Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Dog Days of Summer

I am rewriting my syllabus. Top to bottom, a whole, new, fresh look.

A syllabus is a document that exists as a contract between teacher and student. Therefore, it is filled with jargon and disclaimers, laying the ground work for the class so that the policies and procedures are airtight.

So you know that a syllabus is always a gripping read!

Therein lies the problem. I do not want to write some picture-perfect syllabus that puts people to sleep. I want my students to really read the thing and understand what I want from them and the class. I want to write it in regular language, like a letter to a friend.

I dispensed with the course description. Who needs it? If the kids don’t know what the course is all about, they have been living in a cave somewhere. It’s English class.

I also got rid of the state standards. Old version: Analyze the way in which clarity of meaning is affected by the patterns of organization, hierarchical structures, repetition of main ideas, syntax, and word choice in the text. New version: students will learn to read critically, looking for the deeper meaning in a work of literature. Still a little jargonesque, but better.

The new and improved document will be organized by questions: Why should you take this course? What are the goals of this course? What is expected of you as a student in this class? And finally, how is your grade determined? Direct and to the point, three pages and out.

In addition to rewriting all my syllabi, I reworked the entire curriculum. The schedule is tight. The classes are all honors and Advanced Placement, so the students expect to be challenged. When I finished planning everything out, I realized that we will be spending two weeks, at most three, on some major works of literature. There is no room for free periods; no space to postpone due dates and test days. It’s go, go, go until June, with papers and reading assigned even over holiday breaks.

We need to use every minute because the challenges are mountainous and we need to cover a lot of ground. I want them to be prepared for the AP exams in May as well as for SAT tests throughout junior and senior year.

Is this different from previous years?

Not really. My goal this year is to keep the energy up for 180 days—until the job is done and summer has come again. I cannot let up. I owe my students that, even though they would probably tell me to take it easy.

To get up in front of a class, five days a week, five or six periods a day, and teach, is the most exhausting thing I have ever done. The worst job I ever had was unloading sacks of manure at a Target store in the lawn and garden department. It was back-breaking work, and the smell never left me. It was embedded in my nostrils, and even when I scrubbed and bleached and scraped, I still thought I could smell the stench in my clothes and on my person. I lasted six months. I was saved by a major case of viral pneumonia. I was never so thankful for a 104 degree fever.

Teaching does not make you smell. My muscles are not sore at the end of the day. But it is hard work. I must be mentally sharp, focused, intense, and I must provoke these attitudes in teenagers. I must motivate them to learn, to pay attention, to read, to ask questions, and most important, find the answers. I sometimes wish I had the job in the cubicle—come in, do the work, and go home when the whistle blows, like Fred Flintstone.

I love my job, but it can be grueling. It is not a job you leave at work when the day is done. I put in four or more hours at my desk each night. And still I am slow getting papers back to kids. I am literally reading all the time—writing notes in the margins, giving critical comments, and trying to be encouraging even when there is not much there on the page about which to feel good.

This year, it will be different. I will read faster. I will keep the energy going. I will inspire, motivate, facilitate, encourage. I will teach like crazy.

I will manage my department, be there for my teachers, and push them to be better educators.

More and more, I believe that the battle for our cultural survival, indeed the health of our country, depends on the education system. There are many important jobs in this world, but I know that mine is detrimental to the future, as cliché as that sounds.

So here we go. I will teach Romeo and Juliet, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Dante’s Inferno for what feels like the hundredth time. I will grade student writing, conference with parents, and try to get it right for every student in my class.

Here in the dog days of summer, I am thinking of winter, when it is cold and dark and all I want to do is crawl into bed and pull the covers over my face and hide out until spring. That is when I will need the strength and energy to keep going, to keep pushing my students to do better.

It is time to get cracking again. It’s almost September again.


  1. As long as you're willing to teach, we are willing to learn.

  2. And you are the reason I go to work each day. By far, the best part of my job is the interaction with students. When I speak with them, teach them, listen to their ideas and dreams, I have hope for the future of this country.

    So to turn your phrase around, as long as you are willing to learn, and the powers that be do not get in my way, I will teach.


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