The English Teacher

The culture of poverty and ignorance
September 20, 2008, 7:57 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

“We are all born ignorant, but we must work hard to remain stupid.”–Benjamin Franklin

At first glance, this statement seems to be harsh and cruel and is easily misunderstood.  However, what Franklin meant was that we are constantly learning, even if we are just passive.  But, we must take the extra effort in order to run away from all opportunities to learn.

I thought I would use this quote to do several things: assess my students’ critical thinking skills and their writing abilities.  None of them did particularly well.  They just scratched out some half-assed paragraphs that didn’t really tell me anything.  Others complained they didn’t understand the quote even after I explained everything for them.  One class, however, really exemplified this statement.  Though 2/3 of the class was trying, or at least relatively quiet, the other 1/3 were completely obnoxious.  They were louder than the rest of the class combined.  This is also the first time I’ve also seen high school students go around throwing balls of paper at each other and hitting each other when they wanted something.  I was incredibly frustrated because I felt as if I was teaching a kindergarten class. 

When I thought about this class, and the other lower-income school where I taught, I wondered about the differenct.  The other school had students who also grew up without money.  There were gang problems there, as well.  Many of their parents had very little education.  And yet, those kids still did not go around throwing paper and hitting each other.  This denotes some lack of emotional and mental development.  What can I do with these high school students who have no more sense than the average 5-year old?  Is it really a cultural thing?  Is it because they’ve grown up in an area with high poverty rates and roving gangs? 

At any rate, I’m tired of trying to yell over them.  I’m going to use a normal speaking voice and if they can’t hear it, it’s unfortunate, but I don’t want to ruin my throat for a group of kids who couldn’t care less.  I’d rather make more of an effort for the students in that class who are really trying.


June 22, 2008, 5:46 pm
Filed under: Damn it!

It’s annoying to receive emails from students asking me to change their final grades.  Summer vacation has started!  Stop worrying about grades and go out and play!  Geez.

June 9, 2008, 6:40 pm
Filed under: Reflection

According to this article, there have been several accounts of teachers who were suspended or removed from their positions due to the contents of their websites, including the popular social networking site, Facebook. 

I understand that teachers are considered role models, regardless of whether or not they want to be one, but is it really fair to judge them for behavior that takes place outside of the classroom and has no adverse effects on their teaching practices?

As an educator who keeps an online journal, I have to wonder if it is fair for an teacher to be fired because s/he has a life outside of the classroom.  Obviously, if I post pictures of myself consuming illegal substances or partaking in illegal activities, then I should expect consequences.  However, if a teacher, who is over 21, is shown drinking, maybe even to excess, or if s/he posts risque pictures, is it fair to penalize him/her for behavior that is fairly normal for young adults?  According to one of the teachers interviewed, “my work and social lives are completely separate. I just feel they shouldn’t take it seriously. I am young. I just turned 22.”  However, a spokesman for the school district commented that, as public servants, teachers are held to public scrutiny.

While I agree with both, I also believe that if a person is placed on a pedestal, it’s difficult to maintain balance and he/she must inevitably fall, especially if the teacher is only be a few years older than the students in his/her classroom.  Considering the large numbers of retirees, most of the teachers now are young adults in their 20’s who have just left school themselves.

We all make mistakes.  Some of us are fortunate enough to make these mistakes in private, while others are foolish enough to post them online for the world to see.  Regardless, being young and foolish are not reasons enough to suspend or fire someone because someone is offended by a picture or a comment.  Honestly, in this day and age is there anything that doesn’t offend anybody?

180 degrees
March 21, 2008, 4:13 pm
Filed under: Daily Life, Reflection

” “It is dreadful to be unkind: one keep remembering it.””–Post Captain, Patrick O’Brian

Even though I’m not naturally affectionate or friendly, I don’t think of myself as a particularly mean person.  I will admit, however, that my manner of speaking and my natural expression can be off-putting and may even be construed as stern.  I am not perky, optimistic, or a cheerleader.  Thus, it is unfair for me to be reprimanded for not being bright and happy-looking when I teach.  I try the best that I can, but I think it is unjust that I need to get in trouble for acting the way I normally do.  If I behave like my sister, who is naturally more open and affectionate, or like some of the other teachers, then I am being false and I would feel horribly awkward.  Rather, isn’t it good enough that I stay true to myself while I teach in the manner that best befits my personality?

My personality is something I’ve been reflecting on recently.  I wonder if I’m being too hard on my students.  But considering that most of my classes are doing pretty well and that I get along with most of my students, I don’t think there is much of a problem.  Of course, this is a very subjective viewpoint and that I may be mistaken.  While I think my students and I get along well, they may just be humoring me.  Last semester was a constant battle with one class and I will candidly admit that I am glad to be shot of the whole lot of them.  It’s somewhat unfortunate for another teacher that, with the change in semesters, I ended up getting most of her well-behaved students while she ended up with my “bad” ones.  I just hope, for her sake, that the class composition has changed enough that they don’t present as many problems as they did with me.

On the whole, my students this semester have all settled down and they’re lovely.  Even on the day before spring break, when all students (and teachers) get a little antsy, my students behaved beautifully.  They did as they were asked and they were very, very good.  I was a bit surprised because I was expecting a good amount of fidgeting and excitement.  Instead, they almost seemed….tired.  Strange.  Perhaps this was why my last class was so disappointing.

In this class, I have a student whose behavior has changed drastically.  Last semester, he was a great kid.  Sure, he was no Einstein, but he was bright and friendly.  However, I was a bit concerned at the beginning of this semester because he had stopped doing his homework and had become increasingly truculent.  He is turning everything into a constant battle in the classroom and the worse part of this is that the other kids are getting drawn into it.  I’ve tried everything, calling mom, calling his coach, but to no avail.  I know his mom is troubled by this, too, because we discuss possible strategies that may help and I know she talks to him about his behavior.  When I contacted his coach, the student immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was trying to sabotage his position on the team, which is just ludicrous.  I don’t know if it’s the fact that he has been switched to a class from the middle of the day to the end of the day that is causing him to behave like this, but I don’t like it.  After battling for half this semester, he has developed this attitude that he is going to get in trouble in class and then he acts on it.  In short, he acts out on a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Like I said earlier, I’m not an optimistic person, but I was taught to treat every day like a new day and go in with the assumption that everything will be fine. 

Frankly, I’m just incredibly confused and lost about what to do with this student.  I don’t want him to switch classes this late in the semester, especially into an Honors class, which is what he wants, but I’m at the point where I just want to be rid of him.  This is a real shame because he was such a great kid last semester.  Very bright, eager, and friendly.  This semester, it’s almost as if an evil twin appeared.

I’m also troubled because this student has the tendency to twist words around in order to fit his interpretation of how he is being treated.   Any comment I make, he turns it into an attack.  Unfortunately, there have been a couple of occasions when I snapped at him because he was playing on my very last nerve.  I always replay these incidents again and again and I wonder if I’ve lost him for good.  I always hope I haven’t, but I know, that a little more of the relationship that we had built up last semester has eroded away and that he’s getting further and further out of reach. 

This last part may seem selfish because it makes me look bad, and that is certainly a part of the issue–I don’t know who he is talking to when he is in this mood.  However, I am largely concerned with his self-esteem.  According to his mom, part of his problem this semester is that he feels that he is in more of a “special ed.” class than last semester.  I can guess what that means and I’m a little angry at him.  He is paranoid and evidently suffers from low self-esteem while, at the same time, he is very egotistical.  His ego is big enough that he thinks that he is better than some of the other students in this class.  He is constantly making remarks like he doesn’t need to learn something because he already knows it or that he doesn’t need any extra help, unlike others.  This is ironic because he will certainly take advantage of his accomodations.  On the other hand, he also has trouble digesting objective comments regarding his behavior and he will take it as a personal affront to his intelligence.  The other day, when I said something to another student, he thought I was talking to him.  Even after I corrected him, he would not stop complaining.  Finally, I just went up to his desk and, in a private conference, said, “You know, you need to stop being self-centered.  Everything I say does not always concern you.  The world does not revolve around you.  There are other people who are here, as well.” 

Perhaps not the most diplomatic thing to say, but his eyes began to tear and his nose and cheeks reddened with the effort of holding back the tears while he tried to save face by making a snotty comment.  This is what I don’t understand about him.  He thinks he is better than others while, at the same time, he’ll start tearing up when he is upset.

I’d like to say that this is because he is a typical adolescent boy: annoying, hormonal, and confused, but, with a few exceptions, the majority of my adolescent boys do not act like this.  In fact, two of my biggest behavior problems from last semester, who also happen to be in this class, have changed for the better.  Well, one is still working on it, but at least he is making some progress, which, unfortunately, is more than I can say for the other one.

Three Minutes
March 3, 2008, 5:12 pm
Filed under: Daily Life

It’s hard to believe how the quickly the tempo of a class can change and what can cause that change.  It was an uneventful class period.  The students were working pretty well in their groups on an activity.  Two of my problem students were actually present, but one was actually working and the other was sitting quietly, albeit unproductively.  When it was soon time for the bell to ring, I told the students to hand in their assignments and pack up.  I also had them fix their rows and sit in their seats until the bell actually rang.  Most of them did, except for the two problem students.  When I reminded them again, they caused a big scene, complaining about how mean I am and how pointless it is for them to sit down when they only had thirty seconds left in class (apparently, they need to retake math and learn how to tell time).  I simply told them that this was a matter of respect and discipline.  Frankly, I was surprised by this outburst since I wasn’t asking them to do anything difficult.  I didn’t even mind the students talking to one another since they, for the most part, had worked hard the entire period to finish their group assignments.  However, being told to have a seat and wait for the bell was too much to ask.  Of course, when the other two began their outburst, the rest of the class thought it was hilarious and started laughing and goofing around, too.  With the class’ attention as their reward, the two started acting out more, and one of them even said that I couldn’t tell him what to do because I wasn’t his fucking father.  Internally, I thought, “Well, I’m glad I’m not your father because I would have abandoned you a long time ago.”  Harsh, yes, but this is a student who bullies his own parents so they can’t even stand up to him.  Even when I told them to stay after class, they both left.  However, one of the students came back and I really laid into him.  I told him that I left him alone for most of the period because I could tell he was upset.  He acknowledged that he had had a bad day, but he also admitted that he was in the wrong for letting his frustrations out on me.  I didn’t want to let him off easily so I practically yelled at him and told him that he was smart, very smart and he was wasting his potential by acting like this.  The saddest part is that this was all true.  This kid is very bright and, even though he hasn’t turned in any homework assignments, he is still managing to pass this class based solely on his quiz grades.  He looked like he was thinking over my words, but I don’t know if he was just putting on an act or if he was sincere.  I’d like to be optimistic and say it was the latter, but I’ve given variations of the this speech before, with the same reaction, only to have the same behaviors repeated.

Three minutes can ruin an entire day.

Well, it won’t make me cry, but it won’t make me give you a good grade, either.
February 27, 2008, 6:43 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

‘Dis maks my teacha cry’

Cell phone text messaging spawns debate on ‘ryt’ and wrong

Like every other electronically hip American, Denise Karpelenia will dash off the occasional text message. But, unlike many of those cell phone-packing writers, Karpelenia has trouble accepting the literary conventions — “4” for “for,” “U” for “you” — that make up much of the medium’s lexicon.”My colleagues and friends laugh at me because they know if I’m going to do any texting, I’m going to have to text in complete sentences,” says Karpelenia, the Clark County School District‘s coordinator for secondary English and language arts.

Besides, Karpelenia adds, laughing, “if it takes me two hours to text one sentence, I might as well talk to them on the phone.”

Call it textspeak, this odd but useful assemblage of symbols used routinely by thumb-typing people — most of them youngish — for quick communication. As an adjunct language, textspeak is practical, concise and, often, really creative.

It’s only when textspeak creeps into other, more formal types of writing that it can drive a language purist absolutely batty.William Kist, an associate professor of education at Ohio’s Kent State University and author of “New Literacies in Action: Teaching and Learning in Multiple Media,” knows of no study examining whether texting affects students’ writing proficiency, but he notes that alternative forms of writing are not new.

For example, says Kist, who’s also a consultant to the National Council of Teachers of English, viewers of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary may have noticed the many alternative punctuations and spellings used by letter writers of the time.

Still, textspeak is a departure from what most Americans would consider standard English, and that can be disconcerting for some. (Exhibit A: Before an interview, Kist is compelled to ask why so many reporters have been calling him to talk about the topic in recent months.)

Kist wonders whether parental discomfort about textspeak may be related to a long history of equating standard spelling with literacy.

The general public, he says, “really buys into the idea that if someone is not spelling correctly, according to standard English rules, that means they are illiterate and not prepared for the job market and maybe even substandard intellectually.”

There’s no consensus in the academic community regarding textspeak. Some teachers say text messaging is a form of writing, and anything that prompts students to write is good. Others argue that textspeak isn’t the sort of writing that will endear students to either teachers or future employers.

They do agree that although not widespread, textspeak increasingly seems to be making its way into schoolwork.

Michelle Peterson, an English teacher at Green Valley High School who is hardly old — 27, she has been teaching for four years — admits she was “astonished” the first time she saw “U” in a paper as a substitute for “you.”

“I don’t think it’s new,” Peterson says. “Even when I was in school, I think kids still tended to write in the vernacular. They’re going to write the way they speak. And slang has always made its way into papers.”

But, maybe because students spend more time online these days than they used to, “I do recognize it a little more and more,” she adds.

Peterson has noticed a few trends. Freshmen tend to use it in papers more often than upperclassmen, and Peterson finds it more often in drafts of papers — at that stage, she can point out to a student how textspeak is not suitable for schoolwork — than final versions.

Meanwhile, Karpelenia has heard from several district English teachers that students are not capitalizing letters, they’re using text symbols in their writing and it’s impacting their state proficiency exams.

In fact, if there are practical consequences to the use of textspeak, that’s a biggie: That, under the pressure of taking the timed English portion of the state exams, students may accidentally revert to the conventions of textspeak even when they know it’s not appropriate.

The standard tack for an English teacher is to explain to students that different forms of writing are suitable in different circumstances. Writing for specific audiences is, Karpelenia notes, a topic covered in the district’s English curriculum.

“A lot of our teachers will tell students, ‘You may use whatever format you like when you’re outside of the classroom, but for education purposes, we expect you to use academic language,’ ” Karpelenia says.

At the college level, “I can’t imagine there are any instructors who are accepting or tolerant of any kinds of abbreviation in formal writing,” says Patrice Hollrah, director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Writing Center.

“That’s the whole nature of academic writing,” she adds. “There are no shortcuts. You don’t abbreviate things.”

Karen Laing, an English instructor at the College of Southern Nevada, makes it clear to her students that linguistic shortcuts and substitutions always are unacceptable. However, she has noticed that e-mails from students in her online courses sometimes do lapse into that kind of language.

Concern about textspeak doesn’t end in the academic world.

“What employers are telling us is that they want students to come out of high school and college ready to write and to have excellent writing and verbal skills,” Hollrah says. “We are charged for preparing them for that.”

In fact, she adds, it’s useful for teachers to approach the subject from that perspective.

There’s probably something else at work here, too. Call it the Fogey Factor.

Hollrah notes that young people always have created “their own language, their own lingo, their own way of communicating to set themselves apart.”

But, most of the time, she says, they’re smart enough to know that there’s a time and place for it.

“So I’m not concerned about the language,” Hollrah says. “It’s alive and it’s changing.”

Actually, Kist says, “I think the general public is more upset about it than English teachers are. It’s certainly the position of the National Council of Teachers of English that these alternate spellings and punctuations actually open up an incredible opportunity for a dialogue (with students) about the English language.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at or (702) 383-0280.

Bad news?
January 18, 2008, 4:34 pm
Filed under: Damn it!, Future

At a recent faculty meeting, I learned that there is a distinct possibility that some teachers will be asked to look for other positions.  As much as I don’t want to freak out, I can’t help worrying just a teeny bit.  After all, I was asked to find another school at the end of last year because the enrollment numbers were too low to keep all the teachers on staff.  Since I was one of the newest faculty members, I was asked to leave.  This sounds really harsh, but I’m actually pretty fortunate since I’m hired by the district and not the individual schools.  However, as one of the newer members of the staff at this school, there is a good chance that I may be asked to leave again.