After the camping trip I received an e-mail from the technology coordinator of the middle school. Apparently my substitute showed her the DVD of the video tutorials I made, and she had a lot of questions regarding my use of technology. Namely, why wasn’t I keeping her in the loop and why was I using outside web services (e.g., gmail vs the school mail server)? It was apparent the email had also been forwarded to a number of other parties, including my department head, the director of the middle school, and other administrators. The tone of the email scared me.
Needless to say, I couldn’t concentrate all weekend. On Saturday, Dana and I went to a 7 hour childbirth preparation class. On Sunday, I attended a 5 hour workshop/forum on exploring class. I feel burnt to a crisp right now. Thank God the Phillies had that amazing game on Sunday.
MON: Of Mice and Men, Ch 4 and The Alchemist Paper
Because of the hiatus away from regular instruction, I began each class with a review of the reading we had done so far. I asked my 7th graders who George and Lennie were and what events have happened on the ranch so far.
We then began reading ahead into the next chapter. I felt that students had been out of practice reading this kind of literature for a little while now, and so it would help to acclimate them back into the groove of the class if we read the book aloud together. As we read, I stopped to have brief discussions about what the setting tells us about the character of Crooks and ask about Crooks’ reaction to Lennie’s visit.
When we got to the question of why there wasn’t anyone around at camp, I saw an opportunity to raise some of the issues encountered at the Exploring Class workshop I took on Sunday. I talked about my experience having to scrimp and save as a family, how my parents squirreled away all their money for the future. I then talked about my experience later on in life when I lived in a neighborhood that celebrated the first of the month with raucous parties and profligate spending. We brainstormed on why this neighborhood might feel compelled to spend and not save. Most classes touched on a lack of education, the need for escapism, and the level of daily stress. I proffered, in addition, the possibility of the dearth of credible institutions, the high level of crime, the low expectation (even of survival) of the future. I could’ve gone on, but the kids got the point.
I then did an exercise that I learned from another seminar (led by the same organization, Class Action) where each student sat on their desk. Each student represented an even proportion of the population and each desk represented an even proportion of the wealth. I then designated one cluster of students, about one third of the population, as the affluent class and started taking desks away from other students to give to them. They ended up with about two-thirds of the wealth and everybody else had to squeeze into the remaining third of the desks.
We then discussed how people behaved and felt being in their respective situations. We noted how those who were affluent seemed at ease, nice, generous, smug. Everybody else seemed stressed, competitive, mean, unwilling to yield. Some gave up looking for a space. Others celebrated what little space they had and refused to give it up. All in all, it was a great exercise that really seemed to hit home how those who are marginalized have to develop a different mentality that one should not be so quick to judge.
I spent my eighth grade class introducing the expository essay they needed to write for me for The Alchemist. We went over the different options of topics, and I urged them to start culling textual support for the option they wanted to go with.
We ended the eighth grade class going over the grammar assessment they took while I was gone. It was apparent the usual suspects were giving students trouble: adjectives vs adverbs, linking and helping verbs, prepositions. Unfortunately, Dana who helped me grade these grammar assessments over the weekend, must have felt particularly pregnant for there were a number of irregularities that I needed to apologize for. Thank God it was not graded.
Of course I also had to deal with the fall out of my technology outing all day. I met one-on-one with the technology coordinator and had conferences with the director of the middle school twice. I also had to schedule a meeting with the head of my department. To my relief, the general tone of these meetings was of reassurance, support, and curiosity along with scrutiny and concern. I had to demonstrate the technology I was using and justify my decisions. There were some arched eyebrows and uncomfortable pauses, but the overall sense was not punitive. I ended up stammering a lot about why I didn’t involve more people into my process, and then repeating over and over that I would change my ways.
Now, would I prefer to circumvent all this nervousness and red tape? You betcha. But I’m resolved to think now that the more important lesson for me as an educator may not be to break barriers in my classroom, but to gently provoke the rest of my community. At the end of the day it may have felt like I was taking five steps back, but I’m going ahead to try to see it, instead, as a step forward.
One of my seventh grade blocks was dropped today, so we went back to further discussing chapter 4. We read the passage where Curley’s wife intrudes upon Candy, Lennie, and Crooks’ pow-wow. We talked about how Candy suddenly gets more gumption to stand up to her, but is then later put in his place. The students were intrigued/confused about Crooks, who is one of the most complex characters in the book. His tough exterior hides a sensitivity and desperate need for belonging. I made sure we also touched on The American Dream and how that bucks up these characters just as it might be out of their reach.
We discussed John Steinbeck’s mascot (the Pigasus) and his motto — Ad Astra Per Alia Porci (To the stars on the wings of pigs). I mentioned how nearly all of Steinbeck’s novels deal with the subject of the marginalized working class in America. We discussed possible interpretations of that motto, that fulfillment is nigh impossible for the poor, that society can only reach its ideals by giving its marginalized the chance to soar, that we must consider the gap between the transcendental and mundane reality.
Finally, I ended the 7th grade classes sharing the vocabulary story I picked for the Answers.com contest. I had to make sure the day before that I posted the stories on the class blog and then formally submitted them to the contest.
I had to make sure I begged students not to finish the book prematurely.
I took a half-day today, and so I didn’t get a chance to teach my eighth grade class. Instead I instructed my substitute to review the assigned reading by giving each table cluster a large sheet of easel paper and then have them each go over a different aspect of the book (Plot, Character, etc.) They were then to share their discussions as a class.
Unfortunately, my 8th grade class had an hour block, so I also instructed the substitute to go over the vocabulary quiz that the class took the week before and then, with the remaining time, show the class the video I made of their creative project presentations.
I started my seventh grade classes with a grammar assessment. While most students seemed enthusiastic about keeping track of which answers they got right, it was fairly clear that nearly everyone had a lot of confusion about the different parts of speech. Adverbs, possessive adjectives, and prepositions in general seemed to generate a lot of wrong answers.
We moved on to a discussion of the penultimate chapter of Of Mice and Men, discussing how Curley’s wife ended up on the ranch and what her dream was. And, of course, we speculated on what would happen in the last chapter, which we agreed to read together the next day.
My eighth grade class began class grouping into which option they wanted to pursue for their Alchemist paper. We discussed the previous night’s reading from the framework of the different papers: What stage is Santiago in now? What omens has he seen? What obstacles has he encountered?
I gave them the reading assignment for the night and then discussed due dates for the paper, which were pushed back in agreement with my colleagues.
I then discussed a theoretical paper and showed how I wanted each supporting paragraph to have textual support based on character, plot, and quotation. I wasn’t entirely sure whether I wanted students to turn in the kind of outline I did in class and so some confusion ensued about my expectations. Any amount of confusion escalates very quickly within my 8th grade class, so I think I’ll have to put out some fires and hold some hands the next day.
In other news, I had a meeting with the head of my department today. He was frank about his trepidation about the use of technology and how it exposes the publication of student work to the wide world. He’s a reasonable guy, though, and understands that some of his fears may be unfounded. The other issue he brought up is the priority of instruction in an English class — that we not sacrifice our core competency in critical reading and writing for other things, be it technology or research. He wanted to make sure, in other words, that my English class didn’t turn into a computer or history class in following interdisciplinary paths.
This meeting clarified for me the three major obstacles I’m encountering:
- That my class is transforming into something radically different from the other classes and is losing its place within the general program of the school.
- That the technology is steering us into gray zones of safety, security, and legality that tests issues of accountability and liability.
- That relinquishing complete control over technology services and infrastructure means losing the ability to track and enforce student accountability.
All week long I’ve been begging my seventh graders not to read ahead, not to peek at how Of Mice and Men ends. Today I give my best dramatic reading of the entire last chapter. It’s all worth it when I hear some faint gasps as I get to the end.
Afterwards, we talked about:
- Why did Slim tell George, “You hadda do it?”
- Why are the images coming out of Lennie’s head that of Aunt Clara and a giant rabbit?
- Is George a good friend of Lennie?
- Why does the chapter begin with the description of the heron and the snakes?
In order to help my eighth graders out with their Alchemist papers, I gave out a graphic organizer that made clear that for each supporting paragraph, they needed a direct quote and textual evidence regarding plot and character. It’s mechanical, but I suppose it forces students who tend to skimp out on textual evidence to find some.
I spent a good chunk of time lecturing on the importance of having a good thesis statement — one that wasn’t superficial. I emphasized that the thesis needed to tie in all the supporting paragraphs and had to give some real insight about the book. Students seemed to understand better when I restated this last point to say that the thesis had to say something new about what the book had to say about life.
Later I saw on an upper-school poster that a good thesis needed to be debatable — that it shouldn’t be obvious. I need to remember that one.
The thesis really gave some students trouble. Next year, it might be better to give the students the thesis outright and let them worry just about the supporting paragraphs.
I treated the seventh grade to a video done as a class project by two students at another school and posted on Google Video. The kids loved it, and so I thought it would be a great idea to have them, in small groups, act out critical scenes from the book and film it on video.
In hindsight, it was a bad idea:
- Although my co-worker didn’t mind my project, it still sent my classes off in a different direction than hers.
- I had already planned (but forgotten) to spend the next week showing the movie version of the book. Now I no longer have the time to do that.
- I now have one more thing to grade — that I don’t even know how to grade, really.
- It was a half-baked idea.
As for my 8th graders, flush from the success of my Of Mice and Men readings from yesterday, I read aloud the climactic moment of The Alchemist. Okay, but not earth-shattering.
The passage mystified the students. Big surprise — it mystified me when I first read it. Now I realize it’s really at the heart of why I don’t like this book, but I had a hard time conveying that without resorting to a personal rant. In the end, I’m unsatisfied that I’ve taught this book so vaguely.