Teaching Beyond the Classroom


I have been frustrated in my first year that I have had very little opportunity to interact with students outside of school. When I have, it has been great, and I have heard so many things from other teachers (or even student teachers, when I was in that stage) about how students respond well to seeing that teachers care enough to see them when they’re not required to.

Last Friday, I finally had a great opportunity to see some of my students in action, under some interesting circumstances: our girls’ softball team played in my hometown (where I currently live) against my alma mater. I knew this was coming, so I planned in advance to make it, and I took along my oldest son (the younger one would have come, but he had just had tubes put in his ears, and it was a windy day).

The reaction of students was awesome – the girls were initially pretty surprised that I came, with one of my seniors saying, “Wait, Mr. B is here? Our English teacher?” And they got to see my son in the throes of a meltdown, spurred mostly by the fact that there was a playground within sight that he desperately wanted to play on. I think that really did bring it home to some of them that, hey, I’m a real person, too. (Class discussions about autism have also helped this.)

And when I returned to school yesterday after the weekend, another teacher passed on that some students had even brought up that I came to the game, and she said they were impressed at that.

Again, it’s a shame that it took so long for this to happen (why can’t the teams here play my alma mater more often?), but I’m glad it did. Maybe this will lay some foundations for the future.

Fingers crossed.

I had the unique experience (for me) a little over a week ago of getting into a discussion with my mother about politics. This is not a common occurrence in the least: I try to stay out of political discussions in person with people both that I know well personally and that have distinctly different views than I do. (My father is one of these people. Strange how opinions can diverge so much in just a generation.)

But ultimately, what the discussion ended up focusing on was not a political issue – although one was the initial catalyst for the conversation – but rather an epistemological and ethical issue.

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The bell rings to signal the end of the day, and the students in my last hour class frantically escape their academic chains for the day. I sit at my computer and try to do some work, until my visitor arrives.

And arrive he does, in grand style: the door swings furiously open, and the student furiously takes a seat in the front row of my classroom.

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I generally don’t divulge many details about what is happening in my school, and I have tried to keep a modicum of anonymity (although I know that the curious reader could probably put the pieces together). That’s for my protection as well as my students, none of whom deserve to be dragged into blog posts by name (or even gender, where I can avoid it). I know as a first-year teacher that I am in somewhat of a precarious spot, despite the fact that my position itself is not anywhere close to being on the chopping block and that I have pleased administrators enough that I think I’ll be around next year. (It also helps that I’m the third high school English teacher in as many years; the position needs some consistency.)

But I have to write about something that is happening at my school right now. It’s simply too much for me to keep in.

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This is take #2, due to a stupid browser and WP failing to auto-save properly.

My sincerest apologies to faithful readers – or perhaps in this case, wait-ers – for the absence; things have gotten a little more complicated this semester, and that’s the best excuse I can offer for my weeks-long blog silence.

One such complication – in a good way – is my own doing: getting our school involved in the national Poetry Out Loud poetry recitation competition, which I was fortunate to experience when student teaching last spring. I’m taking six students in total this week to our regional competition, three who were involved in the school contest and three other students who I’m hoping will be inspired by seeing the contest play out in person. I’m excited about going, in part because I’ll get to see my former co-op, who I have certainly missed, and perhaps (I hope) some of my former students.

This experience has allowed me to learn some important lessons about setting up extracurriculars that I will certainly remember for the next time (and certainly for POL next year, especially the importance of starting earlier). I just hope that the experience is useful for the students, that they will see the point in it. (I keep thinking of Marianne Moore’s great poem on the subject.)

Maybe eventually I’ll get back into a routine of writing; I would greatly enjoy that. For now, I’ll keep trying to get caught up and simply – to use an old cliché – keep on keeping on.

You might even say it was a case in which I did actually learn my lesson.

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Today, I did what I had to do: I fought what may be a sinus infection all day to make it to school to provide comfort for at least some of my students. Consequently, I quickly found out that the teacher who passed away, familiarly called “H” by students and colleagues alike, had had a profound impact on so many people.

That made it incredibly difficult. One colleague gave the announcement this morning, and having been at the school for years, he had a hard time making the announcement. The student who normally does the pledge bowed out (H had been a family friend, I understand), and the secretary, bless her heart, broke down crying in the middle of giving the pledge in the student’s place. It was so hard to listen to because the grief was palpable.

And then there was silence, something which has never (to my knowledge) happened at the beginning of my 1st hour class. So I told them, “I’m sorry, but I have to break the silence. We have to talk about this.”

And what ensued was a beautiful session of catharsis.

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If one can be considered a fan of some grammatical artifact, I am a fan of the subjunctive mood, for some undefinable reason. Maybe it’s because the subjunctive is somewhat of an endangered species, having all but disappeared from modern English. I’m not a stickler about it – I don’t know that I can really be called a stickler about anything grammatical other than the bare essentials for communication – but I have been known to advise students in feedback about its formal use. Yes, it might be acceptable in general to say something like “If I was six feet tall, I would be much better at basketball” even though the subjunctive would call for the construction “If I were six feet tall…”

However, I suggest that there are instances where understanding of the remaining uses of the subjunctive mood or at least the underlying reasons for its existence are useful, since it does still exist but is rarely ever taught explicitly. Generally, this should consist at least of an understanding that the subjunctive can be used to express a state or proposition that is contrary to fact.

Some real-life situations:

  1. A student in one of my classes was talking about something gender-related (I don’t recall the specifics) and asked me, “Mr. B, if you were a guy–”; at this point, I interrupted and said, “Whoa, wait a minute: are you saying that I’m not a guy?” He didn’t intend (I think) to communicate this piece of information, but it was communicated nonetheless through the construction.
  2. Similarly, my wife recently started out a sentence, “If I were me,” at which point I remarked that she must have some severe identity (and logic) issues.

So even if the subjunctive is on its way to extinction, despite my affinity for it, understanding the remnants of this mood can in fact be useful. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

I finished the book I’ve been reading this week earlier today, Why Do We Gotta Do This, Mr. Nehring?: Notes from a Teacher’s Day in School by James Nehring, and I have to give it my highest recommendations for any junior high or high school teacher (although it will be more topical for the latter). It is a very compelling book, equal parts narrative and commentary but all contained within a narrative framework that is very approachable. Nehring does a great job of telling the story of education – not a history, but the way things are. I say “are” because I don’t think things have changed a whole lot in the 20 years since this book was written and published; in fact, if you replaced all instances of “Walkmen” with “iPods,” there would be virtually no dissonance with the reality of education in 2009.

There is much that can be said about Nehring’s commentary – perhaps the most important part of the book, although the narrative is entertaining and engaging – but I want to return to that dreaded question that I wrote about a few days ago*.

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And it’s not from me!

Actually, I’m really excited about this opportunity. I had the idea several weeks ago to try and find guest speakers from various cultures that would align with units of literature that our senior English course is studying. The first one was virtually a no-brainer for me: looking at the literature of Latin America would provide a wealth of opportunities to find speakers with experience in these countries so that my students could have a first-hand account of these places.

So I sent an E-mail asking for potential speakers to the chair of the modern languages department of my alma mater, and (somewhat to my surprise) I received an E-mail back saying that the information had been forwarded on to someone who was interested, even naming the individual and their majors. I was ecstatic, to say the least.

Well, my excitement faded as the days passed and I had no E-mails from this individual. I contemplated sending them an E-mail but thought better of it. If they want to come, they’ll contact me, right?

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