Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Quick post on upcoming podcasts!

About half of my Contemporary Literature class have recorded podcasts of their short memoirs! So far the process has been very valuable, at least to me as a teacher. I like having the one-on-one time with students, explaining a novel process to them, and helping them to tell their stories (or at least part of their stories) in a way that feels more natural to them than writing. Not all of the podcasts have gone as well as I've expected. I am particularly disappointed with one student's lack of effort, but was surprised with the quality of three other students' recordings. I am not yet fully happy with the process, but we ex-Catholics are good at being self-critical and obsessively trying to be all perfect and stuff. The Moth is a wonderful resource that I have found invaluable for examples. Those guys kick ass, and you should listen to them and give them a little bit of your money.

I am still having trouble finding a reliably available blogging tool for my students (my school is going through some technology growing pains that will hopefully settle down next year) so they will not be creating the blogs that I had hoped they might this semester. If the powers that be let me teach the class next year, this will be the first addition that I will make. No blogs for the kids means that they do not all have a good place to post their podcasts. My plan is to, once all are recorded, ask for permission to post them here. I will not be censoring or selecting them in any way. Whoever wants theirs up will see theirs go up. Updates will follow.

Monday, October 11, 2010

How I spent Columbus Day 2010

Let me just say that Columbus sucked. Maybe not quite as badly as we remember him, but dude's published journals are woefully inaccurate and contain some pathetic attempts at keeping posterity from remembering him as a drunkard and a failed politician. My school generally does not get Columbus Day off, and I fully support this policy.

This year, however, a strange twist of calendar-fate has landed me at home on this most ignominious of holidays. How am I spending it? By working my way through an amazing music blog! The Day After The Sabbath makes me nothing but giddy with 70s heavy metal joy. My poor neighbors.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Hypothetical, Unedited Mixtape for My Students

Mp3s may have killed the mixtape, but they do make it so I can just publish a list of songs and let everyone else break copyright laws. My students only actually get to hear some of this stuff. I'd actually make this mix, but I'm a wimp and am worried that my musical tastes are too offensive to share in their entirety.

Here we go, my hypothetical, unedited mixtape for my students that I am too wimpy to actually make (OK, maybe one day . . . ):

1. "Love in Vein" - Skinny Puppy - The best opening track in recorded music. I could never make a mixtape without Skinny Puppy. Just ask my poor wife.
2. "In Bloom" - Nirvana - Grunge! I want everyone to love this song as much as I do.
3. "Time Does Not Heal" - Dark Angel - Thrash metal. Your life does not improve without your action.
4. "Man the Ramparts" - Botch - Hardcore! The world may very well not be on your side, and that is just fine.
5. "Bring Back the Apocalypse" - Sleepytime Gorilla Museum - Art metal. You may very well not be on the world's side, and that is just fine.
6. "Mind's Mirrors" - Meshuggah - Tech-metal. "The struggle to free yourself from restraints / becomes the very shackles"
7. "Wanderlust King" - Gogol Bordello - Joyous, rollicking punk. Everything that everyone does is awesome all the time.
8. "Doin' It" - Herbie Hancock - Did Herbie invent funk? Does it matter? Keep on truckin' kiddies!
9. "Draconian Crackdown" - Rasputina - Cello rock? - Fight the power!
10. "No Quarter" - Led Zeppelin - Rock'n'Roll! The approach I would like my students to take towards life
11. "Swollen Tongue Bums" - Dalek - Angry, noisy hip-hop! You cannot run from your human responsibility.
12. "Watchfire" - Neurosis - Face-melting post-metal. Humanity cannot escape you or your influence.
13. "Death Is Not the End" - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Folk rock! Nothing is ever actually over.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Son of Contemporary Lit

A week-and-a-half in and I am starting to get a pretty good sense of where these kids are ability-wise. My ESL kids speak and write well, and struggle mostly with English idioms and figurative language in general. The students who receive special education services are pretty well all over the place. I sprung the first longer writing assignment on a bit too early. I would like for them to write a short memoir-style piece, but we began before I did any mini-writing activities. Scaffolding FAIL!!! I'm currently trying to work out the best way of backpedaling out of the assignment.

Yesterday we read Sandra Cisneros's A House of My Own and I had the students use it as a model to express their desires for the future. They shocked me first by really enjoying the short poem and then by really working on the modeling activity. I saw teenagers smiling proudly over their writing and really struggling to get the words right on the paper. I almost never get to see that. In a few days I'm going to try a similar short writing activity with students sharing their writing in small groups and talk with them about ways to read their own writing out loud. I want to know what they like about the assignments and see about doing it more with longer assignments later in the semester. We're getting to the bottom of this "Mister, I like this writing thing" thing.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Contemporary Literature: The Saga Begins

Each year I teach the only section of a Junior/Senior class that started out being called "Science-Fiction Survey." The idea was that there were a handfull of students at our school that were not fully served by regular English classes. They were not intrinsically motivated enough to do well in their regular senior year English class and were not students for whom special education classes were appropriate. So well pulled together some resources for teaching a class with higher interest reading materials, doing more hands-on work, but still getting at the skills needed for senior English. This plan began to erode almost immediately.

My first group contained some students who were also taking the regular senior English class. They were doing fine in this class and did not need any extra services. The second year's group also contained some students who were additionally taking special educational English classes. The third year, many of the students signed up for the class without meeting any of the stated prerequisites at all. All three years over half of each class had no interest in science-fiction in the least. So, like any good adult presented with an impossible task, I did my best to change my goals.

The class is now called "Contemporary Literature" and the oldest piece of writing that I am teaching is Stephen King's The Shining. We will read at least one graphic novel as a class. My textbook is the last few year's The Best American Nonrequired Reading anthologies. We are going to read investigative journalism and listen to The Moth podcasts. When we are done they will recognize Frank McCourt, Nikki Giovanni, and Billy Collins as the badasses that they are. They are going to creative write their backsides off. I am friggin' terrified.

This year I am looking at a roster of incredibly disperate students. They are all either high school Juniors or Seniors. There are nineteen of them. About five receive special education services. One has never taken a single mainstreamed English course. I know that at least two are listed as English Language Learners. Two of them I have had previously in an honors level class that I also teach. Five have been suggested for honors level classes. Seven have not met the prerequisites for the class. This is going to be a hard group.

We are two days away from starting class. I'm still reading through a book on developing effective group work strategies because I know that pulling these kids together as a cohesive social whole is the only way this class is going to not crash and burn. I'll spend this semester trying to post at least weekly about how things are going.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Why I am not teaching The Catcher in the Rye ever again

I have an important confession to make. I've seen others make this confession and it seems to have been a very cathartic experience for them. So I join the chorus: I hate The Catcher in the Rye. The book is (excuse my use of my students' slang) ass. I am aware that people find Salinger's description of the inner minds of children to be particularly compelling. I am aware that some folks relate to his characters. However, even at 16 when I first read Catcher, I wanted to punch Holden Caulfield in his whiny, over-privileged face.

It is easy to see why this book is so often taught. We can point it out as an example of a book that people have tried to censor (a topic that too many teachers spend too much time discussing). We can use it as a prime example of symbolism and motif. We can use it to let our hair down and have the word "fuck" spoken aloud within our otherwise well-ordered classroom. And since we remember kids liking it when we were younger, we can use it as a way to show our students that "literature isn't always boring."

But it just doesn't live up to its own hype.

Holden is a frustrated child in a relatively decent world. This does not resonate with today's youth. Kids today see plenty of reason to be pissed off and can direct their anger at real world issues. While it is nice for those who have lost a loved one to read a character who is also grieving, most of my students see much in the world that deserves their anger and frustration. Their angst is generally leveled at actual problems that may be solvable.

Even Holden's issues with connecting to his peers do not resonate well any more. Our students, no matter how boxed up they seem in school, are much better at finding like-minded peers than we were. Sure, there are still some that are totally disconnected from others their age, but these students are few and far between. For them, I will keep a few copies of Catcher in my classroom for them to stumble across. For everyone else, it is not the quality of their peers, or even the compatibility of their peers that is the issue. It is managing their image with their peers and trying to sustain meaningful interactions. These are not Holden's problems.

As a child in the early 1950's, Holden feels ignored by adults, and passed over by his culture. His worldview seems vastly different from those around him. In the real world, since the late 1960's youth culture has been central in the general popular American culture. Our students see their values and concerns expressed in media all the time. Even those outliers who do not completely agree with all of the tenants of American culture see people openly expressing disagreement. Our students already understand that they do not have to think like everyone else. This is not a point that we must make, and make, and make.

Perhaps Holden's biggest issue is his lack of a place to acceptably vent his frustration with the world. Thankfully, his bottled up frustration is totally incomprehensible to most of our students. Now we have the Internet, a place where people can and do go to complain. Children (and adults) have the opposite problem today. We complain so much to such like minded people that we don't have anyone left to tell us to clam up from time to time.

I fully respect teachers who wish to continue the mythology of The Catcher in the Rye. If you love it, read it. If you really love it, suggest it to your students. If you respect your students, please, please, please do not teach it. Please, please, please find a more contemporary bildungsroman that more directly addresses the issues actually experienced by our actual students. Find one that uses their language. The word "fuck" twice is not exciting any more. Even better, find many such books and let the students pick the one they want to read. Let them suggest some. Coming-of-age stories are the books that most of your students read a bit on their own anyway. Let's teach something better.

I feel better now.