Tag: my classroom

U is for Unbelievably Tired #atozchallenge

Day 21 of the Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: unbelievably tired.

I’ve fallen behind by a couple days, but I swear I have a good reason: that other half of my life, the nonwriting part.

This week has been super busy.  Monday was a teachers’ inservice day.  For those of you not familiar with the teaching world, just because the kids have the day off doesn’t mean the teachers get it off.  Teacher work days are actually a misnomer, because we rarely get any work done.  Instead, we sit through meetings.  Lots and lots of meetings.  So on Monday I met with the other teachers in my program in the morning, and then in the afternoon we had a meeting with a bunch of people to figure out our summer work plan (yes, although I teach I also technically work during the summers).

Tuesday I was roped into chaperoning a field trip, of all the juniors in the district going to a day of career and college workshops.  It was fun, but quietly threatening to separate talking kids wore me out.

And then yesterday I went with a busload of kids to the state capital for a day of job skills competitions.  I made my first wake-up call at 4:45, picked up the first kid at 5:00, and was on the bus at 5:30.  The last kid was dropped off about 8:00 pm, and I was asleep by 9:00, mostly because I was up until 1:45 that night finishing up stuff we needed for the competitions (because I procrastinate).

Tonight I’m still tired, but I’ve been sucking down Pepsis all day so I have at least another hour in me until I crash for the night.

How do you get through the day when you’re super tired?

O is for Overload #atozchallenge

Day 15 of the Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: overload.

(Note:  I think this might be cheating.)

There are about five weeks left in the school year, and my students are having those “Holy crapola, I’m failing my classes and I’m going to need summer school” moments.  Which means they’re in my classroom all day.  Not that I mind – I’m tutoring kids right now in economics and contemporary American history and welding – but that leaves me about 10 minutes all day to myself.  Throw in paperwork for my program and grading papers, and preparing for a huge culminating competition for the kids next week, and a field trip I’m chaperoning next Tuesday, and tracking down skipping kids, and talking to teachers about missing work, and fixing schedules for next year, and I’m easily putting in 10-12 hour days.

And then there’s my family; I don’t work on school stuff while my kid is around and awake.

And writing.  I’ve set myself the goal of sending out queries in a couple days, so after I’ve done all my school stuff (or enough of it), I spend a couple hours editing my novel.

But not tonight.  Tonight I’m going to bed before midnight.  Undone stuff be damned.

I is for Inspiration #atozchallenge

Day 9 of the Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: inspiration.

I get inspiration everywhere. 

Driving through dilapidated Cairo, Illinois, and eerily empty southeastern Missouri a few weeks ago inspired my short story “Of Gods and Floods.”  A friend’s reference to “a chicken over gators” inspired the short story I’m currently trying to write.

Chef Gordon Ramsey’s constant use of risotto on Hell’s Kitchen inspired me to learn how to cook it myself (and I’m glad I did; it’s damn tasty).

Listening to Algebra Blessett inspires me to do differential equations (yeah, I’m weird like that).

And today, as I brainstormed with a student on how he could get new shoes (he’s homeless and his are falling apart), he told me that what I do for my students is “inspiring.”

What inspires you?

Corniest journal of all time

My students respond to journal prompts twice a week.  I try to mix it up: sometimes funny, sometimes easy, sometimes a picture or a quote.  I don’t care what they write, as long as it’s at least a ten-sentence response to the prompt.

A couple weeks ago, I gave them this:

Mrs. Jewels, a teacher at Wayside school, said, “It’s on the inside that matters. That’s why you have to wear expensive underwear.”  What’s inside you that matters?

Here’s one of the responses (complete with original spelling):

Well first off this is the corniest journal of all time.  But sense I have to do this I would say my best quality would be nothing because inside of me is a dark and scary place were evil trolls live.  The name of this place is [name]topia.  Only the darkest and meanist creatures are allowed inside.  There is a password to get in as well.  Its a 900 word password and you have to say it in pig latin.  Then once you have done that you have to fight an army of souls.  Then after that is done you have to travel the 39 mile desert of the dead.  And if you have made it that far then you are allowed inside.  There have been only 13 to make it.  And thats what is on the inside that counts.

Needless to say, I’m encouraging this kid to write pursue writing as a career.  I love his creativity.

The importance of encouraging everything

I used to teach English, and I read all the time, so I have a big vocabulary.  I don’t dumb down what I say to my preschool-aged son, and neither does his father. The kid watches a lot of PBS, especially Martha Speaks, which is a show about a talking dog who wants to know the definition of everything.

As a result of being around so many big words be has a pretty impressive vocabulary for someone his age.

Last night at dinner, he asked, “Do you know what cinnamons are?”

“Cinnamon is a kind of spice,” said his father, “used for cooking.”

“No, cinnamons.”

“It’s a spice,” his father repeated.

“No, cinnamons,” he insisted.  “It’s two words that mean the same thing.  Like happy and glad.”

“Oh, synonyms.”

“Yeah.  Cinnamons.”

Last week I took a couple of my students to a banquet hosted by a local science and engineering community, and something one of the speakers said really stuck with me:

We read to our kids, and encourage them to read as well.  But what are we as parents doing to encourage their love of math and science?

I’ve been thinking about that, in the context of parenting my son, teaching my students (most of whom hate math), and writing stories, and I think I’ve come up with an answer.

It’s not enough to allow our readers to live vicariously through our characters.  We need to make our stories so engaging that when readers finish them, they get up and go have the same experiences themselves: travel to a distant location and explore the location on foot, or plant a garden or make your own clothes like our pioneer ancestors.  But most importantly, ask questions, especially “why” and “how.”

What do you do to encourage your kids (either your own or in a classroom) to love math and science?

Truth and fiction

In my novel The Lone Wolf, the male protagonist, Andrew, had a really crappy childhood.  I modeled it on a composite of stories my students have told me.

I have twenty-seven students on my roster this year.  Some are doing just fine and don’t need me checking up on them beyond a quick chat when we see each other in the halls.  Others require daily interaction (sometimes beyond the time in the classroom; one student has been spending half the school day in my room).

And then there are the adopted kids – the ones who’ve wandered in with a friend and kept coming back, despite not having me as a teacher.  One boy spends about an hour a day in my classroom (he has PE just down the hall, and a lot of the kids sneak away to my room when they get bored or feel overworked).  C will be taking my class next year, and I’ve been helping him with the work in a couple classes.

C reminds me a lot of my Andrew.  He’s been kicked out of one class for cussing at the teacher, and he believes his behavior was completely justified.  He doesn’t like a teacher in another class, so he flat-out doesn’t go.  He starts arguments with another student who wanders into my room.

We’ve been talking about his anger issues, and the best way to respond, and today he told me it’s because he was abused as a kid: punched in the face, stuff thrown at him, slammed into walls (I take all this with a grain of salt; kids tend to exaggerate).  It stopped when he punched his dad back and then ran away.  The police didn’t believe his side of it, just what he did to his dad, and so he says DHS didn’t investigate.

Here’s a scene from my novel, from when Andrew is seventeen:

[My stepdad] Gary threw me up against the wall. My head cracked against it so hard little specks of light danced in front of my eyes for a moment. We glared at each other with pure hatred. I’d never been able to do anything right according to him, so I stopped trying.

“Where you been?”

I could smell the whiskey on his breath. My head hurt, I was tired, and I didn’t want to deal with this. “None of your damn business,” I told him, knowing exactly how he’d react.

Sure enough, crack. My head hit the wall again and blood spurted out my nose. Pain raced outward from the center of my face.

Something inside me snapped. Gary had broken my nose one too many times. I made a fist and punched him in the gut. Then real quick I got him in the face. Now it was his turn to bleed.

At this point Mama was in the kitchen. She looked at us both, me standing above my stepdad with blood dripping down my face, him laying on the floor holding his own nose. She was sobbing of course, her reaction whenever I disappointed her. I disappointed her a lot.

“Sorry, Mama.” I looked at Gary on the floor. His stomach was exposed as he lay there so I kicked him, not hard but hard enough.

“Don’t you ever f—ing touch me again,” I told him, and I walked out the door.

Like Andrew, C sees the world as a battle, where everyone is out to get him and he has to defend himself against any perceived threat.  He says the abuse has stopped, that his dad is in therapy and really regrets everything that happened, and that he’s trying to put it in the past, but it’s not that simple.  C isn’t okay, and we shouldn’t expect him to be.  I could tell it meant a lot to him to hear me say that.

I’ve thought about sharing this chapter with my kids, as I think they could really relate to it (5 of my 27 have regular contact with their fathers), but the language isn’t really appropriate, although it’s definitely words they use on a daily basis.

After listening to C today, I think I might go ahead.

Why I Write (pt 2)

Tonight was parent-teacher conferences night.  The sad thing about these at the high school level is that the parents who need to attend the most, don’t.  I had my typical turnout of one parent, and then I put on my surrogate-parent hat and went around to a bunch of my students’ teachers to see how they’re doing (I’ll be giving up my planning periods to tutor someone in geography, two other kids in Earth Materials, and a third in Guided Writing). I still had an hour left, so I turned to my homework.

My online writing group is making a conscious effort to expand our understanding of the craft.  This week’s assignment:  Read (and discuss!) the linked essay by George Orwell and write a 500-word piece of flash which responds to it, or which features some of Orwell’s four reasons for writing in mixed amounts.

I’ve already written about why I write, but this time around I’ll focus on Orwell’s essay.

Why I Write

In his essay, Orwell gives four reasons for writing:  sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose.  I can maybe buy that.

First is egoism.  There’s a definite thrill when I receive an acceptance for a submission and then again when I see my name in print, knowing that the message I’ve thrown into my work may reach its intended audience.  Knowing that my work will have an impact on someone, somewhere.  However, I hide behind a pen name and most people don’t know that I write, or if they do know they don’t bother to read any of it, so obviously egoism isn’t a main reason for why I do this.

Next on the list is aesthetic enthusiasm.  My language tends towards simplistic words and phrases, usually devoid of the dreaded purple prose, of elaborate descriptions and miles of narrative just because I can.  But aesthetics, Orwell tells us, isn’t just minute details; equally important is the general flow, the overall impact my words create with pacing, dialogue, character development, and plot. And it’s those that fuel my “desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.”

And that leads to his next reason, historical impulse.  In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien wrote, “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”I couldn’t agree more.  For myself and I think many writers as well, how things are and how we see them overlap equally with the truth.  We interpret what happened; whether it happened or not is irrelevant.

This shouldn’t be confused with political purpose. If I can understand your reality and articulate it when you can’t, does it matter whether it happened as I wrote it or as you experienced it, if both versions arrive at the same truth?

That’s not to say I don’t put a spin on what I write – Orwell’s political purpose.  I color my stories with how I see the world or want to see it, and, more importantly, how I want the reader to see it.

All these reasons for writing blur together.  I write because I enjoy when other people (egotism) react to my words (aesthetics) and see the world (historical impulse) as I see it (political).

But more importantly, I write because I want to.  Because I need to. As Orwell says in his essay, “One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

It’s not egotism; I’d write even without an audience, and I have tons of stories I’ve written that I don’t plan to share with anyone.  It’s more than how well a series of paragraphs come together, or an agenda I push on people.

I write, quite simply, because I have ideas in my head that I want to express.

Everything else is just excuses.

January "Books that made me Love Reading” Challenge

For January’s entry into Emlyn Chand’s “Books that made me Love Reading” Challenge, I read a couple of Louis Sachar’s Wayside booksSideways Stories From Wayside School and Wayside School Is Falling Down.

I started the challenge pretty late into January, and I wasn’t sure what I’d have time to read before the end of the month.  I was browsing at the library yesterday, looking for books for my kid, and I saw these two.  I had copies of them growing up, and I read them each at least a dozen times.

I remembered that they were funny, and that there were quirky oddball characters:  the almost-passably normal teacher; the lovable recess guy; the 19th floor that doesn’t exist; the girl who loved dead rats more than people because at least dead rats wouldn’t hurt her emotionally.  Most of all, I remembered that I liked them.

And in rereading them, I wasn’t disappointed.  If anything, they’re funnier this time around because they’re just so off-the-wall absurd!  Many of the chapters left me giggling at the characters’ antics and dialogue.  Summaries of the book say there are supernatural aspects, but I’d go so far as to say it’s magical realism for kids.  Start your third graders on this, and they’ll be loving Gabriel García Márquez when they encounter him in high school.

The best thing about these books, however, was the reaction I received when sharing them with my students.  I held up the book and one of my students immediately recognized it.  “I read those all the time when I was a kid.  I loved them!” said a boy who professes to now hate reading (interestingly enough, this is the second time I’ve gotten him talking about the joys of reading and books in my class; I loaned him Brent Runyon’s The Burn Journals and he devoured it).  A girl in another class was equally glad to see Louis Sachar’s stories surfacing in the classroom.

I read them “Chapter 4: Homework” from Wayside School Is Falling Down, a short story about distractions in the classroom.  The teacher, Mrs. Jewls, is trying to teach a lesson on fractions when Mac has a comment.

“I couldn’t find one of my socks this morning,” said Mac. “Man, I looked everywhere! In my closet, in the bathroom, in the kitchen, but I just couldn’t find it! I asked my mother, but she hadn’t seen it either.”

“That’s very interesting, Mac,” Mrs. Jewls said patiently, “but what does that have to do with decimals?”

“Because,” said Mac, “I could only find half of my socks!”

“Oh. Right,” said Mrs. Jewls. “Does anybody else have any questions about decimals? Yes, John?”

“Did you look under the bed?” asked John.

And so it goes; the entire class is more interested in socks than the lesson.  I think any teacher, and any student, can relate to this.  My students certainly could.  Many chuckled while I read the story – not an accomplishment to take lightly when it comes to story time for unmotivated high schoolers.  And then while we were discussing the story and its similarity to our class, they managed to turn the class discussion to fried chicken and football.

I think we might need to have storytime more often.

YA Book Reviews

I teach students who are reluctant readers, at best, especially the boys.  Four of them this term are in a class called Guided Literature Projects.  They read a book a week, then do a project on it – poster, essay, diorama, etc.  Most students fail this class, or barely pass, because they pick books that are boring.  To help them, I’ve been reading a lot of YA recently so I can recommend books they’ll actually enjoy.

  • The Burn Journals by Mark Runyon.  A kid asked me for something to read one day during study hall, and this was the only book I had in my classroom.  He devoured it.  It’s about a high school kid who hates himself and life so much that he sets himself on fire.  He survives and writes about his recovery.  It’s very open, very honest, and something I think students can relate to.
  • Snitch by Allison van Diepen. A student in inner city New York has made a promise to herself to stay away from gangs.  But then she falls for a guy and gets sucked in.  She alerts him to a planned attack, thus earning herself the label of “snitch.”  The book gives great insight into how circumstances can alter the best laid plans, as well as the consequences of being true to yourself and your friends.  Even though the gangs in our community aren’t nearly as gung-ho as the Crips and Bloods of NYC, it’s still something that my kids can relate to with their “Snitches get stitches” mentality.
  • Mexican White Boy by Matt de la Peña.  The main character is half white, half Mexican.  He doesn’t fit in at his all-white prep school, and he doesn’t fit in when he spends the summer with his Mexican father’s family.  There he meets another mixed kid (half Hispanic, half black).  The boys build a friendship based on baseball, a desire to fit in somewhere, and the attempt to earn the love and approval of their absent fathers.  Definitely another one my students can relate to, as most of them don’t live with their dads.
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  The main character is a kid growing up on an Indian reservation in Washington.  He makes the choice to go to school off the rez, making him a traitor to his people.  But the town (like a lot of small, isolated towns in the western US) is deeply racist, and he doesn’t fit in there either.  Meaningless death, alcoholism, staying true to your heritage while trying to succeed – this story has it all.
  • Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Meyers.  I read Meyers’ Monster, so when I saw him tackling the Iraq War I picked this one up.  Nope.  It’s too sanitized for a war novel. I realize you need to tone things down for YA, but war is not one of them.  This is not one I’ll be recommending to my students.
  • The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll.  Holy crap.  Ever seen the movie Kids?  It and this book are realistic in a way that makes you want to send your own children to a convent or monastery on an island somewhere without internet access.  I know based on conversations with my students that things like this actually happen, but I’m going to be a prude and bury my head in the sand, fingers shoved in my ears as I hum loudly with my eyes squeezed shut.  While this book has redeeming literary value, I will not be recommending this one.

Up next on my list:

  • The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy
  • The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (shut up, I’ve never read it)
  • Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
  • Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
  • The Enemy by Charlie Higson
  • Face by Benjamin Zephaniah
  • Come Clean by Terri Paddock
  • Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Paper Towns by John Green

What are your favorite YA books?  Other books you’d recommend for kids who hate to read?


    **Note – this isn’t really related to anything.

    Exchange as I was handing back papers in class today:

    A:  Danke.  That means “thank you” in German.
    Me:  спасибо.  That means “thank you” in Russian.
    A:  Um, gracias.  That means “thank you” in Spanish.
    Me:  Merci.  That means “thank you” in French.
    D:  Yeah? Grazie. That means “thank you” in Italian.
    Me:   Ank-thay ou-yay. That means “thank you” in Pig Latin.
    A:  Thank you. That means “thank you” in English. [pause] I got nothing.

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