Grade Levels

This post will be a return to a discussion of my career as a high school English teacher. I want to explore, for myself as much as any reader, how I regard teaching each of the grade levels I have experience with, and break down some basic elements of my teaching that I’m hoping to come back to with more depth in the future of this blog.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

To start, I don’t know how valuable any sort of comparison is between grade levels, but let me tell you – comparing 9th and 10th and 11th and 12th graders is an absolute favorite pastime of teachers. To be honest, I really don’t think there’s much of a difference between full classes of these grade levels, certainly not nearly as much as we high school teachers make it out to be. I’m absolutely guilty of that, and even now I can’t shake the mental concept that teaching 9th graders and 10th graders is absolutely going to be totally different experiences. There is a difference, but how much of it is just the school system siloing kids into these broad categories, which are ultimately arbitrary? One group of kids labeled freshmen, yes, will all conceivably be about a year younger than a group of kids labeled sophomores, but there will certainly be exceptions, I think. I doubt it would be hard at all to find freshmen who are actually older than some sophomores, and vice versa. The school system, however, has taken this rough classification and propelled it to incredible heights. Teaching freshmen in high school is absolutely going to be different than teaching sophomores, not to mention a class of high school seniors.

So, that being said, I’m going to set the arbitrary nature of ‘grade level’ aside and take it for granted that a freshman will be different than a sophomore, in ways which teachers love to generalize and argue about. I’ve been a teacher for four years, and I’ve moved around somewhat in the grade levels I teach. My first year I had just 9th and 10th graders, two classes each. Since then, I’ve had classes of sophomores every year, and so that group (and that set of curriculum) has become the most familiar for me. Starting my second year, though, I have had the privilege of teaching a specialized, 12th grade English course, called Language and Gender (this course will have its own dedicated post). I’ve taught English 12: Language and Gender for three years, and next year will be the fourth.

So I’ve taught freshmen, sophomores, and seniors. What’s the big deal? Here’s my chance to make some sweeping and likely somewhat inaccurate generalizations about these approximate groups. I’ll start with the seniors.

12th Grade: This is a watershed year for students, starting with the summer of 11th grade when they realize that their next year will be their last. The year proceeds, filled with this moments and realizations that wow, high school is almost over, and for much of the senior class the gravity of that gradual realization sets the tone for the year. Different students respond to this concept in different ways, and nearly all of them grow to resent the awful question (what will you do after high school??) that hangs over their heads. Some will respond by shutting down, putting themselves in precarious academic positions on the eve of finishing secondary school. I’m happy to say that, in my experience, the vast majority are able to get themselves back on track by the end, but there are also inevitable close calls, and the few students who, for a variety of reasons are unable to pass my course, or I learn have found it necessary to pursue other ways to earn their GED and finish or move on with school. Taking this in mind, I have found that teaching 12th grade is both the most rewarding, intellectually engaging, and also the most stressful and heartbreaking grade to teach. I think just about everyone has vivid memories of their last year at high school.

10th Grade: This is the grade level I’ve taught in each of my four years of experience, and so it has become the grade and the curriculum with which I am easily the most familiar and comfortable. Tenth graders, to over-simplify, come to school with something to prove. They are no longer the new young faces at school, they have some knowledge about the system, and they often seem determined to cause a ruckus. However, once engaged with a class, I have found 10th grades to often be deeply thoughtful, aware of their surroundings, curious about the material and larger implications, and often already motivated to do well in their studies. Tenth grade English class is, however, often fairly bleak. Our district English departments have collectively agreed upon a set of texts, one per grade level, to be regarded as a obligatory reading in order to promote departmental and cross-school cohesion. The text that every 10th grader (more or less) in the city reads is Elie Wiesel’s Night, a gripping Holocaust memoir. The other units I teach for 10th grade are often similarly dark, I won’t go too much into detail with them, but another is the perennial sophomore text The Lord of the Flies. Over the last two years, I’ve tried out various units and texts to try and mix things up, with some successes. I guess I like teaching 10th grade because its the grade I’ve been able to put in the most trial and error with my teaching, and I’ve found that 10th graders are often the most forgiving when I’m trying something new. They will not hesitate to provide feedback, whether its a grudging acceptance or blistering criticism, but all my sophomore classes have shown a wonderful ability to come to each day’s class with the potential to engage – something that starts to evaporate in the late spring for the senior classes.

9th Grade: This is the grade level with which I am the least familiar. I’ve only taught freshmen once, and it was back when I was a first year teacher. It was pretty tough, as every teacher’s first year is. It has been interesting, though, to see some of those same students back in my classes in later years, most notable again in my 12th grade classes, and I got to see them them graduate just this last June. Getting back to the freshmen class, I would characterize them simply as new. They all have their individual personalities and study habits and curiosities, but all of that is a little reserved while they sit back and wait and see what the others will do, what the upperclassmen will do. Of course this is probably the most sweeping and least accurate generalization of them all, certainly there are countless brash, impatient, and fearless freshman. As they make their transition from middle school to high school, though, the observation I recall from my classes is this moment of hesitation.

Next Year: I’ve recently learned that there is a good chance I will, once again, have 9th graders next year. Its been a long time, and those classes will sit next to my course for 12th graders. It will be interesting to return to this grade level, as much as the difference between 9th and 10th graders is arbitrary. I’ve started going over my notes and reflecting on what I’ve discussed with other teachers in my department, and I’m excited to start planning out my units and the year in earnest. The curriculum, certainly, will be a big chance of pace for me from the material I have for 10th grade.</p>

Where do you work?

Something that always comes up when making small talk, or meeting new people, is where each person works. “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?” has never been a question I enjoy asking or answering, no matter my job, and I don’t think I’ll ever feel totally comfortable with it. I’m guilty of asking the question, and I do really enjoy the follow up to it when talking with other people about their school or career or whatever. What I try to do, though, is take the conversation in a different route, avoiding obvious follow up questions and trying instead to ask about something other than the routine small-talk job questions. I try to do this because for the past five years my end of this question about where I work has been, to be honest, tedious and predictable.
“Where do you work?” I’m a teacher, and I can answer the inevitable follow up questions too. I teach high school, English classes, and I’m mostly taught 10th and 12th grade. Next fall will be my fifth year as a teacher, all at the same school, and yes summer breaks are great. I have taught summer school before, and honestly I enjoyed it, but having time to decompress and read and study is absolutely necessary for teachers.
I hope I haven’t overstated the awkward nature of this particular branch of small talk, and talking about teaching really it doesn’t bother me too much. This is evident if I meet another teacher, or someone who is in the process of going into teaching. I think most non-teachers know that once two teachers meet, any discussion of teaching (shop talk) can easily fill the space of hours, and often I have to stop conversations about teaching with some effort of will, for the sake of the non-teachers around me. Maybe I feel a little uncomfortable, then, when people ask what I do for a living, because I know I’m about to bring teaching and school into the conversation. Teaching touches everyones life, and everyone therefore has a lot to say about it – about their schools, their teachers, their kids, education in politics, unions, teachers’ pay, bad teachers, great teachers, and so on, you get the idea. Its obviously something I feel strongly about, and something that most people have strong feelings about, and so I have this moment of hesitation when I’m meeting someone for the first time and they ask me, “so, what do you do?”
In this blog, I’m going to be making an attempt to actually answer that question. My goal is to use posts to reflect on what exactly I’m trying out in my classes, and consider ways in which to improve my practice. I want to use the blog to review educational texts, and sift through my notes in search of practical applications for whatever I’m considering and working on. And I want to hold space for some posts where I can get into shop talk, where I can take an issue of the day and explore where my particular positions on it might be.
As a teacher, I’m kind of a public figure. Not in a major way at all, but I will be paying close attention to the things I write, and they will be in the context of my self as a teacher, instead of as a private individual. I won’t have my name or talk much about my personal life on here, but this is the internet, and it won’t be too hard to put two and two together. My students are very good at this, and there is a reasonable chance that students or former students will find this blog. I actually hesitated for a long time before deciding to use the blog posts to write about teaching – something I did before even entering the teaching credential program was to scrub my online presence to a minimum. To be honest, I probably worried about it far too much, but taking down my old blog was still a good call. There was some really bad writing on there, and I was pretty dramatic with the song lyric titles for posts.
One thing that will definitely intersect with teaching posts is my book reviews. I think my book reviews will soon take a turn into YA or near-YA books, as I do like to have a sense of some YA titles for my classroom reading program, or SSR. I think my next teaching post will go over my present approach to sustained silent reading, how my program has evolved over the past few years, and further changes I’m considering for next year.

Ancillary Justice

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image from amazon page

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, should not be described as another distant future space opera, although it operates within all of these categories. The book hurls the reader into distant space, where the Radche is an enormous, overwhelming empire, overseen by Anaander Mianaai and her multitudinous bodies are the Lord of the Radch. The reader begins to piece together the connections between two plot threads. In one, the mysterious stranger Breq, comes across a Radchaai officer, Seivarden, she had known a thousand years in the past, now slowly dying in the snow of a winter planet. Breq shows mercy to the young officer, and continues her pursuit of a legendary weapon. In the other thread, Breq is not using the name Breq, but is the collective consciousness of the spaceship Justice of Toren, as well as all its ancillaries.

These ancillaries are the idea that was so hard for me to wrap my head around at first, along with the collective consciousness behind them. Ancillaries of the Imperial Radch are, in fact, bodies killed during Radchaai annexations, then revived as automaton soldiers. Therefore, the ship Justice of Toren is aware not only of every individual within the ship (and the data from all their implants), but also is each of the ancillary units. The notable unit of ancillaries is in fact stationed on the planet Justice of Toren is orbiting during its annexation, Shis’urna, and are serving under the orders of Lieutenant Awn, who is trying to unravel a plot of sabotage in an occupied city before it spirals out of control. Justice of Toren, and its ancillary unit One Esk, seems quite preoccupied with this officer, and the way Leckie lays out this fondness and concern on the part of what is essentially an AI is masterfully done. This is all happening while the reader is still grasping how Justice of Toren thinks. One memorable moment in particular is when One Esk is standing near the lieutenant, and sees herself also outside of the temple in several locations around the lower city courtyard.

Slowly, the two threads of the plot reach towards one another, and we learn how the peculiar habit specific to Justice of Toren One Esk had – of collecting and singing various songs from all its visited planets and peoples and thousands of years – becomes crucially significant, and how this enormous starship AI was reduced to a single, frail ancillary body who took the name Breq. What happens if the connection between each of the ancillary units and the ship are cut off? What happens if the Lord of the Radch sneaks onboard, with secret orders for the ship that supersede even the ship’s captain? What happens to a ship if it grows fond of an officer, or even its captain, who then dies? What does it mean for a starship to lose its mind?

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image from this Ars Technica review

A couple other notes. I found the function of the Imperial Radch fascinating, as I did the Empire’s approach of assimilating all religions, and how Breq came to embrace them. I want to learn more about how that works and how it plays out across the sprawling Empire. I want to learn more about the ships, the Justices, the Swords, and the Mercies. Also quite well done, in my view, was how Leckie built a galaxy-spanning empire of people without a gender binary. I have to admit that I’m primed for this kind of society, being a teacher who uses Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness annually to discuss gender – and to be honest I think Ancillary Justice does a far more satisfying job of carrying out the concept. The decision to use the female pronoun for all Radchaai citizens is certainly not perfect, but I think it was the best possible approach. Carrying the idea home is how Breq can never figure out pronouns when on a planet with a gender binary, the flipping of pronouns by others when regarding the officer Seivarden, and both of their obvious relief upon returning to a Radchaai region, when the binary no longer presents a puzzle. All of that works, it takes some time and effort but creates a non-binary society better than Le Guin did, even lacking a biological interlude, and it does it in a way that really doesn’t obstruct the plot. Once the reader figures out who is who (which is further complicated by these individual consciousnesses in collective bodies), everything else starts to click into place (in this io9 piece from a longer interview, Leckie talks about how she received early criticism for the pronouns, but was steadfast in her decision). Overall, I found this a wonderful book, and eagerly look forward to reading the second book of the trilogy.

FLCL

I always have difficulty in answering questions like “what’s your favorite book / band / TV show?” I don’t really have consistent favorites, just common answers that I return to, and there have definitely been times where I answered a question about a favorite band that I really didn’t mean, and just used because its something I’d said before.

I think my favorites are constantly shifting, and its really dependent on what has been recent for me, in addition to the fact that comparison among such big genres is nigh impossible. Whenever I try to pick a favorite, then, I usually just preface my answer by saying that this is my favorite right now.

However, the brief anime series FLCL (pronounced Fooly Cooly) might very well stand up as one of my all-time favorites for a television show. Its a show I’ve habitually returned to over the years, despite being a person who almost never rewatches shows.

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From the very first scene (“he who conquers the left side conquers the world, Chief”), I got the sense that this would be a new favorite show of mine. The show immediately and deftly works together a small-town, slice of life atmosphere while simultaneously setting itself up as a cheeky, never-serious and over-the-top series. The series somehow manages to have both deep, complex characters and a wild, unpredictable chain of events.

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“Nothing amazing happens here. Everything is ordinary.” These small moments of calm and reflection (in that case as the camera pans upwards past a massive building in the shape of a clothing iron), are tucked neatly into Japanese anime industry in-jokes, raucous action sequences, and the dramatic shifts in style. The moments of quiet, though, are the real reason this show is my favorite. A second where Naota lays on his bed and listens to a plane fly over, the school announcements coming on in the background of students talking, or a long, tense moment of silence after a yelled outburst. This show is a master of capturing “real” moments of everyday life, and I find it difficult to think of other shows that have the same level of detail.

The show was produced by the FLCL Production Committee, a supergroup of sorts from the anime industry. The director, Kazuya Tsurumaki, said in an interview that with FLCL he tried to “break the rules” of an anime show. One way to do this was to mimic a promotional or commercial style, creating a slapdash, short but densely packed series of episodes. Another fairly unique production choice was to bring in a Japanese alternative rock back, The Pillows, for the soundtrack.

FLCL has earned widespread acclaim, and several reviews really resonated with my own feelings of the show. “FLCL is something that allowed those involved to try a wide variety of styles and techniques and does come off as quite experimental. But nearly everything worked in their favor and you end up with three hours of nearly break neck speed action, comedy and commentary on modern life.” says Chris Beveridge of Mania (quote from Wikipedia as the original website seems to be lost).

One of the more comprehensive and well-written reviews comes from IGN, where Davis Smith writes, “Logic dictates that FLCL should be an undisciplined and unaffecting mess, given all the insanity that its creators are attempting to weld into a functioning whole. Yet while it’s hard to explain exactly why, it works. It entertains me. At times, it makes me laugh; at times, it makes me a little misty-eyed; at times, it makes me want to scream and howl and light things on fire and break windows with baseball bats and yes, maybe even buy a Vespa. That’s the kind of success that you just can’t argue with.”

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image from Gainax through this AVClub review

One of my favorite characters is the robot, who is known by a variety of names, like “TV Boy” by Naota’s father, or Cantido, the Lord of the Black Flames by Mamimi. I love how this character is just deeply unknowable. Most often referred to as Canti, he becomes a critically important character in the plot, but as that happens he’s used for a variety of tasks by the rest of the characters – from retrieving drinks and adult magazines to recording TV shows, to playing baseball or becoming a powerful host for characters in mecha combat. Canti is a robot who’s been anthropomorphized, feeling shame at having the back of his head cracked, mysteriously eating curry, or displaying compassion and kindness even to those who try to destroy him.

Now, 16 years later from the original 2000-2001 production of the show, FLCL will have seasons 2 and 3 released in late 2017-2018. I was blown away when first hearing about that, and I’m happy to learn more details about the new seasons, especially the fact that The Pillows will once again be providing the soundtrack. I will have to make an effort not to raise my expectations too high, but a return to the world of FLCL is certainly a trip to look forwards to.

 

Buffalo Bill’s Brewery

Note: The intention behind this post is to start a series within my blog, where I focus on the history of the local area, in this case the East Bay Area in California. My former blog had a few posts in this category, and I really enjoyed learning and writing about this subject. They won’t be all too frequent, but look for more posts of this type in the future.

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official logo from Wikipedia

Buffalo Bill’s Brewery has been a staple of downtown Hayward since it was founded by Bill Owens in 1983. The year prior to Bill’s opening, California finally changed a state law prohibiting businesses from brewing and selling beer on the same premises. Therefore, Bill’s became one of the very first brewpubs to begin operating in the nation, standing at the very origins of the craft brew movement. The first beer offered by Bill’s outside of their brewpub location is the Alimony Ale – supposedly created for a client going through a divorce in 1987.  In addition to this, Buffalo Bill’s is also credited with creating the very first commercial available pumpkin ale (the linked article is a fascinating read about both pumpkin ales and the position pumpkins have had in American culture).

After first getting a job by cleaning out tanks for free, the current owner of Buffalo Bills is Geoff Harries purchased the brewpub in 1994. Since then, he has expanded the offering and reach of Buffalo Bill’s, and has recently been working on opening a Hayward distillery, called the Russell City Distillery. According to the Mercury News, Russell City is a reference to a town west of Hayward, a blue-collar town sitting right on the bayshore, which was annexed by Hayward in the 60s and out past the Hayward Executive Airport. The latest news from Russell City Distillery is that a larger sill is being installed, and that hopes are that production begins later this summer.

The Turn of the Twin Peaks

I have watched the TV series Twin Peaks once before, but it has been startling to me how much of the show was lost to my memory after only just a few years. The show, easily one of the strangest shows to be consistently listed in “best of all time” television show lists, nonetheless had a profound impact on me when first watching it, as it no doubt has had on many others. Returning to that experience without remembering much of the particulars has been just as enjoyable.

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One of the things I do remember, after finishing watching that finale of season two, was my intense desire to discuss, read, and contemplate the show. I didn’t go all that far into the twin peaks fandom, despite that desire. I’m not entirely sure why. I think I was satisfied simply by remembering specific parts of the show, tying myself back into the town. I also recall never being all that satisfied with any particular fan theory.

Now, slowly working my way back through a second viewing (I’m only 6 episodes into season two right now, so don’t worry about spoilers here), I have slowly come to what I think is a better perspective for Twin Peaks. This is a show that is built, built by a master to resist interpretation, a single answer, or some satisfactory solution. I remember this strongly – even as questions that seemed so crucial are answered, there are simultaneously new wrinkles that make those answers incomplete, unsatisfactory, and only an opening to a still darker pathway. Once the hooks are in, there is no stopping the show from pulling us all along into its depths, a thrilling roller coaster drop into something endless and unknown.

A parallel I can draw from David Lynch’s show, is to the masterful work by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw. I first encountered this story in college, during a brilliant class on literary theory. The Turn of the Screw, a ghost story with Gothic overtones about a governess sent to a forlorn, potentially haunted mansion, has a very similar quality to Twin Peaks in that both of these works derive their power from their ability to remain ambiguous, exploiting the viewer or reader’s fear of the unknown, and prompting both to seek out answers and solutions. The Turn of the Screw is famous in literary theory just because of that – early critics offered interpretations of the work, suggesting insanity or applying a Freudian frame to the story. However, those interpretations were easily picked apart by other critics, given the highly (and deliberately) ambiguous nature of the story. Effectively, the critical response to the story just became another turn.

I have no doubt that by the time I finish my re-watching of Twin Peaks, finally watch Fire Walk With Me, and start on the newest season of the show, I will find that this show, too, will solve decades-long riddles with still more riddles, dropping its viewers into still-deeper and darker depths, and utterly failing to offer the ‘answers’ we will all look for. I’m excited for the ride.

Starting once more

I’ve realized that I’ve effectively put off writing blog posts on here for practically a year. What started a summer ago, with the intent to take the summer to get it up and going, stayed behind in the summer. Being a teacher, it became easy to push this particular project back and back, until finally I look up and its the end of the year and the dawn of a new summer.

So, after taking things into stock, I’ll brush off the dust and try it again. This last year (by which I indicate the school year) was really a rough one – with triumphs and challenges and wonderful moments among the rotten ones. I have gotten the sense that every year as a high school teacher is going to feel like simultaneously the best job and the worst job, but never without a sense of being right there in the trenches.

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my classroom after sixth period

The year is over, however, and I’ve now got three years of teaching experience, and a hopefully soon-to-be-processed clear credential. I attended a week-long PD (professional development) after the school year was over, and worked and thought a lot about how I’m going to continue to get better doing this thing. I’m not even out of June of summer break and already I’m thinking about the next year on a daily basis.

That said, I also have an incredible amount of plans in the works for this summer. Writing fairly regularly to this blog is one of those plans.