Monday, April 23, 2007

Pedagogy, part 2: what am I thinking?

The prospect of teaching high school turns out to be far more daunting than being an entry-level publishing flunkie. Not that I have given up my fruitless pursuit of publishing flunkiedom, but it's on the back burner temporarily while I ponder this teaching thing. Publishing flunkiedom has a certain glamor--primarily the glamor of living in New York slightly above the poverty line, but also the surface glamor of reading books for a living and the hypothetical and distant glamor of being an editor and doing something with those other parts of my education, the parts that did not prepare me directly for pressing the "start" button on the copy machine. And it seems like the actual entry-level job, once one gets past the initial impossibility of finding it, is pretty easy. Like my job, with a few more manuscripts and spreadsheets, and probably less job security. I could be wrong of course; what do I know? But I have certain suspicions borne of three glorious years of student assistanthood in the industry. In publishing, I could go home after work and live my life and never worry whether I am successfully fulfilling my obligations to the next generation to make them good people.

On the other hand, high school teaching seems really really hard. It's like performing, with the added necessity of conveying relatively complex information (or, just dates and facts, according to some of my readers) to an extremely unreceptive audience. I have never performed on stage, but I did have to take an introductory drama class once in high school, and I would have failed it had it not been for the last-minute intercession of my friend, who was a high-ranking member of the drama club and who convinced the teacher that what appeared to be my total ineptness was really a hidden genius mixed with an inability to get along with squealing underclassmen. I'm not even a particularly good class participant--usually I say too much and go in verbal circles for a while before I make my point.

Then there is the question of ends. What would my aim be? In my imagination, I will force my passion for Benjamin Franklin on pliable, unsuspecting minds! And they will heed me! And they will become wiser, and appreciative of the might primary source, and contemptuous of the lowly textbook. And they will then seek out their knowledge from its source, and stop looking to NY Times op-eds for wisdom. And they will know of the greatness and exceptionalism of America, and its many failings. But first, the greatness! And they will look at that passage at the end of The Great Gatsby about the "fresh, green breast of the new world," and after they giggle at the metaphor, they will see all of American history in it, and it will be their first real thought, and it will probably be exaggerated or even wrong, but they will think, "I have thought," and it will be good. And they will think history is the key to thought, and so they will single-mindedly pursue it. And they will go to the U of C and be shown that this is inaccurate, but only after they have declared their major in it. And then they will all become carbon copies of me! Right...

So, there's that, and then there's the method question. Hypothetically, I have a decent grasp of American, European, and classical history. But how does my hypothetical grasp turn into the concrete knowledge of squirmy, distractable high school students? Compared with the question, "How do I make duplicates of this contract and mail them out?", these questions seem to me more difficult. I have watched many people do it with varying degrees of success, and I'd like to think that my observations have been careful. But they've mostly shown that there are many ways to go about it, and people who are good at it tend to be 1) old, 2) male, and 3) much smarter than me.

Being an inexperienced 22-year-old woman seems to statistically doom one to an almost certain failure. No matter how much stuff you know, students will manipulate you, they will refuse to obey or even listen to you, they will threaten you, and, if your youthful idealism has misled you into Teach for America, they will apparently even steal your stuff and abuse you. Of all the novice teachers I have had in high school and college, only three have been effective. One was a recent graduate of West Point and an officer in the Army. He did not have discipline issues in his classes. Only one was a woman, and even though she was effective (and much smarter than me), she had to spend half the class deflecting one student's obnoxious romantic advances, during which he offered to set her up first with himself, and when that failed, with his "i-banker friends, who are totally loaded, in case you need that." And that was in college already. So.

One tactic that was employed a lot in high school by women who had just started teaching was the "I'm just one of you" strategy, which consisted of wearing clothes from the juniors' department, and always being available to "talk about your problems" and give you advice about starting a band or writing crappy poetry. They seemed to think that education consisted in having happy feelings and "expressing yourself," and the subject they taught (usually English) was just a distraction from these aims. They thought that a student's complex and tortured soul could not be boiled down to a letter, so they almost invariably gave out A's. These teachers were considered "cool" by the boys who manipulated them, and "like, so nice" by the girls who were inspired by them to write crappy poetry. One of my goals in life was never to be like them, but now I kind of understand their dilemma. Maybe they were sweet girls in college who just loved books, and thought all people were good on the inside and just needed a little encouragement to shine. Then they arrived at my high school, encountered the Assyrians and the drama queens and the GPA scammers and the perennial suicide threateners and the insubordinate girls who made mean websites about them (let us not speak of that...), and instead of recognizing the shortcomings of their ideals, they preferred to inhabit a dream world in which it was all still true and the fields were full of dancing daffodils. When their students told them they were cool and like, so nice, they only reinforced their illusions.

That could be me next year. And even if I could avoid falling victim to the dancing daffodils, I will still not be very good at teaching for several years. What if, in that time, I forget all about grad school? What if I actually never become good at teaching? I don't even know what I do if I encountered some younger version of myself--some hostile, unenthusiastic, but fairly capable brat whose aim in life would be to prove me wrong--and had to teach her history. The prospect makes me think that I am underrating the perks of cushy office jobs.

Friday, April 13, 2007


Because my small Italian child returned to Italy, I am tutoring a new kid this quarter--an even smaller Chinese child. The Chinese child is better at school and at English, but she is not very nice about it. She finishes her homework in five minutes without my help, which is unfortunate, because unlike the Italian child's long division problems, money counting is something I can actually do, and I could be of service to her in this capacity were she not already at my peak math skill level. When she is done, she taunts her classmates. "This is hard," they complain. "Not for me!" she announces. Then she shows me her new notebook with a hamster on the front and tells me that it cost one dollar, which is very expensive, for my information. Arrogant and cheap, she is much like me at that age. Although I was not as good at math.

Asked to draw a story, she produced a picture of a humongous bird facing a tiny turtle.
"What are the bird and turtle saying to each other?" I asked.
"Nothing," she responded.
"So why are they next to each other?" She thought about that, and then proceeded to draw another bird with a speech bubble reading, "The bird wins. The turtle does not win."
"What is the contest about?" I asked.
"Which one is tallest," she replied.
"But don't you think the bird is only taller because you drew it that way?"
"No! The bird is the tallest!"
"But if I drew a bigger turtle next to the bird, it would be taller than the bird."
"No, it can't. The bird is tallest."
Thus, my small Chinese child also reinforces Foucault's claim that children are like the insane.

I have to write a one-page personal statement about my philosophy of education and why I would make a good high school history teacher. Except, I was warned, it should not be too philosophical. Never having taught high school history, or any history, or any high school, I find this kind of difficult. I keep lapsing into the position that history is nice, but philosophy is really more important. That is going to be a problem. Also, this statement is supposed to include an account of my own inspiration for going into teaching. I don't think, "Once, I had a class with a crazy old man who never got past the first book of anything and pounded the table and yelled at us that WE WERE ALL GOING TO DIE and how were we going to live in light of that fact, and this convinced me to read more books and take at least some things seriously." is going to work.

So basically, still unemployed. Hire me.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

My high school is, ahem, well-endowed

Today's cringe-inducing Niles West-related news from facebook, featuring one of my classmates:

Trojan 100...Vote for Kristina
"Kristina was chosen along with 99 other girls as one of the hottest girls on Spring Break. For those of you that know her...this is obviously true! Now she is in a contest and I want to help her win! Click on this link and vote for Kristina!"

The contest, whose link is unecessary to share here since I don't want to help her win, is sponsored by the insightful journalistic endeavor that is Maxim. Each contestant is identified by her face, and her "preferred Trojan condom." And you get to pick which girl/condom is your favorite, so that, in some future issue, you can discover that there is more to her than just a face/condom preference. Much more.

You see, Niles West graduates go on to many and various fulfilling careers. So next time you want to hate on Skokie, think: can my town boast one of the 100 hottest girls and their condoms on Spring Break as certified by Maxim? And if it cannot, what is there, really, to be proud of?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Almost done

Last night, I dreamt that I went to talk to my BA advisor and he decided to take the draft I sent him last week as a final draft and give me a Grade Of Which We Shall Not Speak for it. And then I cried. In my dream. For a long time. It was very vivid. So, today, when I went to hunt him down after he has failed to send me any comments for almost two weeks (and bear in mind, the final draft is due tomorrow), I arrived bitter and resentful that he had made me cry in my dreams and planning my response should he tell me that my BA was actually headed for that Grade of Which We Shall Not Speak. All the way up the stairs, I planned and grew angrier and planned more. It was something like, "Well this is all your fault anyway! What's the point of having an advisor who doesn't give any advice? You've had my draft for almost two weeks! Couldn't you have said something before it was due? Why don't you respond to your emails? I did all this work, and now you're going to sabotage it?" This would have been followed by many further unkind insults.

But, as it turned out, he told me my BA was fine, and he hadn't responded for so long because he was busy rescuing the drafts of those more desperately in need. So then my very elaborate preparations were rendered useless and have had to be relegated to a blog post. Everything is fine, my advisor isn't a bastard, and maybe I have some accumulated anger at this whole BA project. Sort of anti-climactic, isn't it?

But at least tomorrow, I will be done.

EDIT: I am done. DONE! And it is glorious! And it is FAT! And the world is just and good! And now I will celebrate by going home and...doing some other work I have and never complaining about my BA again, unless I get the Grade Of Which We Shall Not Speak.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

An original poem

I have been in the Reg for so long
that I'm not sure any longer how to get out
or where the door is
and even if I found the door
the knob would be missing
like on the second floor where there is a sign
to the effect that this missing knob
and also all extant knobs
will soon be replaced and upgraded
the Reg will have better door knobs
so get excited.

I just read the part in Exodus
where God sends a plague of frogs
to Egypt
and I was like,
whatever, frogs aren't that bad
they're kind of cute, actually
and then I read the footnote to the frog episode
which said,
"You may not think that frogs are so bad,
but wait until we get to the next plagues."
I am looking forward to that.

Last night, my Facebook newsfeed
said that I was reading my Facebook newsfeed
at 11:52 PM
which is not possible
because I was in Wicker Park
at 11:52 PM.
Facebook is not a good stalker
even though it lives in the internet
I am still a better stalker.

Also Gmail now offers
to send me paper versions of my email
what is the point of that
when I can just hit "print"?

If I were in high school,
I would insert something here
about the world being cruel and dark
and my broken heart
thank God that's over.

I resolved to read more poetry this quarter
but instead I think I will just write this
and call it a day.