because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

The Day Flannery O'Connor Screwed Me

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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?

The Power of a Swift Kick #twits

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Piper Bayard

I am fortunate to have Piper Bayard as a guest blogger today. I met Piper when I was learning how to tweet. She was the first person to actually recognize my flailing say hello to me in a civilized manner, and kind of introduce me to her friends in the Twitterverse. I so appreciated that. Since then, I have read Piper’s words voraciously. She is a real researcher and she knows how to weave some great fiction in with some real-life facts. I guess that means I’m trying to tell you that Piper is a fabulous writer.  So enjoy and comment on Piper’s tale today and, and then head over to her place “The Pale Writer of the Apocalypse” HERE. You can also Twitter stalk her at @PiperBayard.

• • •

The Power of a Swift Kick

I took my daughter to school one morning last spring. Like most middle school girls, she’s convinced my mission in life is to embarrass her, and I take my work seriously. It’s not enough that I walked through the school doors pronouncing that Miley Cyrus looks like a two-bit hooker on Discount Day in one of her videos. No. I even talked to my daughter’s classmates. . . .

“Jordan,* stand up straight. You’re far too pretty to have poor posture. . . . Kyle, do not spit in the presence of ladies. That is most ungentlemanly behavior, and you’re better than that. . . . Young lady, you seem like a nice girl, but are those shorts legal? How do you expect the boys to learn anything in math with you looking like that? . . .”

Now, you’d think these kids would have told me to %*!# off, but, for whatever reason, they didn’t. Jordan grinned and stood up straighter, Kyle blushed and muttered a shy, “Yes, Ma’am,” and the young lady in short shorts laughed and rolled the legs back down to where they were when she left the house that morning. That’s when I realized that it had happened. I had grown up to be my mother.

I don’t mean my biological mother, Big It rest her soul. I mean the woman who saved me from being the queen of a double-wide trailer with five kids and four baby-daddies going to court every week for child support. That would be my middle school music teacher/mentor/friend/other mother, Elmarine.

Piper's Elmarine

Elmarine knew all about surviving life’s apocalyptic events. Born in 1917, she had polio as a child. She spent a third of her childhood away from her family at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Shreveport, Louisiana, undergoing nine operations to help her walk. Let’s face it, those guys may wear funny hats, but they do amazing things for kids.  . . . Without tv’s or computers, Elmarine entertained herself and the other kids by riding around in her wheelchair, playing her ukulele. . . . I threw that in to let you know there really are ukulele players out there. Who’d have thought?

She married an engineer who developed the welding process used on ships during WWII. He died suddenly, leaving her in poverty with two daughters to support. Lucky for me, she went back to school and got her teaching degree in music.  At that point, she wore a brace and sometimes used crutches, and back in that day and time, employers actually said outright that they wouldn’t hire her because she was ”crippled.” She kept at it anyway. . . . What else could she do? . . . And finally she found a school district two states away to give her a chance.

During her many years at my school, she was anything but crippled. She taught us stray cats proper posture, proper social interaction, and, more importantly, self-respect and perseverance. There wasn’t a sob story we could tell her that she couldn’t relate to, and she always had the same answer. “That’s tough, Kid. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

Over the years, I’ve found her singular reply to be the answer to all apocalypse in a nutshell. “That’s tough.” Acknowledge the problem. “Now what are you going to do about it?” Meet it with action. Sometimes, the action is to face myself and/or others. Sometimes, it’s to change my ways. Sometimes, the only action possible is to endure one more day. But she did all of that and tolerated nothing less from me.

Elmarine dished out loving ass-kickings. I think those kids at my daughter’s school can tell that’s what they are getting from me, and that’s why they always smile and say hello when they see me. I’ll bet you Jordan stands a little straighter next time, too, and Kyle will at least only spit behind my back.

I dedicate this blog to all of the teachers whose loving ass-kickings keep stray cats from having four baby-daddies.

Who gave you your “loving ass-kicking”? What were the tools they gave you?

*Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Last week: “Read the Books”

• • •

If you have writing chops and are interested in submitting a piece of writing for #TWITS: Teachers Who I Think Scored / Teachers Who I Think Sucked, write a specific memory about one teacher you had and explain how that person helped you (or really screwed things up for you), as well as the life lesson you took away from the interaction.

Essays should be around 700-800 words.

Interested but have questions? Email me!

My information is under the Contact Me tab.

Guest Post by Clay Morgan: Lessons From a Pop Teacher & a Few Zombies

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Today’s guest blogger is Clay Morgan from EduClaytion.com. Besides being one of my very first cyber-friends in the bloggersphere, Clay is an amazing educator. He is a revolutionary. You know that game six-degrees of separation? Well, in the world of bloggers, it seems nearly everyone knows Clay. He gets around. Today he is sharing his thoughts about using Pop Culture in the classroom.

As a teacher, I’m often amazed at what pools of knowledge I must dive into in order to effectively communicate with my students.

Just the other day I was giving a lecture on Europe after World War II. Many of the students were fading and staring blankly in my general direction. I was about to explain one of the most important parts of the entire course and needed them alert and free of mental paralysis.

Good thing I know so much about zombies.

I’m not referring to the students although any teacher doing the job for a while knows what it’s like to stand before a room of pupils imitating the undead. I’m talking about the zombies of culture, specifically movies.

See, I needed to explain the crisis of Germany after Hitler’s death in 1945. Nations like America and England recognized the importance of a strong German nation, strength that was critical to European recovery. At the same time, someone had to keep an eye on nasty Joe Stalin and the Soviet Union.

But those pesky Russians and their nervous cohorts in France were sick of Germany. They despised the nation that had brought war on them twice in a quarter century. Tens of millions had already been killed. They thought letting those Germans come back again was just asking for global destruction. Plenty of folks wanted Germany turned into a parking lot surrounded by fields.

History as Yawnsville

So I’m teaching this anti-German plan named for U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Students must understand these events to get a grasp of the Cold War, our centerpiece for the rest of the semester. They didn’t seem too enthused. Then I remembered Zombieland.

Most of my students haven’t seen the greatest films ever made about WWII such as Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, or Life is Beautiful.

But they have seen Zombieland, a 2009 flick in which Jesse Eisenberg (the guy from Social Network) plays Columbus—a college student trying to survive in a zombie dominated world.

Columbus lives by about 30 rules, the most famous of which is probably #4: Double tap. You might not know what that means, but my college students do. It means shoot twice when the walking dead want you to join them. It means be certain that the monster you just defeated doesn’t get back up.

History that Pops

Do you see where I’m going with this?

My class was alive and kicking when I told them that the Morgenthau Plan was the 20th century attempt to double tap. Germany was the zombie. This analogy led to a great discussion on world power and how we should handle those responsible for human atrocities. My students will never forget the stakes of the post-war world with such a powerful visualization. Based on past experience, I have a feeling I’ll get an email in a couple years thanking me for a good class and joking about double tap.

Some education types say that movie references have no place in an academic setting. My question to them would be whether or not they want to connect with students or not. The past couple generations have been saturated in culture. It’s long been in our heads and now it’s in the palm of our hands.

Students live and breathe this stuff, so why not make it work for us? The best way to teach someone what they do not understand is by using what they do. You wouldn’t walk into a Chinese classroom and expect the students to understand your English. Same thing goes in Western classrooms. If you fail to speak their language, you will not be heard.

Applications for using pop culture in educational settings are only limited by our creativity. That’s why a bunch of us started PopTeacher.com, to pool together the best ideas out there so we’ll have a nice reservoir of ideas to dive into.

I expected opposition and ignorance from naysayers. I was even prepared to double tap their arguments. I did not expect such a fabulous response so quickly.

Clay Morgan, Superstar

PopTeacher.com has already been featured in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and I’m now being asked to speak at collegiate conferences about these ideas. That’s pretty funny because my pedagogical strategy consists of a) showing up for work and b) being myself.

The best response has come from dozens of teachers—grade school to higher ed—who are eager to share their experiences and ideas. More email comes in every week.

Teaching as a career is a grind that can wear us down. Then we risk getting tired and disconnecting. We lose effectiveness when that happens. Why not have some fun and dive into our bountiful culture? You never know where the interests of others will lead a discussion. You might even find a way to bring a group to life by talking about the undead.

So what do you think? Do you like the way Clay thinks? Would you want to be a student in his class? Have you ever been in a class where the teacher used Popular Culture references? What do you remember? Or do you think this kind of approach dumbs down our educational system?

Clay will field your comments today.

Lessons From Jon Stewart

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Jon Stewart
Image via Wikipedia

I’m sorry, I friggin’ love Jon Stewart. He does snarky right.

Instead of ending tax cuts to the top two percent, America – apparently – needs to get money from teachers.

Because teachers are incredibly rich.

I know I am.

(Click on the link below to enjoy a few minutes of quality comedy.)

Jon Stewart’s Daily Show Explores Problems in Tax Reform & Education

Feel free to laugh out loud.

Then tell me what made you laugh.

Or cry.

In Fear of Lice

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I am not a fearful person. I’m not afraid of roaches. I’m not afraid of spiders and have been known to pick them up by their legs and toss them out of the house onto the grass. I’m not afraid of snakes and have enjoyed the cool squeeze of a constrictor as it wrapped around my torso. While I do not like the idea of suffering, I am not afraid of death. I’m not afraid that someone will try to steal my child. I’m not afraid of fire and, once, in a New Orleans restaurant, a waiter whisked away my pretty red candle because I kept pouring hot wax onto my palm (and the fancy tablecloth). I’m not afraid of the dark and have taken long walks on overcast nights when there is no moon or stars. I’m not afraid of thunder and lightning, and while a young’un at Camp Seneca Lake, I used to run outside into torrential downpours with a bottle of shampoo to wash my hair while the sky reverberated and flickered. (I didn’t say I was smart; I just said I wasn’t scared.) There are plenty of other things I’m not afraid of.

I am, however, terrified of lice.

My fear of lice is partially irrational because I have never had them, but I have known many families who have been afflicted, and I am smart enough to know that I never want to meet a dirty, blood-sucking louse. I have heard the tales of woe: how the damn things keep coming back even after people picked-nits and bagged favorite pillows, washed towels and linens, even threw out hair brushes, combs and expensive hair accessories.

I have long, thick, curly hair and it seems like clippers would be inevitable. Like Samson from the Old Testament, I am nothing without my hair, so every time that damn letter comes home saying someone in my child’s class has contracted lice, I feel a little sick inside.

The tiny bugs, no bigger than sesame seeds, spread easily among children who are most likely to come into close head-to-head contact with one another. So while I don’t fall into the “at-risk category,” I do have a 10-year old son who ships out to summer camp each year for three weeks, so I feel my worries aren’t completely unwarranted as someone always comes home with the little buggers.

My good friend has sworn on a bottle of Quell that in the unlikely event I should ever contract lice, she would be my nitpicker. She is a very good friend.

I recently learned that some lice have become resistant to over-the counter remedies. (Be still, my heart!) When that happens, pediatricians sometimes choose to provide prescriptions for heavy-duty pesticides. Although some experts believe exposure in small doses to these chemicals is perfectly safe, these days many parents worry about dumping toxic substances on their children’s heads. (Note: I am not afraid of chemicals.) That said, I just happened to come across a great article about treating lice that talks about using Cetaphil skin cleanser and a hair dryer that “had a 95% success rate when repeated once a week for three weeks.”

So while I am still revolted by the possibility that lice could come into my life, I feel armed with more information and as children head off to summer camps across this great land – perhaps, this cheap and seemingly effective treatment might bring some relief to other moms who live in fear of lice.

Is it just me or is anyone else’s head really itchy?

What Would You Do?

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Your child brings home a handout from school that is riddled with more than quite a few teacher errors (misspellings, grammar etc.).

In fantasies, what would you like to say or do? What do you do in reality?

Stealth-Mode Purse Texters: OMG!

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As if The Mosquito Ringtone isn’t enough (see a few blogs back: 5/22/10), teachers also have to worry about making sure students aren’t texting in class. At Monroe Community College, once in a while, I’ve seen students swishing around in their backpacks and purses for extended periods of time. I usually approach these students and quietly tell them to turn off their cell phones. I want my students to know that I notice what they are doing, that their behavior matters to me.

In “How to Successfully Text During Class: Using Your Purse,” Laura Mae instructs students on how they can master stealth-mode texting. She writes:

First, [get a big floppy purse]. Instead of holding your purse in your lap, try laying it sideways on your desk. Keep the opening … facing toward you. Place your phone near the opening. … Your teacher won’t be able to … see your phone … because he/she will be at his/her desk. So you’re good there. If they suspect something and get up to walk around, casually, without looking, push your cellular device back into your purse with your finger just enough so you’re [sic] phone is covered.

If you have a Qwerty keyboard, you can text, but not as easily as if you have an original keypad. If you do have an original keypad, … memorize how many times you need to press each button for the desired letter. I believe every phone has that little bump in the number 5, so that should be easy to navigate to the letters if you find it. Example: While your [sic] not looking, move your finger to the number five. Move up one key. Press three times. Wait a few seconds. Press once. Move back to the center. Move down one key. Press once. I just spelled “cat.”

The dozens of grammar errors in Laura Mae’s article make it clear to me that Laura Mae has not been listening to her instructors for a while. How could she possibly be paying attention when her brain is expending so much energy on composing blind messages as well as thinking about where she has to place her fingers and how many times she has to tap-tap-tap in order to send her messages so that they will be coherent upon receipt? Or maybe it isn’t so much that she isn’t paying attention, but that she seems to care more so much more about her social life than fine-tuning or editing her ideas, important skills which she will need to draw upon in the future.

The pervasiveness of text-messaging in class poses problems for teachers, particularly in the area of  test security, as students can send answers or hints to fellow students via cell phones, destroying the integrity of an entire test with a few keystrokes. Obviously, cheating damages classroom culture, but this is not really the main issue in my essay driven classroom. More annoying is the fact that instruction is interrupted when someone is caught texting. Then the problem extends beyond breaking the rules and not paying attention because instructors have to stop teaching to handle the situation, disrupting the learning environment, wasting time and tuition.

Some people will give me their best Darwinian argument: Students who honestly pay attention will do well on their tests and papers and end up doing better in life then those who are screwing around with their cell phones in class, so let the texters text and grow up to be ditch-diggers. I’m sorry, but I just can’t buy into that argument: Not at the college level and not at the high school or middle school levels either. And my reasons only partially have to do with concern over future skills. I’m genuinely concerned with civility and respect: Two other important values Americans seem to be eagerly flushing down the toilet.

Is it really so much to ask to turn off the technology and respectfully tune-in to and engage with other humans for 50 minutes?

idk.


Lessons From Mrs. Church

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Mrs. Church stands in the far right of the back row.

I loved Mrs. Church, my 2nd grade teacher, from the very first day of school. Among other things, she taught a unit on Hawaii where we made grass skirts and learned songs about “going to a hukilau”: I still know the words. She let us sample real sugar cane and poi, each of us dipping our fingers into the community bowl with our two fingers. Lord knows where she got the stuff. She wore crazy, clunky necklaces that epitomized the 1970s – owls with big eyes, huge butterflies, giant yellow flowers. She wore two-piece, polyester, polka-dotted pantsuits, and her ragged-edged haircut made it appear she did the job herself at home.

Mrs. Church literally had my back, and she rescued me when a certain twit who sat at the desk directly behind me decided that it would be fun to cut my hair with his dull-bladed scissors. She must have read his mind because I barely felt the tug of his hands on the back of my head when she called out, “Mr. So-and-So, you may bring those scissors up to my desk now.”

She encouraged me to write and revise, and – eventually – to enter a writing contest held at our local library the spring of my 2nd grade year. I don’t know if I won or not (probably not), but I remember the way she made me feel: like I could do anything.

Please share a memory of one of your favorite teachers. What did he/she do that makes you remember him/her all these years later?

The prompt was to write about a favorite mentor in under 500 words. I wrote about this when my blog was very new, and I had very few followers. I’d love to honor my old teacher, a woman I think about nearly every day.

Tweet this Twit @rasjacobson

Should We Let Our Kids Sink Their Own Ships?

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My son happens to be a very cool kid. A smart boy, he naturally gravitates to science and math, thus making me wonder how it is possible that he sprang from my loins – but then my husband is a math-science guy, so it makes sense. A voracious reader, my Monkey cannot easily be torn away from a book. I have never had to ask him to do his homework. He comes home from school, makes himself a snack, eats it, puts his dishes in the dishwasher, and then disappears to do his homework. He just does it. I know some of you must be wondering what could this woman possibly have to complain about, so here it comes.

Recently, Monkey’s 5th grade teacher asked me to take a look at his English assignment due that next day. Monkey had been asked to answer a question, making sure to provide the title and genre of  the work, and a thesis statement. He was also asked to use topic sentences and provide textual support and cite the page number as well as explain how the quote supported his idea about the topic. I was elated. I mean, this was a friggin’ awesome assignment and not too different from the type of assignment I might give to my own students in an Intro to Composition class.

“What should I be looking for?” he asked.

“Monkey doesn’t integrate quotes into his papers; I’d just like to make sure he understands how to do it.”

Seemed simple enough.

That night, I explained to my Monkey that his teacher had asked me to take a peek at his assignment. His handwriting was solid, his topic was interesting, he included the title and genre of the book, but – nope, she was right, no textual support. I asked Monkey about the missing quote. He shrugged his shoulders and said he “didn’t care” because he knew he was “still going to get a high score on the rubric so it didn’t matter.”

“You need to find a quote,” I said quietly, handing him his notebook.

“It’s fine,” he said, attempting to slide his notebook into his backpack.

“It’s not fine,” I insisted. “Please revise it.”

“It is fine, and I’m not doin’ it.”

“You need to do it,” I argued, my voice a little louder.

“No, I don’t, and I’m not!” he shouted.

If an alien had landed in my kitchen at that moment, it would have thought that – on Earth – children communicate by screaming and crying and that mothers communicate with their young by wrestling them to the ground and screaming even louder. I am quite certain that we looked something akin to Bart and Lisa from one of those episodes of The Simpsons where the siblings are choking each other; in these episodes, they are generally screaming,  their necks are really long, and their eyes are bugging out of their heads.

Finally, I brought out the big guns.

“If you do not do this, you will have a huge consequence.”

A people-pleaser, my Monkey hates consequences, so with resignation he took his notebook and retreated to the office, closing the door behind him. Like I said, he’s a smart kid; he didn’t want to lose his screen time for the rest of the week. One-half hour later, he emerged with a fabulously fabulous journal entry that was even better than the first. It was neatly written, well punctuated, included capital letters; he even remembered to include the page number for his quote. So why all the drama?

I don’t micromanage my son’s academic career. Lord knows, he’s moved beyond me in math and science already, and when it comes time to create a Power Point presentation, he’s my go-to guy. He accepts criticism from his schoolteachers and baseball coaches, his fencing instructor, and his piano teacher. He accepts fine-tuning in violin and he doesn’t mind when his religious school teacher tells him he has mispronounced something. So what is it about the parent-child relationship that brings out such ugliness, such hysteria when it comes to academics? Why couldn’t he just do it for me?

Had Monkey’s teacher not asked me to look at his homework, I would not have found myself involved in that little power struggle, which is really what it was. And what stuck in my craw was that he said he was getting good grades for not doing all the work properly. Could that be true? It occurred to me that if my son’s teacher had given him a low grade – a really low grade – on any of the assignments leading up to that one, it might have motivated him to work harder to give her what she wanted. He’s no grade grubber, but seriously, what motivation is there to change your ways if you’re being rewarded for doing something half-assed?

I called Monkey’s teacher the next morning the moment he hopped on the bus and told her that, while he had completed the assignment, it created real tension between us.

“Do me a favor,” I added. “Next time, if he doesn’t follow the instructions, give him a low grade. He isn’t motivated to work harder because he says he has been receiving high grades on these assignments even without doing what you’ve asked him to do.”

“I can’t believe you are telling me to give him a low grade,” she said. “Would you want him to have the opportunity to redo the assignment if he really blows it?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I want him to see what it feels like to fail.”

I wonder how many teachers feel held hostage by American parents, afraid to give low grades to students who aren’t really living up to their full capabilities. They must know that if they give low grades, they will face an onslaught of angry emails and phone calls. But how does inflating grades help our children? From where I stand, all it means is that I have to teach it to them later when they hit college level.

Yesterday I made a mini-resolution: From here on out, unless my child specifically asks for my help, I am going to consider him the captain of his own seafaring vessel. That means he’s pretty much on his own, but he’s equipped with a CB radio with a direct line to me. I’m there on the beach in case of rough waters (or confusion about how to use semi-colons) in which case I’ll hop into my little motorboat and ask permission to come aboard. And once the seas have calmed and he has control of his ship again, I’m outta there, back to my spot on the beach.

How involved are all of you in your kids’ daily homework assignments? And could you stand by and watch your child go down with the ship?