Sunday, May 8, 2011

18: Making more blogs

English teachers like to read the whole book. Remember when you were in high school, and you were too busy being popular or high (or both) to do your assigned reading? The kid you copied from probably grew up to be an English teacher.

Things you might hear from a current or future English teacher when you admit to not reading the book include: "But it's so good," "You missed so much," and "Shame on you." Sites like SparkNotes and Shmoop are wonderful supplementary tools if you've already read the book, but they simply don't replace it.

Even with the wealth of book information out there, some people (like high school students) are still too lazy to read it all. And thus is born Tweeting Literature, dedicated to condensing all of the classics into Twitter's 140-character limit.

You might want to follow @TweetingLit for one of the following reasons:
  1. You are one of the aforementioned lazy students who, spoiled by a lifetime of TV clips and Facebook updates, cannot sustain your attention for more than 5 seconds at a time.
  2. You are an adult who is friends with other, smarter adults who are well-read. You want to sound like you've read the same books they have.
  3. You would like to read more classic literature, but you aren't sure where to start, so you'd like some quick summaries in order to decide what to read. Note: English teachers like this option the best and are very proud of you.
  4. You don't believe that this English teacher can really summarize great works of literature in such a small space. You want to bask in my glory or revel in my defeat.
  5. You like to follow people on twitter.
Of course, if you are too cool/old/busy/cynical for Twitter, you can read all the updates at the blog link above.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

17 1/2: Reading the opinions of smart people who support them

The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Read the rest

Saturday, April 30, 2011

#17 Book t-shirts

You know your hipster friend, the one who wears t-shirts from obscure or marginally trendy bands in order to communicate to the world how stylish and in-the-know s/he is? Those band shirts are a strong message to the world, saying, "Do you know who this band is? No? I'm glad, because if you did, this shirt would be much less cool."

Book t-shirts are like that, but for the literary intelligentsia. Except, instead of saying "Look how cool I am," book t-shirts say things like, "Not only do I read, but I read classic literature" and, "Have you read this book? No? Turn around and head straight to your local library." They have the added benefit of allowing English teachers and other book nerds to identify one another in the wild, as if taking note of the clientele at Barnes and Noble on a Saturday night is not sufficient.

So far, most book t-shirts appear to be available at Out of Print Clothing, a store with a large selection and good customer service, although their prices are quite high for an English teacher's salary, so choose wisely. And for heaven's sake, it should go without saying that you cannot wear the t-shirt for a book you have not read — that is akin to buying a band t-shirt simply because you like the design. And so, the more obscure the title, the better the shirt — thus, you achieve a bit of literati superiority in addition to the benefits listed above.

English students, normally captivated by t-shirts with writing on them, have mixed reactions to this phenomenon. Mostly, they say things like, "They make shirts for books?" and "Did you really buy that?" But the English teacher does not mind. If they refuse to actually read literature, perhaps reading the title will place a seed of curiosity in their brains, wedged between Call of Duty: Black Ops and Lil' Wayne's latest album.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

#16: Having a job

Despite a tendency toward pacifism, a fervent opposition to censorship and a liking for NPR,  English teachers are not overly political. This isn't to say English teachers do not vote or have opinions, but as students of history, they consider themselves somewhat removed from the rather base world of politics. They know — have witnessed in thousands of years' worth of literature — how temporary the whims of nations can be. 

Sometimes, however, politics come to them.

Some experts have estimated that at least 160,000 teachers are at risk of losing their jobs this summer as states face increasingly tight budgets.  Everyone (that is, everyone over the age of 18) is quick to praise teachers. Politicians, especially, are quick to laud the importance of education, even just before they slash the budgets that fund it. Aside from some vague references to "bad teachers," people love to throw around platitudes like "shaping the future," "guiding our children," and "our heroes." Certainly, most people can think of at least one teacher who played a significant part in their own personal journey.

As one Friend of the Blog (who works in politics) put it, voters list education among their top priorities — they just don't want to have to pay for it. And so, while praising teachers on one hand, politicians and even some taxpayers will instead criticize The Educational System. Teachers are simply (poor things!) victims of district bloat and a poor economy. It's all just too bad, we think, and we shake our heads as if we have no power to change it.

And so, we turn to our schools and we ask them to Do More With Less. We ask the already beleaguered, underpaid young teachers to take on extra students and extra duties while relying on less instructional support. We ask our older teachers to retire early, often sending some of the most qualified and experienced educators away. And of course, we will complain loudly that the quality of education is going downhill.

This isn't a problem that stops with politicians, or even with voters. This is about values. And as the English teacher knows, it's bigger than politics. A society's value system cannot be attributed solely to one political party or even one generation. We talk a big talk about valuing education, but we give our money to athletes and entertainers. We elect people who reinforce the status quo, who are too busy feeding the bureaucracy of education to take note of where this trend is leading us.  

In doing so, we send a big message to our children: This is what's important. Schools will make do – they always have. But for how long? And at what cost?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

#15: Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet

There is no shortage of famous actors who have played the famous Prince of Denmark. And while some choices were questionable (Keanu Reeves?!), or daring (Sarah Bernhardt), most of the time, the role is filled by actors who have proven themselves to be brilliant (Sir Ian McKellan, Sir Laurence Olivier, John Barrymore, Richard Chamberlain, et. al.)

Still, if you ask an English teacher about his favorite Hamlet portrayal, he will (after rattling off the virtues of several different film versions, just so you know how many Hamlets he has seen) invariably respond with the same answer: the 1996 film starring (and directed by) Kenneth Branagh.

There's no disputing that Branagh's version is expertly directed, and he captures both the wit and the despair of Shakespeare's hero in a very charming way. But certainly, the same can be said for many versions of Hamlet and many actors, as well (this English teacher, for one, appreciates the daring task of modernizing the story in the 2000 Ethan Hawke version, as well as Hawke's moody portrayal). But it isn't perfect -- it is a bit cheesy at times, and Branagh never really sells the idea that Hamlet is teetering on madness. So why the obsessive love?

In order to truly understand why Branagh's Hamlet is so universally favored, we need to remember that it contains several other things English Teachers Like: Authentically British People (Branagh, Judi Dench, Kate Winslet...) as well as -- and this is key -- a Victorian setting. The combination of a Shakespeare play with a bright, period-authentic Victorian backdrop is simply more than an English teacher can resist. It's like watching two of your favorite books together (is it Jane Eyre? Vanity Fair?). It's enough to make us overlook the fact that Branagh is a bit long in the tooth to be playing a college student; that his mother doesn't look much older than he is (thanks to a never-aging Christie); that Ophelia humps the floor in one scene. Once those two factors were combined, there was no going back. It's enough to make us forget Olivier ever to-be'd or not-to-be'd, and even to forgive Branagh for the upcoming Thor.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

#14: Lessons without uncomfortable language

Have you ever discussed sex or drugs with teenagers? If you have, you should either be arrested, or you're an English teacher. People often forget how many of our beloved classics are laced with subjects that, to the average adult, are harmless and can be taken in context. To a 16-year-old, however, phrases like "orgy-porgy" (from Brave New World), "By cock, they are to blame" (Hamlet) and others are positively naughty in a delightful way.

When the English teacher finds herself in front of a group of teenagers, who, upon studying All The President's Men, ask about the origins of the term "Deep Throat", or when she is painfully explaining the fertilization of eggs (from the aforementioned BNW), she finds herself thinking, "what would someone say if they walked in the room right now?" Most of the time, she finds herself struggling to explain the bare minimum of the context, and ending the lesson with "ask your mother."

Sometimes, when reading aloud to students, the teacher will rush through certain words, such as "ejaculated" (used to describe speech), and sometimes she thinks she is home-free. Then, the titters (there we go again) begin from somewhere in the back of the room, begin to spread like wildfire and end with the teacher having to choose whether to address the immaturity or ignore it.

There is also the trouble of racial epithets used in literature. No matter how many times the teacher discusses the conscious use of the "n-word" in To Kill A Mockingbird , it is never comfortable to read it, day after day, in a room full of teenagers who are either offended by the term or derive a secret thrill from hearing it in class.

Certainly, however, any solution to this problem produces a conundrum for the English teacher, for she would never advocate the banning of books, or (heavens no!) the altering of texts. But no matter how stern the warnings about maturity, no matter how many times you ignore the goofy laughter, it is, in the end, a losing battle.

And so, while the students dread reading dull material like Patrick Henry speeches and Thoreau musings, the English teacher can relax and know that there will be no uncomfortable moments or eye-rolling on her part. At least until we get to Moby Dick.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

#13 Rap

Maybe it's a Dangerous Minds fantasy, or perhaps a sense of respect for anyone who relies on written use of the English language to make a living, but English teachers have a deep affection for rap music. Whether it's a passionate love for Tupac or a grudging admiration for Eminem, English teachers are rap fans, even if they don't admit it.

This love may manifest in different ways. Perhaps they tried the "Hey, kids! Shakespeare was like an Elizabethan rapper!" line. Or they invoked the oft-used analyze-a-song-as-poetry assignment ("So what Lil' Wayne is saying here is that being high is a metaphor for the ups and downs of life..."). Some may have been desperate enough to rap for their students (see: Thomas Haden Church in Easy A). Others may have given up on incorporating it into their classrooms, satisfied instead with private singing (who hasn't changed the lyrics of Trey Songz' "Bottoms Up" to "Grades Up"?*).

Perhaps the real reason is that the English teacher always wonders what her successors will be studying hundreds of years from now. While language (and its modes of expression) are constantly evolving, she clings to a fervent hope that it will be art forms — even those traditionally known as lowbrow — that survive in our cultural history, rather than twitter posts. No matter how little she may care for the genre personally, she'd rather know our cultural heritage has been entrusted to artists (and if we're lucky, good ones like Talib Kweli or Mos Def) than her students' Facebook thought-droppings. How do you write an essay on "OMG I just had a latte lolllllllllll :) <3" anyway?

*No one? Really? Oh.