Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Wednesday is Pork Chop Night

Branagh, K. Henry V, BBC Films, 1989.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.

Henry V, Act III, Wm. Shakespeare (1598)

Perhaps a little more dramatic than need be for the start of another school year, but I will confess, there have been times at the end of the first week of school when I feel like Sir Kenneth and Sir Derek after their battle scene in Henry V. (Sorry Sir Lawrence fans - he was just too clean and kempt for this post. But it was very good in the role.) I will admit that when I hear people who describe teachers as "those in the trenches," I feel a bit of "oh, yeah!" But there are times when I cringe, because it brings to mind a very specific image.

Trench warfare. (Was there a time when anyone really enjoyed that?)

Yet there are times when I am mine own enemy. I am teaching the same schedule of courses that I've been teaching for the past five years (with minor variations). I (mostly) don't have a choice in this matter, but for me, it has been a good thing despite the lack of variety. For one, I can take materials, lessons and units that I have devised in previous years and tweak them so they fit the changing landscape that is the 11th and 12th grader. I can make choices with instruction that will allow for more meaningful learning, and after teaching this schedule for the past two years while attending grad school, I can implement technology in ways that I had not thought of before. These are all things in the plus column of "Why It's Good to Have My Schedule." 

Untitled. Hawkins, Z. , Dec. 13, 2007.
With repetition, however, comes the risk of routine. I found myself looking at last year's planner and grade book to see what I was doing on Day Six of the first term. Because I needed to know what I was going to do on Day Six of this term. This might sound like it's a smart thing to do, but I discovered that this year's students are way ahead of last year's students when it comes to understanding plagiarism and citing sources. This is the material that I start the course with so that all expectations are understood, and students write and research with a bit more confidence. So, on Day Six of last year, I spent time on reviewing the use of parenthetical references because, as apparently was the custom, my classes did poorly on their first two attempts. This year, they got it on the first try. Which meant that I had to come out of my trench. And coming out of the trench can be harsh. Allow me to illustrate this with a recent conversation I had with my inner imaginary Master Teacher:

Me: Ah, Day Six! Today is the day I spend time reviewing how to insert parenthetical references, like I have for the past five years, because my students haven't quite mastered that skill.

Imaginary Master Teacher: Except you don't need to do that. They all got it by Day Four. You checked it. They know it. Move on.
Me: Yeah, but ... it's Day Six ... and Day Six is ... I  ... um ...
Imaginary Master Teacher: No, go ahead. I'll wait.
Me: Well, see ... Day Six is that day that I hand out ... well, you know ... those three short stories that ... and ... um ...
Imaginary Master Teacher: Keep going, I think you're getting there.
Me: ... I ... ah ... see, they read the stories ... and ... 
Imaginary Master Teacher: Listen, you just keep talking, and I'll find some reading material to pass the time while you come to grips with things. Hmm, let's see ... something light ... here we go! Les Miserables. That'll do it.
Me: ... and then I show them ... more examples ... uh ...

Pork Chop. All Things Mimi, Sep. 26, 2010.
Perhaps you came from a family, or knew a family where the dinner menu was dictated by what night it was: Wednesday was "Pork Chop Night," Friday was "Pizza Night," Sunday was "Burgers on the Grill." That's what almost happened to me this year. Day Six nearly became "Pork Chop Night." Thankfully, I have voices in my head. (I know, that sounds really creepy, but it's OK - they aren't the type that keep repeating "redrum.") These voices are seasoned veterans of my teaching career, they have good instincts, and they headed off what would have been a redundant, not-so-useful day. I think teaching by the calendar is an easy habit to fall into when you have more than a few years under your belt. It can put a teacher in the mindset of trench warfare - the "I gotta do this no matter what" feeling of classroom instruction. And let's face it - if you don't like it, how do you think your students will feel?

The beginning of the year is where you make the first impressions upon your students and set the standards. There are times when you need to have "Pork Chop Night" in your classroom because it is a lesson that works, or is the slam-dunk example that every student understands and finds engaging. However, this year, Day Six needed to become "Carry-out Stir Fried Pork with Long Beans Night." Same ingredient, different flavor. So, today, on Day Six, we marched forward with Neil Simon, American Playwright, to feast upon two of his works. Not because it was next on the list, but because the students were ready to move to that. It's a good thing. 

So, once more unto the breach dear friends, once more we take charge of the classroom and everything that happens there. What are things you do as teachers to keep Day Six from becoming Pork Chop Night? How do you make this happen without reinventing the whole menu? 

1 comment:

  1. Bill, you are the metaphor master. I changed jobs to avoid Pork Chop Night. Even though my schedule was never the same from year to year at Jefferson, I was definitely sliding toward it in order to maintain my sanity. At this new job, I have relinquished my control over the menu, and I like it so far!