Tuesday, November 22, 2011

No Vampires Were Present

I spent an afternoon thinking about what I teach and how in order to answer some questions from Education News' Michael Shaughnessy, and here's how that turned out:

1) Jessica, first of all where do you teach and what kind of students do you teach?
I teach at Crossroads Academy, an independent K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. We draw students from as far as an hour away in New Hampshire and Vermont. We base our curriculum on the Core Knowledge Curriculum created by E. D. Hirsch and the Core Virtues Curriculum created by our school’s founder, Mary Beth Klee. My students are a talented and motivated bunch; they attend Crossroads for the academic rigor, supportive environment, and focus on individual character. I teach English and composition in seventh and eighth grade, and Latin in grades six through eight.
2) Let’s first focus on writing–why do you see it as important and how do you encourage it?
I believe writing is one of the most important life skills I teach. The ability to persuade others through words will serve my students well, no matter what they do with their lives. I teach a very structured composition class focusing on exposition and persuasive writing, with the occasional descriptive or personal narrative piece thrown in. The students spend a lot of time on four-paragraph essays, moving from specific pre-writing tasks, through development of thesis, to full sentence outline, to rough draft, and finally, final draft and reflection. All work is done in class, in small groups so they have the benefit of my advice and editing during the process.
Last year, we began participating in NaNoWriMo as a way of fulfilling the student’s desire to write creatively and freely, without the strict structure of composition class. That has been a wonderful addition to our year, and about 75% of the middle school students write novels in the month of November. Many have gone on to edit and self-publish their novels as well.
I am a writer as well as a teacher, and I love to talk to the students about the process of writing professionally. They have shared in my quest for an agent, my successes and failures in publication, and often, I read drafts of my blog posts to them. They are, after all, my muses. Some have aspirations to write professionally themselves, and that just thrills me. If I am able to teach my students the value of words, the weight and power of language, the beauty of a particularly well-wrought passage, I feel pretty good when I go to bed at night.
3) Now, literacy–in this age of Half Moon, and Full Moon and Eclipse and Breaking Dawn and all this vampire stuff—what do YOU encourage kids to read?
I keep a well-stocked independent reading shelf in my classroom, and offer up extra credit points for those books. Students may choose their own titles, of course, but I have to approve their selections if they want credit. When a particular novel does not score credit, they get frustrated with me, but I stress that it’s not that I don’t want them to read the Twilight series, I just don’t plan to give them credit for it. I like them to stretch themselves, try new things. I even push students who generally read challenging material to move out of a particular genre if they are stuck. If they are readers of fantasy and science fiction, that’s great – I hand them H.G. Wells or Mary Shelley – but if that’s all they read, I will urge them to read something outside of their comfort zone.
4) Let’s put you in charge of a state—What would be your TOP TEN required books in high school?
Oh, how I hate these questions. It all depends; am I teaching these books or simply handing them over to the students? If I am teaching them, I go with novels that will ease even the most literal students into the realm of the figurative and give my students a broad base of cultural literacy – Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Letter, Song of Solomon, To Kill a Mockingbird, King Lear… the usual. As I talk a lot about Joseph Campbell’s Journey of the Hero, I also include The Once and Future King, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and short stories such as "A Worn Path." The journey is a theme we come back to over and over again, and as I also teach Latin, these books are really great dual-purpose texts. Finally, my students don’t get out of my clutches without a good dose of rhetoric, so speeches are definitely on the list as well – Kennedy, Lincoln, and Churchill are always on the menu.
5) How do you communicate to parents that writing, and reading GOOD literature is important?
This comes up so often that I wrote a “position paper” on the teaching of good literature at Crossroads Academy. Here’s a [very] short version of my position:
We must require students to read great works of literature because, when we hand them Dickens, Twain, or Shakespeare, we offer students so much more than a good story. We give them the opportunity to step beyond the safe boundary of the known world and journey into the uncharted territory of challenging vocabulary, unpredictable plot, and shifting perspectives. Students must brave these works armed with their own experiences and ability to reason, because great works of literature require more than simple retrieval and regurgitation of other’s ideas; they demand feats of intellectual bravery, patience, and trust. Great books are literary proving grounds, safe places for students to try, fail, and in the end, find unexpected moments of wonder and pride in their own abilities. When students learn to ask more of the books they read, they learn to ask more of themselves.
6) You have several blogs and commentaries- what do you see as needed changes in our educational system?
I’d love to see a shift from all this discussion about testing to discussion about what needs to be taught in order to prepare students both for higher education and life as productive members of American society. Now that I have taught in schools without a cohesive vision or agreed-upon curriculum and my current school, where the curriculum is well planned-out and executed, I am a firm believer in the power of content. Of course I teach critical thinking, and of course I teach my students to apply their content knowledge across disciplines, but without a solid foundation in literature, history, math, science, music, etc., there’s no solid footing on which to place and contextualize new knowledge.
7) Sometimes, some good movies come out based on half decent literature–The Three Musketeers seems to be continually be revived and I understand an Ayn Rand book has been made into a movie- are these good things or bad things?
Again, it depends. Thankfully, my students read The Iliad in the sixth grade, so they were not fooled – they know there’s no Sword of Troy, let alone a sword that got handed to Aeneas by Achilles. Without a grounding in the original story, they might assume that the Brad Pitt version is the real story, and that would just be sad. But that’s just a plot device, so whatever. It doesn’t bug me that much. What really upsets me are films such as the Disney version of Hercules. The story of Hercules is eviscerated. The entire reason he has to go out and complete the labors stems from the fact that Hera sends him in to a blind rage and he kills his family. He seeks to atone for his sins, and thus the labors. The Disney version is a sad, pallid version of the story, and I hate to imagine that children around the world would only know the film version.
On the other hand, there are film adaptations I adore. Andrew Davies’ Jane Austen films, of course, the recent BBC versions of Hamlet and King Lear are brilliant, and frankly, Atonement was a masterpiece. I can’t wait to see Julie Taymor’s Tempest, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. I am not one of those sticklers who can’t enjoy a film because it’s not perfectly faithful to the novel; they are simply different beasts.
8) How do you motivate a student to read any specific author in depth- (I am currently working on Arthur Conan Doyle myself)?
I actually think it’s easier to get a student to read an author in depth than to read the first work. Once my seventh graders have read and understood Great Expectations, they are ready to move on to A Tale of Two Cities in the eighth grade. To round out the experience, I offer up double extra credit for certain independent reading books that enhance the literature we read. Right now, some of my students are reading either Oliver Twist or David Copperfield as an adjunct to their reading of Dickens in English class. Once they are in a groove, and if I am willing to dish out the extra credit, they are usually game. Last month our double extra credit was The Great Gatsby, as I wanted to be able to draw parallels between Daisy and Estella and Pip’s great expectations and Gatsby’s green light. That went well, and I used that as a launching pad to talk about “Bernice Bobs her Hair.”
9 ) I thank many English teachers now for exposing me to Hermann Hesse, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cervantes and MANY teachers for encouraging poetry. Why don’t we hear more about great writers and poetry?
I think poetry freaks people out. Too many adults have had it shoved down their throats by a teacher who only taught it because they had to. I happen to love poetry, and one of the reasons I adore teaching middle school is that I often get to be the first person to hand them Frost, to show them the magic in Dickinson, to explain the significance of Whitman’s noiseless, patient spider. Some years, I read a poem a day at the beginning of English class (I have a two-year rotating schedule, one year of poetry, one year of cultural literacy daily facts and connections). I am in the cultural literacy year of my cycle, and I have to admit, as much as I adore the cultural literacy lessons, I miss the poetry.
Students can tell when teachers are faking enthusiasm. If my love of poetry is genuine, if my heart soars when I read the words to them, they know. They feel it. And hopefully, with time, their hearts might soar as well.
10) I have nothing against Stephen King- in fact, let me say to him, that I think his writing HAS gotten better- but why do some pupils go overboard on reading his stuff?
I am not a fan of horror, myself, but I absolutely adore two of his books, Misery and On Writing. Misery is an incredible description of the healing power of writing and the magical mystery tour that goes on in some author’s brains. I don’t channel characters, as King describes in both Misery and On Writing, but I love reading about that process. On Writing is simply a wonderful account of a writing life. I love it the same way I love accounts by Annie Dillard or Carolyn See or Anne Lamott. Besides, King’s description of his process always motivates me to write. My thirteen-year-old writer son feels the same way.
I just picked up King’s new book, 11/22/63 because I needed a good “escape” book and it got a good review from Errol Morris at the New York Times. Besides, I was curious – King said he wanted to write this book thirty years ago when he was still teaching English but did not have the chops to pull it off…I like that sort of honesty in a writer.
11) Let’s close this interview, with the close of the Harry Potter series—Your thoughts on the work of J.K. Rowling, and perhaps her use of some themes from Charles Dickens ??
As I mentioned before, I use Joseph Campbell as a thread throughout the two years I teach my students. We start off with an introduction to Campbell in the first semester of seventh grade, just after they read The Once and Future King for summer reading. My presentation on Campbell uses Arthur, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter as exemplars, and I can’t tell you how helpful it is to have a story that everyone knows. Like mythology, Harry Potter serves as a useful touchpoint for so many concepts. I use Voldemort when I explain one-dimensional characters. I use the Latin translation of Harry Potter in Latin class. I return to the Harry Potter series over and over again in order to explain everything from the definition of Bildungsroman, to the biblical fall from innocence, to the use of Freytag’s Pyramid. Cultures have always had their stories – mythology, folklore, whatever – that bind us together as a people. Harry Potter is firmly entrenched in our cultural consciousness, and I, for one, am grateful for the addition.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Fortes Fortuna Iuvat

I just found out that there's an "Elizabethan proverb commentary" website out there. I discovered this while perusing the weekly Bestiaria Latina digest. Oh, shut up. I fully understand that the sentence I just wrote puts me in a difficult position, high horse-wise. I had planned to poke fun at the aforesaid community of Elizabethan proverbists, but isn't mocking the Elizabethan proverb commentary while admitting that I receive weekly email digests from an organization called Bestiaria Latina just a wee bit of situational irony?

Oh! Oh! Teachable moment! Situational Irony: Miss Havisham is all in a lather because her daughter Estella won't show her love, but Miss Havisham is the very person who raised her to have no heart. Doh. 

In case you feel less than educationally topped off today, the featured proverb at the Elizabethan proverb commentary is fortes fortuna iuvat, which translates as either "fortune favors the brave," or "Fortune favoreth bolde adventurers, nothinge venture, nothing to have: spare to speake, spare to spede," depending on your era of origin. Me, I prefer the modern version, but it's nice to know that if I land in 1564, I will have a couple of proverbs at the ready.

Fortes fortuna iuvat. Teaching isn't usually the sort of job that results in publicity, let alone a shout-out in the New York Times, but it's been a great ride. The combination of that piece and my new blogging gig over at the Core Knowledge Foundation leads me to believe in the power of the Betsy bracelet. As a new friend noted, it's a good week to be Jess Lahey.

K.J. Dell'Antonia wrote a really nice piece about my blog and my teaching, and response has been overwhelming and quite varied. She linked to my blog, so a huge number of readers went there and emailed to tell me what they thought of me and my teaching style.

I'm a lumper, so let's do some lumping. Most readers were supportive and believe I made the right move, allowing my kids to go back and deal with their failures. However, some thought I humiliated my students by "punishing" them for failing to learn the material the first time. Some got bored of criticizing stuff in the New York Times and moved on over to my blog for fresh fodder. As there are pieces on rabbit pee and I swear once or twice on that blog, they found concerning things to email me about. Yes, that's right, I ended that sentence with a preposition on purpose, deal with it. A couple even linked over to my Core Knowledge blog post and sent me messages about my irresponsibility in allowing students to read Catch-22 (relax, my students know that the more mature books on the top shelf of the independent reading bookcase have been a wee bit excised by yours truly in order to allow them to read great literature while not being subjected to R-rated sex and violence) and questioned a whole host of other issues I won't bother to go into.

My assessment? People have a lot of opinions.

My answer to all of these readers? My students trust me. I work very hard to make sure that they know I care about them, they are secure in the fact that I have created a safe and constructive classroom environment, and they understand why I am challenging them rather than simply that I am challenging them. And if they are a little embarrassed by their failure to prepare, well, that's good. They should be. How they react to that embarrassment is what matters. I came oh-so-close to failing Civil Procedure in my first semester of law school and I was completely humiliated. I may have cried in bathroom and I may have eaten my body weight in chinese pork dumplings, but I also confronted my failure. I asked the professor to show me precisely what I'd messed up on my exam (in law school, one three-hour exam decides the grade for the entire semester) and I never made those same mistakes again. I made plenty of other ones, but I never made those particular mistakes again. I also never ate those particular pork dumplings again.

It's part of my job to teach my students to be brave and view their failures as learning opportunities. To buck up and return to the place of their defeat and ask for help.

I'm just grateful I get to be in that place when they show up.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Things Fall Apart

I don't say this out loud very often, but I love my job. I love going to work every morning, I look forward to seeing my students, I love the subjects I teach. I know. I'm so lucky. I took a twisty road on the way to this life, but I am ever so grateful for it.

But last week sucked. Last week was an unfortunate confluence of failures, doubt, anger, and frustration.

Before I explain, I know that right now, there are millions of people who would be grateful for a crappy, low-paying job, let alone a wonderful, low-paying job. I tread carefully on the patience of the un- and under-employed when I talk about my workplace frustrations. But last week, I wanted to walk away from the classroom and dance a little jig on my way out the door.

Last week, I was reminded of just how challenging middle school students can be. They are creatures of extremes. One minute, I am teacher of the year in a students' eyes, and the next, that same student is tossing his books on the floor with an angry flourish, speaking daggers to me as I ask him to conjugate amare. He won't even fall for my magical thinking; forcing him to publicly declare "amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant" did not result in anyone feeling the love.

Luckily, these extremes dictate that with each frustration comes an equal and opposite jubilation. In exchange for one students' daggers, another student might thrust his hand in the air, eager to impress me with his recollection that catachresis is "an elaborate metaphor that makes a surprising or unusual comparison, like those daggers in Hamlet!" One moment like that can spackle my depressions beautifully.

But last week, down was up and up was down and I became convinced I had no business being in my classroom, inverted as it was.

Context: All three of my Latin classes had tests, and I knew going into it that there was potential for bloodbath. This was the sixth graders' first big assessment of everything they have learned so far this year, and the upper grades were being tested on really tough concepts such as the passive voice (e.g. The chair was moved by me) and indirect statements (e.g. Catullus thinks that the girl loves the sparrow). Hell, this stuff is hard in English, let alone in Latin. I knew it was challenging stuff, but I also knew that I had prepared them well. Worst case scenario, I could curve the tests and then those tests could be repurposed as the instrument by which they learn the material in the end. Often a poor result on a test is just what some students needs to get serious about figuring out what they were supposed to have learned in class.

The sixth grade tests went pretty well for students who had been invested in the class since day one, but for the handful of students who thought all they had to do was memorize and regurgitate some endings, the test was a rude awakening. Part of my job, as a middle school teacher, is to move students from regurgitation to interpretation and application by the time they head off to high school. The first time we ask a sixth grader to make that move toward a higher level of thought, they tend to freak out.

And they freaked out. They freaked out on a grand scale. Unfortunately, that vibe went out into the ether, the seventh and eighth graders followed suit, and I was left with a pile of tests that looked as if they were bleeding red ink.

Two days later, in English class, I handed out tests on subjects and predicates. Crossroads Academy is heavy on traditional skills such as grammar, so my students gain an unusually in-depth knowledge of English (and hopefully Latin and French) grammar. This particular test was on subjects (complete and simple) and predicates (verbs and complete predicates), and was a test I have given for four years now. It's a cakewalk even considering the two questions that always catch the students who do not read carefully. Here's one: find the simple subject and the complete subject in "To the left of Ursula's house is an orchard of peach and apple trees." I will give the answer at the bottom of this post. Grades on this test tend to be high, and the students love that I change up the names every year so they all appear in the test in silly and entertaining scenarios.

I checked my records, and the past three years, the mean has been 86, 93, and 92. In other words, it's an easy test. This year, the mean was a 78. Not because the students did not know the concepts, but because fully half of the students failed to follow the instructions. I saw this on the Latin test as well. 20% of my Latin students failed to follow the instructions in full.

What's up with that? 

When I handed the tests back at the end of the week, my students were duly embarrassed, and in the end, their epic fail served as a learning experience. I required each English student to re-take the grammar test in class and debrief me on the answer to each question. I rewarded them with the points I was going to have to curve the tests anyway. In Latin, I handed out blank tests and, in well-planned out pairings, asked the students re-take the tests as an open book exercise. The pairings were required to not only find the correct answer, but to explain why all of the other options were wrong. It went really well, and in the end, one of the students who had initially failed said, "You know, now that we have gone through every question, this test really wasn't that hard." And her classmates agreed. Even the student who had pointed out that her test grade was the second-lowest grade she had received in her entire academic career admitted that she simply wasn't paying close enough attention to her translations.

Combine those failures with the ongoing headaches and time suck related to some students' lack of organizational skills, and I was exhausted. As far as I was concerned, I was just going to have to either quit or change my approach altogether. And change is hard. Like learning to become left-handed in old age.

What I needed was an equal and opposite jubilation to cancel out - or at least soften - the blow.

Friday afternoon, seventh period, I got just what the doctor ordered. My students will be performing scenes from Romeo and Juliet and I Henry IV next week, and I had to test them on their line memorization. Not their blocking, fight choreography, costumes, props, or interpretation, just their memorization. My expectations were low - the week had made me wary of disappointment - but this is what I discovered, there in my classroom, amidst the colossal wreck of the week: A heartbreaking Juliet, a brilliant Prince Hal, a terrifying Montague, a charismatic Hotspur.

They emoted, they transformed, they transcended, they understood. It was as if the students had conspired to give me a gift, just the thing I had been yearning for but did not even know existed.

As I plan my lessons for this week, inspired to start all over and make a fresh start, I am making a few adjustments. I had planned my daily cultural literacy lessons around British Victorian literature - Frankenstein, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Dracula - as we are reading Great Expectations in seventh grade and A Tale of Two Cities in eighth, but I've changed my mind. I think I will make room for Yeats, The Second Coming, Chinua Achebe, and Ozymandias, what with their widening gyres, lone and level sands, and things falling apart all over the place.

Because surely some revelation is at hand. And I am ready to return to the place of my defeat.
Thanks, Sarah P. (whose novel, Julia's Child, comes out soon. All of you should buy it and read it, and not just because the title is perfect. It really is a hoot. The simple subject, as the wise Sarah Pinneo pointed out, is "orchard," and the complete subject is "an orchard of peach and apple trees." The instinct is to go for "house," and all that junk at the beginning of the sentence, but "house" isn't what the verb, "is," refers to. What "is," is an orchard.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


     I woke up today, to the first weekend not scheduled to the hilt with visits, dinners, work obligations, or family obligations. I love all of these things, but there have been a lot of them lately, and we really needed a weekend home, as a family.

I asked Ben, my 12-year-old son, what he planned for this vast expanse of unscheduled time, and he said, without even looking up from his book, "Write." 

You see, it's November. NaNoWriMo time. National Novel Writing Month, and he means business. Fully half of my students (29 outof 50) are signed up to write their novels this month, in word counts raging from 10,000 (6th graders restricted by me due to their organizational challenges) to 30,000 (Ben) to 50,000 (Me). I have to get my butt in gear as it’s the 5th and I am behind on my word count. 

Last year, 28 students "won" NaNoWriMo and were presented with a gift certificate at one of a few self-publishers. The coupon offered up the promise of a bound galley, with free shipping, and their very own ISBN. According to Ethan, the ISBN was about the coolest part of the project. Two examples of completed galleys are pictured above. One student, Sophia Higgerson, is editing her galley and plans to sell it online. As their loyal teacher, I had to read the books. Sophia would only lend me her galley for 24 hours, so last night, I tucked in with A Promising Child. It opens:

Frost stayed late in the winter of 1899. He froze carriage wheels in the streets and curled his way across every building so that the windows shamelessly revealed the kisses he had bestowed upon them the night before. So subdued was Frosts' hostess, New York, that she still lay in the arms of Morpheus when she was meant to wake up and face the coming spring. 
And the days dragged on; morning after frigid morning followed by freezing night; Frost would not relent. Businessmen refrained from going to their work before noon, as carriages were not warm means of transportation; ladies would not leave their houses to visit friends for fear that they would die of cold before they reached the inviting entrance halls that sat like warm, golden ovens, waiting to bake any visitors golden brown.

Sure, the opening paragraphs reveal the author’s affection for British Victorian novels, Edith Wharton, and Leo Tolstoy. She channels the stiff yet lavish atmosphere of Wharton’s turn-of-the century New York and captures the sense of longing and loss that pervades Anna Karenina. Such evident imitation would make for a book review rife with labels such as “derivative” and “imitative,” but in this case she is to be forgiven. At least by me. I lent her both Anna Karenina and The Age of Innocence, last year, when she was an eighth grader at Crossroads Academy.

That’s right. Sophia Higgerson was thirteen when she wrote those opening paragraphs. 

And then there’s my book, a steaming heap of putrescence, a rapidly decomposing collection of words that is worth little more than the record of its stunted word count and horribly problematic narrative structure. I think there might be a couple of good phrases in there, if I’m lucky. The beginning is no “Twig: population 189,” that’s for sure.

But then a bit of magic descended on P.O. Box 214. I opened my box and there was Teri Carter’s name. Hallelujah.

Teri is a talented writer I met, along with about ten other talented writers, over at Betsy’s blog. We became followers of each other’s blogs, and before I knew it, I was sending Teri drafts, urging her on to write, receiving photos of her new puppy. Ah, the internet. Writers as far away as the U.K. and Australia, writers of memoir, opinion pieces, literary fiction and erotica, women I have never met, have become friends. Smart, kind, talented writer-type friends. These writers are meeting in Chicago, and I can’t go. I was terribly bummed out, but I am all better now.

From Teri: "On the one side, The Forest For the Trees, in honor of where our small but sarcastic support group got our wheels. Betsy gets her due. On the flip side, the letters FTF (yes, you guessed it) with an open book-in-progress on one side and a closed book on the other. A reminder that we can - we will - get from here to there.

I’m feeling the love. Thank you Teri, thank you ladies, thank you Betsy. Raise a glass for me out there in the windy city. I will be at home, finishing the fucker.