Monthly Archives: February 2008

Keeping Contact With Students: is it ok?

Working as a professional writing tutor at my university has exposed me to many types of people—some in particular that I’ve worked with really well. I have had some students that come back to me several times, but they usually start to drift away once they have acquired whatever skill they came in seeking to learn. That is to say, I’ve never had anyone get attached to me past their scheduled tutoring sessions. And rightly so—my students are adults, there for a service and done when they’re done.

Recently, though, I got my first experience in post-teaching student attachment. As part of a class, I participated in a three-week online tutoring activity with two seventh graders as they worked on writing poetry. One student was not very active in the project, only revising once. The second, however, really got into it. He would send me back rapid, detailed responses and progressed enthusiastically with his poem. As the three weeks came to an end, (not to my surprise) he sent me an email asking if he can still write to me and if he could ask me for help on his writing in the future.

The answer to continuing his tutoring is obviously a resounding no, because of ethical and time-constraint issues; but I really struggled on what to tell him when he asked if he could still write to me about his poetry, which he seems to be discovering for the very first time. I didn’t want to squelch his momentum. I was suddenly accosted with memories of my own beloved eighth grade English teacher—she left our school mid-semester to start a family. I idolized her, and I wrote to her many times. She wrote back once, and sent me a book. As thrilled as I was to get that first package, I was pretty crestfallen that she never contacted me again. (Okay, I admit it: it pains me to this day!) Looking at the situation now, from a new teacher’s perspective, I realize that she probably just wanted me to leave her the heck alone so she could live her life.

On the other hand, I have had teachers that continued contact with me, in a minor way, long after I’d left their classes. Those interactions have always sustained me with a warmth and inspiration that few others can rival. Even sending one email can eat into a teacher’s already swelling schedule, but it can make such a difference. Especially adolescents, who need to muster up quite a bit of bravery even to contact a former teacher, can benefit from limited contact with special teachers.

So what did I tell this eager 7th-grade poet? I told him that I could not help him with his schoolwork and that I don’t ever have time to respond to emails just to chat. But, if he wanted to share some writing of his after it had been graded, I would love to see it and tell him what I thought. I (discreetly) double-checked the appropriateness of this offer with his teacher, who said that it was a diplomatic, creative solution. Score!

After confronting this issue for the first time, this is what I’ve learned:
-You’ve got to sever your ties, for the most part, once your professional relationship with a student has ended. Time, ethics, and the progressive-cyclical nature of education demand it.
– If you feel that the student would benefit from continued support, and you are willing to provide it, it could make a meaningful, positive difference to a student.
– Part of being a teacher is finding creative, respectful, ethical solutions to issues relating to the emotional concerns of students, self, and colleagues.

Kindred Spirits

In my reading of Deborah Appleman’s Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literacy Theory to Adolescents, I found some quotations that really support this blog’s theme of navigating the “universe as text.” I have shared them below.

“Reading this postmodern culture requires that we reconsider which artifacts or elements of culture actually can and should be read. In other words, we must refine ‘texts’ to include a variety of forms, both print and non-print, literary and nonliterary” (Appleman 104).

“[F]or many deconstructionists, the traditional conception of literature is merely an elitist ‘construct.’ All ‘texts’ or ‘discourse’ (novels, scientific papers, a Kewpie doll on the mantle, watching TV, suing in court, walking the dog, and all other signs that human beings make) are of a piece; all are unstable systems of ‘signifying,’ all are fictions, all are ‘literature'” (Barnet, qtd. in Appleman 104).

“Once ‘text’ is conceived of as a cultural artifact, any text, past or present, classic or popular, fiction or non-fiction, written, oral, or filmic, can be admitted to the English classroom for legitimate and regarding scrutiny…” (Boomer, qtd. in Appleman 104).

“It is not only for the survival of our profession [as English teachers] but for the survival of adolescents as well that our students, now perhaps more than ever before, need critical tools to read the increasingly bewildering and text-filled world that surrounds us. Those texts can range from the literary to a galaxy of artifacts in the external world” (Appleman 105).

We have to learn how to read our world, through books as well as outside of them. Otherwise, the discussion and definition of texts is irrelevant frivolity. Life is what is important. Hopefully, my teaching will find a way to reflect that.

What Not to Wear, Teacher Edition

I distinctly remember my instructor for my first teaching clinical experience saying, “Don’t you dare wear jeans to your field assignment. We teachers are working so hard to change our image to that of a professional, and it is your job to look the part.”

Fast-forward two weeks, at my first day in the inner city, 5th grade, public school classroom where I was assigned. I look all snapped up and polished. My normally frizzy hair is neatly slicked back. My brown dress pants are pressed, just brushing the tops of my brown suede boots. A crisp, white pinstripe shirt is tucked in and buttoned up to the collar. Pearl earrings sit on my earlobes, and my facial features are meticulously lined in muted shades. I feel professional. Meanwhile, the school’s teachers are shuffling around in blue jeans, t-shirts, haggard ponytails, and even sweatsuits. Whoa! What happened to the “dress for success” philosophy?

I will concede that many members of the staff at my field placement were people that were working very hard every single day. They had the look of disenfranchised, overtaxed burnouts. However, whether it was a symptom of exhaustion or apathy, their general uniform looked incredibly unprofessional. As a parent, student, or community member, I would have a difficult time respecting a teacher in dirty sweatpants.

Needless to say, I felt very out of place in my “professional wear.” I was a glaring contrast, but yet I remained faithful to the business attire goal. By the final days of my fieldwork, though, I began to realize how strange I felt in those clothes. I didn’t feel like myself in clean, harsh lines of black and white. I certainly didn’t want to look like my colleagues, but I started to not want to look like a businesswoman, either. I was a teacher, not a stock broker! I needed clothes that I could move in, that weren’t sloppy, that weren’t revealing, but that did include a color that I could find in the rainbow. On my final day, I broke rank. I wore navy blue dress sneakers, khakis, a Kelly green sweater, and a chunky blue ceramic necklace. I let my curly hair hang down around my face. I felt much better. I still felt like a professional, but a human one.

The point of this story? Let me manifest it here, in my OFFICIAL RULES FOR PROFESSIONAL, REASONABLE TEACHER ATTIRE.

1. A teacher should present the image of a responsible professional through his or her appearance. All observations of the following rules must first adhere to this overarching mandate.

2. A teacher should be able to express his or her identity and personality through clothing, within reason.

3. A teacher’s attire should allow him or her to safely run down a hallway, if need be.

4. A teacher should be able to feel comfortable, both mentally and physically, in his or her work attire.

5. A teacher should not look sloppy.

6. A teacher should not wear clothing which is tight, low-cut, or otherwise directly inciting the sensual imagination in any way.

7. A teacher should not wear valuable jewelry other than engagement rings/wedding bands.

8. A teacher’s hair should be groomed as he or she sees fit.

9. A teacher would be wise to avoid clothing that students can’t resist ridiculing.

10. Tattoos, non-traditional hair colors, and piercings: Until the professional world accepts them, these deviations should remain discreet.

I kind of wish that everyone could run around in crazy combinations of clothing or costume, with myriad variances of color, texture, and style. But, unless the professional world goes avant-garde, I’ll leave that to my students.

True confession: I am a reading elitist.

I recently had an argument with my brother and my boyfriend about the “worth” (or lack thereof) of videogames, literature, and videogames as literature. This was a two-against-one battle, and I quickly realized that my stance—literature is important, and videogames are a waste of time—was quickly getting beaten and bloodied by my very unliterary, technophile adversaries. I got upset, perhaps unreasonably so, and abandoned the debate without saying my final say. Now that I’ve had the chance to reflect on the discussion, I think I can say some words on the subject.

For me, there are two kinds of texts in this world: semantic and aesthetic. SEMANTIC texts are those which are used as tools for thinking about the nature of the universe. They come in an amazing array of forms, but they all make us think about ideas and ideologies—things bigger than ourselves—and how they interact with our own lives. Semantic texts prevent us from going through life as automatons that complete the surfacy motions of the day to day grind without ever looking outside or within. In contrast, AESTHETIC texts are those which are experienced solely for beauty or entertainment. Afterward, they are easily dismissed and forgotten. They pass through our consciousness as meaningless daydreams. THE CATCH: the difference between these two is mainly distinguished by the viewer, not intrinsic to the text itself.

A piece of literature, to me, is a fine example of a semantic text. As such, the reading of literature is an important act. (Here, I’ll consider “literature” to be any crafted piece of writing that provokes the reader to think in a new way, to reflect on his/her own life, and to reflect on his/her own society.) Literature makes us real—questioning, doubting, angry, dazzled, puzzled, inspired human beings. It’s intense. It’s mind-blowing. It’s cool.

You know what else is cool? Videogames. Well, maybe “computer games” is a better term. We’re talking Halo. We’re talking Diablo II. And we’re definitely talking World of Warcraft. These games are fun, stimulating, addicting, and social, but they are a way lower rung on the ladder of important things than literature. They are aesthetic. Scripted. Predictable. Void of meaning.

But wait! Didn’t I proclaim that anything can work as a text? And didn’t I say that whether a text is semantic or aesthetic is in the eye of the beholder? According to all that, maybe… just maybe… computer games ARE literature!

Take Fable, for example. Fable is a game with an insane amount of writing and design put into it, which someone crafted with great care. Considering, also, that a player in Fable can do pretty much whatever they can think up (making actions that tend toward evil, good, order, chaos, or anything in between), the game certainly reflects the human condition. One could analyze the workings of the game or the shifting of the plot as decisions are made and relate it to life. Yes, Fable could be a literary experience. I guess I should be more wary about what I dismiss as a wasteful pastime.

HOWEVER, I still believe that most people who play computer games do not approach them as semantic texts. Rather, they are looking for an escape from thinking about the world. Readers are guilty of this as well. Fans of cheesy romance novels and weakly told horror books are also to blame for preferring the aesthetic over the semantic. Bottom line? The best way to not waste our time is to become literary people who try to find meaning in the manifold texts we encounter.

All that said, for goodness’ sake, pick up a book every once in a while. They are the original, intended semantic texts. They have a wealth to teach us.