Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Senior pastiche

Well, it's official. The seniors are gone, their final exam, quarter, and yearly averages are entered, and in four days they'll have graduated.

This year I taught two classes with seniors. One was World Literature (all 12th graders), the other was Journalism (a mix of 11th and 12th).

For my Journalism final exam, I had students read two newspaper columns from The Daily Collegian, the independent student newspaper of The University of Massachusetts Amherst, where a number of my students are planning to go next year.

After reading the columns, they were asked to write a pastiche, imitating one of the writers' styles in an original, 600-word "senior sendoff." I asked them to include at least five specific memories or places of significance from their time in high school, and bring them to life using vivid and descriptive words and analogies.

A number of them were quite good. Here are a few excerpts:

"Now the end of fun as we know it is approaching. If this were an NBA basketball game, there would be 15 seconds left on the shot clock and Michael Jordan would have the ball. If this were a NASCAR race we would be on our 99th out of 100 laps, turning the corner on the straightaway, sitting shotty next to Jeff Gordon. If this were a bag of chips you would have one more nacho, and you wouldn't know whether to eat it real fast, or savor it in the moment."

Another student reminisces on high school gatherings... "Dances no longer consist of boys on one side and girls on the other, with "DJ Louie" in the middle playing songs like "Casey & Jojo." No. Now you have coalition and prom, which are always introduced with the "alcohol awareness" meetings and the rumors of Breathalyzers, and the people on the dance floor are so intertwined that you can no longer tell who is a girl or a guy."

Another looks back at her time as an athlete... "Walking into the gym, memories of the 6th man play back. Our loud obnoxious cheers make me laugh. Memories of Jim's belly slide in the tiger suit remind me that it's time to get used to a new mascot, new school colors, and new teams. No more Superbowl champs, no more lacrosse, no more night games, no more prep rallies."

And finally, one student reminisced on family struggles and the tragic death of one of his friends his junior year... "I think true depression is not when you're just sad and crying all the time. I think rock bottom is when you start feeling the apathy - that abyss that you don't even feel like pulling yourself out of. That's pretty much how I felt back then."


I was impressed with what the students came up with. It was true, honest, well-written for the most part, and more importantly, it was real. It wasn't a predetermined, premeditated, cold, analytical five-paragraph blah-blah essay. It was their memories and high school experiences conveyed through words, recorded for posterity. It was dramatic, engaging, and fun to read. It was meaningful. I often wonder why it seems that we, as English teachers, don't assign enough of these authentic, worthwhile assessments.

Bruce Schauble, who pens a rich and insightful blog on teaching, reading, and writing (Throughlines), writes about this in a post he calls Teaching the Ape to Write. I also recommend checking out Essaying the Essay. In this piece, he argues - in part - that teachers actually do students a disservice by forcing them to adhere to the notion that "every essay must must be built around a stated or implied thesis."

Regardless of your personal pedagogical philosophy, it's worth the read.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The power of masks

One of the activities for my Lord of the Flies unit involved having students create masks and write about what they made. The assignment was largely inspired by Jim Burke, who writes about the merits of this particular activity in his English Teacher's Companion.

Below is one of the masks my students created. Visit my English Teaching Resources page to see more.

From the hallway to the closet

On Friday I removed my 9th graders' Old Man and the Sea research posters from the hallway. I saved the best ones as models for next year's students. Below are what two of the better posters looked like:

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Scooting into summer

Above: My 1987 Honda CH-150 Elite scooter.

Below: The dashboard. On a flat surface, the scooter can achieve speeds of 60 mph. It gets about 80 miles per gallon.
For the past nine years, May for me has marked not only the start of spring, but also the beginning of scooter season.

In 1998 I purchased my first street-legal motorized vehicle, a 1987 Honda CH-150 Elite scooter. I bought it out of necessity: I was working a summer job as a prep cook at a restaurant in a neighboring town, and needed cheap and reliable transportation to work.
I was able to score the scooter for $1100. It paid for itself in about a month, as I was making $8.50 per hour, pretty good money for a temporary gig.

Before the scooter I owned a 1978 Puch moped (pictured below).

The Puch was great for getting to school and friends' houses, but with a top speed of 35 mph my range of travel was limited.

I had bought the Puch off a friend for $125. It served me well during high school, offering relatively reliable transportation for reasonable cost. When something broke, I was usually able to fix it myself. I knew how to change its tires, replace the throttle cable, take apart the carburetor, and clean the engine.

I eventually sold the Puch for $100 to a friend's younger brother.

As for the scooter, it is, for all intents and purposes, a motorcycle, as it requires insurance and registration. With that extra expense and responsibility comes added speed, power, and freedom. I ride it when weather allows, and each November put it into storage, eagerly awaiting the turning of the calendar.

Last weekend marked my first scooter ride of 2007. After charging the battery, giving the tires some air, and pouring in 2 gallons of fresh 87 octane, the scooter coughed, sputtered, and purred its way to a smooth idle.

Within seconds I was enjoying an idyllic ride down back roads past farms and trees. Later that week I drove the scooter to school, although the ride was rather frigid at 6:15 in the morning. Despite a pair of quality leather gloves, my fingers almost lost sensation as the 45 degree air felt like 35 as the wind and cold tried to have their way with my extremities.

In about 6 weeks the school year comes to an end, and summer will be upon us. July and August are already filling up. There are two weddings to attend, a grandmother’s 100th birthday party, a 50-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail, a week at the beach, a few scheduled days of professional development, and a stack of books begging to be read. There’s also the day I’m scheduled to have my wisdom teeth removed, assorted friends’ birthday parties, and my own wedding planning (slated for sometime during summer ’08).

And don’t forget the annual lesson and unit plan tweaks, additions, and subtractions in preparation for the following school year. The summer will fly by as it always does. Hopefully I will be able to find a few days to fire up the scooter and find a road I have yet to travel, leading to an unexpected watering hole or scenic vista. Summer – and life – should still have room for exploration and unplanned discoveries.