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February 2012

January 2012 entries

Alive and Nearly Well

It's been nearly 2 weeks since I have had a chance to blog. We've been through quite a hot mess, to be honest. Last week, Mike and Aidan had the stomach flu, Gabrielle had a chest cold, and Liam decided it would best if he would just cut all 6 of his new teeth at once. Somehow, I managed to escape reasonably unscathed. The weekend was spent in a tap-dance of ...well, I'll spare you the details of cleaning up after sick kids. The point is, our life has been insane.

One observation I have to offer is this: nearly every person I know complains of being overly busy and unable to strike a balance in his/her life. Ironically, I haven't had the chance to devote a lot of thought to what I suspect is a cultural epidemic.

I need to get some sleep. What a boring post. I just wanted to let you know we're alive and nearly well.


Aliens

Gabrielle, whilst dressing for school this morning: "Mom, did you know that aliens don't leave cookies and milk for Santa? They leave soda and old shoes."

Me: (perplexed as usual) "So Santa goes to outer space? Aliens celebrate Christmas?"

Ellie: "Yes, but aliens don't put ornaments on a tree. They put really tiny trees on a HUGE ornament."

Me: (admittedly admiring the antimetabolic nature of her response) [Editor's Note: For non-logophiles, antimetabole is the repetition of words in reverse order, often used to reinforce parallel contrast...OK, I will stop. Stop I will, OK?]

"How do you know all this about aliens?"

Gabrielle: (admonishingly sentient) "Mom, I just know."

Huh. I just know. Oh, she also knew this little tidbit this afternoon: "God is a ghost."
I guess I should be glad He's not an alien, what with the old shoes and HUGE ornament and all...


This Year's Prom Theme: Irresponsibility

In a moment of weakness, I agreed to be a class advisor despite having no experience advising a class. The first two years were survivable: mostly, I coordinated a couple of fundraisers and homecoming floats and navigated the class through "traditions" that "everyone knows" -- except people like me who "didn't even go here.". This is the big year, though, for with the junior year comes the prom. I had visions of girl fights and gossipy backstabbing. Mean Girls in real life. (Because the boys who sign up just want to arrange for security and have a say in the food choices.)

I dreaded the first meeting of the prom committee. I thought for sure we'd argue over a prom theme ("No, I said Moonlight and Harmony!". "That's dumb! It should be Starlight and Sex!")

I should also mention that I boycott all superficial popularity contests and have no idea how to organize a royal election at a dance in an aggressively democratic country that broke away from a monarchy over 230 years ago. Ah, well, I'll save that road for another day.

I was genuinely surprised when at the first committee meeting (with about 40 students present) a theme received unanimous agreement: Vegas. When I approached my principal for approval, he voiced the same concerns I had -- what do we mean by Vegas? Drinking? Showgirls? Gambling? The kids all understand that the prom must be school-appropriate; they meant the glitz and glam of Vegas, the bright lights, the card games (we're working on awards for winners--basket raffle perhaps?) and our theme was approved.

I booked a location, and we started the search for prom favors. Clearly the students at MHS have a more mature understanding of prom's very visible representation of the school than the companies that have sent me sundry catalogs since August. In case you haven't had the pleasure perusing prom catalogs, let me fill you in.

I admit, I didn't exactly gush over the idea of choosing prom favors. (Prom serves, pragmatically speaking, as a dress- rehearsal for planning a wedding. And Mike and I gave out gag CDs of "Our Favorite Love Songs" including songs like "Love Stinks" at our wedding. I am not sure all of our guests got the joke. Ah well, that's the risk you take with irony.). That said, I barely glanced at the catalogs that kept arriving daily.

One day, junior Sarah Pfaff (now she can Google her name and find my blog. Instant bragging rights!) pointed out a whistle keychain favor advertised as doubling as "a safety device for female students.". Wait. What? "It's a rape whistle, Mrs. Connor."

We turned with closer inspection on the favors advertised: most of them are alcohol glasses with thinly veiled names. What most would call a shot glass is a "votive holder" or an "expresso glass." Yes, I am entirely convinced that if I gave high school students a shot glass, they will fill it with coffee. Yessirree.

Some companies call a spade a spade and offer flutes and hurricane glasses.

In the midst of a social climate that venerates alcohol, in a country where underage drinking is rampant, in a time when alcohol-related crashes tragically claim young lives annually, it is reprehensible that prom companies market drinking paraphernalia to teens.

We did decide on a favor, for those of you biting your nails in anticipation: poker chip key chains. Sure, we could be criticized for promoting gambling. But I'd rather defend our choice of good, clean fun than send our kids home with rape whistles and shot glasses.


Holy War

Aidan (armed with Nerf gun) : "Aww, I missed."

Me: "What are you aiming at?"

Aidan: "Jesus." (gestures at icon on the wall in hallway)

Me: "Aidan!"

Aidan: "What? He's already dead on the cross!"

Sigh. Thanks, Santa.

Aidan: "I already shot his mom in the living room."

Maybe we just have too much religious art?


Teaching Critical Analysis

I know I am biased, but I believe that English is one of the most challenging subjects to teach.  To operationally define my terms, let me explain that by "English" I don't mean the objective tests of grammatical identification or vocabulary definition.  I am far more interested in whether or not my students can truly think.  And, I don't mean, that they think like me.  I've awarded As to students who wrote passionate defenses of causes I oppose.  I want my students to be armed with the skills necessary to be critical consumers of information and effective communicators of their ideas.

Recently, I gave an essay a test to my Honors English 11 classes on Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.  On the exam, students had to analyze the significance of given passages.  This test question alone is evidence of how difficult my subject is to teach.  Where is the answer key for this kind of test?  I use a rubric, which demands students to "support claims with appropriate evidence"  and to "identify the context of the quote and accurately describe its significance to the book as a whole,"  but it's up to my judgment whether a student effectively masters the test. 

One of the passages I assigned came from a scene in which the townspeople of Holcomb, Kansas turned out to witness the police escorting the suspected murderers of the Clutter family to jail.  Before the police arrived, the crowd was nearly convivial -- they were serving hot dogs and shouting about what they'd do to the punks who murdered their beloved neighbors.  The reader expects a riot, "but when the crowd caught sight of the murders, with their escort of blue-coated highway  patrol-men, it fell silent, as though amazed to find them humanly shaped" (Capote 248).   Prior to the police aprehending the killers, the townspeople suspected each other -- it was impossible that complete strangers would invade their Eden -- and the crime truly changed the dynamics of their community. 

Most students who wrote about this passage (I gave 5 options; they had to select 2) talked, as we had in class, about the townspeople being utterly shocked by the murderers not looking like three-headed monsters.  A few exceptional students stretched beyond putting facts together to true critical analysis.  One said, "When people saw these humans they most likely questioned their neighbors and friends even more knowing now that even the most heinous of criminals can look just like a normal person."    This kind of thinking can't be packaged in a matching test or reduced to a multiple choice option, despite how much faster my grading would go (I have 55 Honors students and 35 AP students, plus 70 students in electives). 

And this is the challenge of teaching English, and in my opinion, doing it right.  I could have students go on a scavenger hunt for nouns and prepositions, and I could test quite easily if they "comprehended" what they read.  But, would I be authentically assessing their abilities?  Decidedly not.   I do not ignore the essential tools of vocabulary and grammar, but I value much more what can be done with the toolbox.  I consistently struggle with how to get kids to think, and I could probably write an entire book about the forces outside of B206 that work against me, but as the year progresses and, with it my students, I am encouraged.  

And while my subject is challenging to teach, I love that we discuss big ideas like the nature of the criminal mind.  I'll take that over "Find the Adverb" any day.