Friday, May 21, 2010

Rigor. . . . Mortis?

It’s prom night. Most of my seniors are absent, except my first-period Shakespeare students who had to turn in an annotated bibliography for the research paper due next week. I am expecting papers that compare Iago to Milton’s Satan, Iago to the Imaginary i (a math student’s impressive, if daunting, take), Othello to the nameless protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the play Othello to the libretto for Otello. I am expecting papers on Othello and the medieval Dance of Death; Othello and “blackness”; race as depicted and explored in Othello, Dutchman, and Invisible Man. I am expecting papers that compare and contrast the significance of women’s roles in tragedy and comedy as evinced in Othello, Hamlet, and 12th Night; papers that trace the development of the staging of Shakespeare’s plays; and papers that explore the roots and purposes of the music in Shakespeare’s plays. 
Though my last entry revealed the level of burnout we all face at this late date in the school year, particularly when we are still facing stacks of paper, I am actually looking forward to reading these. They will reveal what my students have accomplished after three or four years of having had the same teacher. For these students, the actual tools of scholarship are deeply ingrained--research skills, proper manuscript format, how to formulate analytical theses, how to select and analyze textual support, how to convey and respond to arguments--and now they get to have the scholar’s fun. They get to learn through research and hone their voices and their thoughts. Not only can they watch as the professional writers in the academic journals and other critical sources argue about nuances, but they are actually ready to participate in the arguments with their own points of view. This is the best any teacher can hope for.
So why, you ask, after building a Shakespeare class and a Creative Writing class (which I described at the start of my last entry), to reputable numbers--26 in the former, 36 in the latter, do I have to struggle yet again in order to keep the classes alive? Last year, we had an administrator who tried to close the Shakespeare class because the enrollment number of 26 was not high enough to meet the class “norms” (a bizarre word for class-size) that went up dramatically from the maximum 34 to anywhere from 36-43. I had to fight to keep the class open, and for my efforts, I can now look forward to reading those papers I mentioned. 
The Creative Writing class, a class that is often a class for slackers who usually don’t want to do anything but write the equivalent of "I’m alone, I’m alone, My cat, My cat," has become a serious academic class, where students generate myriad polished small pieces, two fully workshopped short stories (one 1500, one 3000 words), several poems in different poetic forms, and two author studies, where they read 1000 pages by an author of their choice and an entire collection of poetry by the poet of their choice and write New Yorker style reviews for each. All the work is designed to illuminate, support, and inspire the process of writing. Any student can go online to my class page to see exactly what is assigned all term, if clarity is what they need. But the question remains, Why’s no one signing up? What’s the problem here?
After I told my students that the classes that they seem to love might not be offered next year because numbers are so low (and frankly, I don’t see the wisdom in combining kids who selected Creative Writing with kids who selected Shakespeare as a possible solution for the low numbers; that feels like a lose-lose to me), they told me that they tagged everyone on Facebook and told them to sign up for what they described as important classes. They said several former students, now in college and some graduating, chimed in to say that these classes shaped them as thinkers, writers and as students in general. While that is nice and all, and it really does validate me enough to enable me to continue grading so much and feeling tired all the time, I still have to ask whether what should be sustaining these classes is ultimately what will kill them. 
Those who have never set foot into my class (or if they have it’s been for 10 minutes or so), say I am an “intimidating” teacher; this means some could say, I am the cause of my own problems. Am I the problem or are rigor and high standards actually the problem.  When students say, “I’m not sure I want to work that hard next year” when I ask them whether they have signed up for one of these classes, that indicates something more than just my perceived personality.
So here’s my next question: If rigor and high standards are the reason no one is signing up, why, then, does an administration, who proclaims the importance of rigor and the need for true college preparation, not wholeheartedly support keeping these classes alive at any cost? And by support, I am not talking lip-service. 

An even better question is why by their senior year in high school do students fear Shakespeare (and often poetry in general) and want to avoid such a course? The district demands all students be allowed "access" to rigorous courses. Doesn’t "access" to AP, to college, to a richer life in general begin in 9th grade? And doesn’t "access" really mean exposure to the rigors and high standards most students in more competitive schools (read schools where those in charge are not buried under mandates, mediocrity,  malaise) might be facing in most of their classes year after year? Does "access" mean reducing what we do in an English class to writing summaries and creating dioramas? 
I guess these are the real questions: Does the kind of education that will lead to a diverse and complex life matter? Is it it important that education afford one the ability to see the poetry in everything? If so, shouldn’t all students be given "access" to this kind of education, this kind of vision, starting in 9th grade? And if they are given this "access," will they still shy away from the rigors of a college prep. Creative Writing course?
      Maybe I have just answered all my other questions.  

Friday, May 7, 2010

Grating Grading

I’m now in my typical weekend perch: a comfortable chair with my lap desk, a stack of papers and an array of colorful fountain pens. I read a story of obsessive love and murder, then another story of obsessive love and murder, then a story about zombies, and another story about zombies. Amid the many predictable plots that tell me more about the repressed feelings of the students than the actual feelings of their characters, I get to read a story about a girl doing something unthinkable in a school library, two Russians who go to a circus but cannot connect with each other because of the brutality that defines everyone in the story. I read about a dad's suffering vaguely inappropriate feelings for his daughter and aimless teens reaching out but not connecting. I read about a dissolving marriage and a parthenogenetically born child, a boy in awe of his religious grandfather, a trip to the beach that forever changes two friends, and two children’s stories with neat and tidy morals at the end. Stories about a gay boy singing and a straight boy dreaming. The stories are for the most part well-written, earnest, often moving. Extraneous description, flat characterization, and general aimlessness no longer fill the pages, so I can see the kids have learned something from their workshops. Though I like to complain to them about having to spend my weekends reading their work, this work is actually lovely to read. Yet somehow I still can’t push through all of it; I cannot keep my eyes open. It’s May, and I know I am tired, but there may be more to this grading wall.
I have yet to grade stacks of reader responses, where the students were asked respond to the comments I had written on a previous essay and to use their understanding of those comments to redo one of the messier sections of the original essay. I also have to grade reader responses, where the students were asked to select what they think is key text from a reading, analyze it (by identifying and explaining the workings of the figurative language), and discuss the text’s relevance to the entire reading. Then for variety’s sake, I have to grade first paragraphs and working theses for upcoming essays. In theory I should be eager to read this work, to see what these kids have learned this year. But my eyelids start to feel heavy. Just as I begin to scan a paper, a beam of sun cracks through the blinds. But I cannot keep my eyes open.
Finger yoga, ear squeezing, toe crunching fail, so I get up to sprinkle water on my face, look in the fridge for something to chew, and quickly settle back into the chair. I pick up another page and start to read. The prose soars across the page, the commas are in place, and I feel an A coming on. I read the next few papers with the same fluency, and I can proudly say I am rolling along. Check marks everywhere, high marks all around. Then I get to pages where the student loses himself in the struggle between immense ideas and insufficient skills, and my eyes get heavy, my forehead throbs, I cannot keep my eyes open. 
I push myself through a couple more pages and write the usual “Why?” or  "Vague!" or “How is the text working?” or "Can you rephrase this?" or  “Clarify,” “Refine,” “Distill,” and soon I am not sure whether I am talking about a paper or butter or booze. Truth be told, I am not as bored with their writing as I am with the comments I write. I am tired of seeing the mistakes I have already gone over; and I am too tired to correct those mistakes yet again, though I know I will. I am lost in that murky feeling of failure. Then, all at once, as I realize the work isn’t the problem, that I am the problem, whad’ya know, I cannot keep my eyes open. 

Thursday, May 6, 2010

NY LOVES ME, ME, ME, ME. . . . .

Today I was walking through the normal crush of students on the quad right before school, and I heard one voice above the rest say to her friend, “Yeah, me and him are goin’ after school.” Unfortunately, all English teachers respond to such phrasing reflexively, and I have been known to be half-listening in meetings or social gatherings only to suddenly wake up at the sound of a grammar gaffe, and, before I can stop myself, yell out a correction. 
Today, when I heard the grating “ME AND HIM. . .,”  I did not place a hand on the student's shoulder and gently offer the corrective, “He and I.”  Instead, I had what I think was an epiphany about WHY this particular grammatical problem is so pervasive in our culture.  
The problem lies in the difference between subject and object. Here is what I tell my students (and remember, by high-school, it’s really last-chance grammar, hence the informality): 
 “ 'I' is always a subject; ‘I’ always DOES the verb, even if the verb is just a state of being: I am, I run, I eat chocolate, I love you! ‘I’asserts a self and acts! ‘Me,’ on the other hand, is NEVER a subject. ‘Me’ is ALWAYS an object. ‘Me’ never does anything. Can you ever say (and I say this in my best Bronx meets cavewoman accent),‘Me go to movies, me like you, me happy?’” 

The kids laugh and laugh, and I think I have made the point. Yet, even without walking through the quad at break time, even in my own classroom after what I think has been my brilliant grammar lesson (as if), I still hear the "me" as subject gaffe peppering the teen-age conversations around me. So what’s up?
The Me-Generation may be behind us but the detritus of all those love-thyself-above-all-others movements still haunts us, and, I posit, has irreparably changed our way of thinking about ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. 
These days it’s all about what’s good FOR ME! But look closely at this construction. “Me” is the object of the preposition “for.”  In fact, “me” is often the object of prepositions: He looks LIKE ME; the story is ABOUT ME; I want you to be WITH ME. Object city! The “me” gaffe reveals how teens, hell, many in our culture, tend to see themselves: as inactive, complacent objects at the center of the action-- not as subjects who act on things and assert a self by doing or being.
“I” rarely starts the simple declarative sentence anymore and is instead usually used incorrectly at the end of a sentence, as if to strengthen the notion of one's deserving: “That gift is for her and I” or “That is a portrait of him and I” or “Let’s keep this a secret between you and I!” Here, "me" just is not strong enough. One needs an "I," a more active recipient.

It turns out the Me-Generation has not empowered people as much as it has rendered them passive objects. My pal in New York capped this notion for me just today. She writes: “Remember the old “I love (heart symbol) NY” t-shirts? Well, the latest t-shirt sported around town says, “NY loves ( heart symbol) ME.” Methinks that sayeth it all.