Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Week of 11-10-08 Through 11-21-08

I got a late start this week on preparing my published schedule for each class. Since grades were due last week, I had many a sleepless night. Therefore, I took the weekend to catch up on some reading and some much needed rest. This is the time of year when things start bogging down, mainly because both the students and the teachers are burned out and waiting for the holidays. We are also all irritable; I have had more than one or two skirmishes with students this week, and things will not get better any time soon. The day off for Veterans’ Day will help some, but next week are Parent-Teacher Conferences, and depending on the class and the performance of the student, things could get testy that day as well.

But let’s not forget the most important part of all this: the classroom and the study. Learning is its own reward. I do wish the reward was sleep, however.

In my English II Honors course, we are steaming through Hermann Hesse’s classic novel, Siddhartha. I have been outlining the tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism for students, and we have spent some time comparing the theologies and dogmas of Christianity with the Eastern counterparts. I have tried to impress upon the sophomores that Jesus would have made a great Buddhist. This idea will surface later when I ask them to write about the book.

The other thing I have stressed in class is that words are not sufficient to capture the essence of these two great religions. Indeed, most of the books written about Buddhism and Hinduism turn out to be very thin. Few words often equal deep thinking. Some of the texts I use to prepare to teach the novel read like poetry. In fact, the Bhagavad-Gita is poetry. Here is a sample: “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in minds.” Good advice for those entering the teaching profession.

The fulcrum of our discussions so far has been Siddhartha’s quest. We are all on a quest—to find ourselves, to find out place in the world, to discover our lives. That is Siddhartha’s quest in the novel. This is difficult for my students to grasp because so much is handed to them. They are a generation that rarely feels want; their needs are met, sometimes to extravagance. I do not fault them or their parents for this. We all want our children to have what we did not. However, struggling through difficulties, and doing without builds character, as we will see in Siddhartha’s situation.

My freshmen are giving persuasive speeches, and I must say, I have not been impressed. We are done with about eighty percent of the class, and only a rare one or two really nailed his subject. Most only give superficial reasons and evidence to support their assertions. They also lack the performance aspect of the speech. We need to really work on this in the next few days. They are young, and even though they have known each other for many years, they are extremely nervous getting up and speaking. Being able to pull this off is an important skill and part of the California State Framework in English. So we will spend some time recapping and examining their performances later this week.

They will take a break on Wednesday this week from the speeches to read C.D.B. Bryan’s great short story, “So Much Unfairness Of Things.” Then they will do some writing about the choices we make in life.

The seniors in AP Literature and Composition are reading Hamlet. We are nearing the end and the devastating finale. So far, the students seem coolly receptive to Hamlet’s plight. I feel like I need to schedule some kind of activity or exercise to make the play more real to them. Sometimes when fatigue sets in, the books become just something to get through. I hate when that happens. We have a curriculum and a set time to cover it, but I want the works we read to have the maximum effect on the students. Right now it feels as if we are reaching to understand Hamlet’s problems. Reading things as a class assignment makes them often more cerebral than visceral. We need to get into the tension of Hamlet’s dilemma and feel his desperation and anxiety.

My eleventh grade AP Language and Composition is in the same situation as the senior class. We are knocking off one essay after another in the Norton anthology, yet our class discussions feel circular and stagnant. This week we will move from profiles to a section on human nature. Again, the struggle here is to make this meaningful for them, not just reading one essay after another.

The same group of students in SAT Prep/Composition are really suffering, and I am beginning to doubt the benefit of this vigorous test preparation. The books we are using are self-directed workbooks. The answers are there, so students, when faced with other homework and responsibilities, do not always take the exercises seriously. Yes, they want to improve their test scores. Yes, they want to go to good colleges. But the workload is heavy right now, and doing the exercises in this book seem mundane.

With preparation classes for the SAT, the trick is the trick, meaning that most test prep centers work not only on the content of the test, but tricks and nuances to defeat the test. I am admittedly not an expert in these shortcuts. I did some research, but I focus my attention more on the content of the test. But the content is also covered in our curriculum and textbooks. Unfortunately, we were thrust into this situation by the principal responding to parent concerns. Most students take outside classes in SAT preparation. I really think we would be best served in the classroom to concentrate on the content as it comes up in our curriculum.

So, my goal is to get them through these prep workbooks as quickly as possible and get back on writing and grammar. Hopefully, this will help them lock on to the lessons and concepts more concretely and with more urgency, and therefore find themselves more prepared for the SAT.

So, as we steam toward Thanksgiving and the holidays, the struggle continues, the learning, hopefully, goes on.


  1. To tell you the truth, it's a little depressing to read through this post. It's sad to see the great works of literature and philosophy reduced to works and workbooks that students slog their way through on the way to the test and a better college. What can we as teachers do to keep our classes fresh and relevant?

    Luckily for me, I have great freedom in choosing my curriculum, so I don't have to have my students read a tired classic like The Great Gatsby, but I know that is not the case for all teachers.

    Hopefully you and your students can recharge over the break; I know I'm looking forward to it.



  3. Denee,
    I could not agree with you more about reducing the world's best literature to workbooks, or what one needs to know for a test. Certainly, there must be a better way to determine college readiness than the SAT. There has been a host of articles for and against these college entrance tests over the last few years. The latest is in The New York Times, an opinion piece by Peter D. Salins on 11-18-08. Here is the link:

    I would disagree with your assessment of Gatsby as a "tired classic." Year after year, my students always respond favorably and strongly to that novel as they do another classic, The Catcher In The Rye. Yet other more recent works receive a tepid response.

    I take as a good and progressive sign that your school, district, etc. allows you freedom to choose different works. Above all, we have to keep things fresh and the canon is always changing. Thank you for the response.

    Paul L. Martin

  4. And thank you, Talia. See you tomorrow.


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