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Correspondence
Betsy,

Your trek into the school seems lonely. I always imagined college teaching to be lonelier than secondary teaching, if for no other reason than some adjunct friends of mine cobble together multiple jobs to equal one full salary and can’t be on campus all that often. I’m guessing the professors with tenure hole up to work on research projects and hammer out long articles for prestigious periodicals, and aren’t around for chatting.

You wrote a bit about teaching paragraphs… I guess if you need help scaffolding lessons, let me know. “How to write a paragraph” isn’t something I ever wanted to specialize in, but I guess I do.

Sorry your day got ruined. My heart seriously ached when I got to the part where you stopped the girl after class and followed her into the hallway so you could fill out the form. Sounds like maybe she didn’t want to stick around, and I know chasing after students can feel helpless, especially so since it wasn’t for a deep conversation but just to do paperwork for a colleague you don’t really know.

I work in a fairly international school, and I hate it when students speak Spanish or Vietnamese or any non-English language for the purpose of excluding others. I understand that school can be scary and foreign, and I’m all for learning new words as a whole group, but sometimes the use of one language at the expense of others feels rude. A couple of times I’ve told students to speak English. One time I whipped out a multi-syllabic sentence about the use of shared references as a grab for power in a post-colonial world, and the two boys who had been speaking Spanish fell silent, and I asked how it felt.

Sounds like maybe you have entered the “disillusionment phase” of the school year. Roxanna Elden recently did a helpful, humorous piece on NPR on avoiding the blues that happen around now. The good news, I guess, is that if this timeline fits your emotional decline, rejuvenation will happen in the spring. Maybe you’ll even experience a glimmer of anticipation about next school year.

I love “How It Feels to be Colored Me.” Near the end of the piece, Hurston describes how she’s like a brown bag full of different kinds of objects—string, glass, etc. What if students brought in their own brown bags full of objects that represent their identities? A lesson on metaphor and symbolism could backfire, of course, with students dropping phones in bags at the last minute and saying, “This represents me because I like my phone,” but you never know until you try.

How did the grading go?

Derek

Derek,

Well, grading got finished. I had one guy in my first class and two guys and a girl in my next class who all nailed it. I gave them all A+’s and shook their hands. They were stunned.

Then, in the hallway, I saw the dean to whom I report plagiarism. I said, “Hey, I know I always come in with bad news. Today I have four A papers. Want to see them?” And he said, “Great. I’d love to see them.” I emailed him the classes and names and asked him for input on the grades (he can log in and see everything). A couple of hours later he wrote me back.

He began by saying he hadn’t taught English 100 in many years. He said he never gives A+ grades because it implies perfection. Then he picked apart every little grammar flaw and transition—three paragraphs! And the kids were freaking out because they couldn’t imagine writing three paragraphs!—and said he would have given them all B’s.

Damn.

Maybe I need to go in early and stay late in the adjunct office just to see who might come along. It’s a gloomy little place with no windows (compared to my sunny screened porch), but maybe I just have to commit to it so I can meet someone.

You said a while back that your colored-pen paragraph system would cause a mutiny amongst my students, but maybe we should revisit the idea.

See, this is exactly the problem I told you about in August when I had to set up the whole semester in one stroke. I should be able to stop on HIFTBCM to work through the metaphors so they can really understand it, but I can’t. They have a 700-word “This I Believe” essay due in just over a week. It’s a good thing the windows don’t operate because many would have jumped today when I explained the assignment.

And more bad news. The nerdy guy who was one of my strongest, hardest working students—the one who brought in the paper for the girl?—has been coming in late every day the past two weeks. He stopped doing the reading, and he hasn’t turned in the last essay. I made him stay behind today and asked what was going on. He was dazed. He had no idea he’d missed an essay. Even his appearance has changed. He used to wear his hair in tight little braids and now it’s pulled back in a big fuzzy ponytail.

And there you have it.

Betsy

Betsy,

You probably don’t want your students jumping out of windows. (Those aren’t the leaps and bounds you hear about in professional workshops. Those leaps and bounds refer to “aha” moments where students who have worked below grade level suddenly don’t need your carefully scaffolded lessons because the one ingredient no one knew was missing from your lessons but is very important has been found. It’s in this supplementary book you can buy at the workshop. Your students may now skip ahead to places of newly realized potential.)

It’s disheartening to hear about your struggles, so I can only imagine how it feels actually working through them. Good thing you have the sunny porch! I go back and forth: should I stay at school and work longer and leave my work at school, or should I cross the work-home boundary and grade where I can have a glass of two-buck Chuck merlot? I generally opt to grade at school because my desk chair has a wobbly arm and the discomfort it causes makes me sit-up and finish.

The department chair guy who corrected the papers you already corrected sounds annoying. If he really has an itch to grade more, he can totally have at the piles stacked on top of the file cabinets in the back of my room. Did he do that just to show you his standards? I guess if he did it as a way to calibrate expectations across the department, then maybe, but he didn’t have to be impersonal and weird.

I like that you gave handshakes to the students who did well. Sometimes a handshake is better than a grade or a king size candy bar.

How did the “This I Believe” essays turn out? I hope the nerdy guy wrote something fabulous and they all indulged in a moment of self-disclosure revealing something big. (Did they grow by leaps and bounds? Tell me!)

Derek

Derek,

Today is grading day for “This I Believe.” So far no one has lit up the plagiarism detector.

Oh, Nerdy Guy. He comes and goes. He can’t seem to get a grip on the assignments.

Here’s a weird thing. The school’s last day to withdraw from the class was Nov. 1. If the students fail and have attended less than 60% of the classes they have to repay their student loans. As you can imagine, mass chaos ensued and an exodus with it. I now have about 15 students per class. They still sit in their original seats spread out across the classroom, even though their peers are gone. It’s like the Ghosts of Students Withdrawn occupy the seats.

Here’s something funny. We were reading an essay by Richard Rodriguez from The Hunger of Memory and I was telling them that rather than being a macho Mexican, even as a kid he was the nerdy kind of guy who hung around the house reading books. One of my students, for clarification, asked, “Like you?”

Betsy

P.S. If we were on the same time zone I would have called you. I was struggling with a grade for a mediocre C- paper that was about a student’s sexual abuse. I wound up giving her a 95.

What do my students believe?
They believe their brothers shouldn’t have sexually assaulted them.
They believe their parents shouldn’t move into apartments where there is no room for them to live with them.
They believe their boyfriend/girlfriend shouldn’t cheat on them.
They believe in forgiveness, Karma, love, and music.
The teen parents are so overwhelmed they can’t even get their heads around what the hell happened to their lives. They believe their babies are precious, beautiful, and the best thing that ever happened to them.

Derek Smith is the editor of this blogazine. This is his eleventh year teaching high school Language Arts.

Elizabeth Kalman is the great-great-great granddaughter of a Cherokee Indian maiden picked up by a wagon train on its way from the Trail of Tears in Texas to the Kentucky coal fields. Her great-great grandfather was one of the first merchants to bring silk worms to the U.S.  He kept a detailed hand-written journal that Elizabeth recently transcribed and is in the process of editing. She frequently wishes she could have accompanied Henry David Thoreau on his excursions to Cape Cod.  She grew up on Nantucket Island and is now an adjunct English instructor at Trident Technical College in Charleston, South Carolina, with an MFA from Seattle Pacific University.

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