who criticize him for returning to writing short stories after his previous book was a novel: "I don't understand why he went back to stories after escaping that ghetto."
  • Going along with that, he does not like the hierarchy that people project onto different types of writing, how novels are usually more highly regarded than short stories.
  • In talking about his character Yunior, he said that, especially in his newest book This Is How You Lose Her, Yunior uses his body to try to avoid dealing with the problems in his life. I'll need to pay more attention to this as I continue reading it.
  • Also, when the authors were asked how they locate themselves in time and space in terms of their identities as writers, Diaz, who is a Dominican immigrant, said it's hard to categorize yourself when part of a 10 million person diaspora. I guess that, as a Jewish person, I found this to be a very relatable idea.
After the talk, the authors went outside to the Brookline Booksmith's tent (they are one of my favorite bookstores) to sign books. While the two women sat behind a table, Diaz stood in front of it, the better to interact with the long line of people waiting to meet him. He was so kind and gracious and signed all three of my books, plus took a picture with me. I was utterly starstruck. It was wonderful to see that he didn't look like a guy who was just there to sell a few books, but rather really cared about having that personal connection with the people who cherish his work.

 The authors in the beautiful Trinity Church.

One of my signed books!

After that, I met up with a couple of colleagues as we headed over to see "Great Brits and Books." However, we were disappointed to discover it had already filled up. So instead we headed over to "Serious Satire." I'd never heard of the authors before--Lizz Winstead and Kevin Bleyer, both formerly of "The Daily Show," and Baratunde Thurston of The Onion--but I quickly became a big fan of all three. They were absolutely hysterical, and I now want to buy all of their books! The end of the talk did get a bit too political, perhaps because we're all just so caught up in the circus of the upcoming election, but overall our Plan B turned out to be excellent.

Some gems from this one:
  • Kevin Bleyer:
    • After sharing this quote from Benjamin Franklin: "I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them," he said, "He sounds like a Republican endorsing Mitt Romney."
    • "Is there ever a hero of a joke?"
  • Thurston:
    • "Presidents are supposed to suck. They're designed to disappoint you."
    • Talking about all the problems in our country: "Honey Boo-boo? We did that!"
    • On President Bush: "He was good for shitty comedy writers."
  • Winstead (my favorite of the group):
    • When talking about getting gifts like toy stoves and life-like baby dolls: "Anything my mother was sobbing her life over, I seemed to get as Christmas gifts."
    • "The media is now a character in our world." (So true! I though this point was spot-on, and I want to find a way to bring that up with my students.)
I then ventured over the "Graphic Novels," as I've used a few as supplemental materials in my teaching, and my friend Ms. K is a big fan of them. However, this talk was a biiiig disappointment. The first person had no stage presence and was super awkward. Her story/comic that she shared with us was cool, but she didn't discuss her process, her thoughts on this form of storytelling, etc.--she just read the story. And one of the guys was dull and weird all at the same time, and I finally just had to leave. I headed over to "Jewish Jocks," as one of the authors there wrote a book I really like, called How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. The demographic there was largely older Jewish people, so I felt a bit out of place. But I found out I was sitting next to the wife of Larry Summers, the president of Harvard. We were chatting about how the upcoming storm would give us more time to grade papers, and she asked where I teach, and when I asked her the same question, she responded with Harvard. Then Summers came over, as he was one of the panelists, and when she referred to him as "sweetheart" and wished him luck, I put 2 and 2 together. A woman in front of us asked her what they thought of him being portrayed in a movie ("The Social Network"), and she said they thought it was very funny.

Quotes from the panelists and moderator:
  • Moderator: "We're going to be considering a book called Jewish Jocks, and we're off to a good start because no one laughed."
  • After Steven Pinker's somewhat rambling talk on Red Auerbach, Franklin Foer jokingly said that they'd told him, "We're going to give you three minutes to link Red Auerbach with genocide. GO."
  • "I didn't think Sandy Koufax had his priorities straight."--Summers, on Koufax's decision to not pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur.

After this fun and thought-provoking day, my colleagues and I grabbed some dinner and planned out an apocalyptic novel, starring us, on a napkin. All in a day's work.

If you're still with me, I'll try to keep the rest of my update quick. Sunday was Pumpkin/Studebaker Day, a tradition in my family. Since I was a kid, we've been going to the Studebaker show at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, as my uncle almost always goes and enters one of his cars. Unfortunately, with the grey weather, he decided not to take the car out this year, and many other people made the same decision. So my dad and I just took a little walk around the park, as we always do (it is gorgeous there in the fall, and I highly recommend that you visit if you ever have a chance!), and then took our usual tour of the museum, which used to be the Anderson family's carriage house. After taking a quick look at the few cars that came, we headed over to Allandale Farm, another important part of our tradition, and picked out a few pumpkins along with some yummy grocery items (we found something called falafel chips--they intrigued me, so I had to buy them. Must try today....). I decorated my pumpkins with glitter and melted crayons, an idea I found on Pinterest.

 The Larz Anderson Auto Museum

 The car with the toilet is always everyone's favorite.


 A beautiful Packard.                                                                                   Now that's a trunk!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Another week in the life of a teacher.

Quotes of note:
  • A former student was chatting with me, asking me how things are going, and then she inquired, "How's the synagogue?"
  • Played some music during class while the kids were making flashcards, and Hanson's "Mmmbop" came on. A girl asked, "Is this the Jackson 5?" While I'm thrilled she's heard of the Jackson 5, I still felt a little piece of my soul wither away. And I told her this song was popular when I was a kid, and she asked, "When were you a kid?" like I was from the Stone Age or something.

Caught my CP1 classes trying to trick me into thinking they'd done their homework yesterday. Gotta love making the homework question about something that happens in the last two pages of the chapter. When almost every response was irrelevant to the question, I just kept asking each one, "Did you read the WHOLE chapter?" I was not pleased with them, to say the least. Luckily though, they have overall been doing a good job with this book, and today was a much more productive day.

I'm so excited to go to the Boston Book Festival this weekend! I've never been, but it sounds fantastic, and a few of my English teacher peeps are going as well. I'm planning on going to four lectures: "The Short Story," where one of my favorite authors, Junot Diaz, will be speaking (I am ridiculously excited about the prospect of meeting him and getting my books signed), "Great Brits and Books," where I'll get to see Maria Tatar, "Graphic Novels," and "Jewish Jocks," where Franklin Foer, author of How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. I am so ready to geek out all day long, and I'll be sure to post and update afterwards.

I also wanted to share with you a letter that I read after seeing it shared on Facebook. I read it with my advisory today, and plan on talking about it with my other classes next week. It is an open letter to Ann Coulter, who, during the last presidential debate, referred to President Obama as a "retard." The letter, which you can read here, is a beautifully written piece by a man with Down syndrome who is a Special Olympian. He reminded the ever-classless (and that's me using every ounce of restraint that I posses) Ms. Coulter that such words should not be used as insults, that comparing people to individuals like him, who have to overcome so much and yet still "see life as a wonderful gift....should be considered a badge of honor." As an English teacher, I strive to teach my students about the power of words. Often we talk about that in a positive light, trying to get them to understand that with great communication skills paired with powerful ideas, they can rock the world. But it is important to also remember just how powerful words can be in hurting and degrading others. I talked to my students about this, reminding them that they have no idea how hurtful it can be when people use words like "retarded" and "gay" as insults and turn them into synonyms for "stupid" and "wrong." I asked them to be more conscious of their language, and to speak up when others use this language. I told them that I have asked people, including friends, not to speak that way. Not in a confrontational or angry way, but in a gentle manner that still conveyed that I'm not okay with what they said. Hopefully that message gets through to some of them, because it's important to start a ripple effect in trying to solve these types of issues.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What's Goin' On?

Moment of the week:
I had a writing prompt on the board for my sophomores, which included FDR's quote, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." When I asked one of the classes who said this, a student responded, "Dumbledore?"

And soon after that, the students saw an example of fear itself when a girl informed me that there was a gigantic spider right next to my head. I leapt off my stool, darted behind my desk, and nearly hyperventilated while a kid killed it for me. (At least he didn't eat it, like the kid I blogged about last year.....)

The last couple weeks have had some great moments, and also some struggles and frustrations. I'm tired and stressed right now (so glad I'm going to have a nice, home-cooked meal with my folks tonight), so I'm just going to bullet point to give you some of the highlights:

  • My CP1 sophomores are pretty into Lord of the Flies. I feel like I'm doing a much better job of framing our discussions this year. When we started the book, I gave them our essential questions, along with the question that is guiding us for the entire year ("What drives us and makes us who we are?"). I'm really making sure to show how these questions and concepts relate to the real world, and so they generally have lots of ideas that they are eager to share. And most of them, even if they don't always answer the homework questions, are actually reading. I'm also trying to keep in mind that I don't have to talk about every single thing that happens in the book, but rather I just need to keep focused on our central themes and questions in order to avoid an information overload, as well as make our discussions more meaningful.
  • My senior classes, on the other hand, have been fairly disappointing. They hate participating, they aren't good about doing their work, and they are just generally unenthusiastic. I'm sure part of it is that this course (all the senior classes are now 1/2 year electives) is new to me, and I'm still not totally comfortable with it, so that's probably coming through a bit. But there also just seems to be this laziness and apathy with a lot of them....I don't know if, because it's called an elective, that they think that it's not "real" English class, if they're uncomfortable having all of the levels mixed together, or if the senioritis is already in full swing, but already I have a lot of kids who are failing. And unlike in the past, they don't have the full year to pull themselves out of the hole. I've got to make phone calls to parents this week, and maybe start telling kids that they are required to stay after with me in the next week in order to come up with a game plan for getting their grades up.
  • I have been trying a couple cool things with this elective (called "Criminal Minds in Literature"). As we've been doing Sherlock Holmes, I had them watch an episode of BBC's modern "Sherlock," which they responded quite well to, showed an example of a graphic novel version of one of the stories and had them create their own scenes, and also had them read a cool article on possible medical diagnoses for Holmes (Asperger's and bipolar disorder) in order to appeal to students who are more drawn to the sciences and psychology.
  • One of my sophomores stayed after the other day for extra help. I didn't actually help him with an assignment, however. Basically, during the time he was here, he worked on organizing his binder, and the two of us talked about reading strategies he can employ, and talked about a game plan for improving his grades. Sometimes, it seems that even if you're not telling a kid something you haven't told all of them before, just talking something over step by step with them and making it all seem manageable can really help them reframe their mindset.
  • And to end on a funny note: One of my former students asked me last week if I'd like to buy a wreath to help support the National Honor Society. Since I'm Jewish, I reminded him that I am not his target customer....

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The good, the bad, and the daunting

Today, my nightmare class was finally good! For context, let me just say that this group has been making me want to jump out a window. It's my CP2 (lower level) class, and those classes are tough to begin with, but it's not just that a lot of these kids aren't doing their work. Several of them are also just plain nasty. Add that to the fact that they can't seem to stop talking, and by the end of class my headache is registering 8 on the Richter Scale.

But today was different. Almost every kid turned in an essay (yes, a lot of them seem to be too short, and I don't think any of them really followed the MLA formatting guide I went over and reminded them about 5 times, but baby steps, people, baby steps...), and when it was time for them to work on answering some questions on the reading we finished yesterday, they actually worked, and did so quietly. Hallelujah! A bunch of them even shared their responses when it was time for discussion. I made sure to say "good job" a couple times and encourage them to keep up the good work.

I was also pleasantly surprised when one kid approached me after class and apologized for how rude he's been to me. This was definitely a change from yesterday when I told him that I had written him up for his disruptive and rude behavior on Monday, and had emailed his parents as well. He was pretty angry with me and acted like he couldn't conceive of what in the world he could have done wrong. I don't know if the apology was something his parents told him to do, but he seemed pretty sincere (and usually every word that comes out of his mouth is dripping with snark and if he thinks I don't pick up on that stuff. Honey, I majored in Sarcasm in college. Don't even.). I reminded him that I'm not out to get him, not trying to attack him, but that I have been frustrated with his behavior, and said that I hope we can use this as a turning point and make the rest of the year positive. We'll see how that goes.

In other news, today was my first day of grad school, and I'm already overwhelmed. I'm taking a hybrid course, so luckily I only have to go there once a week for a couple hours, and then the rest is on my own and online. Unluckily, I had a faculty meeting after school today, and even though I ducked out a couple minutes early, traffic sucked and caused me to be about 15 minutes late. I was a flustered mess when I finally arrived. I did not want to be that person on the first day, but alas, I was. At least the professor wasn't upset with me.

We went over the syllabus today, and learned that we have to choose a work of literature to do a research paper on, and do an annotated bibliography with 40 entries. GAHH. Yet the paper is only ten pages and only needs to make reference to four that's kind of an annoying disconnect. I understand the need to be thorough in the research, but 40? Oy. But I talked to a couple of the other students after the class, and they revealed they were overwhelmed too, so at least misery's got company. Also, the professor talked about how she doesn't let people out early...but then she let us out 20 minutes late. I was just thinking listen, it's past 6:00, I have a drive ahead of me, I'm hungry, I haven't had time to pee all day, and I have work to do and sleep to attempt to get. SHUT UP. This is definitely going to be an interesting semester, trying to balance being both a teacher and a student. I just hope I come out of it in one piece and not too terribly sleep-deprived.