Sunday, October 26, 2008

Week of 10-27-08 Through 11-7-08

Last week, the extra day off because of the fires in Porter Ranch set us back in most classes. So I spent most of the week trying to get caught up and keep on schedule. The quarter draws to a close this week, and grades will be due at some point in the first days of November, so I am scrambling to grade the last assignments and wrap everything up in order to put this grading period to bed. Meanwhile, the teaching goes on.

Tomorrow, when I am not teaching, I have to attend a workshop on our computer system for grading and report cards. There is nothing worse than having to teach or attend meetings every period of the day. I really have only one prep period tomorrow, the last period of the day. Then I will have students coming in after school for office hours. So things will be hopping.

In my tenth grade home room, we will continue our study of Shakespeare’s sonnets. So far, about half the class has presented, and the remaining students will follow suit this week. Some of the presentations have been complete; others left much to be desired, and I wound up jumping in to fill in the gaps. I am hoping the students realize that standing in front of them every day to conduct class is not as easy as it looks. I believe the realization will come when they see their grade sheets for their individual presentations. This work will be counted as part of their first quarter grades.

On Monday, November 3, we will begin our study of the Hermann Hesse novel, Siddhartha. I will introduce the work that week with a little background about Buddhism. Students usually respond very well to this book, and I anticipate, once again, some intense discussions about our American materialism and philosophical values.

The ninth grade will be starting their speeches this week. We have been reading some speeches in their anthology, and beginning with this arc of lessons, each student will be standing in front of the class to argue his or her point of view on an issue. I could tell last week that many of them were already nervous, so this should be good for their self-esteem. I think the audience will be sympathetic since they all must take a turn at some point. This will be their first grade of the new quarter.

I have finally released the seniors from hell. They are finishing up their writing about Dante’s Inferno, redemption, and self-discovery this week. In class, we have moved on to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I introduced the work at the end of last week. Now we will begin our study of Act I on Monday. I am thinking of sources to use with this study and will make some decisions this week. I know I want to use the Kenneth Branagh film version at the end. In any case, studying this play always affords many opportunities for parallel and tangential discussions. We are a little behind on my course outline, but I am not concerned at this point. We just need to keep pushing ahead.

In the eleventh grade AP Language and Composition course, we will be reading profiles. I am amazed that Norton left out the greatest profiler working today, the New Yorker’s David Remnick, but they did include many other fine writers. We will be looking at Thomas Jefferson’s portrait of George Washington, M. Scott Momaday’s American Indian stories, and David Guterson’s piece about the Mall of America.

In their second class period of the day, we continue to study for the SAT, focusing on writing style and vocabulary. I am rushing to finish both workbooks hopefully before Christmas so we can move on to AP writing and review. This is probably the least creative period of the day, mainly because we are tied down to these workbooks that are really student-directed. I have tried to schedule some activities and review games to break up the monotony. The students recently took their PSAT exams, so I will be anxious to see the results to gauge what we should review and focus on in this particular class.

Students and teachers are fatigued at this point. Halloween will add to the mischief and tension—any time you mix sugar and costumes the school goes crazy. In the coming weeks we have parent conferences after report cards. We will be ready for the Thanksgiving holiday when it arrives.

And can’t we do something about this heat. Ninety plus degrees in October? And of course, the smell of brush fires never entirely clears. All part of living in southern California.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

All About You

So it’s time to write your college application essay. It’s time to tell the world what is inside of you, namely all of the nuances, hidden talents, capabilities, and strengths not revealed in your SAT score, your grade point average, your list of extra-curricular activities, or your near mastery of the ukulele.

It’s time to write about you—the you nobody knows and should know, the you that will soar and fly through the halls and student unions of a college you have chosen to live at and study in while paying exorbitant fees and running up substantial debt.

It’s all about you. And at this moment, in this essay, the focus should be nowhere else.

In her essay entitled “On Keeping A Notebook,” Joan Didion writes that “We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves…(‘You’re the least important person in the room and don’t forget it,’ Jessica Mitford’s governess would hiss in her ear on the advent of any social occasion…).”

The best advice I can give you about feeling self-absorbed and egotistical when writing this particular essay is to get over it. You are the star of this piece, and if you do not seize the moment, you most likely will not be going to the college of your choice, or possibly it will be your second or third choice.

How it feels to be you, to experience what you have experienced, to gaze reflectively at your navel—those are the most important aspects of this gig. A certain amount of self-absorption will be necessary and required.

Writer David L. Ulin told a class of students once that writing is an arrogant act. You are grabbing the reader by the lapels and demanding that he listen to what you have to say. You are taking away his time, the minutes he will never get back again, and forcing him to read your thoughts. So you’d better have something worthwhile to say.

First, let’s look at a sample prompt from a college application essay, in this case, the University of California application.

“Describe the world you come from—for example, your family, community or school—and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.” This prompt is for all freshmen applicants.

The second prompt is for all applicants. “Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?”

These kinds of prompts are common in college applications. They are usually looking for an experience you have had that has influenced your life or changed your perspective.

Now let’s look at some common mistakes that students make with these kinds of prompts.

Often, students will write about a particular experience, say, travel to a foreign country. The essay might go something like this: “The summer I traveled to Paris changed me. We left from LAX on a Friday. It was the first time I had flown alone. When I arrived in Paris the next day, my study group was waiting at the airport. We went to our hotel and checked in, and then we began sightseeing. We were in Paris for a whole week, seeing the Eiffel Tower, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and even journeying outside the city for a tour of the palace at Versailles.”

From here, the student makes a fatal error. He skips the most important part of the essay, the part where the change actually takes place. The essay continues from here with: “My summer in Paris greatly changed the way I see the world. When I go to college, I will again have to be on my own and be self-sufficient. I am ready for this challenge because of my memorable summer in a foreign country.”

We know the student has changed, but there is no how or why this change occurred. There is no action, no dialogue, and no process. “I went to France and I came back a changed man. This is why I will do well in college.”

Another mistake is the essay that focuses on everybody but the student. “The summer I hosted the exchange student from China was the summer where I changed the most. My guest arrived at LAX at 11:00 PM. We picked her up and drove her to my house. She knew a lot of English, and even though she was obviously very nervous, she was really into seeing Los Angeles. We went to Disneyland, LACMA, the Getty Center, all the cultural and entertainment venues in the city. It was an incredible month of fun. When she left, Sue, as we came to call her, told me she felt like she had grown up completely. As she boarded the plane for Beijing, I saw a woman who was ready for anything the world might throw at her. During that summer, we had both grown up.” So if Sue applies to the same university, this student has already written her application for her.

Finally, students often throw in things that result in accidental negatives. These are aspects mentioned in the essay that could be taken the wrong way. “Every day during the summer between junior and senior years, my mom would drop me at UCLA on her way to work so I could take my SAT class. The class was rather boring, but it did give me the opportunity to meet people. After the class I would spend my time in the library waiting for my mom to come and pick me up after work. Normally, I hate libraries. I like coffeehouses better. There is more action and more people to meet. But sitting in the library that summer was not so bad.”

Honesty is always the best policy, the cliché goes. In this case, condemning the class as boring might give the wrong impression. Saying one hates libraries might also not endear an applicant to the admissions committee.

So what should you do with this application essay?

First of all, realize that the number of words you are allowed make this a case where you need to write in a focused, detailed manner. Tangents might waste words and not necessarily move your piece forward. Start with an experience. This might be a success, a failure, an opportunity, a missed opportunity, or a negative event with a positive outcome.

For instance, there is nothing wrong with describing a trip to another country that you think made you mature or more responsible, or be interested in exploring the world. Fully describe the trip, or the experience. Put us in the middle of it. When you finish writing about it, try to look at it from the perspective of the readers. Do you really make them see the city, or feel and appreciate the experience? Details and description will win the day.

Next you must fully write about the reflection on the experience. This should actually be the bulk of your essay. “When I arrived back in Los Angeles from Paris, the city seemed smaller, less colorful. I began to think about the differences between the two places, and how since I traveled to Paris, my home city now seemed less cultured, less interesting to me.”

Be sure to include in this section how the experience changed you—how are you different now? This is the growing part, the epiphany. “I realized that I wanted to see more of the world, that I love new cultures and new people, and that the experience in Paris energized me and set the course of my life. I want to see the world and learn.” Yes, a little idealistic, but you get the picture. We need to see the change happen.

The last section should be about the wisdom you have accumulated in the experience, and how this connects to your view of college life. “My trip to Paris makes me the ideal student for the university. I am ready to contribute to, and benefit from, the diversity offered on your campus. Having experienced at least one major world city, I now hunger for more—more experience, more learning, more culture—and this will make all the difference as I pursue my educational goals.”

Of course, the essay hinges on your prewriting practice. Most students find themselves stymied by the enormity of the essay. I mean, this piece could be the key to, or the lock on, your future. Do not panic. Simply start writing. Write whatever comes to mind and keep going. You can cut, shape, throw away, later. Right now, just open the tap and start writing about a memory, a moment, something that sticks in your mind, a question, even if you do not know the answer. Do not worry about cohesion, or length, or style, or spelling or grammar. Just write. Recognize that this piece will need extensive process, meaning revision and drafting. If you start thinking finished product, you will block yourself.

Therefore, you cannot write this the night before it is due.

You want to shape it, mold it, and make every sentence tell. That will take drafts, and working on it sentence by sentence, point by point.

But initially, just write.

It also might help to read some essays. The Norton Reader is a good source, or any of the other nonfiction anthologies in the book store. I use an essay by writer William Michaelian called “A Map of My Heart,” about growing up Armenian in the central part of California. You can access this piece at:

It is an excellent and powerful piece of writing, although much longer than most application essays. Still, it is an example of putting the reader in the middle of something. You cannot read Michaelian’s piece without understanding and appreciating his Armenian heritage and the warmth and depth of his family life and history.

So you sit down at your desk and you start writing. You come up with several rambling possibilities. How do you shape them into an essay? Start in the middle of things. Let’s begin in the airport in Paris with the crowds surging around you and gendarmes armed with machine guns patrolling the concourse. Or, start with some action: “I only had a moment to act before the train left the station and I would be lost in the French countryside.”

What if it’s too long? In revision, cut exposition. Cut the experience—often it can be stated in one to two sentences. We need to see the moment of change, the reaction to the stimulus. Knowing you flew into the city on a Tuesday night is probably not as important. Look for the parts that tell us detail, that put us in the middle of action. Cut the background information that does not move the story forward. Focus on the turmoil, the change in you, the reflection part.

You can also cut the “this is how I’ve changed” part. We can see this in a single image. “Upon arrival at LAX, I made my way to the luggage carousel with confidence, a young woman moving among the numerous throngs of travelers, each finding, like me, her own destiny.”

You also ask if you can lie and make up a story. No, because false stories lack conviction, and can also be checked, and being caught in a lie is pure embarrassment. You can, however, bend the story to fit your needs. Absolute fact is never as interesting as your impressions of an event. It does not matter if something happened over two nights; if the story is not lessened, make it one night. You can combine characters, or change names. But the basic facts should stand. However remember that it is your impressions that will make the story real for the reader. We are seeing this event through your eyes. How does it feel to be you in this mess, and what did it leave you with?

The admissions committee has your test scores, your grades, your basic application, your teacher’s recommendation. What they do not have is your voice. They may, at some point, require a personal interview. Many colleges do. The application essay is another opportunity for the committee to hear you. You are speaking directly to them, so tell them what your stats and resume do not.

You might explain a bad grade in a difficult class.

Talk about the time you moved or changed schools.

Talk about something you witnessed—a fight between parents or relatives—that you did not come to understand until later, and changed the way you viewed your family.

Talk about where you live.

Talk about a time you did something wrong and never got caught, but regret to this day.

Talk about you. It is all about you. This one time, in this one essay, it is okay to be the most important person in the room.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Week of 10-13-08 Through 10-24-08

This is a new feature I am starting on the blog where I will detail what we will be studying over the next two week period in all of my classes. This way, parents, students and anyone else who cares to may keep up with us on our readings and assignments.

The first quarter of the year is rapidly disappearing. Therefore, it is time to start bringing the first group of readings and rounds of exams to a close.

In my homeroom, English II Honors for tenth graders, we are finishing our first group of Shakespearean sonnets. Early in the week, the students will write an essay on the group, their second major essay of the quarter. So far, our focus has been on Shakespeare’s style and finding the ways he plays with language outside of the theater. We have read a number of famous and lesser known sonnets, examined the sonnet style in rhyme scheme and rhythm, discussed scansion and meter, as well as figurative and literal language. We have even analyzed a few of the sonnets as essays, figuring out what Shakespeare’s thesis is and how he makes his case by the ending two line couplet. Next up, the students will take control of the class. Each has been assigned a sonnet to teach the others. I will observe and fill in the gaps where needed. The next two weeks should be a bit different from the course so far as it will be more student driven, something I enjoy a lot more. This also fulfills our state requirements for public speaking.

The ninth graders in my second period English I Honors course are in for a rough week. They have a number of tests to complete for me. They have read short fiction by Edgar Allan Poe, Daphne du Maurier, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a poem by Walter de la Mare. Now they will take a short answer exam on each selection followed by an in-class essay linking the themes and characters of all the selections together. They also have a vocabulary test on Thursday. As we wrap up the first unit in their anthology, I will be assigning them personal persuasive speeches to be given in class in the coming weeks. They will read some classic speeches, including “I Have A Dream” by Martin Luther King, and “The New Frontier” by John F. Kennedy, among others. We will dip into some Native American work, and discuss just what makes a good speech. Again, these lessons work with the state standards for public speaking.

The senior AP Literature and Composition course has multiple assignments working right now. They are waiting for me to finish an edit of their first draft of the college application essay. I will be returning those with extensive comments and they will begin the rewriting and revising process. Meanwhile, we are finishing a detailed study of Dante’s Inferno. We will discuss the last few Cantos this week, hear some music based on the poem, and prepare for a short answer and take home essay exam on the work. Then we will launch into Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In AP Language and Composition for grade eleven, we continue to study our sample essays in the Norton anthology. We will again visit Joan Didion’s work this week, as well as other favorite writers of mine, Scott Russell Sanders and Annie Dillard. The students are finishing the writing of a paper on their definition of home due Tuesday when we return from the long weekend. They will also be working on more informal writing this week in the form of journal entries. Many of the pieces in this section of the Norton come from the writers’ notebooks. So I have them emulating the great writers in their journals. They will turn in a sample of their journalistic work during the second week.

I have the same group of students in eleventh grade again later each afternoon in SAT Preparation class. There we are working on writing the SAT essay. We will write a number of practice essays and read some student samples while working through our Kaplan workbooks. We will also once again hit vocabulary really hard, a common weakness with most students.

Even though tomorrow is a holiday for students, the teachers will be on campus for a workshop. Thus begins a busy week with the due date for final quarter grades just a few weeks away.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Grind

I have spent the last two weeks trying to catch up on my stacks of ungraded student papers while watching my meager retirement savings slip away. In both cases, time is of the essence: some of the papers go back to the first week of September; at this rate of loss I will be able to retire in forty years when I will be 84. These are bad times. Not the worst of times by a long shot, but bad nonetheless, and there are some disturbing harbingers of the misery to come every day in the news.

After two weeks of solid work, I am not even close to being caught up on those papers, and probably never will catch up.

Because I read for a living, I sometimes have the urge to vegetate. I want to just sit somewhere and stare off into space, or watch people, or simply go to sleep. Fatigue is a huge problem right now. By the time Friday rolls around, I am nearly unconscious with fatigue. Driving is real fun, as you might imagine.

There is no chance to vegetate, no rest for the weary. The papers and the lessons cannot wait. So I push on. Here is my plan:

I have decided to focus on one set of papers each night. Rome was not built in a day, or, insert your own cliché here. That is what I will do: one set per evening; one set per weekend. With the exception of this weekend: I will do two sets because I have essays from the seniors from September, and I have their first drafts of application essays for college. Both must be done by Monday. So this weekend, I will deal with two sets of papers.

I also must write lesson plans for the next two weeks, and review all the readings and assignments for five different classes.

Oh, and I must update the blog.

Saturday, my grandmother-in-law turns 92 and I promised my wife I would barbecue for everyone.

Time to make lists and prioritize. I am constantly making lists and prioritizing.

Given the choice between reading and grading papers, and reading and rereading texts for class, I would rather read the books. I also believe that although there are many ways to cover yourself as a teacher, being unprepared is inexcusable. I always prep for the next day’s lessons first. Then, if time allows, I’ll look at some papers. Being prepared to teach is imperative because nothing fails like dead air in a classroom with twenty minutes of class time left on the clock. Yes, preparation is key.

The other problem I have is that the administration is requiring more and more paperwork that adds nothing to teaching. Just today, I was given a seventeen-page handout to complete when I observe a teacher in my department. The administrator who gave this to me does not teach a class and has the time to write a seventeen-page handout for us to fill in when observing our teachers.

Where does this paperwork lead to better teaching?

To be a good teacher, one needs luck, talent, hard work, and preparation, for teaching is a craft, and one must study and practice the skills to perfect the craft, providing one has talent and ability.

In addition, a teacher must have security and stability in order to do the job well. In these trying times, there is no stability and security anywhere in the world. We are all operating by the skin of our teeth. We are a nation of distracted, worried people, and it shows, from our erratic driving to our pained faces. We are in trouble.

Like the literature teacher I am, I look for solace in books, in the wisdom and towering intellect of writers. God knows, the economists do not have any wisdom to spare these days.

Dante places the greedy on the fourth circle of hell in his Divine Comedy. These sinners must constantly push heavy weights against resistance from other sinners. In illustrations of this scene, the weights take the form of a gigantic wheel or huge bags of money that burden the sinners.

I think for those CEOs and CFOs floating to earth on golden parachutes this is hardly enough punishment. Drawn and quartered—that is my idea of punishment. And to keep pace with Dante, I would have them reassemble themselves each time only to be drawn and quartered again.

In the twenty-one years I have been a teacher, I amassed $35,000 toward retirement. It would have been more, but the archdiocese conveniently lost my paperwork after I left their employ. They have no record of my four years as a teacher at a Catholic school.

In the last month, I lost $7000 of the $35,000. From polling my friends about their 401Ks, I got off easy. I also have another twenty years to work, giving my portfolio time to recover, I hope.

As we heard in the news this week, the people who are retiring in the next year have the greatest problem. I worry about those people, like my colleague, the science department chair, who wants to retire at the end of this school year. I have seen him in the halls, smiling, talking to students. He seems fine, and I haven’t the heart to ask him how his investments are doing.

Then there are the darker stories, like the man who killed himself and his entire family last weekend in Porter Ranch, California, just a few miles from my school. He left letters indicating he was wiped out by the downturn in his investments. He felt the only way his family could avoid shame is if he took them all to the afterlife with him.

All of this leaves me feeling like one of Thoreau’s men of quiet desperation. I count the empty houses on my block every night on my walks with Stone. The signs are everywhere: public auction. As a headline in one of the smaller, less developed nations of the world’s newspaper trumpeted: “This is how the first world nations fail!” Except the crisis only began in the first world nations; now it is global, affecting everyone.

So the stacks of ungraded papers remain, looming over me like a caustic shadow. The quarter ends in a few weeks.

I cannot tell a teacher “You are doing well,” or “You need to work harder at classroom management,” without filling in seventeen pages of fruitless paperwork.

The season of autumn calls. The leaves are beginning to turn, even here in southern California. It is the perfect weather for high school football on a Friday night, for a smoky barbecue, for a good walk, or a good nap.

There are books to be read and life to be lived. But in what feels like the twilight of the empire, we must simply keep plodding on. As our world economy crashes and burns, there is no turning back. Time moves in only one direction.