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Jocks and Burnouts

October 28, 2010

I just finished reading Jocks and Burnouts:  Social Categories and Identity in the High School by Penelope Eckert.  I read it in two days because it’s a book I ended up half choosing and half forced to choose (i.e. the first book I wanted was chosen by someone else, as were a number of my other back-ups, but I’m flexible, and this was definitely on the list of titles that intrigued me) for a presentation in my secondary education class.

Right now, I’m trying to wrap my head around this extremely fascinating ethnography.  It dates back to 1983, which is actually even before I was in high school, but it was weird.  It’s like I had a peripheral awareness of things that were mentioned in the book, but I didn’t experience any of it first hand.  I was one of the extremely small percentage (I don’t remember the exact number) of the population who really was a weirdo without having any kind of mental/developmental disability.  And I was completely unaware of how different I really was.  I mean, I knew I was different, but I thought that, to a certain extent, everyone was.  But I was missing really important vital signs concerning social life that I’m only now finding out about.

It’s making the thought of being a teacher both more exciting and more daunting.  How do I reach kids who’ve essentially been taught that teachers will never value them?  How do I get them to see that I’m not “one of them” . . . especially when they need to see that/believe that of me in order to maintain the little power they have with their peer group?  How do I negotiate this strange realm where peers are everything when . . . well, when my best friend at that age was my mom?  How do I teach them to value their individual creativity and vision, when the more powerful institutions of school culture and peer groups resist that?

I just feel so powerless now.  When I was in school, my biggest problem was that people thought that the fact that I was shy meant that I was insecure, and that if I just worked on being “outgoing,” I’d suddenly have masses of friends.  (In reality, it went the opposite way:  first, I decided that it was okay to be shy, and that relieved my major insecurity, which in turn allowed me to make friends in a shyer, but less stressful, way).  That’s a pretty minor problem to have, when I see the issues surrounding kids in these other social categories, even the In-Betweeners.  In a period where peers are everything, I was committed to my inner visions.  I see now that that’s so rare it’s almost a luxury.  I am glad I didn’t have to go through some of that other stuff, but at the same time, I wonder how out of touch I will be with my students, having never gone through that kind of thing, and being able to experience it only vicariously.  Will I only be able to connect to the few who are weirdos? They need someone, certainly, but so do all the other kids.

I went into teaching with the notion that teachers accidentally and/or deliberately veer students away from their creative visions, and wanting to be the teacher who would encourage them to remain true to those visions.  But now, I see how big an impact peers play, *especially* among the very people I think I need to reach most, and I just don’t know how to work with that.

One thing I do know I can do, though, concerns competition.  I don’t plan on having a lot of competition in my classes, at least not between students.  I want to have writing plans that I make up with each individual student, so I can grade them based on their own progress in regards to those goals (while also, of course, paying attention to the state standards where I’m teaching . . . but I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive).

At times, I think I’m way too idealistic and that my ideas are just too grand to really work, that they’re bound to cause me profound disappointment in myself.  At other times, I think I’m too cynical, that just because I can’t see a way out of this mess doesn’t mean there isn’t one.



February 24, 2010


I just finished reading Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and at some point, I will probably write a book review about it. At the moment, though, it has sparked some interesting and powerful questions about what I might do to help my future students feel like my class is a safe place. And how to empower themselves. And how not to disempower others.

I’ve decided that I want to keep a copy of the book around and available, but I realize that there are problems with this. If I act as a library, teens and preteens might feel too intimidated to ask for it, even if they’re comfortable with me. They might be uncomfortable with the thought of admitting to even themselves that they might find use for such a book. But if I just leave it out there, someone could easily steal it, and I can’t really afford to buy it over and over again, no matter how valuable it is. I haven’t yet figured out what to do about that dilemma.

That’s for the people who might become victims. As for those who might become victimizers, perhaps by accident (apparently, one of the most common questions Anderson received from boys was why the main character was so upset about being raped (!)), I’ve decided that I’m going to talk about consent. I think that might be the best way to approach this, because consent is what it’s really all about.

I’ve decided that I’m not going start with sex, but with consent, because you can violate someone’s consent without raping them: it doesn’t have to be sexual consent. For example, people who use wheelchairs are rightly offended when others take their wheelchair and start moving them without consent. I’ll be doing a writing class, so offering suggestions or reading anyone else’s writing without that person’s consent will be a no-no. You don’t have to be a girl with a boy wanting to have sex in order to experience what it feels like to have your consent violated (besides, there are cases of men being raped by women or other men, too — it’s not a gender issue, even if many people think it is). It might not be as deeply damaging as being raped, but it’s not good either. Plus, respecting someone’s consent is the first step toward respecting that person as an individual. I want my classroom to be a place of mutual respect. I will respect them (and their consent, of course), and expect them to respect themselves, me, and each other.

I know this won’t end sexual violence, but I hope it will help people to understand why it is a big issue without spending a lot of time talking about sex right off the bat. And as for sex, I have no idea if there are any rules about that, but I’m guessing there are. Whatever I do about the issue of promoting respect for consent, I’ll have to do it within whatever guidelines the school has available. Writing can be deeply personal and private, so that seems to be a good place to start in regards to consent. I only hope it has the ripple effect to spread out to other situations.

Clarity in Writing Prompts

February 17, 2010

In addition to taking my first education class, I’m taking other English classes. One of my classes is one of two surveys of American literature (the earlier one). I got a paper back today that really confused me. I thought I had done a great job on the paper, but I got a fairly low grade with comments like “You didn’t answer my questions” and “too little, too late.” Naturally, I was a bit surprised and disheartened.

Naturally, too, for a class in which unlimited rewrites are allowed, I determined to write it better, and more importantly, right away, so it would no longer be under my skin. I’m usually pretty good at reading instructions, but obviously, there was some kind of disconnect this time around. I assumed that I had misread something.

But when I went back to the assignment, I saw that the professor had specifically told us to begin by defining the genre and THEN devote a paragraph to each of the points. I did misread what he meant by points, but one of the problems with the paper, according to the red ink all over it, was that I began with a definition instead of one of the points. Yeah.

This got me to thinking. We all have the best of intentions when writing papers for professors, and I imagine that they also have the best of intentions in creating their prompts. This one was pretty long, and divided into three different “genres”, which made it a little confusing to begin with (and there were also notes in the margin with lots of emphasis on how to construct each paragraph for ALL essays, and lots of example sentences in the body). The professor had obviously not just thrown down his first thoughts: he spent time thinking about how to word the prompt. And just as obviously, it led me, the student, down a completely mistaken path.

This, then, is a good learning opportunity. First, I’ve learned that it’s a bad idea to fling bits of advice all over a page. Things that might be the most important information to a particular student can get buried. I’m pretty competent at this professor’s paragraph structure, because I’ve had him in the past, so the really huge focus on the paragraph structure made me have more confidence in my paper than I should have had, since I missed key points for this particular assignment. Unfortunately, those key points were buried in another long paragraph on the same page. Maybe most students in this class would have had more difficulty with the paragraph structure, but that doesn’t mean that that information should be so highlighted as to obscure the other information.

Secondly, I’ve learned that I need to be clear in my language use. A sentence like “Begin by defining the genre, then dedicate a paragraph to each point” could be read many ways. I understood the “then” to indicate that the next paragraph was separate from “defining the genre”, and that, therefore, a whole paragraph should be devoted to the definition. Obviously, in retrospect, it’s clear that the professor meant to only spend a line or two of definition before moving into the main points. This wasn’t clear from the language. If I’m going to create writing prompts (and as a writing teacher, I definitely will be!), I will need to take great effort in my own language in the prompts so that I do not accidentally lead students in the wrong direction.

Finally, I know that even though I’ve had a good relationship with this professor in the past, and do not have any reason to think that he would react badly to information, even I do not have the guts to write at the end of the rewrite, “Just so you know, your prompt was kind of misleading.” This is important because I have a lot of confidence and know that the wording was off, but I still don’t have the courage to confront the teacher about it. If I can’t, I definitely can’t expect middle school students to be able to do something with one of my prompts. That’s even assuming that they’d recognize what exactly I’d done wrong. In other words, I can’t depend on the students to alert me to this kind of mistake, even if I try to encourage them to do so. It’s up to me, and me alone, to make sure the prompt is worded clearly.

So, overall, it was a good experience. Now I have to go rewrite that paper.

No fans, thank you

February 10, 2010

When I’m not taking English classes to get the English parts of my license down and when I’m not taking Education classes, I’m usually writing. Like many writers, one day, I’d like to be published. As a result, I’ve found pockets on the internet that nurture writing and provide both support for the writing process and critiques which can be more practical than supportive! Through my experiences with writing sites, I’ve learned about a new marketing strategy that entails finding and retaining 1,000 True Fans. These are supposedly people who will be so in love with your work that they will buy anything and everything you produce.

At first, the idea sounded intriguing. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it: I don’t have the type of charisma, nor the amount of energy and interest in marketing to be able to sustain this sort of thing. But it still sounded like a cool idea.

Until I met some fans.

Well, of course, I’ve known fans of one thing or another before, but I saw them in a new light this time. I have now decided that I never want to have any fans. Not a single one. And I don’t think any teacher should want fans.

Why? Because fans don’t think. As a teacher, what I want most, is to help my students learn to think for themselves, to find meaning that matters to them, and to honor their own processes, as well as their strengths. Fans don’t do this. Fans follow the person they’re infatuated by. They stop thinking for themselves and just repeat what their High Poobah says. They bully others who have opposing views or processes. They believe that in their High Poobah, they have found the One True Way, and if it works for them, it must work for everyone. More importantly, they think that if someone else doesn’t find the One True Way by following the High Poobah, it’s because that other person is lazy or disrespectful.

If I have people who love me or who admire and respect me, that doesn’t mean I want them to go around disrespecting others. If I have students who learn something from me, I don’t want them to silence the ones for whom my suggestions don’t work. Because as soon as they are silenced, I won’t be able to find the way to reach them. And I won’t be able to learn from them either.

Learning is a two-way street, and if I ever end up on such a pedestal that people are afraid to tell me when something doesn’t work, I will stagnate. And if they do it out of fear of my “fans,” it will be that much harder to reach them and help them find their meaning.

So, no, I don’t want any fans. I want people to explore, to think, and to grow. And if something I’m doing doesn’t work for them, I want them to feel comfortable telling me so.

At the beginning

February 1, 2010

In some ways, there is no beginning. Everything comes from something else. In my case, my journey to teaching began long before this. Ever since I started college in 1995, I imagined I would end up teaching. You see, I was majoring in French and Russian and wanted nothing to do with business, government, or translation. There’s not much left for foreign languages. That said, I was shy. Even when I knew I was right about something, I never said a word in class. I was resentful of teachers who thought that meant I wasn’t prepared. I was always prepared; I just wasn’t always brave.

I had a French teacher in junior high who was a really sweet lady. I always thought of myself like her. She couldn’t control the classroom. No one ever got anything done, because the kids yelling out “Bonn-jer peoples!” always had their way. I learned a smattering of badly pronounced French words and a relatively good grounding in grammar, but most of that was from reading the textbook, not from her teaching. I did not want to end up like her, and I was convinced that I had her disposition. I was convinced that I was a doormat and would never make a good teacher . . . unless I was teaching college.

I started my grad school program with lofty ambitions. People told me I was ambitious, but I thought they were crazy. I just wanted a degree so I could teach at the college level. I wasn’t a real scholar, so I didn’t have to worry about all that scholarly stuff, right?

Wrong. I got my Masters in French after three years, and worked on a Russian Masters for another three years. Near the end of my second year, I got extremely burned out. I took the rest of the year off and tried to convince myself I was giving myself time to study for the Masters exam. When the Masters exam came, I failed it.

During my years as a grad student, I taught first and second year French and Russian classes, and I loved it. I knew I wanted to teach, but I was getting more and more bitter about the need to be a “real scholar” just to teach. Yes, I knew research was necessary, but I did not understand really how important it was.

After leaving the Russian department, I was unemployed for a year, living off of an allowance from my parents. I finally landed a job as a developmental instructor at a center for developmentally disabled adults. It was challenging because there were never enough of us to give the people what they needed and deserved. I left every day feeling I’d failed these wonderful people by not spending enough time on teaching communication. I was miserable because I cared too much.

I also learned how to get a backbone. I learned how to deal with people who grabbed and pushed, who refused to listen, who spilled things, who yelled at other people and at me. I learned to be the center of calm in a sea of chaos. I learned what I had never thought was in me to be. I learned I can be a teacher.

So, here I am. I’ve spent the last two years taking English classes so that I can be certified as an English teacher, since they do not have a French or Russian program. I am just starting my third week of my first education class, and I’ve never been more excited in my life (well, except for when I’m starting a new novel). I want to do this more than anything I’ve wanted in my life. So, here I am. At the beginning.