Category Archives: Teaching

A Lament


A student at my school died last night.

To be specific, she was a student of mine.

I can’t say I knew her particularly well, but I knew her well enough for the tragedy of a young person’s death to be bigger than that; this was the death of somebody who I taught, whose presence in my class I enjoyed and appreciated, who lifted up the students around her with her energy and enthusiasm.

This was a girl who had plans for college, who worked two jobs in addition to attending school, who found a way to be a positive influence in a setting where it is so much easier and commoner to be negative.

Since I teach her, there was a parade of teachers through my classroom today offering sympathy and prayers. (And I won’t begrudge people their prayers in a time like this.) But one of them said something that gave me pause.

She said, “the world just doesn’t make sense sometimes.”

And I found myself unable to agree with that. Quite the contrary, the world makes perfect sense. It just doesn’t always operate in a way that we approve of or enjoy.

The loss of any life is tragic to somebody. The loss of a child is tragic to a community. Tragic or not, these things happen all around us, all across the country, all over the world. It is the absence of these tragedies from our immediate lives that blinds us to them. The world carries on in much the same way every day, but because we don’t endure a tragedy this day, we feel like the world makes sense (of a sort).

But when it strikes close to home, suddenly the world ceases to make sense?

No. The world operates as it always has, but on this day, my community, my school, my classroom, has been visited by a tragedy. But it is still normal. It is still commonplace. Death, even the death of somebody young and undeserving, is a part of life.

It’s sad. It’s a shame. The loss of potential is devastating. Who knows what she might have been?

One of the novels I teach is Night, by Elie Wiesel. And no matter what we do, no matter how many videos or pictures we show the students, I never really feel that they get it. It’s impossible to describe the loss of life on such a scale to somebody so young. Six million deaths is too much to process, like the size of the universe, or even the fact that light takes eight minutes to reach our tiny blue sphere from the sun.

But a single life, plucked from their very ranks and extinguished? Taking with it all her hopes and dreams? All her happiness and vitality and struggles and pain?

I fear they will understand that all too well.

I sat in the room with them today, while grief counselors filed through and while students walked the halls with tissues pressed to their faces to the sound of the shuffling of feet and the snuffling of noses. And I saw them looking for answers. Looking for meaning. And while I’ve always had a healthy dose of self-doubt as a teacher, I felt for the first time completely inadequate. And yet, we must find a way to offer these students guidance. We must find ways to encourage them to seek meaning, to pursue their potential, to affect the world in whatever way they are able.

It’s times like these that I understand why people turn to God for answers. But the truth is, the answers that we want to think come from God, really only come from within ourselves.

The world is what it is. Whether it makes sense to us or not, whether we like what we see in it or not.

Today the world is poorer by one, and maybe that’s not a big deal. But the world of my community is poorer by one, and that’s a big deal indeed.

 


The Spring Slump (Do Your Homework)


Spring is that time of year when teachers really feel like they’re spinning.

Spring break is in sight, and beyond it, the shimmering oasis of summer vacation. The long slog through the school year has taken its toll, and we either embrace or evade the exhaustion that it brings; either way, a payment is due, and that payment will be settled in extra sleep or extra stress or extra drinking or extra crying. Or extra all of the above.

Of course, the students see the same oases that the teachers do, but without any of the adult grasp of importance of finishing what you start, or long-term goals vs short-term happiness, or simple good sense. So the kids start to lose their minds a little bit, they start to embrace the summertime laziness a little early, they start to really just kind of get on your nerves.

Teaching is one of those jobs in which the working year starts off hard and only gets harder, as we have to find ways to keep students motivated while their internal motivation is circling the drain. Or, just as likely, we have to deal with a cascade of students who are suddenly failing and can’t grasp why. And of course, behind the tidal wave of suddenly incapable students is the even bigger, louder wave of parents who don’t want to believe that Johnny hasn’t turned in any homework for over a month.

It’s a tough time of year for teachers. I get a little jaded. From the start of the semester I preach and preach to my students — to my high school seniors, even! — the importance of laying solid foundations NOW. Setting good study habits, doing the reading and the writing on schedule, getting the grades of which they are capable on the front end so as to establish good momentum to carry them through the year, to insulate themselves against the senioritis which inevitably creeps in around this time of year.

And yet. It is March, and I find myself preaching again, this time that for those of them who do not see the grade they want, the time to work to fix it is NOW. The time to repair the damage is NOW, before the leaks flood the hold and become irreversible. And the next day I look out into the classroom and I see the tops of heads, their eyes aimed at their cell phones instead of the text of Macbeth. I hear them talking about whatever the kids talking about these days instead of their thematic analyses. I see them putting their heads down and sleeping in class instead of even simply trying to passively absorb anything going on in the classroom.

Soon it will be April, and their 68s will have turned into 62s and 57s, and I will rail again that grades can be recovered and redeemed, but only if they take action NOW, only if they stop the bleeding, cauterize the wound, infuse some initiative, and work to save themselves. And still, I will sit in my classroom alone at 7:30 in the morning, ready and on-call to offer them the help and the time to save themselves, but as useless and unappreciated as a street magician.

And then it will be May.

And they will flock to me like seagulls on an unattended Big Mac.

What can I do to bring my grade up?

Can you give me some points for this?

Oh, you wanted me to turn that in?

Is there any extra credit?

And that’s when teachers begin to have aneurysms.

Every year, I feel like the blind man who sees the future and tries to warn the city of the impending disaster, and who gets ridiculed for his trouble … until the volcano erupts. Of course, by the time the volcano erupts, I will be lounging on Tybee Island and drinking a very cold, very alcoholic beverage.

Cocktail, Tropical, Beverage, Drink, Glass, Summer

If you are a parent and you have a kid in school (and I mean, from elementary all the way up to college, to be frank), this is the time to watch them extra closely. Teachers can only push so hard; kids need the push from mom and dad too.

If you’re a student reading this, know that the number one determining factor in your success is yourself. Mom and dad and your teachers can push all they want, but if you don’t care about your grades (or, gasp, the things you’re learning in class), none of that will matter.

Didn’t mean to end up preaching.

Not that I’m much of a preacher.

It’ll be all right. God never gives us more than we can handle. Because God doesn’t exist. He can’t give us anything. Whatever life has given us, we can handle it. When we can no longer handle it, we die.

…Man, that took a dark turn.

Here’s a picture of a bunny to cheer things up. It’s topical, too, because of Easter … because rabbits who deliver chocolate eggs totally have something to do with this … holiday? … can you even call it a holiday since it happens on a Sunday?

Whatever. BUNNIES!

European Rabbits, Bunnies, Grass, Wildlife, Nature


Fear for the Future: Evolution Edition


While discussing current events (specifically the primaries) with my students today, things took a shocking turn.

Students were asking me about Trump, because they’re nervous about what his presidency might mean for the country, and for them personally. Now, I’m really careful to remain as objective as possible, but I also think it’s important to be honest. So I told them why I don’t think Trump could be elected, even if he wins the primary. (I don’t believe he can appeal to moderates, and I think he’ll anger enough Republicans along the way to ensure victory for the democratic candidate, whoever that may be.)

All fine and good. Then another student asked if there were any black candidates in the race. I mentioned Carson, but also pointed out that I don’t think he can win. Naturally, they asked why. And I spoke about how, for better or for worse, the Republicans have amassed behind the three frontrunners, and anybody else — Bush, Carson, Fiorina, et al — are basically muddying the waters at this point.

“But is Carson a good candidate?”

“I don’t know enough to say for sure.”

“Would you vote for him?”

“Probably not.”

“Why not?”

“Well, for one, he doesn’t believe in evolution.”

Silence in the classroom for a moment. Then: “What, you mean like that stuff they teach in science class? That we come from monkeys?”

“Well, that’s oversimplifying a little. We didn’t come from monkeys. But yes, evolution like you learned in science class.”

“Oh. I don’t believe in that either.”

My turn to be silent. A handful of students begin to nod their heads in agreement.

Me: “You guys don’t believe in evolution?”

About a third of the students are shaking their heads at me.

“Darwin? Natural selection?”

Now several talk at once. “That didn’t happen,” or “We didn’t come from monkeys,” or “I believe in God.”

I paused. I’m not a science teacher, so it’s not really my job to go straightening them out on the finer points of evolution. Further, I’m not about to stand up in front of a classroom full of young, impressionable minds, and begin hammering away at their religious beliefs. I like having a job too much to go getting tangled in that debate.

Luckily, another student asked a question and pulled us onto another (less sensitive) topic, for which I was thankful. Not because I don’t want to have difficult discussions in my classroom, but because I really didn’t know how to proceed. I want to foster critical thinking, but I don’t want to offend. And I don’t see critical thinking behind “that didn’t happen” and “I believe in God.” Belief, in that sense, is the absence of critical thought. It stopped me cold. Even some of the smartest students — and when I say “smart,” I’m saying “capable of independent, out-of-the-box thought” — were nodding along in agreement with the roadblock that was thrown down.

This frightens me. I teach a class which has, as some of its primary concerns, the structure of argument, the support of said argument with evidence, and the thoughtful communication of said argument. And this — their knee-jerk, casual and offhand dismissal of a well-researched, scientifically documented theory — well. It frightens me.


Thanksgiving for Teachers: A Sample Itinerary


Thing about teachers is, it’s hard to describe being one. I mean, in a vague way I guess people think they understand it — well, you babysit some students who are sort of vaguely jerkish, you write some lesson plans and quizzes, you grade some quizzes, assign some homework, take an hour-and-a-half lunch every day, and then you get three months off during the summer. Oh and THOSE WHO CAN’T DO, TEACH HAW HAW HAW. And that’s true, in the sense that it’s true that bees are face-stinging forces of evil. Sure, they are, but that leaves out the much more important truth that they power the agricultural engines of the entire freaking world.

Teachers are people. Flawed people. People whose work gets the better of them sometimes, just like anybody else, and people who look forward to their well-earned vacations with a gusto that borders on the psychopathic. Seriously — take a walk through any school building in the days leading up to a holiday. See if you can’t smell the desperation coming off them in waves, if you can’t see the frenetic ecstasy rimming their eyes.

But as much as we look forward to our time off, we always screw it up. (Or at least I do.) Here’s how this Thanksgiving went in my life as a teacher:

  1. Organize a series of quizzes and essays to grade over the break. You have a week off; that’s plenty of time to fit in an hour or so somewhere to do a bit of catch-up work.
  2. Stuff said papers in your “teacher bag” and carry it home.
  3. On the short drive home, allow yourself to drift away completely from even the abstract idea that you are a teacher.
  4. Bag o’ papers goes in the closet. Enjoy a nice adult beverage with dinner because it’s vacation, dammit.
  5. Spend next few days doing house things and totally not doing teacher things. Bag o’ papers collects lint in the closet.
  6. Organize for your trip out of town. Do not, even for a second, consider bringing Bag o’ papers with you.
  7. Turkey and stuffing and travel whirlwind for a few days.
  8. Arrive home and decompress from seven hours in the car with kids who do not want to be in the car for seven hours. Bag o’ papers is still in the closet, lurking like bad leftover green bean casserole. Nobody is interested in either.
  9. Plan to hang Christmas decorations. Find that on your earlier trip to Home Depot, you got the wrong size staples for your staple gun. Go to Home Depot again. Get wrong size staples again. Give up and watch college football. (LOL what bag o’ papers?)
  10. Last day of the break. Plan to hang Christmas decorations. Watch Inside Out with the kids instead. Remember that you’re a teacher and you have to go back to teaching tomorrow. Write a blog post about the things you did instead of grading papers over the break. Think about taking some time to grade papers today (there’s still time) and remember that the Falcons play at 1 PM. That means: morning for decorating, football in the afternoon, and by evening it’s time for the usual Sunday evening routine of dinner, bedtime, and sobbing over the lost weekend while sacrificing a goat in hopes of buying more time before you go back to work.
  11. Wonder how in the hell nine days passed so fast. Drink wine until you no longer care.
  12. Monday morning. Retrieve ungraded bag o’ papers from closet. Go to work in a panic. Resume regular teacherly duties.

I’m assuming it’s pretty much the same for all teachers.


17 Tips for Speaking at Your High School Graduation (and not Sucking at it)


There you are: Four years of studying and stressing and extracurricular activities that look good on your college applications and community service and teacher recommendations and doing homework while your friends are partying and knowing more about what the inside of the school building looks like than the inside of your own house. All for that little moniker, filigreed in gold next to your name in the program. Valedictorian.

Or maybe that’s not you. Maybe you’re the charismatic one, the one other students look to, even though your grades aren’t so hot. Maybe you won a contest, or maybe your English teacher nominated you to speak before your classmates because you just get it.

One way or another, you have a speech to give, and not a lot of time in which to write it. And one way or another, you found yourself here. We all make mistakes in life.

Last year, I wrote this: How to Write a Graduation Speech that Doesn’t Suck. It remains one of the most popular posts on this site (though it is mightily eclipsed by the post about me giving my son an enema, for reasons I’d rather not think about). It’s not bad for getting the speech written. But maybe you’re not having trouble with the speech; maybe you’re blanching at the prospect of delivering it. Maybe this is the first time you’ve had to speak in front of a crowd bigger than your English class. Maybe you’re in the majority of Americans who fear public speaking more than death.

You’ve read advice and it’s all contrived. Imagine the audience in their underwear. Practice in a mirror. Look at a point just above the heads of the audience.

Nonsense.

That crap might let you limp through your performance. It might let you mumble your way through a forgettable “speech”. It might get you to the end of your prepared oral essay with a wheeze of relief. But it won’t do a thing for delivering a message that will resonate, that will earn you the respect or admiration of your peers, or land you on youtube. Okay, bad example. I don’t want you to end up on youtube because you did something gimmicky or bizarre or nonsensical, like wearing a live squid on your head or reciting your speech through an Autotune.

Here, then, is some actual advice for delivering a graduation speech — or, in fact, any speech — with grace and confidence.

You’ll notice that, in just about every point I list here, I mention the audience in some way or another. That’s not an accident. The speech doesn’t matter without the audience, and we all hear and view speeches long before we ever think to give one. What I mean by that is, you’ve been an audience member for speeches in your lifetime, whether it’s a guest speaker in the high school gym or the presidential address you watch from your sofa. You know intuitively what makes a good speaker and what makes a crap one, even if you can’t explain why. It’s easy, in preparing for a speech, to focus on me: how should I read this line? what should I do with my hands? how should I stand? But the real questions to ask are about them: how will this look to an audience? how will the audience see me if I stand like this? will my audience get this joke? In short, ask yourself, as you’re preparing, if the speech you’re about to give is one an audience would enjoy hearing. If not, you have work to do.

In no particular order…

  1. First of all, write a solid speech. I almost didn’t include this step, because it kind of goes without saying, but your words are doing most of the heavy lifting, here. The words are the skeleton holding your speech together, and your performance is the meat that makes it tasty. If the words are crap, your speech will be crap. What does that mean? Well, at its most basic level, it means you need to believe that the words you are speaking have value, that the message you’re trying to communicate is a message worth hearing. If you step up in front of a host of classmates and friends and family and deliver a boring speech that any Joe could have written on his lunch break, well… maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board and spruce it up a little bit, yeah? The speech doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. It doesn’t have to inspire me to go out tomorrow and experiment on squirrels until I’ve cured cancer. But it has to matter to you before it can ever matter to an audience.
  2. Drink a ton of water in the days leading up. Your vocal chords are a precise instrument for communicating the words you so painstakingly wrote. You wouldn’t sit down to play in the symphony while your trumpet was all gummed up with gummy bears and the residue of week-old soda, and your voice is the same. Clean out the pipes with water, especially on the day of. You remember this, right?Yeah, none of us wants that. Hydrate before you speak.
  3. Don’t lock your knees. When you stand up straight, the tendency is to make everything in the body as straight as possible, which includes locking your knees. Problem is, locking the knees puts bizarre pressure on the blood vessels down there. And blood flow problems combined with the nerves you may be feeling can make you lightheaded. I heard this for years as a performer and thought it was nonsense, until I watched a colleague drop like a sack while trying to introduce the acts at a high school talent show.
  4. Plant your feet. Inexperienced speakers (and even some who should know better) have a habit of getting happy feet and taking nervous, shuffling steps. This makes you look uncertain and weak, which you’re not. Are you? No, you’re a rock, a two-by-four, you’re an unshakable steel girder. You wrote a damn good speech that everybody in attendance should be excited to hear, so deliver it with the arrow-straight posture of a presidential candidate.
  5. Don’t be afraid to move. Yeah, you’re probably behind a podium, and that limits your practical movement. But the last thing you want to do is stick there like an abandoned warehouse mannequin, cobwebs and all. Movement creates interest, which is why we like movies so much. It’s also why, if you ever watch professional theatre, the character speaking will move in some small way — a shake of the head, a Shakespearean point, a shrug — as or just before she begins her line, that is: to make sure you’re paying attention to the right thing. Incidentally, it’s the same reason a magician asks you to closely look at the handkerchief he’s fluttering around while he secretly swaps out the $20 you gave him with a live woodpecker. Point is, a lean here or there, a quick movement of the hands, any sort of movement can draw attention and add emphasis to your words.
  6. But, know when to hold still. Too much movement can tire your audience out, or give the impression that you are antsy or unsettled. This shatters your credibility. It’s the same reason you shouldn’t be shifting your weight from foot to foot. You don’t need to spread your arms every fifteen seconds, or point every time you say “you”. Shakespeare had something to say about this: “Do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” Sometimes, you just want the audience to listen to your words.
  7. Make your look a conscious choice. Sure, your classmates and your teachers know you, but a lot of people in the audience don’t. And, whether we like it or not, first impressions (and even secondary impressions) matter. It’s why the accused has the opportunity to put on a three-piece suit while he’s sitting at trial: if the jury got to see him in an orange jumpsuit, they’d automatically assume he was guilty. Shave. Comb your hair. Or don’t, but at least don’t shave because you want to appear before the audience as a scruffy-looking nerf herder.
  8. Practice in front of somebody who isn’t biologically programmed to love you. Mom and dad are great, but they aren’t going to give you the harsh feedback you need to know if you’re really having an impact. They think you’re awesome, all the time. Which is a steaming pile of nonsense. You need somebody who will tell you the little things you’re doing wrong, like mispronouncing the word “nuclear” (how different our history could have been!). Drama teachers are good for this. English teachers aren’t bad either. Friends are marginally useful. A pile of your stuffed animals from childhood is not at all helpful.
  9. Prepare some notes, for god’s sake. If you’re not suited to speaking in front of crowds, memorizing the speech in your basement isn’t good enough. When you feel the crushing weight of thousands of eyes staring at you, the words are going to jump ship like rats on the Titanic. By all means, memorize your speech, but pack a safety net just in case.
  10. Cull the “um”s and “uh”s. Plenty of practice will take care of this, but nothing tells an audience you’re unsure of yourself or uncertain of what comes next as filling up the space with empty syllables. Even if you know what you’re saying next, and just use it as a lead-in, it sounds terrible. Take this for example:…and he still got elected. But if you seriously get lost? Just take a silent moment to find the thread again. A momentary pause will draw the audience in and make them think you’re about to say something really good. An “uh” tells them that whatever you’re about to say wasn’t important enough to remember.
  11. Tell a freaking joke. I know, I know. The gravity of the moment demands the utmost seriousness, and you fear to deviate lest you be accused of making light of the occasion. But nothing breaks the ice like a little joke, especially a self-deprecating one. It lets the audience know that you’re human, and tells them it’s okay to engage with you (and you do want your audience to engage, right?). Used sparingly, a few jokes can make a boring speech palatable, and a decent speech great in the minds of an audience.
  12. Hold for laughter. If you followed rule #9, and if at least you have the charisma of a cheese danish, your joke will get some laughs. You may not have them clutching at their sides, unable to breathe, but they’ll laugh. The quickest way to lose an audience is to invite a reaction and then shut that reaction down. Like leaning in at the end of the date, but then slamming the door before the kiss. It ices them out. When you tell a joke, you have to let them laugh for the right amount of time. Press on too fast, and you slam the door in their faces, and they’re afraid to laugh again. Hold too long, and you start to look lost, and they won’t go on the ride with you if you look lost. How to gauge it? Every laugh rises and falls like a wave. It builds quickly, reaches a peak, and then peters off. You have to feel that wave, and ride it like a cool, hang-loose Malibu surfer. It feels weird at first, but you ease right into it. For reference, check this video:and notice how odd and awkward it feels holding for laughs that aren’t there. Like sitting at a red light at two in the morning and waiting for the whole cycle while no cars drive by.
  13. But what if they don’t laugh? Okay, you told your joke, and they didn’t laugh. So now you feel like your pants have fallen down and everybody’s staring at your Spider-Man undies (what, you don’t wear Spider-Man undies?). It’s awkward as hell, but don’t let it sink the ship. Roll on with whatever you were about to say as if they did laugh, and just recognize that they’re not a laughing crowd. (Or maybe it means that you’re not the joke-telling type.) And be ready for short or nonexistent laughs in the future.
  14. Make eye contact. You’ve heard the advice about looking just above the heads of the audience to make it look like you’re making eye contact, and it sounds good. And yes, it will look like you’re making eye contact. The problem is, eye contact is a two-way street. You get to see what another person’s thinking, and they get to see what you’re thinking. Humans crave this. It’s why screaming teenagers faint and lose their minds when Justin Beiber locks eyes with them even for the most fleeting of moments. HE SAW ME, they cry, and begin to weep blood tears. And a graduation speech is no different, minus the blood tears. It’s one thing to know that the speaker is up there addressing the class of 20xx, but it’s another thing entirely to know that he’s speaking to me. You can’t make eye contact with everybody, but if you can create that feel for a few people, you let the entire audience know that they could be next, and that will keep them rapt. Plus, you get to look into their souls. Don’t you want to see into their souls? We have such sights to show you.
  15. But don’t be creepy. There are hundreds, if not thousands, in attendance. You maintain eye contact with one person for more than a few seconds, the audience belongs to feel shut out, like they’re intruding on a private moment. And maybe you spot your girlfriend or boyfriend in the crowd, or your mom or your kid sister who’s always looked up to you, and you want to make the moment last. Resist that urge. Make a private moment later with that person. While you’re up there, you belong to the masses, and if you shut them out, they will lose interest in you, like a swarm of gnats with ADD. And if you lock onto a stranger for too long… well, that’s just creepy. Don’t be that guy, yeah? A couple of seconds, a sentence or two, maximum.
  16. Relax. Tension manifests itself in the body, and your nerves can cause you to tighten up like an over-tuned guitar string. The shoulders draw up and in, the spine compresses as you try to make yourself smaller. The physical result is that you compress your various cavities, most notably your lungs, which can leave you short of breath and dizzy. The mental result is that you look smaller, and you feel smaller, and since you’re already putting pressure on your lungs, you’re going to get quieter, which is the kiss of death. Shake it off and stand up straight. The simple act of squaring the shoulders and drawing them back makes you stand taller and opens up the chest cavity, which makes you look taller and more confident, and allows you to breathe and speak comfortably. Practice at home before you try it in front of a crowd. You don’t want to look like a preening rooster. Ever been on a date where the other person didn’t know what to say, and it got all awkward? And you wanted to slither up inside your shell and stay there until they kicked everybody out of the restaurant so you could slink home in silence? Was that just me? Don’t let your speech feel like an awkward first date.
  17. Enjoy yourself. It’s easy to spot the person having a good time. He smiles, he laughs, he’s not terribly concerned with what people are thinking about him… If you can evoke that feeling, your audience will enjoy themselves right along with you. How many people get the chance to speak at an occasion like this? A graduation speech is a rare opportunity. If you’re not having fun with it, then they should have picked somebody else who would have. Enjoy your time in the spotlight, and the audience will enjoy it too.

There you have it, seventeen terrible tips to make your graduation speech less awful. If you do these things, I can’t guarantee you a perfect speech, but I can guarantee you that your speech will be better than 90% of the graduation speeches I’ve heard, and that includes those given in movies. (I’m looking at you, Twilight saga.) If these tips are helpful to you in any way, I’d love to hear about it.

Good luck.


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