Wednesday, September 26, 2007

How to Endure: Work Around or Break Through

If teaching in world of "perpetual beta" isn't enough, as I reach the midpoint of my career (inshallah) with "sixteen years down, sixteen to go" my sciatic nerve, damaged in an accident years ago, is acting up. I'm moving slower, having to ask for help to move boxes, not able to make the mad-dash to the copy machine as I used to. As one of my doctors told me a couple of years ago, "Welcome to middle age, Mr. Youngs."

Far from burnout (I hope, I would know), it is daunting to think of the road ahead. It's a thought I've started the year with and so I was struck by a comment made by author Philip Roth, speaking with consummate interviewer Terry Gross on her show Fresh Air, which was aired yesterday. Referring to the character of his new book Exit Ghost, Roth notes that he has come to a point in his life when he has to figure out how to endure.

How to endure. Hmmm. I am a different teacher than I was when I started. Sure I have more tricks in my bag, multiple intelligences, authentic assessment, process drama, narrative inquiry, web technology. But because of the oxymoronic constant change, I'm not sure if I am any better equipped. What will I be --have to be, get to be--in another sixteen years?

No matter how much I learn about teaching--so much is changing! Do I teach the old stuff to give context or the new stuff to be relevant? Finding time to teach into the future while still teaching the background, the classics, the histories, the foundations can be very frustrating. And finding ways to explain it to parents, administrators, colleagues, and students is another great challenge.

Now, don't get me wrong: I believe the alternative--i.e. to stop trying new things and keeping up with the kids and the world--is a nonstarter. Call the engraver and put no hopeful verse on my tombstone.

But how to endure? I can remember in my first year of teaching my principal, Ralph Packard, said "have a hobby." In many ways I've tried to wrap my hobbies into my teaching. Perhaps this blog is a hobby. (I'm an amateur, I don't get paid, It's at my whim, right?)

I've always been a teacher with bundles to and from school. I don't know whether I am more in admiration, disbelief, or frightened by my colleagues who can walk in and out of the school parking lot with nothing in their hands. If the paper load weren't enough, there's the artifacts, the foods, the music, the art, the books that I use to teach literature. Tomorrow I am going to have to make few trips with all the India stuff I'm going to be using in our wrap up of reading Siddhartha.

As I age as a teacher, I suppose I am going to have to lighten my load. Maybe find tricks that don't require a bag.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


Today a freshman student told me texting isn't language. Well, it sounds oddly like Orwell's Newspeak but I disagreed. Sure, it's language, a specific register for a specific purpose. He was a freshman, what do they know, right?Here's a recent article on the topic of texting and its effects on English that features the comments of William Kist, author of New Literacies in Action: Teaching and Learning in Multiple Media. Texting, too, is at the ominous heart of this PSA from the AdCouncil's prevention series on Online Sexual Exploitation: "Acronyms," perhaps playing on adult fears of the texting phenomenon.

Out of the loop? For texting dictionaries see Lingo2Word and a quick reference sheet is at Some opportunities to talk about what language is and how technology and media are changing it once again. Remember the invention of the book?

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project report Teens and Technology, almost half of teens have a cell phone and a third of teens text.

With things wordsome, I turn to Google to find out if Geoffrey Numberg has weighed in. Sure enough he's interviewed, along with Naomi Baron on NPR's On The Media in a piece called "Generation Text" recorded in October 2004. These two experts offer a lively debate for consideration.

The whole is not long and worth reading (or listening to). Here's a excerpt:

NAOMI BARON: We know that children learn to talk because there are some people -- we call them adults or older kids -- who already know the system, and the younger kids pick up an awful lot of what we model for them. My question is not "Can you have a range of different registers -some informal, some formal, some texting, some essays that you turn in for class" -- but "Are we modeling those more formal forms of writing that we used to?" And I don't think we are so much any more.

GEOFFREY NUNBERG: The more you write, the better you write. The best way to learn to write is not to learn the rules or take courses. Just sit down and write. To that extent, I think you could argue that the kids who are now doing text messaging and email and, and IMs and so on and so forth, will wind up writing at least as well as and possibly better than their parents or than any generation in history.

Numberg goes on to say that he finds this generation of teens using writing to communicate where previous generations did not. So it's not a matter of different but more.

Insomuch as teens are going to do what teens are going to do when it comes to socializing, the best angle for teachers of English to take is "can't beat 'em, join 'em." Work with the language they love in comparison and contrast to lovely language. Teach the registers of appropriate use. When is texting best? How can texting create better note-taking in class? What sort of poetry evolves? What phonetic tricks do we use when we text? 4XMPL

Finally, in regard to the above excerpt, I agree with both linguists. Baron's right when she says we don't present enough models of good formal writing (how many research papers have students read, besides their own attempts? yet we insist they get it right with one try a year). The more one reads, the better one writes. I can always pick out the avid readers by marking teens' essays. And Numberg's point is generally agreed upon--the more one writes, the better one writes.

Baron adds, "Those habits are easily broken if somebody cares to break them." Teens will text, we must teach.