Teaching: What It’s Like When It’s Not A Movie (Part 1)

Teaching, like abortion, is a hot political issue which, if you’ve never faced firsthand, you can only discuss in the abstract. That doesn’t stop all and sundry from having passionate theories. At best, these theories are naive and twee (“Teachers should shake hands with every student as s/he enters the classroom!”); at worst, they have the power to kick the shit out of public education (property taxes = school funding; vouchers; charter schools in the strip mall where kids dick around online at their own pace; more standardized testing testing testing). The only people with credible opinions re: what teaching involves and what students need to be successful in school, are teachers. And we disagree. A lot. But our disagreements are fired up by concrete experience, not theory. If you’ve never stood in front of a room full of kids and tried to get them to engage with– to WANT to engage with — a complex concept* that their still-developing prefrontal cortexes** struggle to grasp…well, go ahead, have an opinion, but know that you see through a glass, darkly.

All schools — public, private, charter — struggle to teach students what they need to know to survive, and it’s because we have no idea, really, what the jobs of the future will be. I’m a nascent example: I started a career in print journalism in 1996, eight seconds before the world went online. The Internet, in 1996, was like a cute little newsroom pet with its adorable modem trills and burps; its real-time weather reports and dancing cats. And then? It rose up and ate us in our sleep. I raced ahead of every job I ever had like Wiley E. Coyote as the cliff crumbles behind him, trying to get to a paper that wouldn’t fold or become a pamphlet. By the end, none of my old jobs existed anymore — it was all wire services and freelancers. Print journalism had its heart cut right out of its chest.

We live in exponential times. As fast as the world changed between 1996 and, say, 2001? That’s nothing compared to what’s going happen to the 18-year-olds who walk in and out of my door every day. I prepare them as well as I can, but we all know they’re about to climb onto a rickety socioeconomic trapeze. This affects different kids in different ways: Some get motivated and work harder than ever; others give up entirely. They feel helpless, and they’re marking time.

So, yeah. We’re all wondering what comes next in education. If we had more blue-collar jobs that paid a living wage, education would be less fraught: Kids could drop out at 16 with solid options — electrician, plumber, auto mechanic, etc. There would be no shame in leaving school early if academics just weren’t your thing, or if you didn’t want to rack up $100,000 in undergrad student loans.

And whatever happened to apprenticeships? Apprenticeships would be 37 kinds of awesome right about now.  I would totally go for ironworking, because that way I wouldn’t electrocute myself, have a car jack fall on my head, or have to investigate the depths of strangers’ bathroom pipes. My dream job, however, remains “Kitten Shepherd.”


*Or, hell, even a simple concept that they’re just not interested in. I dare you to make a teenager care about punctuation the week before Christmas or the prom, or if he hasn’t had enough sleep the night before, or if he had a fight with his girlfriend on the way to school, or if he subsists solely on Hot Cheetos and Coke, or or or…

**The “executive function” part of the brain responsible for long-range planning, risk assessment, empathy, and understanding that it is wiser, if not better, to attend Senior English than to lick a psychoactive toad.

COMING NEXT: Part 2 — Teaching: What It’s Like When It Is Like A Movie, But Not the Movie You’re Thinking Of

The best educational diagnosis of all time

I was looking at some ESL (English as a Second Language) paperwork today and discovered it. Ready?

“Weak oral.”

Which, I guess, means “not so good at spoken English” but do you think I care? No, I do not. I’ve started a Weak Oral Awareness Foundation 301(c) in my head for all the sisters failing to reach state-mandated standards in re: this essential lesbian skill.

“Won’t YOU give…to stop weak oral?”

“Because weak oral…is preventable.”

“Because weak oral…can happen to anyone.”

“Dedicating to fighting…weak oral. Because it’s never too late.”

I’ll head up the foundation. All I need is funding and a logo.

I’m the Colonel Kurtz of summer school

I’m teaching through June. There are other things I could be doing, like watching back-to-back episodes of “Hoarders” or giving myself thousands of tiny paper cuts, but the vet bills, my friends. The vet bills. I’ve got a 16-year-old tabby cat who’s been with me since I was 21– the mute and trusting witness to a dozen relocations and as many jobs; 5,000 miles of air/auto travel; oxytocin-splattered months of new love and ensuing heartbreak; and 5 Presidential administrations. Now he has some thyroid thing that’s taken him from 20 pounds to 9.5 and causes mournful, accusatory early-morning yowling. I told the vet (on whom I have a mild, nonsexual crush because of his New York accent, mmmmm) “Listen, I’m familiar with the customary feline life span and I’m not asking for miracles, but I love this goddamn cat. See what you can do.” What he can do involves prescription kibble and a comprehensive blood/urine panel, ergo, summer school. 

I take less shit in summer school than I do during the regular year. I’m a lot less fun, because many of these students rejected the life rafts they were thrown during the academic year. It’s pretty hard to fail my class, because I’ll work with any and all learning styles. You lean towards the experiential/kinesthetic side of things? I’ll let you demonstrate your knowledge via interpretive dance. To fail my class, you have to commit to failure. You have to never show up, or stab me in the chest with a #2 pencil. Even then, I might let you slide with a D if you wow me with an extra-credit project and a well-written Apology and Promise to Do Better. Help me help you!

So my roomful of 35 kids has shown a tenacious commitment to failure (except for the girl who’s trying to graduate early) and some don’t care if they fail again. In order to motivate them to read and write, I’ve assigned a high-interest YA novel I love. I believe in this book. It saves lives. It’s about acquantance rape, but it isn’t heavy-handed. It just tells a story: Here is a girl like you, or like your sister or good friend. Here is what a boy she trusts does to her. Here are the profoundly damaging emotional and physical results.

I could lecture kids all day about healthy relationships —  no means no; consent means enthusiastic consent —  but nothing works better than a well-told story. Plus, the movie version stars Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” fame (irony) so everybody’s been rapt. But I can’t vouch for the boys’ level of understanding. During one scene of the film, when Stewart’s character Melinda leans out the window of a car and whoops with the joy of being young and on her way to a party, I heard one kid giggle and mutter, “Show us your titties.” After the party and the rape, when Melinda stumbles home carrying her shoes, I heard another giggle. I hope to God it’s because the scene is discomfiting and sometimes kids deal with discomfort by giggling — not because the idea of a violated, hurt girl stumbling home strikes any of my students as funny. I really hope to God. When I heard those giggles, I wanted to stop the film and take the kid to task, but thought embarrassing him might be counter-productive. Maybe just be patient; let the whole film sink in first. Or not. I don’t know.

I gave the kids an Anticipation Guide pre-reading quiz which has 10 statements to “agree” or “disagree” with, e.g., “A girl dressed provocatively at a party deserves any negative attention she gets,” “A girl who gets drunk or high is still able to consent to sexual activity,” etc.  I had to stop reading those quizzes after three minutes. It was as bad as you think, boys and girls alike. And I’m afraid that one book and one month with me isn’t enough to override our sick, woman-hating, porn-infected culture even a tiny little bit. I’m afraid that the damage is done — teenage boys see women as existing to please them; to be “hot,” sweet, and accommodating. You know how offended men get when a woman isn’t sufficiently “hot,” sweet, and accommodating? As though her failure to be those things is somehow a personal, punishable affront? That shit starts early. I can’t keep from being personally triggered when I see it, so I called in a guest speaker from the rape crisis center. I’ll teach the book; she’ll do the rest. I’ll let you know how that goes.


*“Nathaniel Hawthorne often uses symbolism in his work. What do you think of Hawthorne’s use of symbolism? Do you think symbolism is necessary for an author to get his/her point across? If you were to chose 2-3 symbols to express the themes of your own life, what would they be? Discuss in your groups, then draw a picture of your symbols.”

Intersectionality, But Skip the Women

I’m standing in the copy room when a Social Studies/History teacher walks in. She is 12. Or 23, or whatever.  A newlywed; freshly pregnant. To distract her from the hundreds of copies I’m making before she can get a turn at the machine, I ask her what she’s teaching today.

“I’m teaching a lesson on oppression,” she says brightly. “I’m getting on my Oppression Soapbox. We’re going to look at all kinds of oppression — race and class. Economics too. How they all come together.”

“And women?” I ask. “Sex and gender?”

“Nooo,” she says, looking at me like I just started squirting ketchup from the copy room fridge directly into my mouth. “That’s not really…that’s not part of it. That’s not my thing.”

And then I died a little inside, because we live here. Female oppression IS her thing, she just doesn’t know it yet. She has no sense of history — no concept of the way things used to be for women and how they could be again if we just sort of don’t care until it’s too late.

Sometimes, you just can’t find it in yourself to argue. Sometimes, you know that only time will do the job.


Umbrella Drinks on SlutWhore Island

We had a student presentation today — the kids were part of a local anti-sexual assault/relationship violence group — and they got shy when it came time to compare “words used to describe girls who have sex” and “words used to describe guys who have sex.” They made a whiteboard T-chart with “slut” and “whore” on one side; “stud” and “playa” on the other, then stalled out. Everyone looked confused.

I think it was because high school kids are just coming into an understanding of the power differential between men and women. They lack the necessary context to understand why female sexuality is judged and scrutinized so harshly. So I stood up and said, ” One of the most freeing moments in my life was when I realized that there’s no such thing as a slut — there’s only consensual and nonconsensual sexual activity. If I had a nickel for every time I heard the words “slut” and “whore” used to make girls and women feel small, I could send a private plane to pick you all up and take you to my well-appointed villa on SlutWhore Island.”

Then I sat back down, having made my own day.

Depend upon it, it is quite the thing.

Fiduciary concerns stemming from Kreacher’s dental surgery led me to accept a Weekend School teaching gig. Remember Kreacher?

I have bad teeth.

I got the job offer in a weak moment — I was looking at the $500 fang the vet took out of Kreacher’s jaw and thoughtfully preserved for me in a small plastic tube — and I thought, Hell, it’s only four weekends; I can do it.

But I can’t. Not well, anyway. Ostensibly, I’m covering an entire semester’s worth of material in four weekends, 12 hours per, but I don’t see how students can absorb so much so quickly. And oddly, there’s no set curriculum. The Weekend School denizens told me to “teach to (my) pedagogical strengths,” so I decided my strengths are (a) Sustained Silent Reading; (b) Outdoor Relay Races and Assorted Other Feats of Strength and Daring; and (c) Literature in Film. Happily, the other English teacher shares these strengths. Yesterday we combined forces; gathered the kids into one room with a projector, and watched 2.5 hours of glorious Sense and Sensibility (dutifully tied to a lesson involving Elements of Fiction and Drama.

Bonnets, tea, and the Byzantine intricacies of early 19th-century British landed gentry — quite amiable!

It’s my favorite movie. The kids HATED it, which made it doubly gratifying. Weekend School is supposed to be a bit punitive — students are there because they failed a semester of English — so there ought to be some intrinsic Guantanamo-ness. If you’re a 15-year-old who’s dying to be playing video games; skateboarding; or spray-tagging public property, two hours of Emma Thompson walking across the field in a bonnet will make you think twice about flunking Contemporary Lit ever again. Not to mention Kate Winslet in sausage curls, playing the pianoforte, followed by my 30-minute lecture on Beginning Feminist Critique. Yeah, have fun.


One great thing about spending time with 17-18 year-olds: You realize that your own cluelessness and lack of judgement at that age was normal. You stop beating yourself up over getting a D in typing back in 1992 because, like, you didn’t believe in typing.

As a teacher, I know that adolescence is characterized by a lack of frontal lobe brain development, so I’m becoming more patient with these poor creatures who have to make life-altering decisions without all their cognitive ducks in a row. Know what the frontal lobe is all about? Long-range planning, risk assessment, motivation, memory, emotional regulation, and empathy. Know when the frontal lobe matures? Around age 25 — after you’ve had a full 7 years to fuck up your adult life with intemperate relationships; intermittent community-college attendance; unmoored professional flailing; and maybe some naked photos on the Internet. And the kids don’t know enough to be afraid. Late adolescence is like a toddlerhood redux: I can do it! I can do it all by myself! This is MY light socket and MY paper clip! Stop trying to run my life!

It feels odd to look at someone twice my size; someone legally able to marry and vote, and say: “What are you supposed to be doing right now?” “Why is your assignment late?” “I need you to stop talking, or there will be consequences.” I’ll ask myself, Damn, shouldn’t this be self-evident? and What’s wrong with you guys?

The answers are No, and Nothing. The 17-18 year-old brain simply doesn’t hold information very long, so they honest-to-God have forgotten the dozen times you mentioned the assignment due date; they really don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing right now. That information has fallen through the frontal lobe sieve, so the teacher must retrieve it and drop it back in again. Exacerbating this cognitive reality are the kids’ cell phones; their texts and tweets; their novelty ring tones and relentless status updates. It’s the perfect storm of high-pressure distraction and low-pressure slack, meeting in tropical confluence and razing the seaside village of Late Adolescence.

Anyway. The mature, goal-oriented high schooler is a rare bird, and knowing this makes me feel better about having been a twit. It’s healing.

But I still don’t know how to type.


A student got upset in class today, but I couldn’t grok why. Out in the hallway, he ranted weepily whilst pacing hither and yon. He was upset! about something!  but heck if I could discern the problem. I considered calling a monitor to haul him off, but instead decided to pretend he was a very butch drunk lesbian outside the bar where I used to work security. I imagined that this very butch drunk lesbian had just seen her girlfriend leave with someone else, and the bar was closing, and I wasn’t letting her set up for another round of pool. At this point, the scene became cozily familiar and my anxiety disappeared. The kid was back in class within five minutes. Score.

Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!

If you are an English teacher, and you bring your personal poetry books to school as grist for Exploring Contemporary Verse, here’s a tip: Check for things written on the inside flaps. Because maybe you got some of these books as gifts, but you’ve forgotten, and your students will ask for the story behind “Baby ~ You were the one. You were the only one. And you were amazing ~ Love, S.” in spidery handwriting at the bottom of the title page of The Work of a Common Woman. You’ll have to say that you got the book used, and you’ll feel bad, like you’re letting both S. and Judy Grahn down even though S. proved a disappointment and Judy has never heard of you and never will.


In related news, I’m teaching an expurgated version of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. The language proved…problematic. Alcohol and cock and endless balls!! (not to mention sweetened snatches). Sometimes, though, the Benevolent Gods of Teaching and Timing smile upon us: Wikipedia blacked out at just the right time — that, combined with our classroom content restrictions, has sparked meaty teen debate about censorship,  free speech, and art vs. obscenity. I had a good time blacking out all the profanity with a Sharpie so it’d look censored before I made copies of the poem, but I missed one instance of the word “c***sucker”* and had to fix it manually in EVERY SINGLE COPY: Find the c***suckers! Neutralize them! It wasn’t like I could ask my student aide for help.

Anyway. I look forward to hearing their thoughts about 1. My executive Sharpie decisions; 2. Whether or not the blackouts affect their perception of/desire to read “Howl”; and 3. What is destroying the best minds of their generation. (My vote: quick-cut video editing and food additives).

For now, I bade farewell! I jump off the roof! to solitude! waving! carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the street!


*Now I’m expurgating for sensitive lesbians. This thing is fraught, I tell you. Fraught.


FedExing myself to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, with a note that says to use whatever looks scientifically promising.

I’ve been sick for three weeks. That’s not true — I was sick for 12 days, okay for 2, and then The Hand of Malaise reached up through a crack in the Earth and dragged me down into the Funk of Lung Disease. My immune system, constantly exposed to the petri dish of teen germs, is shot to hell — but I’m out of sick time so I go to work anyway. At my desk I have an electric kettle, a heating pad, a bucket of hand sanitizer, Vicks VapoRub, and a full complement of lesbo herb tea. The kids say I smell funny. I tell them to stay out of my air space because I want them to live.

I was in this run-down state when we began our Modern Poetry unit last week. I figured they’d had all the traditional rhyme and meter stuff, so I skipped straight ahead to the Beats and took a sharp left into slam/performance, e.g. Alix Olson. We spent the week reading silently, reading out loud, listening, re-listening, writing, editing, and passing the best stuff from group to group. Some adult content, sure, but all carefully vetted and parent-permissioned.

And then. AND THEN. I passed out the wrong Staceyann Chin poem. I meant to give them “My Grandmother’s Tongue,” which has great themes — cultural heritage; generational wisdom — and which starts out:

She gets shorter every year
her ninetieth birthday bending her into a new century

Now she has the time to wonder
how the seeds of her womb 
have come to such silence

Hearing is hard for her
the twilight taxes the organs of the poor
she wonders if the children born in exile 
look anything like her

American residents
they visits spaced like the teeth of the elderly
infrequent and few
they bring too many sweets anyway
old people should not partake of such pleasures
dying flesh cannot withstand it…

But I accidentally gave them “Catalog the Insanity,” which goes like this:

Within 30 seconds, the air in the room changed. I’d never seen students so intent on a piece of reading. Look! I thought proudly, even as I feverishly spit something horrible into a tissue. Active student engagement! Rigorous academic focus! 

Then someone giggled. I looked up to see 37 pairs of eyes bore holes through the giggler: Shut up.We’re trying to read this graphic lesbian sex poem. 

Alerted, I shot from my desk and took  the poem back like a Soviet censor: My mistake, here, let me print out what I meant to give you. Oops! Ha ha!  The great part was, they resisted me and tried to hang onto the poem. One copy was almost ripped in half as I confiscated it. There was actual passion for reading in class that day, for the very first time. Score.

Also, I gave in and went to the doctor for an antibiotic. That herbal shit is worthless.