July 2009

I’ve finished writing three out of my four syllabi (I’m writing a joint syallbus for the two semester-long elective courses), and as I start the fourth, using the same overall format as the previous three, I realize something important.

I have no writing text at all for my writing elective – at least not that I know of.

If my suspicions are correct, I start teaching this elective in…2.5 weeks.

It’s a good thing I consider myself flexible and that I already have an idea of what I want to teach. Although, it will mean that I’ll be scouring sites for ideas on how to incorporate outside material.

Update, 8/1/09: I was in my classroom this morning, and as I looked around, I ran into a creative writing folder that had been used for this same course by a previous teacher. There were references to a book I had seen in a cabinet, and I was able to find a very small class set of them: 10 or so books. Of course, the class size will probably be small, so I’m going to try and use them. If nothing else, I can make copies of pages for any students beyond the number of books I have, and that will save me some trouble.

Even better, the text is somewhat organized in the way I worked out on my own. Synchronicity, I guess.


I continue to finish up planning my curricula: honing in on the major projects that I want to do for each course, matching up key assessments with state standards and descriptors, finishing my syllabi (which I think are clear and honest). I feel good about this.

I come home from work and find a letter from my superintendent, one which has been sent to all returning and new teachers. It contains the agenda for our teacher institute the first day of school (before classes start the following day) and…a list of suggestions from the spring?

I think, Okay, this should be interesting to see what the teachers thought could be improved. Maybe I can get some idea of what I’m in for.

I was at least right on the last part.


Even though I wouldn’t have told you as much at the time, I wasn’t a very good student in high school.

Don’t misunderstand me – academically, I did fine in high school, although certainly not as well as I certainly could have done. I was the classic case of a student who got bored with school, decided it wasn’t worth expending a whole lot of effort on, and floated through high school on mostly natural abilities. Let’s face it: I wouldn’t want to have taught me.

At the time, though, I thought that teachers would want a student like me: often willing to participate in class, sometimes insightful, rarely distracting and mostly observant, but overall brilliant. (I had somewhat of a high opinion of myself, you might say.) I also have a weird sense of memory: my mind often forgets things that it probably ought to remember* (both long- and short-term) but frequently remembers things that are perhaps better forgotten.

These two attributes of mine conspired to make a very frustrating situation for me several years down the road after high school. You see, I ended up forgetting how much of a jerk I was at times during my high school education.


I was asked how much time I have left the company I’m currently working for by a VP today, and I mentioned that it was only two weeks now. Without much enthusiasm, he asked me if I was excited, and at the risk of actually seeming excited to leave, I gave him a mixed response: I have a lot of work left to do. (Which is true.) I wish I could have been more emphatic, but I didn’t want to seem eager to leave the world of business for the world of education.

But I am.

It would be a lie to say that I’m not a little scared of the fate that awaits me in my new school, in my own classroom, with all of the pressure on me (experience or not). It’s intimidating, and I know I have a lot of work to do before I’ll feel more at ease about everything. And I do feel good about knowing what I’m doing at what I do now, I admit.

Even so, though, there is something about this role I’m taking on, this vocation that I am finally pursuing, that excites me. (Certainly it’s not the money – although that is a step up for me.) I get to go from a job where I help people with things that improve temporary situations, where my effect is minimal and superficial, to one where – if I play my cards right – I can make impressions on individuals that will hopefully leave them better people in the process…and where I can become a better individual as well.

It is easier to make a transition like this when there is hope ahead – even where there is also uncertainty. For now, I can deal with both.

Disclaimer: I like thinking too deeply about the characteristics of things that some most people probably think should be taken at face value. If you are one of those people, turn back now. If you’re one of those people and can’t help yourself, my condolences.

I recently noticed – okay, it wasn’t recent that I first noticed, but I observed again – that the syntactic features of Facebook statuses are quite varied. Eric Baković at Language Log wrote about pronoun issues with Facebook back in May, which was sometime after Facebook decided (perhaps after some complaint from syntactic-minded users, or maybe just from non-syntactic-minded people who just thought it was awkward) to stop forcing users to use “<Person’s name> is” at the beginning of statuses. Currently, the default is a box that says “What’s on your mind?” rather than prompting for an exact phrasing of the user’s status. Some people have ignored the fact that Facebook inserts the user’s profile name at the beginning of the status, which results in updates like

Jane Smith* what to eat….

Isaac Houston* stargazing! finished up for the night. took a fantastic picture of jupiter live! I will have a picture posted tomorrow I hope..

But at least among my friends, who are not universally English-oriented individuals (although I have plenty of English majors, graduates, and professors in my friend list), the trend as I’ve observed it in my relatively small sample is to stick with the classic style of updates and start with a verb. What’s interesting to me as I think about how I update is that there is also a tendency to stick to forms of “be” or “have,” the former especially due to the natural tendency for status updates to be expressions of an emotional or physical state (e.g. “Jacob Seinz* is tired and needs to go to bed now.”). Other copula appear less frequently, and there are a few others that tend to be more abstract (c.f. “need” in the previous example).

I’ve noticed, however, that even when I want to express some action rather than a state of being, mood, etc., I almost always use the present progressive. This tendency popped out to me when a friend’s status said “Marsha Cherrywood* reads Freire”, and I realized that I probably would have said “Mr. B is reading Freire.”

So now, just because I don’t like fitting into neat little syntactic modes, here is my new status:

Mr. B updates his status in simple present tense.

Much better.

*Names withheld to protect the innocent. Or something.

It pains me to note here that one of my favorite English professors at my alma mater has announced that he will not be returning to our university. He was the head of our English education program, as well as my personal university supervisor for my student teaching, and he informed a number of recent students in the English ed program of his decision not to return. As I told him personally, I think he will be sorely missed, and I do think that the English program will suffer more than a little for the loss. Not only will a suitable replacement need to be found for heading up English education, but I think it is a rare feat to find someone who is so interested in incorporating language study into English language arts and who expresses such an interest in trying to understand what makes teachers last. (I continue to devote myself to keeping up on my membership with NCTE and our local chapter, IATE, because of his conclusion that a common strand tied to longevity of teachers is membership in professional organizations.)

The silver lining in all of this for me is that he is leaving the university not to take another professorship but is instead returning to his passion: teaching middle school language arts, specifically in Boston, where he taught language arts for a number of years. On hearing this news, I was not surprised in the least: although he has done marvelously teaching college English courses, talking to him for any length of time will bring out this passion, and I think this move is a good one for him.

So, Dr. M, this is to wish you well in your return to – shall we say – the middle. You have given me so many insights into the teaching of English (I just started reading an EJ article by Peter Smagorinsky and thought of you) and to the world of YA literature – and for that especially I am extremely grateful. May your return be satisfying – and don’t worry, I’ll keep you in mind if I ever make it out to Boston.

With less than five weeks to go before classes start, I finally decided that with all my preparations for classroom management and discipline, finishing up reading through textbooks, working out assignments, getting organized, and so forth, there was another thing I needed to do: ask questions.

One of the questions I addressed to my principal was my schedule. You might wonder why this question came up, especially when it doesn’t seem at all requisite for preparing. That’s true – I mostly just wanted to find out what I’m in for, and so I threw it in for good measure.

It could be worse, but it could be better.


Okay, it’s been a few days since I’ve updated here, and it occurred to me today that I will begin my professional career officially five weeks from tomorrow (and will begin teaching the following day). Where am I at? Here’s where I stand in terms of progress.


NCTE has been sending me these lovely Inbox E-mails for almost a year (since I became a member last fall), and one of the things they mentioned in recent E-mails is the National Gallery of Writing, which is taking submissions right now in preparation for NCTE’s National Day on Writing on October 20, 2009. I like the idea a lot, especially the emphasis on a variety of compositional formats (not that I’m surprised that NCTE would take such a stance), and I’m thinking of contributing.

Here’s the catch: I can only contribute one piece.

So, faithful readers – help!


Part of what’s hard (especially in a struggling job market) about being a recent college graduate heading into the world of education is the lack of that all-important “E” word: experience. Teaching, like few other jobs I know (medicine being one that comes immediately to mind), is a job where comparatively little of the theory that you learn will make you competent – it is really one of those jobs that you learn how to do largely by doing it (although much can be learned by the experiences we have being taught and by watching or reading about others’ pedagogical ideas). Consequently, this is why internship experiences are absolutely vital to education programs, giving education majors the opportunity to practice the ideas they learn in philosophy and pedagogy courses.

First-year teachers may have some experience, but by definition, they – we, I need to add – are not as qualified in that department as our colleagues who have been on the front lines for years and have paid their dues (if I might mix my metaphors a bit) as new teachers. The only way to gain experience as a teacher is to teach when you’re relatively inexperienced and hope that you have the tenacity, patience, and a support system (including a mentor or mentors, hopefully) that will see you through the beginning years of your educational career.

What I think we first-year teachers tend to overlook are the skills we bring to the classroom that are relevant but don’t come from curricular studies in pedagogy or a specific content area. As a teacher of literature, I always try to remember that part of how students – anyone, really – respond to literature depends on what they bring to the table as a person, what experiences they have to build on. I think this idea that people are in part a product of what they have experienced is an important consideration for any teacher.

Get past the stuff that is expected: educational philosophy, developmental psych, methods courses, disciplinary and interdisciplinary training. What do you bring to teaching not just as a teacher but as a person?


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