Tag Archives: reading

#303: The American English Teacher Strategizes for Kids Who Don’t Read

nonreaders

He assigns the pages
and when class convenes
he understands in short order
that only a few kids have bothered
to do the reading.
The age old dilemma of
the high school English teacher:
what can be done if kids won’t read,
not can’t, but won’t or don’t?

Reading everything in class,
either out loud or in silence
will get the reading part
of the job done, but it takes
forever, can be dull, leaves nothing
left over for discussion or
any kind of deeper analysis,
no time for paydirt, for fun.

There’s the ubiquitous
threat of a quiz or a test which
either lights a fire under their seats
or, more likely, just punishes most
everyone and rewards a few.
This English teacher is loath
to purposefully use assessment
as a “gotcha” move, punitive
and ineffectual. So then what?

Yesterday, one of his students made a
suggestion: We’ll do the reading during
one class, then we’ll talk about it
the next! What he was angling for,
essentially, is simply a world without
homework. And the American English teacher
finds himself, often, saying in response
to this proposal: Why the hell not?

Read less, read better.
Read better, like it more.
Like it more, read more.
Read more, do it willingly
as homework in later grades.
This seems like it could be
a formula for success, one that
in his 29th year of teaching,
he has suspected would work
all along, but only ever half-
heartedly employed as a practice.

Meanwhile, the American
English teacher assigns his
students an art project with
some directed text search
for the key developments
of chapters 4 and 5. Are they
able to do the work if they
haven’t read? Only if they
do the work now and work hard.
Are they at a serious advantage
if they actually did the reading
ahead of time? Certainly.
Is it possible that everyone
wins in this situation? Yes.
Is there anything wrong with that?
He doesn’t think so.
The students work diligently
throughout the period
and have good conversations.
But there’s still the nag
in the teacher’s heart that
somehow he’s handling them
with kid gloves. Imagine,
he thinks, handling kids with
kid gloves. O, the horror:
teaching within the tragic
gap between what is possible
and what is a reality.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Poetry, Teaching

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 9, 2017

I realize now that it might be possible to misunderstand the title of this blog series. I just want to make clear right out of the gate that our narrator is not talking about his penultimate year on the planet. Nope. He’s pretty healthy, save for some high blood pressure (which he is working to alleviate), so he certainly has more than another year to live! Phew! Glad we got that out of the way. No, with “penultimate,” he’s referring (why am I writing about myself in the third person?) to the possible or potential year before his last year as a teacher in a public high school classroom. In other words, he may retire soon. And he’s being deliberately wishy-washy and vague. Is he sure? Mostly. Can he envision putting it off? Yes. If the circumstances are right, he could see very well putting it off. Maybe the title of the series should be Diary of an English Teacher in His Possible Penultimate Year. Peter Percival’s Pet Pig Named Porky Loved Pie. Anyone?

All right then. This is what I really want to talk about today.  I had a conversation yesterday with a student that blew my mind, and not in a good way. Here it is, quite simply. In my English 10 class, we’re reading Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey. A student, at the end of the class, turned the book over and looked at the back cover. He saw something there that surprised him; no, he was shocked. He came up to me and he said, “Mr. Jarmer, is this book really worth $16?” I answered in the affirmative without a lot of thought. He couldn’t really be surprised by this, could he? Then he said, “Do you mean, Mr. Jarmer, that if I lose this book, I will have to pay $16 to replace it?” Again, I answer in the affirmative. He’s incredulous. “No way. There’s no way this book is worth $16.” Afterwards, I tell him some secrets, such as, if he were to buy a brand new hard cover first edition from the bookstore, he’d pay upwards of $30 or $40. His jaw drops. “Who would pay $40 for a book?” Well, I say, I have. Many, many times. Sometimes a lot more. I tell him how much I spent on my Folio editions of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. He appears to be absolutely blown away by my stupidity. And I am absolutely blown away by his . . . underestimation of what a book might be worth.

I realized some things. There are billions of young people out there who have never ever in their life purchased a book. So of course, how would they know the value of a book, monetarily speaking? Not only are there billions of young people out there who have never bought a book, there are other multitudes of young people who have never checked a book out of the library, have never attempted to read a book that was not assigned to them. And there are scads of young people, I know, who manage through years of schooling somehow to avoid reading ANY of the books that have been assigned to them, who might be even proud of the fact. So there is an epidemic, I think, among young people, of book ignorance and book devaluation. Not only have they avoided reading anything of substance, they have no idea and no interest in finding out what a book is worth. And I’m not really talking about kids whose level of literacy precludes them from reading. I’m talking about the literate illiterate. Kids who can but don’t.

It’s painful to think about what they are missing. They’re not all lost causes, though. I read as a young person what was assigned to me, but I was not a reader. After my homework was done, I spent all my free time listening to music, playing music, and if I read I was reading about music, and I spent a lot of time with the high school theater department. I did not read books. I did not really become a reader until I was about 19. But then I became a fiend for reading. Not a voracious reader (I was slow), but an enthusiastic, close reader. And that’s when I began also to take myself seriously as a writer. But as an adult, I had friends who were perfectly literate who only started reading seriously in their 30s. So again, this boy who couldn’t believe that a book was worth $16 may one day start reading.

I feel kind of shitty. I see it, as part of my gig, that I must try to inspire students to read, to instill a desire to read. How do you DO that? Well, in part, you do it by modeling (you can’t help it) your own enthusiasm about the words on the page. That works to a degree, maybe even to a large degree. But I know that one of the other ways, maybe a more effective way, to inspire readers is by giving them choices about WHAT they read. This is a no brainer. They will want to read more when given opportunities to find the kinds of books that speak to them. Why do I feel shitty? It’s been a long, long time since I found myself in a situation where I felt free to give students choices. The curriculum has become less flexible. The scope and sequence of most of the classes I teach require certain books to be taught. When the district spends thousands of dollars to adopt a new text, there’s an obligation to teach that text. When the district emphasizes and/or mandates the sound idea that teachers not work in isolation, that they plan together and create common assessments, to look at data that will inform their teaching, there’s just simply less room for student choice. Or at least that’s how it feels. I don’t think that it’s true. If more of my colleagues were committed to student choice, it’d be an easy fix. I feel a little bit alone. I feel a little bit sad that my teaching is maybe not as progressive as it once was. When I was a new teacher they basically just gave me a room and said GO! A part of me pines for that kind of freedom again.

Meanwhile, the question is: $16 for a bloody book? And my response, falling on deaf ears: the worth of a book is immeasurable, invaluable, priceless. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

In closing, and in a completely different vein, because teaching kids to love reading is not the only thing I’m thinking about today, the furnace is down. It’s cold in the house. We got the obligatory Yuletide tree, and today would have been my mother’s 88th birthday. First birthday without Mom. First Christmas and New Year without Mom. My mother, who read very little until her later years, and who preferred raunchy romances, even in her 80s, over anything literary, nevertheless, encouraged me as a reader and writer. Cheers to the memory of Mom and to the promises and riches of reading.

1 Comment

Filed under Education, Literature, Teaching, Writing and Reading

#50: On Trying Again To Read Moby Dick (Again)

moby-dick

I’m not reading again, but instead,
trying again to read for the first time,
the problem being, as I’ve said before,
not one of starting but of finishing,
which, I fear is, but hope is not,
a general pattern in my life.
Call me Ishmael.
What a great first line.
I read it twenty times before moving
to the next sentence.
But this time I make a vow
only to read the passages I’ve marked
from my previous three efforts,
and in this way, I will proceed
through the first 160 pages,
which I have read before,
in record setting time,
being able then to begin my endeavor
where I left off–with a sense of that thing
many of our favorite television shows do for us:
“Previously on The West Wing. . .”

Moving quickly through the etymology
and extracts, and, even though it hurts me,
skipping 1, 2, and 3 entirely, I arrive quickly
at the first passage I marked last time,
Ishmael’s words of wisdom as he climbs into bed with Queequeg:
“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
Amen to that, Brother. And then,
“A good laugh is a mighty good thing. . .and the man
that has anything bountifully laughable about him,
be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for,”
and I immediately remember how funny this novel is,
and how much I thoroughly enjoyed every failed attempt at reading it.

I can’t move too quickly, though, through my review
of the first 35 chapters because I discover I am
completely out of book darts–little post-it notes
I use to mark key passages when I’m reading a fancy edition
in which I am loath to make permanent or pencil marks.
To slow myself down, I think I may write a poem
about every passage I’ve thus far marked, or,
to the chagrin of all my “friends,” turn every key
passage into a facebook post.  Nothing but Moby Dick
from me for the next month or so.  There’s no good
reason it should take me that long to purchase a new
package of book darts–but it is entirely in the realm
of possibility. But I want to know more about Captain Ahab,
who has been in hiding, who finally comes out to give up smoking,
place his peg inside an augured hole for stability,
and tell Stubbs he was “ten times a donkey, and a mule,
and an ass,” and that if he didn’t get out of his sight,
he would “rid the world” of him.
I get out immediately to the local office supply store
and get me some book darts.

I continue my review.  I want inside that big boat.
Starbuck says, “I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of a whale,”
and I say out loud to Starbuck that I am afraid of the whale and of Moby Dick,
Herman Melville’s beautifully intoxicating and totally intimidating novel,
and my fear is what will ultimately push me toward the conclusion.
Quickly moving through Chapter 35, Cetology, Whale Studies 101,
the attempt to answer Ishmael’s question: what is a whale?
He admits and then heroically accepts his failure
at being able to satisfactorily answer the question,
and then comes to this most stirring conclusion:
“God, keep me from ever finishing anything.
This whole book is but a draught–nay, but the draught of a draught.
Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience,” and once again I say Amen,
amen to never finishing anything, amen to a draft of a draft,
amen to the desperate need for time, strength, lots of cash, and patience.
Ishmael, I love you like a brother
and I will finish this novel if it kills me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature, Poetry, Writing and Reading

Reading With My Boy On Easter Eve

Image

It was a first, a first on this Easter Eve afternoon.  Sure, we’ve read to our son at bedtime almost every night of the week since birth, but this was the first time ever, on this warmest and sunniest day of the year thus far, that my son and I were to sit down together, both independently reading, side by side, because it was a good thing to do.  He was reading Beatrix Potter.  I was reading the new memoir by Jay Ponteri.  And it was a kind of magical moment, magical, because the reading was not foisted on my son in any way, and it wasn’t part of a nightly routine or a homework regimen;  instead, the boy saw his father reading in the warm spring air, and the boy decided that this must be a pretty cool thing to do with one’s time.  After Dad had read solo for awhile, continuing even after the boy had brought him a freshly baked cookie from the kitchen into the yard where Dad was settled into the camping chair in the shade, the boy said, “I’m going to go inside and pick out a book.”  I said all right to that.  Minutes later he came out with a whole stack of Beatrix Potter, from which he chose The Tale of Pigling Bland, the longest of the books in the stack at 80 some Beatrix Potter pages. We were moving our chairs around, negotiating between sun and shade. I found a good spot, and the boy ended up leaning up against the mossy trunk of a gigantic and ancient oak.  And there we read.  He devised a reward system whereby a little badminton or frisbee with Dad followed every 20 pages he read.  But the play served only as a brief respite; after about 5 minutes he’d say, “Shall we get back to reading?”  Then we’d read some  more.

It was heavenly.

This reading with my son gave me hope for him unlike almost any other experience we’d had together in his seven years.  One of my most vital dreams for my son, beyond what sport or what instrument he will choose, beyond which girl (or boy) he will love, beyond which school, vocation, or career he falls into, is that he learns to love to read.  I know in my English teacher soul (bolstered by recent research about what literature actually does to the brain) that the benefits that come with a love of reading will be profound and lasting. I don’t want to jump to conclusions with a premature celebration; one afternoon with a book under a tree is no guarantee he will be a lover of books any more than he will be a lover of trees.  But it’s a start.  It’s a good start, and I’ll take it.

5 Comments

Filed under Parenting, Writing and Reading

Of Being Tired of Writing About Teaching

I think, at least for now, I’ve exhausted my brain and my “pen” regarding teaching, issues of public schooling, educational crisis, education reform. I know I will come back to it. It’s inevitable. But for the time being I feel like anything I have to say now will be a repeat of something I have said earlier and I run the risk of sounding like a broken record. To sum up: teaching hard, class-sizes too big, public schools good, underfunding public schools bad, standardized testing bad, intrinsic motivation good, extrinsic motivation not as good, cell phones bad, closing schools bad, fire bad, Frankenstein good.  See, already in my summing up I have started to drift away from the topic.

So what else is on my mind?  What’s worth blogging about? Feel free to chime in or to cast your vote.

I’m going to stop beginning every one of my blog entry titles with the word “of.” Of is so on or about yesterday. I want to write about writing.  I want to write, in particular, about what to do with my first novel, which is, in this very moment, sitting in a box. I want to write about reading.  I’m excited about the new book by David Shields called How Literature Saved My Life and I think I could write a blog entry or two about how that has been true in my life as well.  Maybe there’s a meditation on a key book or two.  Hell, I might even write a review. I want to write about music.  Maybe I’ll write about what I said I wouldn’t write about, my band and its endeavors.  Hell, I might even write a review of the new They Might Be Giants record, or the new David Bowie (which I do not yet possess), or the new Eels (which I do not yet possess)  Maybe I’ll write about records I would like to possess.

I’m afraid, but I would like to write about religion–and, being afraid, that’s probably the sign that I should write about religion.

You get the picture.  It’s time to transition.  It’s time for a change-up.  It’s time for a new conversation.  I don’t know if this is true or not, that topic consistency might be a selling point for a blog site, the thing that makes people keep coming back, but I think I’m going to risk losing a reader here and there in order to sufficiently entertain my own bad self.  I hope you all stay along for the ride.

3 Comments

Filed under Education, Introductory, Publishing, Teaching, Writing and Reading

Of The End of Winter Break and a Bunch of Other Of

Sunday, January 6, the end of Winter Break in the school district for which I work.  Always mixed feelings about the end of any lengthy break from teaching. There’s some dread about having to get up and work hard again, always.  And there’s a sense of discombobulation and confusion about what it was we were doing before this two week interruption and how again were we supposed to get back to business.  But there’s also a sense of longing again for the normal rhythm of the school day and the five day work week, for mostly positive interactions with colleagues whose company I sincerely enjoy and miss, and for my students who, because there are just so damn many of them, guarantee always that no day will be the same as the last day.

It’s been a productive little break for me, but in unexpected ways.  I’ve been writing like a fiend.  This will be my eighth blog entry in two weeks time–nine, if I decide to publish the really weird one I wrote about prepositions.  I wrote almost 2,000 words toward a new novel.  I decided to participate this January in an off-shoot bastard child of National Novel Writing Month, January Novel Revision Month–which for me, will  be less like revision and more like drafting, but without the kind of hard core goal of 50,000 words in a single month. I have made for myself a goal of 20,000 words.  We’ll see about that once the work week kicks up again.  So, this productivity has come with some costs.  I feel selfish. We haven’t done very many things as a family this break.  I read only about 70 pages into one book by Andrew Pham called The Eaves of Heaven and played around a lot in The Onion Book of Known Knowledge.  We saw The Hobbit. I didn’t see very many friends. Didn’t make any progress on the new Here Comes Everybody recording–which I fantasized about finishing over the break.

Productivity seems to be always a kind of balancing act and all the things I’d like to get done during a break away from teaching get thrown into a big sack and tossed around and dumped out and always some things get done, maybe even some really impressive things get done, like nine blog entries and 2,000 words of fiction, but nevertheless, I feel somehow disappointed.  It’s a personal problem, I know.   

And the project to enlist subject matter help for blog entries from readers and friends has been fascinating and inspiring.  I may keep going with this, but I like the idea of this blog entry being a kind of conclusion to that particular project–which is a bit of a problem, because I got lots of subject matter suggestions that I have yet had an opportunity to tackle, a whole bunch of other OF essays that I did not get to write. So, perhaps, in conclusion, it might be fun to tackle a bunch of those in short form–the aphoristic OF essay.

Of Aging:  I’ve been thinking about this one a lot and have come to the conclusion finally that there’s not a lot of good to say about it.  With age comes wisdom and with wisdom comes ambiguity and with ambiguity comes complexity and confusion, pain and suffering.

Of Sanguinity:  Despite that fact that aging is not good for anyone, at least physically, there are always things to be happy about.

Of Textbooks:  except textbooks.

Of Eternity:  We are blips in space and time.

Of Milk:  I hate those posters of celebrities with milk mustachios.  They seem somehow obscene.  And I hate the grammar problem there, also.  No, I don’t got milk.  I don’t have any milk.  Or, if I do got milk, I have it.  I have milk.  But that’s no good either.  I am drinking milk in this moment.  Or, yes, there is milk in the fridge and I can drink it if I choose.  Otherwise, outside of my aversion to this particular ad campaign, I am totally in favor of milk, enjoy it on cereal, appreciate its contribution over the years to the health of my bones, and recommend it to young people everywhere.  And I’m fascinated by the thought of the first human being to ever drink the stuff or suggest drinking it to others.

Of Beer:  I love beer.  Last night I had a really great one, aged in bourbon barrels, served in a brandy snifter.  I love bourbon and brandy and beer.

Of Good That Comes From Vice:  Good things come from drinking beer.  But in particular, with this one, I was thinking about how much blog writing I finished in my efforts to procrastinate the writing of fiction.

Of Sincerity:  This one fascinates me.  Especially as a teacher, or as an artist, there are a bizillion opportunities to tell people what you think of them and their work.  I find it difficult to be sincere and positive all of the time.  Sincere negativity, while it’s honest,  is not always helpful because it has the potential to hurt.  But I would rather say nothing than to say something positive when I don’t mean it. And I often find myself NOT responding when students say stupid things–and I know sometimes they perceive that as negative response.  Did I just say that sometimes students say stupid things?  That was a moment of sincerity.  They really do sometimes say stupid things.  But I would never say to a student, “that was a stupid thing to say.”  Is that, then, insincerity?  Not exactly.  Do you see the problem? I guess you’re not being insincere just because you don’t speak out loud what you honestly feel–out of respect, decorum, or common courtesy.  That’s just about being in the world and not making enemies and trying to be kind as often as you can without lying to people.

Of Strange Phobias:  I have little first hand knowledge of this, but I can imagine all kinds of interesting things of which to be afraid: bean bags, Scotch tape, post-it notes, music, flowers, cute puppies, dust motes, light, sugar, pencils, insert any mundane object here.  In a twisted world you could make any of these things scary,  I suppose, and that has to be the answer, right, that people who are afraid of the mundane, or conversely, those who are in love with or who fetishize the mundane, have had some kind of life-twist, biologically or experientially, that has made them respond to particular objects in “strange” or at least unconventional ways.  Of this one, someone should write a book.  I’m 99% sure someone already has.

Of Ghosts:  A great song by the 80’s English pop band Japan.  Otherwise, yes, I believe in ghosts–as memories.  I’m haunted on a regular basis by quite a few, thank you very much.

Of Music As Language:  There’s nothing else to say, perhaps, at this juncture, other than, yes, music is a language, universally understood, perhaps, the solution to all of humanity’s problems.  I don’t know if I believe that, but I’d like to.

Of Course:  Yes.  That’s it.  It’s obvious.  It’s true.  I am in complete agreement.  No doubt about it.  Of course.

And in conclusion–Of Gratitude for Good Suggestions for Blog Topics:  thanks to Michelle, Michelle, Mary, Chris, Chris, Kraig, Cary, Jim, Kerstin, Eric, Jeff, Cody, Brandon, Ostin, Don the Geek, and if I’ve forgotten someone I am terribly sorry.

2 Comments

Filed under Culture, Education, Parenting, Self Reflection, Teaching, Writing and Reading

The Case Against The Super Bowl

I know, another provocative title. I thought it was funny, and that was my first impulse, to see if I might get a snicker out of some of my football fanatic friends and die-hard Super Bowl watcher acquaintances. But I realize now it’s more than just a gag. I really do have a case to make against The Super Bowl. But here are some confessions, to start with:

I don’t know who’s competing this Sunday.

I don’t know which roman numeral identifies this year’s big game.

I haven’t watched a Super Bowl since 1993, and on that day, some friends of mine were helping me move into my first home, had unpacked the little 13” Sony, plugged it in, and wired up an antennae for reception. A couple of my friends watched the game in the basement while I only glanced at the proceedings on a few occasions as I walked by the television with a box of stuff that needed unpacking.

Before 1993, I think I can honestly say that I don’t remember the last time I watched a Super Bowl competition. It has been since junior high, perhaps, when I still had some inkling of an interest toward competitive athletics. It was before I discovered playing rock and roll and theatre and reading, before those three endeavors would pretty much take me away from organized sports, in the same way they took me away from organized religion, forever.

Listen, because some of my friends, people for whom I have the utmost love and respect, are football fans, and because I understand that it does in fact take some skill, not to mention brute strength and force, to play the game of football well, I can’t say anything really terrible about the sport itself or the people who enjoy it. All I can do is make the case against this particular event from my own perspective. This is why I don’t watch the Super Bowl.

The money disgusts me. These guys are making tens of thousands or millions of dollars to move a ball from one end of the field to the other while the guys on the other team are making tens of thousands or millions of dollars by trying to prevent that ball from moving from one end of the field to the other. The guys on the other team do this by “tackling” whichever opponent has the damn ball. They, in turn, try to take possession of said ball so that they can attempt to do the same thing, to move a ball from one end of the field to the other. And while the money these guys make for moving a ball around a field is obscene, this incredibly insensitive reduction of the game into an apparently meaningless objective, nevertheless represents the way I feel about the game itself, about it’s potential interest or value as spectacle or entertainment.

So it bores me. I know, I know, occasionally, perhaps once or twice in a game, there might be a play of breathtaking beauty, skill, exceptional luck, or devastation. But what about the rest of the game? And what do people do during the wait? What do they talk about? Can they have serious talk or any conversation at all about other things while they’re watching? If they get distracted they might miss something, right? So I have this idea that people sit together in groups, sometimes in large groups, or as families, glued to the tube in silence for the potential of some high drama. I know I’m wrong about this—but it’s what I imagine and partly why I don’t watch.

Let’s go back to the money. The money advertisers spend disgusts me. It’s close to three million dollars, I understand, for a 30 second spot. These advertisers, I assume, believe that it must be worth it, so I shudder to think about the millions of people watching who might be doing something better with their time, being subjected to, and looking forward to being subjected to, this massive shock and awe style of commercialism. And I shudder again to think about the amount of money people spend as a result of the effectiveness of these 30-second entertainments inside the entertainment.

I find it sadly ironic. While part of what people do in watching football, or any televised sporting event, is to hold a kind of celebration of athleticism, most people celebrate this kind of activity by being totally inactive. Often, they do this while consuming mass quantities of chips and beer. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against chips and beer—if it weren’t for the football. And chips and beer, I suppose, are the proverbial tip of the iceberg in terms of calorie consumption on Super Bowl Sunday. People get fat watching other people exercise. Even though it’s kind of funny, it makes me sad.

And I think the big business of competitive athletics represents a microcosm of what is essentially wrong with our culture—we worship at the altar of competition. If we spent more time and money thinking about how to collaborate and help each other rather than beating down the other guy and winning, winning, winning, we might get somewhere; we might survive as a species. Our obsession with organized sports, our team loyalty, our hero worship, our hopes and prayers for the demise of the other guy—this kind of practice is worrisome to me and it pervades our society at every level. I know you’re calling me a dummy. Let’s have a football game where collaboration and cooperation between the competitors is the operative goal. That’s just stupid, Michael Jarmer.

You’re right. I don’t understand the game very well or at all. I’m not appreciative of the nuances of the sport. I’m overlooking the communal aspect, the social aspect, the aesthetics of the biggest football game of the year, the very real nostalgic buzz of watching the game you can no longer play because you’re too old or nowhere near skilled or lucky enough. That’s okay. I’m football illiterate and proud. Instead, I’ll read a book, watch season one of The Muppet Show with my son, or play in the yard if it’s sunny, or take a long drive along empty highways with the family. Something like that. Happy Super Bowl Sunday, anyway.

10 Comments

Filed under Culture, Writing and Reading