Friday, April 27, 2012

Sing, and Dance it Trippingly

It's Shakespeare Day at Crossroads Academy, my favorite day of the year. The first year I taught at Crossroads, I expected what you see at most schools when little kids perform Shakespeare; butchery of the Bard. That first Shakespeare Day at Crossroads, I dutifully sat in the audience at the fifth grade's performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and braced myself, expecting the worst.

Instead, the curtains opened on magic.

I particularly enjoy this scene, because it was the one I performed in K.C. Potts' English class when I was in high school.

The stage in this production is actually in the town hall of Plainfield, NH, and that set? That dreamy, incredible set? That was painted by Maxfield Parrish in 1916. I can't think of a more beautiful backdrop for A Midsummer Night's Dream. 

The fifth grade performs nearly the entire play, and every year, I am amazed. I never get over it. There's lots of other presentations - a very abridged Macbeth by the third grade, a presentation on Shakespeare's language by the second grade, a class on sword fighting, and a full-on Elizabethan lunch provided by the parents. But it's those woodland fairies that steal my heart each year.

The sun is coming up, and it's time to get moving. As Puck would say, "Fairy king, attend, and mark: / I do hear the morning lark."

Time to go wake up my own woodland sprites and get them off to school. I will be suffused in magic today, but first, it's time for cereal and toast.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Halcyon Days

After more than a decade of teaching, I still find it fascinating that the best and the worst days can be one in the same. 

Today was so...odd, and horrifying, and lovely, and frustrating, and invigorating. In other words, today was a normal day in middle school. 

Vocabulary word of the day: Halcyon

As usual, there's a story behind the word of the day. Once upon a time, Aeolus, the King of the winds, had a daughter, Alcyone. Alcyone was one of the Pleiades, married to Ceyx, the King of Thessaly. When Ceyx drowned (thanks to a thunderbolt from Zeus), Alcyone, overcome with grief for her husband, threw herself into the sea. Instead of drowning, she was carried on the winds, in the form of a bird, usually identified as a Kingfisher. In legend, the Kingfisher builds its nests on the open ocean, so Aeolus decreed that there would be a time of calm while the eggs of the Kingfisher are in the nest, waiting to hatch out the vulnerable offspring. Consequently, the fourteen days surrounding the winter solstice, the days in which the Kingfisher hatches her eggs on magically calm open seas, are termed the "halcyon days."

The Kingfisher, or the bird alkyon or halkyon, from the Greek hals "sea, salt" and kyon "conceive, to swell" is allowed to brood her eggs on a sea of calm thanks to her father Aeolus. Appropriately, there's a genus of the Kingfisher family called Ceyx, and another called Halcyonidae. 

Ovid wrote: 

The Gods their chapes to winter-birds translate,

But both obnoxious to their former fate.
Their conjugaal affection still it tied,
And still the mournful race is multiplied:
They bill, they tread; Alcyone compressed, 
Seven days sits brooding on her floating nest:
A wintry queen: her sire at length is kind,
Calms ev'ry storm and hushes ev'ry wind;
Prepares his empire for his daughter's ease,
And for his hatching nephews smooths the seas.

Today was not a halcyon day. Today, there was no calm, there was no hush. Today was chaos. My boss was away at a conference, and I taught six classes in a day of seven periods. Today, there were disciplinary actions, "talks" with students, and at one desperate moment, a nap on my office floor seemed the only reasonable option.

But it's April in New Hampshire, and I am used to unsettled weather. Today, for example, Lyme had bright sunshine, torrential downpours, hail, and high winds. On such a day, my scheduled lesson, the short stories of a few despairing Russians, was not working for my eighth graders. Dostoyevsky's An Honest Thief, Chekov's The Bet, and Tolstoy's God Sees the Truth But Waits was not going to happen. The stories - and my entire short story unit, no less - may have been inked into the schedule since September, but that does not mean I could force the Russians down my students' throats. They needed a change in the weather.

I happened to have a stack of King Lear, ordered for next year's class. I hadn't planned to use them, but they were sitting right there, on my office floor, taking up my nap space. I figured it if it is my favorite story, I could make it their favorite story. At least until May. 

And so far, so good. They needed a change, so I switched up my plans. They needed energy, so I will give them all I've got. No reading from seats; all reading will be done from the front of the room. No homework in Lear; all reading will be done in class. Performances and enthusiasm, not innate comprehension, will be graded. The play's the thing.

We started reading, and the skies cleared over my classroom. The howling winds died down and I heard laughter instead. The boy who read Cordelia's part today day gave his all. The girl who stood tall, delivering Lear's words as he struggled to reclaim his dignity in the aftermath of his disastrous love test earned a ten out of ten for her efforts.

Where boredom dominated, enthusiasm now reigns. 

And that's how middle school works. The winds may rage, but inside the walls of our middle school, I provide the calm waters my students need in order to emerge from their nests unscathed. Because sometimes, when they are at their most chaotic, they require my stability, my quiet, the solace of my classroom. Today, I had to shield them from the hail and high winds and create artificial halcyon days. Like Aeolus, I will provide it, but I will also retain my parents' prerogative to be frustrated and exhausted from the exertion that this protection demands.

Today, I played the benevolent Prospero. Today, I conjured some magic, changed the weather, and calmed the seas under their nests. Tomorrow, who knows. 

Tonight, the evening is suffused with that golden light that peers out from a clearing in dark, stormy skies. The dark and rain will return, but for a little while, it's what Walt Whitman saw when he envisioned his "Halcyon Days."

As gorgeous, vapory, silent hues cover the evening sky, 
As softness, fulness, rest, suffuse the frame, like freshier, balmier air, 
As the days take on a mellower light, and the apple at last hangs
really finish'd and indolent-ripe on the tree, 
Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days of all!
The brooding and blissful halcyon days!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Trespass Freely and Fearlessly

William Dyce, King Lear and the Fool in the Storm (1851)

A teacher who has been following along at the Core Knowledge blog emailed me a while back with a great question. I've been meaning to answer and there's no better time than today, when I have five other deadlines to avoid.

Dear Jess, 

Here's my question for today: how much can high school age students benefit from a classical curriculum like the one at my kids' school?

I love that next year my son will read, for example, Plato, as part of the Great Books type humanities program. That stuff is challenging for even the best educated adults. We chose to transfer our kids this year to [name deleted] specifically because of their humanities program. The other option was having them take many AP courses while attending the nearby traditional public high school. I had nothing like the [name deleted] curriculum back in my high school days, and I only read Great Books stuff on my own, many years after I graduated from college.  So I'm excited for my kids to have this opportunity, but only if it benefits them.

Are "Great Books" relevant for today's students? 

My answer is an emphatic yes, and I whip out my favorite quote on the subject, by Michael Dirda: "Classics are classics not because they are educational, but because people have found them worth reading, generation after generation, century after century."

The argument against asking young people to read great books goes something like this discussion from the Diane Rehm Show. Panelists were discussing the novel Ethan Frome, and a caller said he thought students should not read some books until they are forty, with the life experience and perpective to understand the darker, more mature themes. 

While I would shy away from teaching Ethan Frome in the darkest weeks of our New Hampshire winter - just for sanity's sake, mind you - I respectfully disagree. I have heard this argument among teachers, that Romeo and Juliet is appropriate for middle school, while King Lear is not. Romeo and Juliet concerns itself with the heartache of young love, while King Lear stares down the naked torment Lear finds at the end of his useful life. Students may find connections to their own life in the story of Romeo and Juliet's love tragedy, but the pain of losing a child and the treachery of the vile Edmund are just too mature for younger readers. 

Sure, the familiar may be strange in King Lear, but there is much to offer young people in a story such as Lear's. My students love the treachery of Edmund, the way he plots against the seemingly perfect and legitimate Edgar. Lovely, bookish, kind, Edgar, who can do no wrong in his father's eyes. And the wish-fulfillment factor runs high as Edmund is overtaken by sibling rivalry and plots to steal a place in his father's heart - or at least his inheritance.

Or what of Cordelia? The youngest child, who cannot heave her heart into her mouth in order to satisfy her father's outlandish expectations and is eclipsed by her more aggressive older sisters? Or Gloucester, who does not realize until too late that he has hurt someone he loves, and must find a way to make amends.  

No, King Lear is not an easy read. It would be much easier for me to reach for The Hunger Games or Inkheart - both commonly assigned in middle school, and books with entertaining plots, to be sure, but lacking in the complexity that makes a great book great. The questions are simply too easy in those books. “Of all the virtues related to intellectual functioning, the most passive is the virtue of knowing the right answer. Knowing the right answer requires no decisions, carries no risks, and makes no demands,” writes Elanor Duckworth in The Having of Wonderful Ideas.

It is important that we ask students to read great works of literature because, when we hand them Dickens 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. I'm with Virginia Woolf on this one, "Literature is no one's private ground. Literature is common ground; let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves."

In the end, that's what I hope I do. I teach my students how to find their own way through a complex and challenging world, and these books are the maps I hand my students.

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. Students cannot approach these works lightly; they 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 contain more than challenging vocabulary and syntax. Great books contain novel ideas, universal themes, vivid sensory experiences and complex literary construction absent from commonplace works of literature. Great books teach great lessons. When students learn to ask more of the books they read, they learn to ask more of themselves.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Kill Your Darlings

Yep, that's me. 

This is a post from last year, but it's what I am in the middle of right now. I have a couple of really huge deadlines and just don't have any extra words or time to craft something new. 

However, vacation starts at 3:00 tomorrow (!) and I will have time to write about teaching next week. I hope. 

My 8th graders are writing their graduation essays, and I love watching their process. They have to write an essay about a lesson or experience during their years at Crossroads Academy that can then be reduced down to 3/4 of a page for memorization and delivery at graduation. We hardly ever write personal narrative, as the Crossroads composition class is all about expository and persuasive essays, so it's fun to watch them cut loose a little. 

Over the course of two months, I encourage them to brainstorm, free-write, bash out terrible rough drafts, hone their words, memorize, and walk in to the auditorium to the rhythm of Ms. Whittington's graduation march.  I teach them how to approach public speaking, I make sure copies of their speeches are in the podium - in the correct order - just in case they get lost in the stress of the moment. But when it comes down to it, they face that audience alone, armed only with their own words.

By the time those kids stand up there at the podium, I have memorized their speeches and could give each one myself without a crib sheet.

But that moment is still months away. In the meantime, it's still April. Right now, they are working through some VERY rough drafts of their speeches. They know what they want to talk about, but as written now, it's still all reporting, no arc. What they ate for lunch the day they overcame their fears and competed at Math Counts. The arc, and the truth, will come with time. Today, they write what Anne Lamott calls "sh*tty first drafts," and I support them while they craft and edit and cut and revise and kill their darlings. It's a tortuous process for some of them. These are high-achieving students, and often, they simply tell me what they think I want to hear.

That's why I start in April. It really does take that that long to write down to the bones.

This is my last opportunity to teach my 8th graders, and I love it. I occupy an incredible position of privilege and trust, and I'm humbled by the weight of that privilege every year when I sit in our auditorium,  and watch them them deliver their half a page of truth. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Algebra I: Still Hazy After All These Years

This isn't good. One homework problem took me 32 minutes and two entire sheets of paper. As there were about thirty problems in the entire homework assignment, it should only take hours to do my homework. Did I do that right? 32 times 30, then divide that by 60? Good lord, I hope that's right, because if I can't figure that out, I am dead in the water in Algebra I. The scan above is the cleaned-up version of the problem, the version I re-copied so I could actually how the heck I got to a final answer.

I knew I would struggle in Algebra I, when I returned to class in order to get over my math anxiety, and not just because I have a lot of trouble visualizing how numbers work. The bigger problem is that due to my overloaded teaching schedule (I teach two sections of composition 8, one of composition 7, English 8, English 7, Latin 6, Latin 7, and Latin 8), I can only attend two of the four Algebra I classes held in a week. I do my best to keep up, and as I have mentioned, my students fill me in on the important lessons I miss.

The biggest hurdle I face at the moment is the lack of continuity. I jumped into Alison Gorman's Algebra I class halfway through the year, and missed all of the lessons that inform our current chapter (11). When Alison says, "Don't forget to use the discriminate factorability test! You will have to keep it in mind when you do tonight's homework!" I have to quickly and surreptitiously flip to the index in the back of the book to understand what she's talking about. D...D...Directly proportional...Disappearing variable...Discriminant...ah - Discriminant, test for factorability, 436.

"A quadratic [oh, crap, look that up, too] trinomial can be factored if an only if the discriminant [...and that, too] is a perfect square."

Lovely. As clear as swamp effluvia.

My biggest worry at the moment is that I am going to need the quadratic formula to do some of the work in this chapter. I remember learning it once, long ago...something squared over something else with b and 4ac and...

Q....Q...Quadratic degree...Quadratic equations...solving by factoring - here we are. Formula, 214. Way the heck back in chapter six.
Okay. I kind of remember that. But come on, it was thirty years ago. Apparently, Alison teaches the kids a song about the formula. I remember hearing them singing during class back in December. I have to remember to ask my students to teach it to me the quadratic formula song on Monday.

What has been fun is the opportunity to see my students in a new context. Alison witnesses different aspects of these kids in her math class than I see in English and Latin. I am getting an education in my own students, and that alone has been worth the effort I've put into Algebra. This new knowledge has really paid off this trimester. One of my students was having trouble in math, and when I met with Alison to discuss what was going on, she was able to show me in the students' math notebook exactly what mistakes she was making. I never would have understood the nature of her mistakes before, and it allowed me to sit down with my advisee and offer up more than general advice about diligence and "doing your best." We were able to untangle her specific issues with the unit and devise a game plan. We laughed together over her misunderstandings and I empathized over the time spent working through the more confusing problems on her last test.

But she's still in better shape than I am. She had never spent 32 minutes on one problem.

This weekend's homework: catch up on relative rates problems. Alison calls them "sitcom problems" because whenever a sitcom character wants to freak another sitcom character out with a complex math problem, they give a relative rate problem as an example.

"A kisses B goodbye and leaves home on his bicycle, going 30 km/h. Half an hour later, B realizes that A left her briefcase at home and so he starts from the same house, going after A in his car, at 50 km/h. How long does it take B to catch up with A?"

Alison insists that these problems only sound complex, but are really just a matter of common sense. Alison's reassurances make one huge assumption, however. The small detail of common sense, which I fear I lack. As there are around thirty problems assigned for this weekend's homework, I'd better get to work. Monday is only 72 hours away.

Part VI of my math odyssey can be found here.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

They're Baaaaack....

In response to public outcry, New York City has reversed its ban on words such as "dinosaur" in state tests. To celebrate, I present "Dinosaur Eats Pirates," the alternate art from yesterday's toothy post.

Tomorrow, I will post "Algebra I: Still Hazy After All These Years." Stay tuned. But tonight, I am off to the Dartmouth Bookstore for a reading of Tovar Cerulli's new book, The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance. 6:00. Be there or be square.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Lions and Tigers and Dinosaurs, Oh My!

Dinosaurs. The New York City Department of Education has decided not to expose the children of New York to the word "dinosaurs" in standardized tests out of fear that the word might make "evoke unpleasant emotions in students." Phew. Good thing, because if we tell students about dinosaurs, they might find out about evolution. Or the fact that creationists already agree on the existence of dinosaurs.

Oh, crikey. As if teachers don't have enough to worry about. 

I had a conversation with a student today about the book The Autobiography of Malcom X. I can't assign it, because it's not PG (ish) and my elementary/middle school has a strict PG policy for films (and by extension, books). I did, however, secure permission from this particular student's parents to recommend books that I might not otherwise be allowed to recommend on our school independent reading list. This morning he mentioned that there were a lot of references to drugs at the beginning of the book, and we settled into a great discussion about the language in the book. I recalled that Rafe Esquith had specifically mentioned The Autobiography of Malcom X in the documentary The Hobart Shakespeareans as a work he reads every year with his fifth grade class in Los Angeles. I asked why his fifth grade class might not have an issue with the book while some other kids might. He thought, and said, 

"Because they already know drugs exist?"


What kind of world do we live in when people are so afraid of offending, so afraid of anything outside their experience, that entire concepts are excluded from the educational landscape?

I am not angry about the New York Department of Education's sensitivity to the feelings of creationists, and I'm not upset about the exclusion of the word "dinosaur." What I am upset about is the lack of respect for knowledge. For cultural literacy. For words. How are teachers expected to teach in a country where entire species are barred from a test because they make a few people uncomfortable? Those poor dinosaurs had to endure extinction once, must we now pretend they never existed at all for the sake of political correctness? As one of my students quipped, "the word 'math' makes me uncomfortable, and I have to take an entire COURSE on it!"

Shame on you, New York City Department of Education.