June, July, August

Posted on June 9, 2014

Summer is here! I’m basking in the glow of few responsibilities and playoff basketball. In the popular vernacular, I “survived” my first year of teaching. If you have friends on Facebook who are similar to the friends I have on Facebook, you might have seen them post THIS specious “news” article about a Chinese miner who supposedly survived 17 years buried underground, surviving on a diet of rice and rats and painstakingly burying 78 of his colleagues, only to be rediscovered and escape his subterranean purgatory. Well, the story is a hoax (check your sources, students), but the experience of reemerging into the daylight of human civilization is similar to how I feel. I have time to read for pleasure? I can pursue hobbies that have little or no direct bearing on the academic progress of my students? Eight hours of sleep AND personal hygiene? What is this life?!

Because effective teachers are reflective (at least that’s what they tell me), I thought it might be fun to briefly look back on my first year as a full fledged teacher and glean some bright kernels of wisdom from the chaff. Here, then, are some thoughts.

40 Hours/Week

Yeah. This is something that all earnest teachers know: you work a lot of hours. At first, I was like, “Woo! Let’s do all the work! I can be a teaching/grading/curriculum creating machine!” And then I got tired. Not immediately, mind you, and not “burnt out” level fatigued, but significantly and undeniably. Teachers are human–despite what some of their students might think–so, after numerous evenings spent staring at a computer screen or holding a grading pen into the wee hours of the night, I found it beneficial to make 10 pm my closing time. If I hadn’t gotten everything graded by then, I knew it would still be there for me in the morning. Of course, I broke this rule quite a bit, especially during research paper season, but it’s still nice to set standards and have goals. ūüôā

Be the Mattress

I know. This is a strange metaphor. But let me explain. My first few months of teaching, I was a bit too permissive. I allowed certain student behaviors to take hold in the classroom that were detrimental to focus and learning. As a teacher, it’s important to be like a mattress: firm, supportive, and welcoming. You can achieve all three. Neglect firmness at your own peril, however. Students like boundaries, even if they habitually test them. Nobody likes a lumpy mattress.

Literature, Folks

Common Core Standards are all the rage. They’re pretty decent, and I don’t have any specific beef with the standards for ELA. Nonfiction texts (emphasized greatly in the Common Core) are important to analyze, parse, and critique. I will, however, say one thing: literature (novels, short stories, poetry) is valuable in and of itself! There’s been some RESEARCH on this. Reading fiction can help people analyze others’ behavior and give them a more empathic perspective. Teenagers aren’t doing it on their own these days (see HERE), so reading literature must be a central component of an English curriculum. It’s also simply a beautiful, wonderful way to spend one’s time thinking deeply about the world. And if that doesn’t belong in schools, then what does?

Effective teachers are also “share-y”–though not, I hope, in that Facebook-y, vapid sort of way. In that spirit, here are some tools I found particular useful my first year teaching:

Teaching Website

I used a self-hosted WordPress site to create a teaching website for my class. You can find it HERE. It was useful for . . .

  • Sharing weekly lesson plans
  • Sharing class materials
  • Providing an online discussion platform for students
  • Serving as a hub for links to student blogs
  • Being a place where I could share cool/novel things with my students

I also had my students keep personal blogs on which they would respond to writing prompts that I gave them. ¬†They seemed to like this less formal, digital form of writing quite a lot. ¬†I still had them write traditional essays, but blogs are great for having students respond to creative writing prompts. ¬†Blogging allows every student to see and enjoy what their classmates write. ¬†Instant writers’ workshop. ¬†Huzzah!

Twitter

You can find my Twitter account HERE. ¬†Yes, it’s social media, and yes, students often use Twitter to passively aggressively vent about personal struggles, but I found having a teacher Twitter account to be a good thing for a few reasons:

  • When students follow you on Twitter (you probably shouldn’t follow them back), whatever you post shows up in their Twitter feed. ¬†If you need a way to get an update out to your students quickly, tweet it. ¬†They’ll know about 3 minutes after its posted.
  • ¬†I had my students tweet poems at me for National Poetry Month. ¬†It was a fun way to have them share their brief, often silly, poems in a public space.
  • I almost exclusively tweet poems. ¬†Students need to see teachers stretching their creative writing muscles too.

Google Drive

Google Drive allows you to seamlessly sync all your documents and store them in the cloud. ¬†This is a godsend. ¬†You don’t have to email Word documents to yourself anymore. ¬†I also found it really easy to post links to my Google Drive documents on my teaching website and immediately share materials with my students. ¬†
 

Vocabulary.com

I’ll admit that I’ve become a bit of an evangelist for vocabulary.com. It’s probably because it’s really cool. Students create accounts and can earn points–for themselves and their schools–by correctly answering vocabulary questions.
 

Plotagon

If you’re looking for a replacement to the dearly departed xtranormal.com, look no further. Plotagon allows educators and students to created scripted videos with computer animated actors and publish them online. Think of the applications!
 

Poetry Genius

THIS website allows for online annotation of texts. You can also ask to be upgraded to an educator account, create classes, and have your students “compete” against each other to earn the distinction of top annotator. Excellent idea all around.
 

Project Spark

This is something I’m hoping to delve into further during the summer months. Project Spark is a Microsoft based game creation platform. I am planning on designing levels (some merely for fun, others with academic applications) using their platform. Project Spark is still in Beta, but if you want to test it out and have a Windows 8 computer, you can simply request an invitation and you’ll be ready to start fooling around with world creation. The learning curve is a bit steep for this one, but the possibilities are REALLY vast!
 

Conclusionary Statement

So, yeah. That’s a bit of what I’ve learned/stumbled across during my first year teaching. If you are teaching and have some advice or cool tools you’ve been using in the classroom, PLEASE comment below and let me know. Now, back to my SUMMER READING LIST. Happy June, July, and August!

Thoughts Had While Reading D√©sir√©e‚Äôs Baby

Posted on December 7, 2015

  • Compassion and empathy are only possible when there exists in the self a modicum of self-love. ¬† Imperious Armand loathes himself, therefore he cannot be kind to his slaves and he seems fated to cruelly reject D√©sir√©e and the baby.
  • As a society, we still think of blackness as a taint.
  • While it’s nice to suppose that D√©sir√©e walked out into the bayou with the baby and survived, her errand was probably one of insensate desperation. ¬†It’s likely both died.
  • As Shakespeare famously asked, “What’s in a name?” ¬†The Aubigny family is revered in Louisiana as landed gentry types; their name carries cultural cachet. ¬†Why do we ascribe so much significance to names and lineages?
  • Was D√©sir√©e a little too innocent and unassuming to be believable/pitiable? ¬†Would the presumed deaths of D√©sir√©e and the baby have been more tragic had D√©sir√©e shown a little backbone?
  • Is this story still relevant? ¬†I think it is, but is it immediately and unambiguously relevant in the way that high school students demand their reading be?
  • If Armand had been honest with D√©sir√©e about his racial heritage, D√©sir√©e would have probably been understanding, forgiving, and even excited. ¬†D√©sir√©e was abandoned as a child, so they have a surprising amount in common concerning their ignoble origins. ¬†They could have been for each other sources of solace in a cruel world.

Of an Afternoon

Posted on August 30, 2014

While I am trying to write this poem,

Supine on a florid couch 

With laptop inertly pressed against 

My belly, my dog insists upon 

Licking my hands, gently 

But persistently nudging her snout 

Between my fingers and the keyboard.

 

Her tongue, like a wet fruit roll-up,

Slips its red circumflex around my knuckles.

I try to shoo her away–

Tell her that daddy is writing–

While passionate violins hum 

From the tinny laptop speakers

And the fan slowly churns the

Dry August air above my head.

 

This is an afternoon I will never get back.

I know this like I know any other fact:

The dates of the Civil War, the major writers

Of the Harlem Renaissance, or how many

Players can be on a basketball court at one time. 

 

But I also feel it with a sort of dull ache

That starts in my left big toe and radiates 

Up through my femur, finally, restlessly

Nesting in the space between ribs three

And four on my left side (starting

From the bottom and counting up). 

 

What a rare pain, to know the sensations

Of an afternoon will stay within that bubble 

Of time, while the body–sweating, worrying, desiring–

Travels onward, gets older, and forgets.

 

My dog, her head now resting

Lightly upon my knee, will probably 

Have forgotten this afternoon by this evening,

Busying herself with dinner and a final romp 

Around the hay-bail in the backyard.

 

And that is fine, like the dry August air,

The cloud dappled sunshine, and the 

Just-now-browning leaves that rustle

Above the heartbeat of violins.

 

 

 

 

 

Stuff English Teachers Like

Posted on January 6, 2014

I made this (or some version of this) into a video which I will embed below.  Sorry for being an insufferable ham.

 
 

 

Calling Movies “Films”

English teachers love calling movies ‚Äúfilms.‚ÄĚ ¬†The word ‚Äúmovie‚ÄĚ is too low-brow. ¬†Heck, even the word ‚Äúword‚ÄĚ is too low-brow (we prefer term). ¬†But seriously, calling something a ‚Äúfilm‚ÄĚ elevates it to a position of high art, distinguishing it from the baser forms of ‚Äúentertainment‚ÄĚ (I‚Äôm looking at you, Toddlers and Tiaras). ¬†Plus, if you‚Äôre an English teacher, you never go to ‚Äúthe movies‚ÄĚ–you go to ‚Äúthe cinema.‚ÄĚ

Irony

English teachers (and hipsters) REALLY seem to like irony. ¬†We can spot it from a mile away, and when our irony radar is piqued, we get a knowing, half-smile on our face, as if to suggest, ‚Äúyeah, I get why the actual meaning of this and/or these events is not the same as what is being portrayed and/or expressed and is therefore ironic.‚ÄĚ ¬†Unlike hipsters, however, English teachers never plan their Halloween costumes around irony. ¬†We would never, for instance, dress as a plunging stock market graph and say we were Miley Cyrus‚Äô net worth after her performance at the VMA‚Äôs. ¬†Nah. ¬†There are too many awesome characters from literature to dress up as.

The Slash

That old time punctuational equivalent of the comparatively cumbersome ‚Äúor,‚ÄĚ the slash, is a favorite amongst English teachers. ¬†(Side note: using amongst instead of among = an English teacherism.) ¬†The slash lets English teachers pepper in choice into an otherwise straightforward sentence. ¬†I want to be able to choose my favorite adjectives, adverbs, and conjunctions, just like I want to choose my favorite cereal at the grocery store–a tossup between Honey Nut Cheerios/Oatmeal Squares/Kashi/Frosted Mini-Wheats.

Going to Starbucks and Bringing Only a Book

In this age of hyperconnected Insta-facing and Snap-clapping, bringing a book (and only a book) to Starbucks seems downright suspicious.  Yes, I see you over there tweeting from behind your venti double shot of expresso seasonal latte about the weirdo with the book.  I am READING.  Deal with it.

Making Lists and Being Self-Referential

This article an example of a list. ¬†The fact that I’m including “making lists” into a list is an example of being self-referential. ¬†But seriously, English teaches like making all kinds of list, not just to-do lists. ¬†Yesterday, I made a list of the top-five sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. ¬†A little over a week ago, I made a list of potential jobs that I am qualified for besides teaching English. ¬†It was a very short list.

Unconventional Fashion Choices

English teachers don’t have a monopoly on dapper dressing, but strange patterns and sartorial frippery seem to show up on English teachers like lichens on the northern side of tree trunks. ¬†We’re like birds of paradise (to adopt another nature simile), parading around in multihued splendor while making weird sounds and bizarre gestures. ¬†But really, we do it all for your benefit, dear students. ¬†Earth tones are boring, and we don’t want you losing interest in all the knowledge we have to impart; we clash because we care.

The Late-Summer, Low-Humidity, Rapidly-Approaching-Fall Daze

Posted on July 26, 2013

So . . . YAY! ¬†I have procured a fulltime, bonafide, virtually ideal teaching position! ¬†By starting this entry with good news, then segueing into a pseudo-apology for my lack of attention to this blog (all the while implying that the reasons for my absence were understandable and even laudable, given that I was engaged in an epic job search which consumed my every waking moment), I hope to deflect, pacify, and ameliorate any harsh feelings that you, the casual–and perhaps imaginary–reader, might have toward me. ¬†So, sorry for not writing. ¬†But YAY!

I will be teaching 11th and 12th grade English next year at a small, co-ed Catholic school. ¬†Terror, excitement, and a deep-seated fear of proving inadequate sum up my emotional state. ¬†(Even now, my English teacher brain thinks I should have written “inadequacy” instead of “proving inadequate”). ¬†American AND British literature will be my purview. ¬†That is a lot of stuff to cover, think about, wrestle with, study, and profess knowledge of. ¬†But I’ll try. ¬†I’ve already come up with some study guides and (duh-duh-dah) reading quizzes for the novels Huckleberry Finn and My Antonia. ¬†And I’ve designed a sort of snazzy class website (which you can find HERE). ¬†But I still feel tragically unprepared. ¬†Should I start out with Beowulf or The Canterbury Tales for British Literature? ¬†Should I focus heavily on the historical context of the pieces we read, or should I attempt to connect them to modern phenomena to inspire critical thought. ¬†Both? ¬†I don’t know. ¬†But soon I will be in a position where people will EXPECT me to know things. ¬†And that’s somewhat intimidating.

I know I know things. ¬†You probably know I know things. ¬†But I don’t think “knowing things” is the most important thing about teaching. ¬†Which is good, because I can certainly work on that aspect of my education. ¬†Dates, facts, and “cocktail party trivia” were never my strong suit. ¬†I can probably out-divergently think a lot of people, but I won’t win a round of Literary Jeopardy (at least not yet). ¬†Give me a few years of being in the teaching trenches and I’ll probably do you proud in that department.

Anyone have any good ideas on how I can introduce myself/my class on the very first day? ¬†I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and it seems the best way to do it would be to take the Edward R. Murrow approach and present a mini-This I Believe speech. ¬†If you’re unfamiliar with the format, see THIS website. ¬†I’m hoping the format will allow for a good balance of both personal philosophy and nuts-and-bolts specifics about the class. ¬†Ideally, it will also serve as a good foundational example for how sharing and discussion will take place in my classroom.

So, in the sprit of “let’s-do-it-ness,” I’d like to take this time and space to compose the This I Believe speech I’ll be sharing with my students on the first day of school.

This I Believe

I believe that education can be fun. ¬†Scratch that. ¬†I believe that education MUST be fun. ¬†Addendum. ¬†I believe that in this classroom, education MUST and WILL be fun. ¬†Fine print: fun–specifically the experience of fun–being a subjective term, the teacher makes no promises, guarantees, nor binding assertions that individual students’ experiences of fun will be uniform, in surplus/deficit, remarkable relative to similar classroom experiences facilitated by different teachers, nor noteworthy in quality/quantity.

Article 1: Conditions for a Successful Classroom Experience

Section A: Abandon Your Apathy

At this stage in your life everything is about YOUR experience. ¬†And that is as it should be. ¬†I’m not going to chide you for thinking selfishly, self-righteously, or egotistically. ¬†You need to be full of yourself because you are forming yourself, and you need to assert an identity. ¬†I get it. ¬†That said, don’t use the “this is boring” excuse for not doing work. ¬†Just because something isn’t directly relevant to your sphere of existence does not mean that it is undeserving of your attention. ¬†I will try to make old things exciting, hip, and new, but you gotta meet me halfway. ¬†Old stuff is cool! ¬†The world is cool! ¬†Recognize.

Section B: Lighten Up, Darken Down

I was trying to think of the opposite of lighten up, so darken down seemed appropriate (if a little depressing). ¬†Really, what I am trying to say is this: you’ve probably heard the quote, “Don’t take life too seriously–you’ll never make it out alive” (alternately attributed to the movie¬†Van Wilder and the writer Elbert Hubbard). ¬†It’s true! ¬†But also false. ¬†Life and learning are fun, but they require sustained effort. ¬†Whistle while you work. ¬†Enjoy the whistling, but more importantly, learn to love the work.

Article 2: Safe Assumptions

Section A: You Don’t Know Squat

You probably think you know a lot of things, and you do! ¬†But really, you dont. ¬†As compared to you, I know approximately a half-percent more about .000000013% of humanity’s total knowledge. ¬†Which isn’t really that impressive. ¬†This is to say that I am no august sage with profound storehouses of wisdom. ¬†Rather, I am, like you, a co-journeyer on this fantastic trip toward knowledge. Let’s help each other out and maybe build something worthwhile on our way.

Section B: I Am Invested in Your Success

When you succeed, I succeed. ¬†When you fail, I consider it (to a greater or lesser degree) a personal failure. ¬†Therefore, I will neither take relish nor derive satisfaction from giving you a low grade. ¬†I would like to give everyone an A. ¬†And I will give everyone an A. ¬†If everyone earns an A. ¬†So earn those A’s!

Article 3: The One Where Mr. Darby Pre-Apologizes

I am new at this.  Consequently, I am certain that I will fail (sometimes spectacularly) a number of times as your teacher.  I would like to Pre-Apology to you now.  As my inaugural class, you are somewhat like guinea pigs in a weird educational experiment.  As I become a more experienced teacher, I feel confident that I will improve my technique and limit my bumblings.  But, as of now, I am technique-less and bumble-prone.  I ask, humbly, for your occasional grace.

Conclusion

This I believe and know to be true: I am really excited to be your teacher. ¬†I can’t wait to read literature with you. ¬†I’ve pre-apologized, so now it’s time to get pre-excited. ¬†Let’s get pre-excited!