Friday 31 October 2014

Never Mind That It's 25 in Lisbon

Having just graded midterms which revealed some impressive engagement with the poems we'd read earlier in the semester, I continue to be frustrated with the blankness on the faces in my first-year class, with the sense that if I don't push the wheel, it rolls to a stop.
Yesterday I tried what I called a poetry blitz. They'd have 10 minutes of private reading and writing time with each of three short poems by Anne Simpson, Michael Crummy and Lorna Crozier. After each 10-min spot, if they wanted to talk, we'd talk. "This is read and react," I told them. "As directly as possible."
There's more obedience than responsiveness with this group. I noticed that many students would read the poem, write their piece--"write a letter to the poem," is how I put it--then sit back and wait for the 10 minutes to expire. Before the second set, I pointed out that they could devote the whole 10 minutes to the task if they wanted, perhaps to supplement, deepen, further explore their preliminary response.
Today I'll see what observations and questions they might have. If none, we'll move on. I'm going to simply refuse to tell them about the poems (as if I know anyway). If all that matters is what they have to "know" for the exam, they'll have to settle for what the ten minutes, or any further private consideration they might apply, told them.

5 hours later: I did end up offering a few observations of my own about the poems. No matter how stoutly I reminded them that I might be full of beans, some students wrote down what I said. I'd rather they paid more attention to their own reaction to the poem. 
The idea didn't work, but come on, it's Halloween afternoon. And I've got a new idea for next week. 

Thursday 23 October 2014

No Secret Here

Today I put to my students the notion that maybe a policy of mine, never mind what it is just now, was old-fashioned. (Lucky for me, the discussion was prompted by my mention of that perennial burr, the Old Fashion Foods store on south Albert. The way they spell it, not the products, some of which I consume. By now my students can predict the rap: Where's the -ed and what about that hyphen?)
Though a few students expressed support for the policy, I also heard a voice using "Pavlovian" to describe what I was up to.
Though the full story's more nuanced, the episode amounts to another reminder that if what I do doesn't work, I should change it or quit.
This is what I'm talking about: I reserve 10% of the grade for something I call Classwork, defined in several ways that could be grouped under "commitment" or "taking care of your job as a student". I want the students who do the work to get the grades.
Of course, as I say so, I don't much like the sound of it myself.
Writing this, I come up with a fabulous question for tomorrow's midterm. Sorry, can't spill it right now.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

facebook twitter netflix blog

I know everyone says this, but I don't like what facebook does to friend and like. I don't care after a while. I did read the interview in the Globe & Mail, October 10, with Alfred Hermida and his "different way [of forming social bonds], in a different space." But to suck into facebook is to say good-bye, I'm thinking now.
I watched Salinger on Netflix (a word which jumps to upper case until I bop it back), found it useful for context of The Catcher in the Rye. It got stupid later when, because John Lennon's killer had been reading Catcher, investigators blamed, for triggering the deranged shooter, the many times kill appears in the novel. Maybe in class we'll talk about this.
I was less than ready for my classes today. Been fighting a cold, though I feel better this eve. Classes like those reveal the good students, the ones (I can tell) let down. They've got questions about assignments. One thing we got done: idea for class anthology. Letters we'll each write somebody. We all write; I edit (they edit mine). Second drafts. I produce the document, a simple saddle-stiched thing, cover art and author bios included.

Monday 20 October 2014

Where I Want To Be

In the last two weeks or so I've entered the worlds of Twitter, Facebook, and Netflix. Fun, all of them. But I feel resentment also--for their insistent systems (insistems), for the facts that just googling a single letter, f or n, calls up two of them (twitter coming third after TSN and something else). With f and t, I wonder why I'm there. With n, and the others, I resent the constant prompts to give up even more info than they already have so they can profile me more deeply.
I'll get over all that, I suppose. What I really resent is that f and t tend to divert me from this blog, the social medium in which I'm most at home. With hardly any followers and only you, Uncle Ford and Aunt Chevy, as readers.
I'll carry on.
As I was saying in the last couple of entries, I think every day about how long I'll do my day job. Yesterday in the pub while I was reading The Catcher in the Rye, two different people spotted the book in my hands and came over to talk about it, in that wistful voice people use as they pet your Golden Lab, say, and remember their own Golden from years ago.
Today I told my students that story, on the way to reminding them that the novel stays with its readers who commit to it. And as the only book, of many I've ready in a public place, to attract strangers the way Catcher  did yesterday--while the Rider game was on, no less--maybe this novel deserves our respect. One of the people in the pub told me that Lee Harvey Oswald had a copy of Catcher in his room. "But not just assassins read it," I told my students.
Their next essay calls for more first-person informal writing in a voice like, or inspired by, Holden Caulfield. They're going to have to read it out loud. They're going to have to speak from the heart. If they don't, they'll hear the voice of Holden, or me, calling them "phony".

Thursday 16 October 2014

What Happened This Afternoon

A student caught me in a mood swing this morning. I started grumbly, something about a massive wheel which, if I didn't push it, stopped its forward roll. It takes more than just to me to move this thing, I think I said. This was because I was sick, at that moment, of students who unless poked, shoveled, attended to or graded just sat there. I implied that such unresponsiveness was occurring right now in this classroom.
I don't think everyone agreed. I seemed impatient for sure.
(Right, though.)
Anyway, that passed. Talk turned to the hit Ivory bar soap had taken these last couple of decades. An hour ago I claimed I had to rush out to Safeway to score that last 16-pack for eight bucks or so, and live "clean and simple" for the rest of the day. (Achieved, so far.)
It's the systems of teaching that bug me, most of them attached to grading. The most joyous writing to share was offered as voice, not assignment, a response not a grade.

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Coming From

A dream, briefly: I am house-sitting, a house I don't recognize. But through the back door I see a familiar sight. It is summer. A boy, age 10 or so, reclines in the dirt against a patch of fence that sweet peas would climb. A few trucks and cars--Dinky Toys, we used to call them--lie scattered around him, but he seems content just to feel the heat of the sun and the dirt. When he sees me, he says, "Do you want me to leave?" I tell him no, it's ok. I know this kid, I realize, watching him out the back door. He's me.
If in my English classes I can get students close enough to their own material of this sort--the images, stories, memories, identities only they can access--then their writing will be that much more effective. I mean writing of all sorts: poems and stories, personal essays, even formal essays of commentary and argument about The Catcher in the Rye, Richard Ford's "Sweethearts", John Newlove's "The Double-Headed Snake", or any other work they encounter.
It's as if their writing voice needs a place to come from.

Saturday 11 October 2014

The Same Title For Now

Continued from the previous entry is the fact that every day I think about my job and how long I want to do it.
As planned, I passed my sheet of commentary (grouped around "elements of fiction"--setting, language, plot and the rest, ending with theme) and did my loop through the 7 table clusters. Even at that more intimate level, the students were reluctant to talk, unless I put a question or comment to any one person directly. My questions about "the experience of listening to and reading along with 'Sweethearts' the other day" didn't seem to make sense.
Sitting at each table, I could respond better to individuals, and they to me, I suppose. But the whole exercise didn't do much to get them closer to the story, I don't think.
I had the sense that just before and just after my pop-in, each group subsided, but for the diehards (bless their hearts), into talk about anything else but "Sweethearts".
Over at The Catcher in the Rye, I was engaged in a similar task: getting to know Holden Caulfield, with a class of 33 English 110 students. Holden's easy, in one way, bringing me up against an issue, call it a problem, across all classes: people content to do the minimum--in this case, pin Holden to a convenient definition.
In case this all sounds too negative, I'll say again that the act of inventing these ideas or variants of existing ideas--let's put them all into that category--is what I love about my job. When, as with Catcher, the acts of understanding the achievement of that novel and getting students into Holden's voice, so to speak, overlap, that's when the good stuff goes on.
I think I've decided to continue in this vein.

Friday 10 October 2014


It occurs to me today (a clause I'll eliminate later) that getting students to feel the poem or story, feel what comes from commitment to word and line--even to accept for a split second the notion that language could move them if they let it--is all I do.
Today I read aloud in class Richard Ford's "Sweethearts" in its entirety, pausing occasionally for student questions, comments, reactions, thoughts, predictions. None. In fact, we all seemed content for me to read. The students relaxed into a read-along rate of, I'd say, 85%. It took the whole class. "Have a good afternoon," I said when it was over.
On the premise that more vigourous motivation might seep through by tomorrow, I've readied a page of my commentary, which they'll talk about in groups of 2-5. And with me when I come around to their table.
This is the fun part of my job. Just getting ideas for things to try is fun. In the face of granite-skinned resistance, I'll try to draw them out, trying not--as Elaine in Seinfeld put it so memorably (about men she'd like to date)--"to make any loud noises or sudden moves that might scare them away."
The pay-off--I need hardly remind you, dear reader (that's you, Uncle Roy and Aunt Rogers)--is many voices speaking in the classroom, not just mine. And every time a student speaks of his/her experience with, say, a poem, the poem expands. (Here I don't count the rehearsed disdain uttered by the young man or woman who needs English 100 but never wants it, never stoops to engage.)
As soon as I write this, I run into L______, my waitress at a south Regina pub, who says she can't believe how much she loved my class years ago. I thank her.