I had a headache this morning and didn't want to go to school. I still have a lingering cold and just wanted to stay in my warm bed and sleep... but I didn't.
Sometimes I have it all planned out what I'm going to do with each class each day and then it gets scrapped because something else more interesting comes up or we didn't finish what we were doing the day before or whatever, so I've learned not to over-prepare. Also, our class periods are only 45 minutes long, so it's usually pretty frantic and limited what we can accomplish on any one day. Some days, though, we accomplish a surprising amount. Another factor is that our school does a lot of "extras" that take away regular class time. For example, the seniors are going away on a one-day trip this Thursday and then I only have them once next week because the whole high school goes into a "special" Performing Arts schedule with daily rehearsals leading up to the all-school production. Other times the students want to leave class to take photos for the yearbook or leave early for sports or have a Quidditch tournament. In the spring, the various grades will be going on one-week trips to various locales. Core subject teachers at our school are extremely generous with giving up their class time to all kinds of special projects! So I just go with the flow...
It's not like college, though, where I am presenting detailed lectures or slides or have a set amount of material to get through. The main goal in high school English class is to discuss the literature we are reading, to do some vocabulary work, and to do creative writing exercises. Beyond that, I go in each day and look around on the internet for interesting literary news or poems of the day (Writer's Almanac is a good resource). Like today was the birthday of Zora Neale Hurston, a fact commemorated on Google and especially relevant to my 11th graders who read "Their Eyes Were Watching God" last summer.
I think they were surprised to see their English curriculum validated by Google, ha. I love that - having them see connections outside the classroom.
So I read them a piece about Hurston's background and we talked about the Harlem Renaissance and some other writers they may or may not have heard of and I told them about Alice Walker "rediscovering" Hurston and then expanded that to talk about how women's studies and ethnic studies in the 1960s and 70s brought about a resurgence of interest in different traditions and canons, etc. etc.
None of that was planned. That was just the 11th graders. Technically, I have designated Tuesdays as Poetry Day, and I do try to be somewhat systematic about that since it is an AP Lit course and they need some technical info. So we moved from Hurston to a discussion of the villanelle as a form. I'm not a poetry expert, so I am truly learning with them. We talked about the form and structure that makes a villanelle and we looked at two awesome examples: Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," and Sylvia Plath's "Mad Girl's Love Song." Read it, if you haven't: http://structureandstyle.tumblr.com/post/30905701054/mad-girls-love-song
From there, I threw in another Plath poem just for fun, even though it's not a villanelle: "Metaphors."
I'm a riddle in nine syllables, An elephant, a ponderous house, A melon strolling on two tendrils. O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers! This loaf's big with its yeasty rising. Money's new-minted in this fat purse. I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf. I've eaten a bag of green apples, Boarded the train there's no getting off.
Did you guess the riddle? We analyzed each line, but I mostly held back and let them figure out the imagery, the metaphors. FINALLY, they got it!
Here's the funny part, though... We had a surprise classroom visit by head of school right at exact moment students were *enthusiastically* discovering the meaning of the poem. I mean, not that that doesn't happen EVERY DAY, haha (not), but they were REALLY into this poem and it was really perfect timing. Whew.
So that was one class today.
At lunch time, Lillian and several of her friends came to visit me, asking for money for snacks and asking for sleepovers. The room is filled with high schoolers studying and talking during lunch time. One senior wants to sit at my desk to talk about the Hamlet homework questions because he's struggling with reading the text on his own. He's working hard at it and so I am THRILLED to discuss with him. He's using my copy of the text and a stack of my notes fall out. He hands them to me and apologizes - I tell him that these were my notes from over the break, when I decided to write down all of Ophelia's lines from the play because I wanted to understand her better as a character. He is more shocked at my nerdiness than anything else and kind of just stares at me, but I think it's important to let students know that teachers do things like that. I'm not a literary dictator just demanding that they "engage" with things - I am truly invested in getting something new out of my own reading or re-reading of each text and in being a continual and habitual student myself. :)
My 10th graders had a double English period, so we continued our reading of Hawthorne's short story, "The Birthmark." The language is really difficult for them, though the concept or theme of the story is pretty simple. But I want them to appreciate the *language.* So we read it slowly, and together. Then I decided that, even though they aren't having formal poetry study like the AP class, I would have them read the Thomas and Plath poems, too. The villanelles. Poetry is still new to them. Their favorite poets are Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss, though one student mentions Pablo Neruda and another shows me he is looking up Shakespearean sonnets on his phone. They want to know what "forked lightning" is. They want to know what makes two non-rhyming words "count" as a rhyme (Plath rhymes "again," "insane," and "men," for example, and this really bothers some students). They want to know what "counts" as a poem in the first place and we talk about epic poems and prose poems and song lyrics. You never know where the discussion will lead.
I had a big plan to start reading the Book of Job with the 9th graders today. It is next on their curriculum and it is something that I've had to do some pre-studying about because I was really not sure how to approach it with them. But yesterday for Creative Writing they started class-produced stories (one person starts a story and each person in the class adds to it) and today they wanted to finish reading them. They were having such a blast that I put Job aside for another day. The stories got a little bit out of control, though, so probably good that we didn't get any head-of-school visits during that period, haha.
I didn't have the 12th graders today. They have an elective or college advising period on Tuesdays. I have assigned them an essay to read for tomorrow: "How Should One Read a Book?" by Virginia Woolf. It came up in a review essay I read via facebook the other day and I'd never read the essay, so I found it and decided to discuss it with the seniors. The main point of the essay is how to be an active rather than passive reader, and that reading and writing must go hand-in-hand. I hope it speaks to them on some level. One of them already sent me their required short response to the piece.
The seniors are not yet college students (as I would like to treat them), but they think they already know everything they need to know from high school. I don't care *what* specific thing we are reading together - there are a million combinations you could put together for a class syllabus - my goal is just to make them THINK about literature and to encourage them to be SEEKERS. But still, some are reluctant to expend the effort. They want to do the minimum - they are put out by any expectations on my part. Not joking - when I handed out this essay yesterday, one of them said, "But we're already reading Hamlet, we're not supposed to read anything else." I try not to take it personally - I know they are the class that misses their regular teacher the most, but, unfortunately, they are the oldest students and should be the most adaptable. Life post-high school is going to be about adaptability. They are going to have a lot of different teachers and different expectations in college. They are not going to have their hands held the entire way. In a small school and a small class (18 students) the expectations are high - for the students and for myself - but everyone feels entitled to express their opinion, for better or worse. Because it's a small class, it is a struggle to NOT let such vocal students set the tone for the entire class or interfere with those individuals who have a more open attitude to learning. Because there ARE those seniors who recommend literary articles TO ME (love that) or email me with their assignments before they're actually due or volunteer to read parts in class or silently turn in brilliant writing or who come in at lunch to discuss the readings. Those things make my day. :)
Sometimes I start to doubt myself and I start to panic. Am I teaching them the right things at the right time? Are we doing enough? Am I working with them enough on their individual writing skills? Do they know enough vocabulary? Will they all succeed on the AP, the SAT, and in college? Of course, that's not all my responsibility right now, and it's not the definition of "education" that any of us subscribe to on the surface, but I still think about it. Other times, I trust I am just a guide and if I have good resources and follow the students' leads, the only definition of success is that they take responsibility for their own learning journey. And some days I just have a headache or can't think of what to make for dinner or have too many emails to respond to and if I don't record some of these little moments of fun and discovery, they'll be gone forever.