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? 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

And Now, My Quadrennial Rant

Ah, the Olympics. That amalgam of sporting conquest, inspiring back stories, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat .... and the NBC color commentators.

I know that those who have previously played, participated, trained and/or coached a sport or activity have knowledge about what they are supposed to cover that the rest of us don't. That brings the potential for a reasoned and informative commentary. It can also provide a little excitement for when someone does something great, even at the risk of being a little too Ameri-centric. But what it ultimately does is ruin the amazement for the rest of us, to the point that in normal conversation we sound pretentious:

Me: "Did you see that awesome gymnastics thingy by Zelda Rheumatismansky last night? It was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen!"
Someone Else: "Yeah, she was good, but her feet were a little apart when she did the tripple-axel-Molotov-Hamill-Camel-extension-with-a-drop-loop-Aye-Caramba on her dismount. Really disappointing. 
Me: "Oh, yeah, I ... noticed that ... too ..." 

I have a new definition of "The 99 Percent:" It's the percentage of the worlds population who CANNOT DO ANY of what an Olympic gymnast does in competition. And I'm going to speculate that it's probably a higher percentage. So, "I am the 99.98 Percent," which means I am just in a lot of awe that a body can self-propel itself to fling, run, swim, spike, tumble, throw, shoot, and goal as much as I've been seeing in London.

While I appreciate the explanation of rules and technicalities, I don't think using descriptors such as "devastating," "catastrophic," or "horrendous" is right when a highly trained athlete makes a bobble. I can understand why an athlete will feel that way when things don't go well. Training for four, eight, or even twelve years to attain an Olympic medal only to come up short will illicit empathy from all of us watching. We want our people to do well, and to realize their goals. We cheer with them when they do well, and we may even cry with them when they miss their opportunities. What I don't want to hear half way through a routine or a match is that "it's over for him/her." Thanks, expert color commentator! Now I don't have to tediously watch the rest. I'll just turn the channel now to see what whacky things are happening in Judge Judy's courtroom. Now if we can just get Turner Classic Movies to flash the graphic "Rosebud is the sled!" right in the middle of Citizen Cane, we could spend more time watching reality TV.

(Oh, spoiler alert: I may divulge a critical plot element of the film Citizen Cane at some point during this post.)

I would like for color commentators to keep their hyperbole in check, or at least in the realm of reasonable. When I think "devastating," it conjures up scenes from Joplin, MO after the EF-5 tornado last May. "Catastrophic" is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or the Haitian earthquake. The human tragedy in Darfur is "horrendous." I really don't think that a highly trained athlete with sponsorship and endorsement deals missing out on Olympic medals is "tragic." It's disappointing, discouraging and heart aching - and we need to allow them to have these feelings. But please, don't try to get me believing that our world is a little worse off because someone else triumphed and is celebrating their victory. And don't tell me that someone is "done for" in the middle of their match. It's like seeing a graphic in the middle of Godfather III that says "Michael Corleone dies at the end, old and lonely, in one of the most laughable death scenes in film history."

(Spoiler alert: technically, this is not a spoiler, because very few people have the stomach to watch Godfather III to its conclusion. Think of this as me saving three hours of your life for something far better. You're welcome.)

There is a lot of other nonsense that NBC is doing: using winter Olympics athletes to promote summer games (I'm looking at you, Apollo), getting Matt and Al  to "humorously" attempt and make a mockery the events that most of us don't watch, the six-hour tape delay that requires Brian Williams to urge the NBC Nightly News viewers to "turn away from the screen because we're just going to 'show' the results and not 'talk' about them" (Spoiler alert: big tall swimmers win some medals ... again ...), and of course, the contest to see who can be the first one to really piss off Michael Phelps by asking him for the umpteenth time "how does it feel," and "you're really not going to retire this year, are you?" All of this is fair game, but alas, I don't have time to write about it.

I have to watch the horrendous, devastating catastrophe that is the final of women's beach volleyball, as it is certain that one American team will fail miserably and be forced to take home the silver. Oh, the humanity ...