Monday, January 16, 2006

Lots of student stories:

from last year's sixth grade:

Me: "What's a word that means 'not letting go'?"
Royce's hand shot up. "Royce?" "Tenacious!" "That's right! Very good!" I must have sounded surprised, because someone, I think Angela, said, "You didn't think anyone would get it, did you?"

From an essay of Royce's, on "An exchange student from China has just entered your school. What will you tell this student about student life at your school?" "…I would introduce the student to all my friends hoping that my peers would be friendly toward him. Truthfully, I will tell the student about how dull the classes really are. He may agree or disagree, but I wouldn't change my mind."

A senior at the academy just got into Harvard early, and the place was festooned with banners proclaiming, "Congratulations Daniel X— on winning early admission to Harvard! —— Academy awards you a $4000 scholarship!" I happen to have an eighth grader named Daniel X—, and he said to me, "I just got into Harvard early." Me: "Congratulations! Talk about 'early admissions' — four years early!" Later on, he said, in a bewildered tone, "Why am I even here? I got into Harvard!"

Some of the eighth graders have been going through a pretty serious slump, and I've been exasperated with them. But on the last day of the semester — I hope this isn't wishful thinking — they seemed to snap out of it. I said, "Underline any words in the poem that you don't know." And Jae, who's one of the smartest students in the class, and who's been slacking off more than anyone, said, "I'll just underline the whole thing." But I didn't have to rebuke him, because Josh teased him: "You don't know what 'me' means? Or 'coughing'? Man, that's sad. You gotta go back to pre-school."

We talked about chewing the cud, and I asked them what the connection was between "ruminant" (the term in zoology) and "to ruminate." And Jae ("I was forced to read Anne of Green Gables") elaborated the whole thought-as-digestion metaphor.

My sixth-graders continue to impress me. The other day, we strayed into early modern history, and Viren talked indulgences and predestination & Luther's 95 Theses, & the Society of Jesus, & knew who Henry VIII's children and first three wives were. When I said that Mary Tudor persecuted Protestants, he said, "a bit like her grandparents Ferdinand and Isabella, with the Inquisition" (which I'd never noticed). Viren, by the way, is the only non-Christian in the class. Then someone asked, "Did she burn witches too?" and Patrick said, "No, that was more in the seventeenth century." I almost wasn't sure I had heard him right, and had to ask him to repeat. I hadn't imagined it. Anyway, it was great fun, and when we came back to our sample sentences I looked at my watch and said, "Oh my goodness, we have only twenty minutes left!" Patrick: "That's OK — it was interesting."

They are asking hard questions too:

sixth grade: How did James I feel about being chosen to succeed to the throne of the queen who had ordered his mother executed?

eighth grade (in spite of the slump): If massacring civilians is a war crime, why is aerial bombardment of cities not prosecuted?


Since Japan hadn't signed the Geneva Convention [which I hadn't known], how could its leaders be prosecuted for war crimes after World War II?

One of the sample paragraphs I read with my sixth graders was from Woodward and Bernstein's The Final Days, so I told them about the Watergate scandal. And when I said "obstruction of justice" (or maybe it was in the paragraph), Viren exclaimed, "That's what Scooter Libby was indicted for!" Later, I had to confiscate a note that was being passed around. I was surprised to see that it began, "We, the undersigned." What's this? I read further; it was a petition to impeach Bush, listing all his misdeeds. Viren had drafted it, and everyone had signed. I gave it back at the end of class.

Another paragraph had "poor unity," and they commented that it was like a brainstorm. "Or like that exercise that Ms P. has us do — looping." Me: "What's that?" They explained. Richard: "It's so helpful." Me: "Are you being sarcastic?!" He grinned.

Toward the end of last semester we had a new boy. His first day he took the vocabulary quiz at the beginning of class, like everybody else, but I told him not to worry about getting things wrong, because I knew he hadn't had a chance to study the words. Even so, by the time he handed in the quiz he was nearly in tears; Richard, who is not a particularly gentle person, asked him, "Are you all right?" Ten minutes later he was fine. I hoped that was a sign of a conscientious student, and I think it was, but he was with us for only a few weeks, unfortunately.

Last year I wanted to tell my eighth graders about Littlefield's "parable on populism" interpretation of The Wizard of Oz. I explained what "oz" stood for, and the lion, the tinman, and the scarecrow, and I thought they could figure out the Emerald City for themselves. "Emerald stands for green, the color of the dollar bill, so the Emerald City is the financial capital of Oz." They look blank. "A rich, powerful city, with tall buildings." No response. (They were not a very good class; or maybe things look different from a Queens perspective.) So I told them.

I taught a few intensive courses over the winter break, and I was getting sad because the fifth grade seemed so inferior to my beloved sixth grade, which I will soon lose. But I shouldn't jump to conclusions. One of the fifth grade students was the younger sister of Maris Moon, who asked the question about Japan and the Geneva Convention. Her name is Salina. After class I looked over the roster, and when I saw "Salina Moon" my heart skipped a beat. Selene Moon?! Are her parents fans of classical mythology?! The next day after class I called her over. "Do you know what your name means?" I asked excitedly. "Yes. My sister and I, when we came to America, chose names that have to do with the English meaning of our last name." Maris? Maristella — star of the sea! And they chose their own names, not their parents! I can just see them, aged 7 and 10, knowing little English and less Greek mythology,* putting their heads together to come up with Maris and Salina!
*Though who knows: Patrick first read the Greek myths in Korean.

On the last day of class before the new year my sixth graders asked if I would teach them in the new semester, and I said I didn't know. Viren: "Probably not, because you're the best teacher, so you're only assigned to important classes, and after the Hunter test we won't be an important class." But I requested to teach them, and Dr. K said to me, "Do whatever you like with the sixth grade and the eighth grade — they love being with you." I'm so grateful he assigned them to me — the afterglow I get from teaching them lasts several days.

Richard, who is good at grammar, and has read five books on classical mythology, asked me the other day if he should choose Latin as an elective. He wanted to, but he'd heard it was hard. Me: "Oh Richard, don't be a wimp. It'll be hard, but you'll do fine, I'm sure." When I said the word "wimp" the whole class burst out laughing, and Richard blushed and made a fist: "I'll do it! I'll sign up!"

After Nina subbed with that class she said, "If I had to take one of them home with me it would be Patrick." I can see why: he's not only very intelligent and well-read, he's also sweet, mild, and reasonable. In the essay on a favorite age between 5 and 10 he wrote that his childhood was a succession of joyful moments, and I can believe it. In contrast, Richard wrote that there are memories he cherishes, and other times he wishes he could forget. He's complicated: an excellent student, a voracious reader, and one capable of pretty bad behavior. Last year I had to send him to the office several times. I felt sorry for him because it was clear that his high spirits were caused by enthusiasm; something would interest or amuse him beyond all measure, and pretty soon he would be acting like a chimpanzee. He's much improved this year.

The other day I walked into the room during break, and they (the sixth graders) were in an uproar. Apparently Richard had said (confidentially, I hope) to someone (Patrick?) that it was hard to find "smart hot girls"; this was bruited about, and by the time I came in the five boys were chuckling and the two girls were looking sour, especially Diana. I had to say something, but I could hardly say "I'm shocked that you should think such a thing," because I wasn't. So I said, "How can you say such a thing in the presence of two such intelligent young ladies as Joanne and Diana?" Diana*, who was already in a bad mood for another reason, harrumphed, and Richard said, "But it's true! Some girls can hardly even spell their own names —" I had to cut him off.

*Diana: "With my six-year-old body, I trudged through the vast halls of my new school... Now we are studying Egypt and Mesopotamia, and all the interesting facts leave me in a daze… With grateful eyes, I said yes... I would rather have gotten something else [not a make-up set], but the gift was more than enough." She's tiny, and very cute, so it's hard to picture her harrumphing, but that's what she did. She was sad because three days before the Hunter test her mother announced that they were moving to Long Island, so she didn't take the test.

I often don't sleep the day before I teach in Queens, partly because I have trouble falling asleep when I know I have to get up early (performance anxiety: I think, "I'd better fall asleep right now," so of course I don't), and partly because of excitement. (I could never be a regular teacher! I'd never get any sleep!) My exhaustion lends a strange, wrestling-with-the-angel quality to the whole long day. Some of the teaching doesn't take much effort, but often I hit a snag: "Now I have to be really subtle, or really tactful," and my mind goes blank. They all look at me expectantly. "OK, I have to finish this sentence somehow." And I do, but lamely. I've changed my schedule this semester, so I hope to get more sleep that night, but who knows.

Yesterday we were scanning a poem by Tennyson. It was in iambic tetrameter, but there were two trochees in parallel spots. I had no idea why, but wanted to let them know that this was something one should think about. "Here we should try to figure out why he breaks the pattern in those places." Edward: "Do you know why, Ms —?" "No, I don't. But if you can think of anything, don't keep it to yourself." Later a possible reason occurred to me, but I forgot to tell them.

No comments: