French, the Fun Way

When my school asked me if I felt comfortable teaching French in the fall, I answered truthfully that I needed some review first. In fact, I hadn't studied it formally since I was my students' age, at which time most of them weren't even born. I was blessed with a good memory and enough interest to practice from time to time on friends and during trips abroad, but I know that is no substitute for regular, intense study. So when the school offered to spring for a refresher course, I jumped at the chance, requesting an online class that I could complete around my erratic summer hours.


I'm pretty sure I could learn Sanskrit if it used kitten pictures as visual aids.

Rosetta Stone preaches total immersion: using photos and native speakers, the course doesn't contain a word of English, and uses complete sentences almost exclusively. I'm not sure if it would be as effective without my previous education, or whether I would be completely overwhelmed (after chatting with some of the other learners, I think the latter is more likely.) Still, it's a great mix of speaking, reading, writing and listening, with vocabulary and grammar drills mixed in for good measure (some in the form of optional games, which can be played alone or with other online students.)

At the end of each unit (there are four within each level, and five levels altogether) students schedule a session with a language coach. Up to three other students also attend, speaking only in the target language, and everyone has fun practicing their new skills. There is great variation among the coaches; I've had some terrific ones and some who ask the same questions over and over again. Likewise, among the students, there are some who, like me, have studied the language before, and some who are struggling for basic proficiency. The most fun sessions have been when the teacher is relaxed and the students curious; s/he will allow us to simply converse, teaching new vocabulary and phrases in conjunction with the guided practice set forth by the program. And even when connection problems prevent actual instruction, the experience is enjoyable: once the instructor was cut off halfway through, but we all stayed online and dutifully asked questions in French until the session ended.

Anyway, for homeschoolers or lifelong learners, I think it would be hard to beat this course for the price. By coincidence, I have two other friends in the program at the same time: one who is learning for fun and another who is preparing for a monthlong family trip to Paris. Both have had fun, though Kelly (who is studying for the first time) says she sometimes has to repeat lessons to really learn them, and Julie is frustrated by the headset that seems to have constant technical difficulties. (Since I did the online course, mine didn't come with a headset; my iPod earbuds have worked pretty well.)


C'est vrai. Speaking from experience.

A Great Case for Homeschooling

David Walbert is awfully convincing:

Homeschooling is nearly always portrayed as a flight from something: bad influences, secular curriculum, bullying, drugs, violence, or simply a broken system. It’s made out to be merely an individual decision, defended (necessarily) by recourse to individual rights, a choice to exempt oneself from obligations to community for the good of one’s own children. But that seems to me exactly backwards. In fact, the homeschooling I’ve seen has produced children farless likely than the average American to see themselves as autonomous individuals, each the center of his or her own universe. Freed from the constraints of institutions, homeschooling is an opportunity to lay the foundations of community.

I’ve seen this among many of my friends who belong to homeschool groups, both formal and informal.  It’s nice to see kids making the most of unstructured time — which is really what childhood is supposed to be all about, remember?!

I Am Not a Teacher

Yesterday I realized that I had completely neglected this blog in the last frenzied month of church preparations for Pascha and my last-ever grad school project: an online portfolio with more hoops than an 18th-century petticoat. Sorry, everyone (all four of you!)  I’m still too brain-dead for new material, but you might enjoy this piece I wrote for the Philosophy of Education section of my portfolio.  I was feeling a little rebellious and not very philosophical when I wrote it, but hey, maybe that will make me stand out:

I am not a teacher. I am a B-grade comic, telling jokes that swoop over my audience’s head, waiting patiently for the punch line to sink in and sometimes stooping so low as to explain the irony for the momentary pleasure of their laughter.  Enduring mostly-good-natured heckling because really, any attention is better than no attention when you’re trying to drag a class by its recalcitrant heels through the murky depths of Shakespeare.  Ignoring Fred Jones’ advice and bopping till I drop, day after day: playing silly video clips, exposing my ignorance of pop culture and enduring barrages of personal questions (Did you ever get in trouble in school? What does your husband do?  Do you like our class the best?) in an effort to win their amusement and, by extension, their attention.

I am not a teacher; more often I am a grizzled police officer worn down by my own optimism.  Excuse me, ma’am?  Do you know how late that homework assignment is?  Well, I hate to do it, but I’m going to have to write you up.  Ten percent per day.  Oh, I know I’ll hear from your mother about this, but the law is the law, and I’m bound to protect and serve.  To protect you from mediocrity, from indolence and the deadly threat of just skating by – from yourselves and the society that seeks to possess you.  And to serve you with justice, the stomach-tightening justice of knowing you were wrong and the sweet elation of doing it right, on time, in spite of all the other responsibilities and commitments you had to fulfill last night and this morning.  I can sniff out a wandering eye during a test and an intimidating eyeroll during a group project, and both will incur my wrath.  Be fair.  Be kind.  Or else.

I am not a teacher: I am your secretary. I will post grades and administer make-up quizzes and attend required meetings even when they are hopelessly irrelevant.  I will fill out forms and make you fill out forms and file the forms against some unnamed future day of reckoning.  I will remind you two or three or sixteen times about which assignments are due; I will repeat myself even when I have sworn not to; I will keep track of who is in the bathroom and who is at the nurse’s and who just got diagnosed with a learning disability and needs to take her tests in Guidance, and who can’t take her test at all because she just whacked her head in the bathroom and feels dizzy, or left her books at home and – no, please, no tears – just can’t do it today, Mrs. Lowe, please

In fact, if anything I am a psychologist, drying the tears of self-discovery and double-crossing the more wily among you who won’t go down without a fight.  I can trick you into enjoying the act of revision.  I can guilt you into a grudging respect for the Dark Romantics.  I hear your prayers for one another and the whole world; I see your defeated faces when you’ve just failed a quiz; I understand your frustration with the SAT and your parents and global warming, all buttressed by rising estrogen levels.  We talk about whose fault it is when a student doesn’t know the answers, and sometimes it’s mine.  We close our eyes and imagine a long staircase, count down the steps to enter the office of your brain, open the right drawer and folder and spread out the impressions and notes and then walk back up, open our eyes and KNOW we are ready for the test.  We overcome shyness in front of a group, and your smile after you’ve haltingly spit out your four index cards about the literary devices in Bret Harte’s short story is more engulfing than a sumo wrestler’s hug (that would be a simile of sorts, but you don’t have to keep track since it was mine.)

I am not a teacher but a student myself: I learn from you every day what never to do (leave the room, even for half a minute) what to save for special days (food and the computer lab, but not together) and what to do over and over again (smile and be patient.)  I attend classes on my own even when not required, hoping that by learning French or Byzantine notation I can put myself back in your shoes long enough to understand you, and thus to reach you more fully.  I tell my own stories of late-night papers and last-minute projects, yawn-inducing professors and grades that I totally did not deserve: after my class, grad school will be a picnic.

I am not a teacher.  How could I be?  That would mean I am somehow worthy of the sweet (and sour) faces and clear (and cluttered) minds that fill the seats in front of me, day after day – that I can be trusted to lead them in the right way with loving firmness, to give them a (proverbial!) slap in the face when they need it and a cautious pat on the back when they don’t.  (Touching is not recommended, not for liability reasons but because it is guaranteed to bring tears, and then it’s back to the couch for a heart-to-heart instead of grading those vocab quizzes and making up a rubric for the next class’ presentation.) 

I am not a teacher, but I will do whatever I can to make sure you get an education.  And I will hope and pray that it was enough.

The Last Test

In order to qualify for state certification in Maryland, prospective teachers must pass a series of tests called the PRAXIS exams.  They are loads of fun, as you might imagine.  The first one, a general-knowledge test, was embarassingly easy and I regretted every minute of studying; afterward, I was miffed to learn that I actually could have submitted my SAT scores instead.  The second, a content-area knowledge test, was more challenging but still easier than I’d thought it would be, and again I studied much too long and hard: it was a 2-hour exam and I finished in about 45 minutes.  (This wouldn’t have been so bad except that it was about fifty degrees in the exam room; I was dressed appropriately for the July weather.  The proctor said that if I left before the test was over, my score would be canceled, so I tucked all four limbs into my T-shirt and huddled in the corner for another hour, taking breaks to go outside and warm up every so often.)

This last exam was based on pedagogy.  From what I could gather online, in one hour I had to answer two multi-part questions: the first about a work of literature and how I would go about teaching it, and the other in response to a piece of student writing.  Although I thought I could probably pass without studying, I had an added incentive in that the system itself was changing; if I failed this one, I would have to conform to Maryland’s new state requirements, which would mean a different test that combined pedagogy with content knowledge.  So I dutifully reviewed, compiling a list of seven works I thought were likely to be on the list and main features of each one.

Because I had registered late, all the testing centers in Maryland were booked solid, so I registered for Howard University in DC, consoling myself with the fact that a good friend lives nearby and we’ll have lunch afterwards.  The rest of the story is most effective with a timeline format:

9:15 Leave home half an hour early just in case of traffic.

10:15 Arrive half an hour early.

10:16 Slight panic about the lack of change for parking meters.  Resolve this by paying remotely with my cell phone (score one for technology!) and then leave it in the car, heeding the warning on my ticket.

10:20 Enter the testing center.  No discernible order, proctor or instructions anywhere, just a crowd of college kids scarfing down bagels and texting.  Wonder whether they are stupid or smart for ignoring the warning.

10:45 Test time comes and goes.  Nothing.

10:55 Woman in sweats and a T-shirt enters the lobby and assigns groups of students to different testing rooms.

11:00 My group arrives at its room.  The proctor is at the door, checking IDs and assigning seats.

11:05 Chatting in line with another student, I hear that the format of the test is completely different as of December (she failed the last one and is hoping for better luck on the new test.)  Different how?  All multiple choice, with a lot of questions about psychology, she says.

11:06 Blind panic.  Well, it’s too late to do anything now.

11:10 I am seated.  The proctor reads instructions in a heavily island-accented voice that would be charming if my own pulse would quiet down.  I can’t understand her pronunciation of “pedagogy,” which she says “ped-DA-go-JI.”

11:15 Tests are distributed. I ask casually when we’ll begin.  “Around 11:30.”  I really, really regret my obedience to the cell phone rule, since no one else’s has been confiscated and I’d like to let my friend know I’ll be almost an hour late.  Also, I’m wondering if I have any chance of passing this new test.

11:30 We begin filling out all the paperwork associated with the test.  Student ID number, Social Security number, zip code, test center code, university code, linkage number, serial number and probably more I’ve blocked from my memory.

11:45 Everyone finally finishes the paperwork and the test begins at exactly the time I thought we would be finishing up.

11:46 I look at the first question and know my hapless new friend was wrong.  The format is unchanged, and what’s more, two of the seven works I prepared are on the list.  I choose Hamlet and prepare to wow the graders with my extensive mental catalogue of quotes (I watched the Kenneth Branagh version on a continuous loop for most of 11th grade.)

12:45 The exam finishes and we have to endure yet another set of instructions, this one about when we will receive our scores and how to cancel them if we want to.  I wonder idly if this couldn’t be accomplished some more efficient manner, perhaps by an instantaneous system of electronic communication in advance … 

12:55 I arrive back at my car, happy that I paid for the maximum number of hours, and call my friend.  Lunch with her and her adorable daughter, at this homey-chic pub, is perfect.

As the conclusion to my test-taking career, I’d like to offer this brief meditation, with which I now sympathize just a little more.  I think they concentrated on pedagogy LAHHHST year.

Getting Started is the Hardest Part

Student: Mrs. Lowe, I can’t do this outline.  It’s too hard!

Me: [looking at her screen] Um, Gina?

Student: What?

Me: You have ONE WORD written.

[Surrounding students giggle.]

Student: I know!  I told you it was too hard!

Me: And your one word is “Introduction.” 

[Surrounding students giggle more.]

Student: I just don’t know what to write!

Me: Okay.  So Roman Numeral I is your Introduction.  What comes next?

Student: … 

Me: What are the three sections of your paper?

Student: Author’s life and times, literary contributions and individual analysis.

Me: Good.  So that’s II, III and IV.  And V is your Conclusion.  Now, under II, what are some subheadings?

Student: Oh, I can fill those in.  That’s easy!

Sometimes it’s nice to look good even when you don’t really deserve it.

Leading, Gently

Today, on my way out of his office, I realized how much my vice-principal has taught me about how to lead:

  • Openness: he is always available.  If he’s out of his office, he returns phone calls or e-mails right away and works around my schedule to find a time to talk.  And once we are talking, I never feel a bit rushed or foolish for bringing up my concerns: he really listens and wants to help.
  • Trust: when I recently asked his advice about a situation with a student, he first responded, “What’s your feeling about this?” I told him, and he said, “That’s what I was thinking, too.” There are no words to describe the gift of a principal who trusts his teachers.  I know that he will defend me and my actions.
  • Joy: he has a wonderful sense of humor. I frequently leave his office laughing, with a healthy distance between myself and my problems.  His quick wit helps me realize how utterly unoriginal my situation is: others have endured this before me, and I too will endure it, with God’s help and his support.
  • Love: he helps remind me of why I am a teacher.  At the close of our conversation today (which centered around three separate incidents of parent communication) we both ruefully acknowledged that this was the season for such flare-ups.  People are overcome by the pressure and stress of the holiday season, and this causes them to get angry or hurt by situations that are really not so bad.  And then he took one more step: “We need to pray for peace,” he said.  “Peace for the whole world,” I remembered, as we pray at each Liturgy.  “Yes, for the whole world,” he said, “and for ourselves, too.”

Five Happy Thoughts

Boy, what a week.  It began with, literally, hundreds of essays to grade; having lost so many days from the beginning of the year, I had no choice but to push everything to the last day possible (and even asked for an extension so I could finish marking them over the weekend and still get a little sleep.)  A deep breath and then we launched right into the second quarter: new lesson plans, new texts, new questions.

I laid down the law about absences and trips out of the classroom, both of which students have more control over than they’d like to admit.  (One student asked me first thing if she could use the bathroom; I asked her to wait. Once I’d outlined the new policy limiting everyone to four trips per quarter, it turned out she didn’t have to go after all.)  Discussing these things is awfully tedious for everyone, but when they’re not addressed, loads of tiny interruptions add up to a vaguely chaotic feeling in the classroom, and ultimately it distracts everyone from our real goal: teaching and learning about English and life.

But there were so many bits of happiness sprinkled throughout all this drudgery.  Here are the highlights:

  • ONE father called to thank me for tutoring his daughter, who has several rather severe learning disabilities. We’d been studying techniques for test-taking on the SAT, and when her newest scores came in, the guidance counselors were simply shocked she had done so well.  She was accepted to her school of choice within a day, where she’ll be able to play field hockey (her sport of choice) and get an education with the supports she needs.  “I have two more kids,” he said at the end of the conversation, “so you’ll be hearing from me soon.”
  • TWO former students flew at me for hugs and gushing greetings.  “Mrs. LOWE!  How ARE you?  I haven’t seen you in so long!”  A third thanked me for all my help preparing her for the SAT; it was even more of a gift to see how much she’d matured in the intervening years, from an awkward and slightly-sullen teenager into a glowing, self-possessed young woman.
  • THREE students who were struggling took the time to complete an extra-credit assignment (seeing a play and comparing it with the written work we’d studied in class.)  They enjoyed the experience and their grades rose along with their confidence.  
  • FOUR pianists are progressing by leaps and bounds because they get to work together.  It’s amazing to see how much more they learn from each other than from me.
  • FIVE minutes after the bell rang, I dashed into class (my first tardiness of the year; I was blindsided by a schedule change and sabotaged by an uncooperative copier.)  When I entered the classroom, breathless and on edge, every student was sitting in her desk with her book open.  “Oh, hello, Mrs. Lowe,” one called out.  “We’ve just been discussing what we think of Hester Prynne.”

So, you see, it wasn’t all bad.  It rarely is.


The Monopoly Personality Test

Trips out of the classroom have been more and more plentiful in recent weeks, so to curb the urge to wander I devised what I think is a fair system: each student gets four hall passes at the beginning of the quarter to use at her discretion, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.  They just place the pass on my desk when they leave, so I know where they are — no more calling on a student in the midst of an insightful discussion only to hear, “Can I go to the bathroom?”

Rules tend to rub teenagers the wrong way, so I decided to have fun with the passes and called them “Get Out of Class Free” Cards.  I even found a little graphic of the Monopoly guy in black and white stripes.

Why am I telling you all this?  By way of an explanation for this link to the Monopoly Game Piece Theory, which contains some blasphemous language but nevertheless reduced me to a pile of giggles.

I honestly never had a preference about my piece, except that I didn’t want to be the iron.  If you did have a favorite, try to remember it before you click — I think it will be much funnier!

The One Who Kept Me Going

Still cursing myself for stopping my New York Times subscription a month before the special Food & Drink and Education issues arrived (Full price? Me?!), I am also still working my way through the treasure trove of articles within — cobbled together as best I can from Twitter links and the Times Mobile app.

This piece, one of a growing sort of tapas-style journalism, was incredibly moving: in it, fifteen New Yorkers share brief meditations on their most influential teacher.  Here’s Wes Anderson, of Rushmore and Darjeeling fame:

He was nothing like our other teachers. For one thing, he was a man. The only man in the school who did not teach P.E. Also, he had a computer. I think he built it himself. His handwriting was neat but somehow exotic. He spoke briskly and seriously, and he pointed his finger at us a lot. It was immediately apparent that the range of his knowledge went far beyond anything we were ever going to touch on in class. He invented games for us. In the fall, we were each assigned countries that we represented in an international trade market. Wars were declared. Mineral deposits were discovered. Fortunes were made and lost. In the spring, he put up a poster on which he had pasted a hundred faces cut out of newspapers and magazines. All semester we searched for clues and slowly learned who they were, but he had to finally give us Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. (This was in pre-algebra, by the way.)

The Visionary Professor may be a cliche, but it’s still an inspiring one.  I wish I were Mr. Burris — or, failing that, that he would come and teach me.

Part Parent

“… and what about this last section?” I ask.  

“It’s Writing.  Sentence Improvement.”

“So how will you do these?”

“Read the sentence first to see if anything sounds off.  Then trim it — cross out interrupters, prepositional phrases and modifiers.  Eliminate the wrong answers.  Guess if I have to.

“How many will you do?”

“At least half, but they go easy to hard, so if I need to I’ll skip the last ones.”

“Very good.”  I close the book.  “I think you’re ready.”

“Thank you,” she says, and she means it. “This helped, like, so much.”

I walk her out to the living room, say goodbye to her dad.  “I’ll miss seeing you — ” I say, and mean it just as much.

“I know; me, too,” she laughs.

“I’m proud of you,” I finish.  “I know you’re going to do a great job.  Let me know how it goes.”

“We’ll call you with the results,” her dad says, as they close the door.  “Thanks again.”

I wave, turn on the porch light, lock the deadbolt behind them.  

That fluttery feeling — out in the real world, what will happen? Will she meet her goals?  Did I do my job?

This must be what it’s like, interrupts my subconscious.  Being a parent.