A Contrast in Attitudes

Through circumstances that can only be considered coincidence, I’ve found myself reading a lot about the educational situation in Pakistan lately.  OK, I’ve read two books related to the topic, which isn’t a lot, but enough to get me thinking – especially since I never really set out to learn about it in the first place.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the TalibanFirst I read I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, because I was curious about the 17-year-old girl who became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  Talk about remarkable teenagers, right??  Now I’m reading Three Cups of Tea by David Oliver Relin.  My mom gave me the book because she liked it, but it ended up in storage before I got a chance to read it.  After unpacking our book boxes, I’m finally able to catch up on things like this.  Relin tells the story of Greg Mortenson, an adventurous mountain climber who accidentally stumbled on the needs of the children in the remote Pakistani villages.  Through sheer dedication and determination, he has gone on to build several schools in Pakistan.

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Let’s Fix it With a Petition! (…or not)

About two months ago, the principal made an announcement to the school informing everyone that he’d hired a former student to be a new English teacher next year.  Given my tentative situation as a long-term sub, all my students assumed that meant he’d hired another teacher instead of hiring me on permanently.  They came rushing up to my room after lunch, expressions frantic, asking “you’re not coming back next year?!”

The only answer I could give them was “I don’t know.”  It’s a complicated situation.  I’m still in the running, but I know he is considering other teachers for my position, too.  This new teacher he’d hired was a whole separate situation and had no bearing on my job.  However, I wasn’t at liberty to discuss most of the details with my students.  While I tried to assuage their fears as well as I could, I also couldn’t give them the certainty they wanted.  So they expressed their teenage outrage at my tenuous position and what appeared to be the hiring of my replacement.  “We should tell them that we want you back,” they announced.  “We should start a petition for them to keep you!”  And honestly, if I’d encouraged the idea instead of discouraging it, they probably would have done it.

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Practical Education

“Are you going to teach us how to do taxes?”

The question caught me off guard.  Taxes belong in a life-skills or applied mathematics course, not English.  However, I followed her logic and addressed her question.  We were talking about writing resumes (as part of their career research project), and in her mind she associated one adult life-skill with the other.

No, I’m not going to teach how to do taxes.  I don’t even do my own taxes.  I send all my W2’s and other paperwork off to an accountant who makes sense of all our relocating and student loans for me.  I said as much to my students, to which they responded, “What’s a W2?”

And therein lies the crux of their inquires.  They know they don’t even know the basics.  They know there’s a world of ambiguous “adult responsibilities” waiting for them down the road, and they know that traditional education leaves many of these responsibilities unaddressed.  Sure, we all had to figure it out and we did OK, but I get why they’re asking questions.  Adult life can be an intimidating prospect.

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Everyone’s a Nerd

When we reached a certain scene in Hamlet, I decided to switch things up and have students delve a bit deeper into the psychological aspects of the characters.  I gave them a modern translation to use side-by-side with Shakespeare’s words and asked them to explain and respond to two different speeches in the scene.  One of them was my favorite speech in all of Hamlet (and possibly all of Shakespeare), spoken by Claudius on the topic of prayer.  I’ve always been fascinated by this speech, so much so that I memorized it for a competition in high school.  I admitted this to my students.  They looked at me like I was crazy, and said as much to my face.  “You memorized this?  By choice?!” they said, shaking their heads in disbelief.

“Hey,” I replied with a shrug, “Everyone is nerdy about something.  This just happened to be mine.”

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Dealing with Naiveté

I had already started writing this post when three students came into my study hall asking if they could survey some of the kids in the room.  As they circulated among the class and asked their questions, it became harder and harder for me to simply sit quietly and listen.  The survey was on racism in America today, and in my eavesdropping I caught wave upon wave of the naiveté that inspired me to write this post in the first place.  These kids have good lives.  Their families are well off.  Aside from the handful of Korean exchange students, our school doesn’t have much in the way of diversity.  They’ve never seen the impact of racism in action – which led them to conclude that racism is now a non-issue.  I cringed inwardly, already mulling over ideas for bringing up the topic in class some time.

I love my job.  I love this demographic, though not always for the reasons people expect.  For the most part, my students are awesome – respectful, trustworthy, and motivated.  But man, they’re naive.

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Touching Dreams

“Are you going to be teaching English 11 next year?”  Before I could answer, his classmates jokingly berated him for his word choice.  The junior year course isn’t called English 11, but that wasn’t the point.  His point was that he wanted to know if I’ll be his teacher again next year.  “If I had an answer, I’d tell you,” I replied.

And then something dawned on the boy sitting next to him.  “Are you going to be working here at all next year?” he asked.

“If I had an answer, I’d tell you,” I said again.  The energy in the room lulled a little as that sank in, but not much can keep these boys down and within seconds they were joking about something else.

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Here’s to Growing Up

I have a 90 minute commute to my new job.  I plan to listen to several audiobooks over the semester, but I didn’t have anything with me this week, so I just had the radio and my own thoughts to keep me entertained.

Yesterday I introduced the career research project to my students.  I think it went well.  It was mainly technical stuff – due dates and specific requirements and all that jazz, but I’m hoping for a more detailed discussion about what careers they’ll choose to research soon.  It’s fun talking about that stuff with teenagers.  It’s fun helping them think about the rest of their lives.  I saw excitement in some students as we tossed a few ideas around.  One of my most squirrelly boys was eager to get started, asking me after class if he could go ahead and start interviewing people in the field he wanted to pursue, even though that part of the project isn’t due for another two months.  Another girl mentioned she was interested in two entirely different career fields, so she would have to choose which one she wanted to research.

As I drove home, I reflected on the various conversations of the day, proud to play a part in helping these teens begin the process of building their aspirations for the future.  And then I started listening to the local “mix” station on the radio.

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Inspired by Percy Jackson and His YA Cohorts

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a reluctant lover of Young Adult literature.  I was that nerd who read Shakespeare for fun in 8th grade.  I like my literature to have stood the test of time.  As such, I still tend to hold out on a new series and wait for it to “prove” itself before I’ll launch into reading it myself.  I didn’t start reading Harry Potter until after the fifth book had been published.  I didn’t read the first Hunger Games book until a friend sent it to me on my nook account.  And it took my little sister-in-law to get me started on the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, after all five books had been published.  Of course, once I get started, I’m hooked.

I fell in love with Rick Riordan’s clever adolescent demigod in The Lightning Thief, the first book of the series.  Back then, Percy was just 12 years old, battling ADHD and dyslexia along with monsters and mythical gods.  I’m now working my way through The House of Hades, the fourth book in the subsequent The Heroes of Olympus series.  Percy is 16, sharing the spotlight with six other demigods who all make up “The Prophecy of Seven” in the latest quest to save the world.

Don’t worry.  This post won’t contain any spoilers.  I’m only halfway through the book myself.  But as I read, I’m struck by the contrast of the expectations placed on fictional teenage heroes and the real teens living and breathing in our world today.

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How to Avoid Surface-Level Sympathy

She sat in her desk at the back of the room, eyes red and unable to hold back a few tears.  Four or five of her female classmates hovered around her, kneeling on the floor or leaning in from the seats nearby.  I’ve never met this girl in my life, and I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but her body language was all too familiar.  Stop asking me to talk.  Stop telling me everything’s going to be OK.  You don’t know.  You don’t get it.  Stop it with all this surface-level sympathy.  All the things you can’t say to someone who thinks they’re trying to help but doesn’t have a clue how bad things really are.

I don’t know what upset her.  It could have been anything from a breakup to a family problem to a bad grade.  It doesn’t matter.  Whatever it was, it was bad enough for her to cry publicly but not want to talk about it publicly.  So I may have seemed heartless to her classmates when I asked them return to their seats for attendance.  I kept my tone gentle, but more for their sake than hers, since I knew they wouldn’t understand my reasons.  I didn’t look at her more than necessary, either.  I’m the sub.  I’m no one to her.  But whether she realized my intentions or not, I could at least save her for the hovering masses who were unsuccessfully trying to get her to talk.

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Embracing Diversity

Last night, a teacher friend called me to vent about losing a day of teaching because someone from her district office wanted to come in and talk with her students about diversity.

“I can’t say no to them, because that’ll make me look like a horrible person,” she complained.  “But it’s not going to make any difference.  I’ve seen the lesson plan, and what they don’t get is that these kids aren’t going to care!”

It’s true.  Her complaint wasn’t about the merit of the topic – it was the administration’s method of trying to address it.  She’s a good teacher.  She understands and connects to the students in her classroom.  So if she says her teenagers won’t care about this lesson, she’s probably right.  “The kids are just going to be thinking about race – and they don’t think of themselves as racist, so they’re just going to tune out and think it’s stupid.  If we’re going to talk about diversity at all, we should be discussing how everyone is different, how no one is the same as the person sitting next to them.  We should talk about prejudices based on a wide range of factors and get discussions going about how each one of us is different.”

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