because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Gratitude To The Man Who Taught Me To Embrace Chaos

Posted on

It was my third week at Metairie Park Country Day School, and I could barely distinguish the administration building from the science building. I didn’t know where the nearest bathroom was, who to call about the broken desk in my classroom, or how to make the copier stop jamming.

For the first two weeks, I called him Jeff. By the time I got it straight, I realized that Mark Kelly was not the technology guy; neither was he the Athletic Director. He was the Middle School Principal, and he’d come to the English office to pay me a visit, to see how I was doing, if I needed anything. How nice, I thought, how friendly the folks are around these parts. Little did I know that he was out to get me. Little did I know that I’d come face to face with the meanest practical joker east of the Mississippi. I made the mistake of sounding secure.

Mark Kelly

“Everything is great,” I said, trying to sound confident.

“Have you been to the Lower School?” he asked.

“Been there.” I said, feigning a yawn.

“What about the library?”

“Pu-leeze,” I lied.

“So you know what you’re doing?” he said, raising his eyebrow. “You have it all together?”

I nodded my head, snapped my fingers two times for effect, and headed off to class.  Later, after school ended and I had erased the blackboard, reorganized the desks in a circle, and collected my mail, I returned to the English office. I saw it from all the way across the room; my desk had been cleared. Everything was gone.

When I realized the gravity of the situation, I gasped aloud: “My grade book!” It held all my students’ grades, all my attendance records.

I think I vomited a little in my mouth.

Sitting behind me, looking calm, was Mr. Kelly.  “You’ve really got it all together…” He smiled, arms crossed over his chest.

“Where is it?” I squeaked. “What have you done with it?!”

Suffice it to say that Mr. Kelly sent me on quite a scavenger hunt. During my journey, I located the Lower School atrium, the Upper School attendance office, the library – and I met fabulous folks all along the way. In the end, it turned out that Mr. Kelly had stashed all my goods in an empty file cabinet drawer right there in the English office, about two steps away from my desk. I pulled all my belongings out of the drawer, unharmed, and set about reorganizing. Mr. Kelly gurgled and chortled behind me.

Truth be told, I miss the way Mark Kelly batted me around the way some giant cat might play with a mouse or a bird. I miss hearing his booming laugh behind me at school plays; I miss his multi-colored Tabasco ties; I miss his wit, his charm, his teasing, and his teaching. Mark put a little bounce in my step. He taught me to stay on my toes.  He taught me never to brag about being done with something early. He taught me how order in the world is artificial and how easy it is to lose control. He made me explore, go out and meet people, go into unfamiliar territory and find answers. It’s so easy to get stuck in our own little comfort zones.

Mark worked as Head of School at Annunciation Orthodox School in Houston, Texas for many years. I like to think that this little Grasshopper has become like her master and that I instill in my students the same thrill for exploration and the same joy at being slightly off-center.

When is the last time someone made you feel a little off balance – in a good way?

Sure, I’ll Write You a Recommendation

Posted on
Monsieur Stephenson, circa 1980s

In 11th grade, I needed three stellar recommendations that I could send off with my college applications. I felt confident that I would receive solid letters from two of my former English teachers, but then I was kinda stuck. There was no way I could ask any of my math teachers. I mean, I enjoyed Geometry, but I wasn’t necessarily good at it, and my Algebra teacher had retired.

Finally, I decided to ask my French teacher. I’d been in his class for two years. I was reasonably interested in the material (kinda); I liked him a lot (that should count for something, right?); I did my homework (sometimes); and I tried not to laugh too much. Yes, I decided, Monsieur Stephenson would be the perfect person to write me the outstanding recommendation that I was seeking.

You can imagine how shocked I was when he flat out said no.

“Think about your performance in my class,” he said. “Do you give 100% ? Do you take everything seriously? Do you show me that you want to be here? Do you do anything extra?” He pushed his hair back with the palm of his hand and sat up straight in his chair. “Think about the answers to those questions and then you’ll understand why I can’t write you a letter.”

He did not say he was sorry.

Fast forward 30 years.

Here it is, recommendation letter writing season, the time when former students return to me, sometimes many semesters after I’ve had them as students. Like frantic homing pigeons who have been lost for an awful long time, they ask me to write them all kinds of letters –  to get into four year colleges, to enter the military, to give to potential employers – so I find myself thinking of Monsieur Stephenson a lot.

Mr. Stephenson in the 1980s

When Monsieur refused me that day, he gave me a big dose of reality.

It is not enough to simply show up: A person must do more than make a good impression. Many of my former students think that because they liked me – that because I was kind to them and they passed my class – that they are entitled to strong letters of recommendation, but the best letters of recommendation are not just about “passing the course,” but about work ethic and character, growth and potential.

I am grateful to Monsieur for refusing me, as I see his wisdom in holding up the mirror before me and having me take a good hard look at myself and my choices. I understand that his mediocre letter could have prevented me from getting into the college of my choice.

Students need to think carefully and be direct in asking any potential letter writer if that person can produce a strong letter of recommendation on their behalf.

If a student can’t find a professor or teacher, they may have to get creative and look to coaches, neighbors, religious leaders, perhaps someone who has witnessed their involvement in community service.

I learned more than just French from Monsieur Stephenson: I learned to be selective about whom I agree to write letters of recommendation. They are time consuming endeavors; labors of love.

Having said that, I am happy to write one for you – if you deserve it.

Anybody refuse to write you a letter of recommendation? How’d you take it?

We're #1… And I Feel Guilty

Posted on

Newsweek posted its annual “500 Best High Schools” report.** Immediately after the list was published, my local district posted the results in its Fall 2011 Newsletter which indicated that one high school in the district ranked #73 and the other high school came in at #99.

That day, I went to the grocery store. And as I shopped, I ran into folks who were all in a tizzy. Here’s a sampling of what I heard:

How did our school drop from last year? And why is their school better/worse than the other school? And why didn’t our school make the list?

Meanwhile, I kept my head low and kept pushing my cart.

While other people griped, I was content. I mean both high schools in my district made the top 100 list in Newsweek.

Last week, my entire district was just ranked #1 in the State by this report that came out on October 27, 2011.

Awesome, right?

But I’ve been thinking about these lists.

About what they do to us.

How they make us anxious/frustrated/furious/complacent/content.

They get our attention, get us to react, get us to blame, point fingers, worry, obsess, gloat.

And even though I can now wear a t-shirt that proudly proclaims that my child attends the #1 public school district in New York State, there’s something that is making it impossible for me to ride get on my magical unicorn and fly away.

The district deemed “worst” in New York State is also right here in Rochester; The Rochester Public City School District, a District that serves over 32,000 children, came in dead last at #431.

Never has there been such disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

At my nephew’s graduation back in June, the administrators noted that the Class of 2011 was exceptional. Graduating seniors had received astronomical numbers of dollars in academic scholarships. It was surreal. Collectively, their SAT scores were redinkadonk. Sitting in that huge field-house surrounded by well-dressed, well-fed, financially secure families, I felt hopeful. I think everyone did.

In September 2011, The Wall Street Journal reported:

The results from the [2011] college-entrance exam, taken by about 1.6 million students… revealed that only 43% of students posted a score high enough to indicate they were ready to succeed in college, according to the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the exam.

When I read that report, I read its inversion: 57% of students are not prepared for college level work.

And I knew who they were talking about.

On the second day of this semester, I administered a written diagnostic to my Composition-101 class designed to determine if students could write a basic essay on-demand.

Guess what?

I don't like to fail people. But sometimes I have to.

About thirty percent of the class failed the exam.

What’s the big deal?

I’m glad you asked!

In the last four years that I have worked at my local community college, I have learned a lot about the demographic of my students. Most of these students are not as fortunate as the children in my home district.

Many did not graduate high school. Some do not have money for breakfast or lunch and eat out of vending machines. I have had homeless students; one admitted to me that he had been hiding and sleeping in Wal-Mart right before he was caught and arrested. I have students who look down at their shoes when asked to read aloud because they can barely read. I have had students whose mothers are abusive and whose fathers are in prison.

Some students are civilian veterans; folks who have served in the United States military and are now returning to the classroom to try to focus on academics after multiple overseas deployments. Some claim some kind of disability status; and for others, English is not to primary language spoken in the home. Too many come from families whose annual median income fell below the poverty line.

So what do these lists tell us?

They tell us what we already know.

That students who come from an environment where parents encourage education will value education. They will come to school with full bellies, having slept in a bed they can call their own. They come with backpacks stuffed with all the required materials and minds that are ready to learn.

Children who grow up with some kind of interference — whether it be emotional, cultural or fiscal — will have to work harder to get where they want to go. It’s not impossible, but it’s harder.

I hate this enormous social disparity.

Pointing out the disparity in reports and newsletters doesn’t seem productive, nor does it seem to result in changes for the people who need them the most.

Here is what I can tell you:

Colleges are spending millions on remedial courses to prepare high school graduates for college-level work.

Businesses are having to invest time and money teaching employees basic skills they did not learn in school.

Well-intentioned (but misguided) initiatives like No Child Left Behind as well as our over-emphasis on standardized testing in the core subjects have sent us in the wrong direction. Instead of teaching students to think across the disciplines, administrators have chosen to “cut the fat” — programs like music and art and drama — which are considered esoteric and unnecessary.

And no matter how much I may I want to, I can’t fix students in 15 weeks: not when 12 years of school has failed them.

** Did you see the Newsweek report?

Go ahead and look at it.

You know you want to.

America’s Best High Schools: The List – Newsweek.

What do you think about these lists? Do they get you worked up? Or do they make you feel helpless?

Tweet this Twit @ rasjacobson

Sexy Semi-Colon Song

Posted on

A while ago, I posted an email I received from a colleague about sexing up grammar so that people will use it more. I called it “Grammar is a Hussy.”

Since then we have even gotten into interrobanging. Can you imagine?!

Well, these cool kids seem to love them some semi-colons; I think that’s fantastic.

What’s your favorite punctuation mark and why? Or, for the love of Pete, show me that you know how to use a semi-colon properly. Go on; impress me!

The Day Flannery O'Connor Screwed Me

Posted on
The Misfit
Image by haagenjerrys via Flickr

Someone really smart once said, “Kids seldom misquote; in fact, they usually repeat word for word what you shouldn’t have said.”

In fact, that person might actually have been sitting in my classroom the day I taught Flannery O’Connor‘s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to a bunch of 11th graders.

I had taught the story dozens of times and found the simple premise and the unfulfilling ending always led to great discussions.

One particular day, I asked my students to take out their copies of the story. A simple directive, right? Only this time, my students started snickering.

Initially, I assumed that perhaps someone had farted or something.

(What? It happens.)

We started to discuss O’Connor’s work, and everything was going along swimmingly. I asked someone what he thought the point or message of the story might be.

Four or maybe five people burst out laughing.

I wondered if I had pit stains or if I was dragging toilet paper around behind me as I walked around the room.

I couldn’t figure it out.

The laughing flared up again. And again.

Finally I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Why is everyone laughing?” I demanded.

Silence.

Of course.

I insisted, “Seriously, I’d like to know what is so funny.”

One brave girl tried to help me. “Mrs. Jacobson,” she said, “The story is called ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find,’ but you keep calling it… something else.”

She pointed at the blackboard behind me.

I turned to look at the board and sure enough, I’d even written it out in chalk: “A Hard Man is Good To Find.”

Oh. My. Holy. Embarrassing.

And did I mention that I was about 6 months pregnant?

Well, I was.

So they were all thinking about how I had gotten it on with a “hard man” and it was “good.”

Or something like that.

Teachers have to be careful to watch what they say whether in the classroom or out in public, and I have found the best approach is to assume that everything I say could be published or broadcast to the world. That way, I have to be sure what I am saying is appropriate, clear and concise. And cannot be misinterpreted.

But sometimes I stick my foot in my mouth.

So I’m guessing I was heavily quoted that night.

Unless, of course, that batch of students forgot all about my faux-pas.

Because teenagers do that.

I mean, a lot of stuff happens between 7:50 AM and dinnertime.

In her short story, O’Connor goes to great lengths to show her readers how meaningless many of the small things we concern ourselves with are in the grand scheme of things: how many of the things that we fret over are really not very important at all.

I mean, obviously, in the larger scheme, there are many worse things than jostling up a few words in front of one’s students.

So maybe that moment was not very important.

I can buy that.

So why do I remember it so vividly?

And can somebody help make that memory go away?

Done anything wildly embarrassing recently? Anyone like to predict some dumb things I’ll probably do this semester?

Spot Check

Posted on
Teacher
Image by tim ellis via Flickr

I’m kicking off Wednesday #TWITS: a fancy-schmancy acronym for Teachers Who I Think Scored / Teachers Who I Think Sucked. (It only took me eleventy bajillion hours to think up that one.) So here is my middle school memory about one very specific moment. Obviously, I have changed the teacher’s name.

• • •

In middle school, I had the meanest homeroom teacher. Unfortunately, she was also my English teacher, which meant I had double doses of her each day. Mrs. Dour ran a tight ship. She liked her rows straight. She liked her students quiet. She hated boys who leaned back in their chairs. She also hated girls who wore clogs. “Too noisy,” she complained. She called on people when their hands were down, and when she wrote words like “onomatopoeia” on the blackboard, she pressed so hard against the slate that the white chalk often crumbled into dust. Mrs. Dour wore her reddish-hair in a tight bun every day, but by 8th period, when I had her for English, most of her hair had fallen down, giving her a slightly deranged look.

I was pretty scared of her.

One June day, Mrs. Dour gave us all a 7-minute writing assignment during which time we were supposed to do something in our black and white composition notebooks.

I can’t remember what we were supposed to do because of what happened next.

Mrs. Dour turned her back to the class to write on the board. She was wearing a lightweight, white top and a long, gauzy, white skirt that day. I remember this because at that time I was preoccupied by what everyone wore. I noted in my superficial middle school manner that white did not flatter Mrs. Dour’s pasty complexion, and I planned to deconstruct her ensemble after class with my two friends during our bus ride home.

Right about then I noticed a small, reddish dot on the back of Mrs. Dour’s skirt.

Initially, I figured Mrs. Dour must have sat on one of her red felt-tipped markers. She was the only teacher who wrote in red felt-tip marker, and her fingers were often covered with red lines by the end of the day. While waiting for inspiration, I stared at the red mark on Mrs. Dour’s skirt – and I noticed the stain had grown larger. I looked around to see if I could catch anyone else’s eye, but everyone was madly engaged in our teacher’s in-class activity. As Mrs. Dour’s hand carefully crafted perfect cursive letters, I tracked the red as it spread across her bottom. What started out first as a dot, morphed into a quarter-sized circle and rapidly grew into an asymmetrical patch of red, the size of my adolescent fist.

I remembered how, midway through that year during gym class, we girls had been made to watch The Movie, a film created to explain what was starting to happen to our female parts. Our innards. I learned why some of us had boobies already and why some of us would have to wait. (In my case, years. Stupid hormones.) I remembered how we had grabbed each other’s hands as we huddled together in the gymnasium, trying to stifle our giggles. And before we left the locker room that day, each of us received a plastic “goodie-bag” filled with a cute little free sample of mouthwash, some deodorant, two sanitary napkins, and two tampons.

So I knew what was going on.

Meanwhile, I waited for someone else to notice. Or do something.

But as I watched the hand on the clock do that backwards-to-go-forwards click, I realized I was going to have to be The One.

I quietly pushed back my chair and, leaving my clogs behind so as not to make noise, I tiptoed across the room to join Mrs. Dour at the board.

She saw me out of the corner of her eye but kept writing, her back to the class.

How I wanted her to turn sideways and look at me, but she didn’t.

“Is there a problem?” Mrs. Dour snapped without so much as glancing my way.

If she had looked at me, I could have been more discreet. Instead, I fumbled for words. It hadn’t occurred to me to get the words right and then approach Mrs. Dour. My feet had just moved me to where I needed to go. I figured the words would follow.

Imagine blood all over this.

“Yes,” I said.

Mrs. Dour spat, “Well, what is it?”

Heads popped up.

As inaudibly as I possibly could, I whispered: “There is blood all over the back of your skirt.”

Mrs. Dour, whom I had always assumed to be very old, was probably in her late forties. She was always so terse; she came off like The Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, which definitely added a decade of scowl lines to her deeply furrowed forehead.

So there I was, Dorothy Gale, stuck in the tornado that was Mrs. Dour.

“Come with me!” Mrs. Dour growled. She took my left arm firmly and escorted me from her desk to the door which she snatched open. Together, we marched directly across the hall to the student bathroom where Mrs. Dour disappeared behind a stall door.

I stood by a trio of sinks, waiting for directions. For divine intervention. For Mrs. Dour to tell me to go. Or stay. Or something.

I didn’t expect Mrs. Dour to cry.

But that is exactly what she did.

From behind the stall, I could hear her pulling the terrible, industrial squares of toilet paper and weeping.

For the first time, I stopped seeing my English teacher as Mean Ole Mrs. Dour, the persnickety disciplinarian with all those rigid rules: the woman who gave me detention at least once a week.

I saw her as a small, embarrassed, woman who didn’t know what to do.

I looked at myself in the mirror and found enough courage to ask Mrs. Dour if there was anything that I could do for her.

My voice echoed against the empty bathroom walls.

“Do you think many people… saw?” Mrs. Dour asked.

“I don’t think so,” I lied.

Truth be told, I suspected that nearly everyone had seen the mess on the back of Mrs. Dour’s skirt, and if they hadn’t seen it with their own eyes, the people who had were likely telling everyone who hadn’t.

I was pretty sure that would be the end of Mrs. Dour. After suffering such public humiliation, I was positive she would resign that afternoon.

Oh, yes she did.

But Mrs. Dour was in homeroom the very next day. She was not any nicer. She continued to do her job just as she had before.

She continued to complain about the girls who wore clogs. She continued to issue me my weekly detention. Mrs. Dour was not a nice teacher. I cannot remember any books that I read or projects that I did that year. I remember only that single incident. But I learned something important from her nevertheless.

I learned that sometimes a person has to push through her fear no matter how scared she might be and just keep moving forward. Sometimes, you have to take a deep breath and face the thing that you fear: which in this case – as is often the case – is the fear of ridicule or the laughing masses. Because sometimes that’s all you can do.

I suppose Mrs. Dour did teach me one other lesson.

A teacher myself, I can tell you I have never, ever worn a white skirt.

Ever.

And I never will.

When is the last time you were truly afraid? What got you to push past your fear?

A Twit Learns To Tweet

Posted on
Free twitter badge
Image via Wikipedia

Way back on Monday, April 25, 2011 at precisely 8:07 AM, I emailed Clay Morgan from EduClaytion.com. He and I had established an “easy, breezy, beautiful” rapport; we’d talked on the phone a few times, and for a while, we were on the same cyber-page. But suddenly, Clay had a Twitter icon on his page. And I didn’t.

What the deuce? I thought. So I tapped out a quick note.

Dude, I seriously need to understand Twitter. I either need a 15 year-old girl. Or you. Can you call me?

Clay responded like a firefighter would to a burning building. He emailed me and assured me Twitter was “pretty intuitive” and that I could probably figure it out. He said he had faith in me.

Whaaaat? Twitter? Intuitive? To whom?

Clearly, he did not read this article.

We set up a time to talk.

Then I lost his phone number.

Still, I had every intention of making Twitter priority #1 on my list of Things To Do. (You know, after I got back from Florida. And all the grocery shopping was done. And I had unpacked and put the suitcases away and done all the laundry and scrubbed the baseboards and taken out the garbage and fed the animals.

(Note: We have no pets. Not even a goldfish. Not even an ant.)

I was a little bit horrified that I had so easily morphed into one of the typical student-types: the kid who pretends the deadline hasn’t come and gone, but never goes to talk to the teacher about it.

But Professor Morgan was onto me.

Clearly I was delaying. We set up a time to conference around noon.

After my massage.

(What? I have a long-standing back injury, people.)

On the day of our exciting teleconference, we started with the simple stuff.

Clay explained that, for a writer, the purpose of Twitter is to help network with other writers, to acquire followers, and to spread one’s writing around to other interested readers. He said Twitter can be a place to gather with my fellow writers, where I can find people to hold me accountable to achieve my writing goals, and where I can find people willing to critique my work.

That all sounded good.

He explained it also meant supporting and promoting the people whose writing I adore.

I heard “cheerleader.” I was a cheerleader in high school. I may have lost my splits, but I can still cheer. And if tweeting and re-tweeting my favorite writers’ stuff was going to help them, I could drink that Kool-Aid.

So Clay taught me the basics. About the Timeline. And how to check my Direct Message Box — to see if anyone has sent me a private message.

“How do I know that?”

Clay patiently explained.

He also told me I should always check Mentions to see if anyone has tweeted any of my posts and, if they have, that I should be absolutely certain to send that person a short thank-you.

“It’s Twit-tiquette,” Clay explained.

He taught me about how to set up a list of my most favorite bloggers. And while we were on the phone, I understood everything perfectly.

Clay was extremely patient and gracious. And then, like any good therapist smart person with outstanding time management skills, after one hour, he announced our session was up.

Whaaaat?

“I haven’t mastered this yet!” I whined.

He assured me that I’d figure it out if I played around with it a bit.

I thanked Clay for “eduClayting” me, and I messed around on Twitter for a while.

I tried to send messages to the people I knew best.

Eventually, I got a response from Clay himself.

Whaaaaat? I was sending messages to myself? Awk.Ward.

I tried to figure out that mess. And I set out again.

This time I heard back from Leanne Shirtliffe aka: Ironic Mom.

After a few weeks, I saw I got my first retweet! And then I got a RT from Mark Kaplowitz, someone whose writing I really like:

And then that started to happen more and more.

Eventually, I figured out the secret language of hashtags: the weird letters that come after the numbers’ symbol (#). Like #MyWana. Or #IYKWIM. For a while, I felt like I sitting alone at a table in the middle school cafeteria, and everyone knew everyone else and everyone knew what they were doing – everyone except me. But then I learned that you can Google these letters after the number symbol and find out the inside joke. And boom, I was instantly sitting at the cool kids’ table because I was speaking the same language.

And guess what, writer tweeps are a lot nicer than the mean girls in middle school.

The big moment came when author Kristen Lamb sent me a tweet. I would post it, but it’s kind of like looking into the sun. Too much truth. Your pupils might burn, and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for that.

These days, I have myself on a strict Twitter diet. I check in three times a week,  spend 15 minutes responding to people, sending thank-yous, and trying to connect with one new person. I literally set a timer. It is really easy for Twitter to become a time suck.

Alas, now that all this time has passed, I don’t remember how to add people to that list Clay helped me to create. Also, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that list. I think it was supposed to save me time somehow. I’m not really sure. So that’s not great.

I told Clay that I was going to write a blog about how much he helped me.

I estimated that I would have that post written by late August.

So I’m a little ahead of schedule.

But I really need to work on my fall curriculum. And my book.

You remember, my book?

The thing that started all of this…

Yeah.

It’s calling me.

Gotta run.

Do you use Twitter? If so, who taught you? And what do you get out of it? Any funny stories about stuff that has happened to you while you were learning to tweet? What are your Twitter woes?

Tweet This Twit @RASJacobson

Monkey is Blogging

Posted on

Last June, Monkey and I worked out an agreement. If I bought him the world’s most awesome double barrel water-gun, he promised that he would continue to practice playing piano, reading Hebrew and honing his writing skills over the summer. The first two were easy. The third was harder, but really important to me. I have seen how long summer vacations — while wonderful — can cause kids’ brains to mushify. I didn’t want him to forget his skills.

In an effort to capitalize on Monkey’s innate love for all things technological, I suggested that he start a blog. After all, last May my own blog was in its infancy, and I figured we could sit side-by-side and write together. It was a romantic notion.

“How long would these posts need to be?” the pragmatic Monkey asked.

“Just write as much as you need to say whatever it is you need to say,” I said cheerfully in an intentionally vague way.

Monkey is a Math/Science guy: not a fan of the “intentionally vague.”

He attempted to clarify. “So 150 words?”

“Sure,” I said, figuring any writing he did was better than none at all.

Then Monkey attempted to up the ante. “But I don’t have to write you when I’m at overnight camp.”

“What?” I challenged, a little miffed. “You definitely still have to write me when you are at camp. For goodness sakes, I would like to know what you are doing when you’re away for three weeks!”

“Okay,” Monkey relented, “but only one letter a week,” he said. “That’s three letters in 21 days. You get that, right?”

Thank you, Math/Science Monkey.

“Fine,” I countered, “But in the meantime, you have to make sure that every blog includes correct spelling, proper punctuation and some kind of image or video — for the reader’s interest.

“Fine,” Monkey agreed.

We shook hands like lawyers.

So this year Monkey is blogging again. And while last year, he wanted his blog to be “our secret,” this year, he wants readers. I told him I would pitch his blog — if he agreed to up his word count to 200 words per post.

So here I am, doing my part.

Only he seems to have forgotten his end of the bargain, seeing as his first post had only 157 words.

What’s a momma to do? 😉

Anyway, if you’d like to check out the inner-workings of the mind of an 11-year-old boy, click here.

If you’d like to subscribe to his blog, I can guarantee you there will only be six entries as he heads off to overnight camp at the end of July.

How do you keep your kids writing over the summer? Or do you just let them shut down?

Tweet this Twit @RASJacobson

In Praise of the Pencil

Posted on
Google Images

In 5th grade, Mr. Zych lectured all of his students about how to properly sharpen a pencil. He wasn’t messing around. His speech was not short, and he covered everything from how to properly grip the pencil to the cranking motion – how it should be smooth and continuous, not jerky. He even discussed the perils of over-sharpening, which could lead to premature tip-breakage. Mr. Zych turned pencil sharpening into a science.

Personally, I have had a love-hate relationship with pencils. I first learned how to print my alphabet in pencil and then I learned how to write in cursive in pencil. That was Paradise. Finally, a way to write all the stories stored in my head. Later, I preferred to write with pens – preferably ones filled with purple or green ink. But ever since my son started school, he has been forever in need of pencils; they seem to always be around, and so I returned to the yellow pencils of my youth. I had learned to appreciate the feel of a pencil in my hand again. I even started to like the scratchy-scratchy sound of the graphite as it dragged across the page. After I recently stepped on a pencil, I became suspicious of them again and switched back to pens.

Meanwhile, my son is still on a steady diet of pencils. In middle school, the kids seem to devour them: literally and figuratively. I know my son nibbles on his; I’ve seen the teeth marks. I’ve watched him crunch while he contemplates before committing to writing an answer on paper. But sometimes I wonder if he actually eats them, too. I mean, where do they go? How many pencils does one kid need in a school year?

A few weeks back, Monkey came home in a tizzy.

“I’m out of pencils again,” he announced.

Nonplussed, I told him there were under three weeks of school left and that I was pretty sure he could make-do with his nubs until June 20.

He started at me with contempt.

“Are you serious?” he questioned. “I have exams! I need pencils! Ticonderogas. Now!”

He was not messing around.

The next day while in the grocery store – to my horror – I found plenty of office supplies, but they were only generic pencils. And even I know that those erasers don’t do the job. You need another eraser to get rid of the smears those lame pencils leave behind.

So I made an extra trek, this time to Staples – home of the Ticonderoga pencil – and invested in the Bulk pack. (Because that was all they had.) Let’s be clear. Ticonderoga pencils are like platinum. They cost a fortune. The only way a pencil could be more fabulous would be if you printed your name on pencils. A Ticonderoga is the Hum-V in the wonderful world of pencils. Teachers definitely prefer them. Definitely.

I rationalized that I could spend $15.77 + nearly 9% tax on pencils because they are non-perishable, so it is not like they will ever rot or mold. And I figured whatever is left at the end of the school year, Monkey can use in 7th grade, thus saving me some back-to-school shopping hassle.

A few days later, a good friend of mine called me and reported that her son – also a 6th grader – had run out of pencils. While requesting to buy more, she said my name was invoked. Apparently her son said:

“Can you just be like Mrs. J. and get the Giant Pack of 72 Ticonderoga pencils?”

Apparently Monkey had been bragging about his new stash.

I laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of it. Bragging about pencils?

And then I thought about how I had come full circle. Just one week before, I was cursing pencils as my husband dug around my heel with a needle in an attempt to get the lead out. (I know, I know. Pencils are made of graphite. I was going for the funny.) But now I found myself saying a silent prayer on behalf of all pencil-loving children everywhere. Uncharacteristically, I clasped my hands together and thought to myself:

Lord, may this be the worst thing my child ever desires. May this be his worst addiction. May he never see cocaine. May he never use LSD or heroin. May he avoid cigarettes and alcohol. May he avoid the ‘shrooms, the X, the meth. May he never huff. May he find the strength to avoid the Oxycontin and Adderall.

May he always be addicted to Ticonderoga pencils.

Because, honestly, I’ll happily help Monkey score his Ticonderoga pencils forever. I’ll even help him sharpen them. Mr. Zych schooled me on that a long time ago, and I feel confident I can help my son with his #2 pencil fix without any need for an Intervention.

Tweet this Twit @RASJacobson

Locked and Partially Loaded for Fall 2011

Posted on
Look at all the out of print books. Sigh.

I recently found out what I’m teaching next fall.

I am elated.

It is the perfect schedule.

Then I went online to select my books.

The books that I have been using for the last four years.

Only two of the three of them were there.

My reader – the collection of essays upon which I have come to rely – is now out of print, so I will have to reinvent the wheel.

Hurgenflurgenshlurgen.

Women will understand this: this is akin to how we feel when we go into the store and find out that our favorite lipstick – the one that looks perfect on us, the one we have used for years, the one that helps to create our signature look – has been discontinued. Guys, I don’t know. This must be what it is like when your sports event has been preempted for A Sex in the City marathon and both your DVR and your computer are broken. So you can never see the game. Actually, I don’t know what this is like for guys. Maybe it’s like when they stop making your favorite hot sauce.

You get my point, though, right?

Immediately after I learned that my book was out of print, I received a lovely, gentle reminder that book orders are due as soon as humanly possible.

Right now, I’m in desperation mode.

I might chew off someone’s arm.

Part of me is considering not using a reader at all and just book-marking all the amazing blogs here in the blogosphere and having my students read them and respond to them. Perhaps use them as writing prompts.

It would definitely save my students a boatload of money.

And it would eliminate those annoying beginning of the year conversations:

Me: Where is your book?

Student: My financial aid hasn’t come in so I haven’t been able to buy some of my books.

Me: How about a pen? Where is your pen?

Student: Yeah. I didn’t have the money.

This conversation generally transpires while the bookless student is gripping the newest and most uber-expensive cell phone, leaving me to think: You manage to shell out $80 a month for that, right? The smartphone you can afford? But not my book? Yeah, you are goin’ places.

But this is just my desperation talking.

Because, you know, I have to revise my entire syllabus.

Which, in truth, isn’t the worst thing.

It’s good to freshen things up and shake things around once in a while.

Because no matter what materials I end up using, there are things that always remain the same.

I may be delusional, but (I think) most of my former students will tell you that I give off the vibe that I find them endlessly fascinating. Which, by the way, is true. They will probably tell you that I give them solid feedback and that I am willing to help them. Day or night. The reality is, I am good to them as long as they do not heckle me.

Because I am the show.

Yeah, yeah, I can run a writing workshop. I can create interactive activities for them. But if students want to excel in my class, they need, first and foremost, to have a good sense of humor. After all, I’m working my butt off to provide them with culturally relevant, fresh material. But my show only runs three days a week, so they’d better not miss my routine. Once they are invested, I expect them to work their tails off to try to impress me with their thinking and writing. I want to see those synapses a-firin’. Because nobody sees my show for free.

I was not a cheerleader in high school for nothing. I was in training. I was a gymnast and a dancer and I even danced (briefly) for money on a hydraulic lift. (Don’t ask.) I performed in plays throughout my life and, in graduate school, I got up on stage to sing. Why? Because secretly I wanted to be Stevie Nicks. Because I was honing my craft – learning how to deliver my lines, to speak with authority, with presence, with passion, with humor, with humility. I was learning to be fearless,  – so my students would,  one day, dare I say it, actually want to do things for me.

That sounds dirty.

I don’t mean like that, you pervs.

I mean students can tell when a teacher has prepared; they can tell which teachers genuinely care about what their students have to say, which teachers value their words, which teachers are working to give their students the skills they need to succeed in the future. And when students feel this, they generally want to please.

So my beloved book of essays is out of print.

It’ll be okay.

Things are looking good right now.

I’ve checked things out and my room for the fall does not have a pole in the middle of it, like the classroom I had last year.

Don’t get me wrong, the pole was fun. For a while.

But “obstructed view” is never the seat you would want at a kick-ass concert.

In this room, every seat’s a good seat.

Can’t wait to shake my groove thing.

So for now, I don’t rightly know exactly what I’m doing in the Fall of 2011.

I can only say with confidence, that the show will go on.

And now that I think about it, if I’m shaking things up, it’s probably time to get a new lipstick.

I’ve been wearing Malt for way too long.