students

Can Sci-Fi and Horror Save High School English?

toserveman

“IT’S A COOKBOOK!!!” An image from the Twilight Zone adaptation of “To Serve Man.”

A flying saucer lands on Earth and the alien race the Kanamit bring world peace and turn Earth into a paradise.  But they have a hidden agenda and it’s all contained in a book entitled, “To Serve Man.”

Little Anthony Freemont has psychic powers and uses them to make everyone who crosses him go away … or even worse.  People just have to constantly believe that “It’s a Good Life!”

Our narrator gets a call to get his snowplow truck out and along the way picks up a hitchhiker who initiates a conversation about a serial killer on the loose who has been killing hitchhikers.  He does this “Time and Again.”

A mysterious man who has been living alone in a castle for as long as he can remember decides to break free in search of human contact and light.  He is “The Outsider.”

George Hadley and his wife live in the perfect customized, automated home of the future.  Their children spend their time in a virtual reality room called “the nursery” and are very attached to it.  George thinks that they might be too attached to “The Veldt.”

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea that what I just listed are short summaries of science fiction and horror short stories, each with a plot that has its fair share of twists and turns, sometimes even waiting until the end to reveal that twist.  They’re also stories I have either used or considered using in my English classes.

A couple of months ago, as part of the work I’m doing for my adolescent literacy class, I gave two of my classes an interest survey that asked them about when they read, how often they read, and what they read, as well as what types of movies and television shows they like to watch.  You’d think that by January I would have known this by now, but aside from talking about superhero movies and the occasional blockbuster that most of us have seen or heard of, my students seem to talk more about what they’ve seen from friends on Snapchat lately than anything they happen to be watching or what video game they were playing.

When we did get a conversation going about television or movies, the subject would often turn to science fiction or horror, especially horror.  A number of them watched Stranger Things last fall (as did I) and a few had started watching it.  Many of them had seen the Purge films, and lately have been recommending Get Out (which I think my wife and I plan on seeing once we have a child-free night).  The survey results reflected that–teenagers like horror.

And everyone who was a teenager between 1979 and now just went “Uh … DUH.”

Now, I’ll confess that I’m not a horror aficionado, but I do like a good scary movie from time to time and I’ve seen all of the classics of my youth:  Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th as well as straight-up classics like Night of the Living Dead.  I think I’d also put Psycho in that box, although I can’t tell if that’s a suspense flick or horror.  Anyway, there’s something that’s been universal about being a teenager and plunking down your hard-earned lawn-mowing money to see whatever splatter-fest is in the theater.  To a lesser extent the same can be said for science fiction, as in some cases you’ve got your blockbuster sci-fic/fantasy/action movie (Star Wars, for instance) that a large number of students will go see, but not all of them will sit down and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity, or some other “hard” science fiction.

Anyway, that led me to ask why there isn’t more sci-fi and horror on my curriculum.

There’s definitely some dystopian sci-fi; specifically, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which I personally think is even more relevant in 2017 than it was in 1951 and not just because of the politics contained within (seriously, go reread it and tell me that it’s not a tech nightmare).  But beyond that, I didn’t have much, and when I took a course in YA lit last semester, we read a little sci-fi but completely skipped over horror, to the point where I wondered aloud why we weren’t really touching on the genre.  Oh wait … there’s Poe.  But Poe is well-covered territory in English classes other than mine, so with the exception of the poem “To Helen,” I don’t really touch the guy.  Frankenstein is taught in the twelfth grade course (in fact, when I taught twelfth grade, we read it), and Dracula is another text that is more AP-level.  And Stephen King I’d reserve for options on independent reading because of the pearl clutching that tends to go on during the more dirty parts of The Catcher in the Rye.

As a way to find whole-class reads in the science fiction/horror stable, I started looking for short stories, novels, or stand-alone excerpts from novels.  I tried to find things that were contemporary and found some great stuff (“Patient Zero” by Tanarive Due is freaking amazing), but as I kept looking, the stuff I found was either too sexually explicit or was way too above their level.  So I went to a place where I, as a teenager, found some great science fiction stories:  The Twilight Zone.

I asked “What Zone episodes were adaptations of short stories?”  After all, it seemed to work for “Lamb to the Slaughter” and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. That’s where I found, at a first glance, “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby and “To Serve Man” by Damon Knight.  And I know that what I did was a classic “read the story”/”watch the movie” bit, but it worked pretty well–the class found those stories to be “creepy” or “weird” and liked the twist at the end of “To Serve Man.”  They were able to handle the black and white of those old TV episodes and we even watched the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes of The Simpsons  (the one based on “It’s a Good Life” also features adaptations of “The Monkey’s Paw” and Frankenstein and has one of the best lines of the show–“Dammit, Smithers, this isn’t rocket science; it’s brain surgery!”).  And I have been slowly compiling stories that I may or may not use, plus looking into a couple of novels that might be worth it, including The War of the Worlds (which I have to reread anyway).

But, after 1000 words already, I don’t think I’ve really addressed my topic or thesis or whatever I’m supposed to be calling it (people stopped reading long ago anyway), which is why science fiction and horror are good genres besides their being in my students’ wheelhouse.  Well, if you look at even the laziest-written sci-fi/horror, you’ll see a host of literary devices: allegory, symbolism, metaphor, and universal themes about humanity and human nature.  You can even use them as mentor texts for descriptive writing, like I did with the first chapter of Peter Benchley’s Jaws (h/t to my father, who used to read it aloud to his marine biology class while playing the John Williams music).

None of these strategies, by the way, are anything new, but I think that when English teachers think like English teachers, we have a tendency to think that any short story used in class has to have “literary merit.”  Many of us have been moving away from this mentality in recent years, but I think that it lingers in the back of our minds, especially because so many of us love literature.  But science fiction and horror, with some few exceptions, has been marginalized for decades and never been raised to the level of “literary,” just as sci-fi/horror films rarely, if ever, win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  Yet some of the best discussions I’ve ever had, especially ones that border on philosophical, have come when talking about the consequences of actions in the context of a sci-fi/horror plot.

So as you’re planning for the next semester or year, dive into the realm of scary or weird.  Try out some short stories.  Find some old episodes of The Twilight Zone (which is streaming in various places), The Outer Limits, or even Star Trek (I kinda want to show “The City on the Edge of Forever” but need to build a lesson plan first).  Grab some old pre-code sci-fi/horror comics (you’d be surprised how many tackle important issues, such as prejudice), or simply start a conversation about horror movies in class and see what happens.  You might find it to be more engaging than A Doll’s House.

Oh, btw, there is a twist ending to this post.  High school English doesn’t need saving.  I just put that title there so people would read it.

This has been bad twist ending theater.  Good night.

Scar Tissue

One of the sentiments I see very often when people write about establishing relationships with students is that teachers need to show that they make mistakes and are vulnerable, and a lot of times that comes through sharing personal stories.  While I understand the ideas behind that, I am not sure that I completely agree because sentiments like that sound like they’re coming from a pretty, popular girl who is telling a less-popular, self-conscious girl that she shouldn’t be so self-conscious about her looks.  “Be vulnerable and tell stories” is the sentiment of someone who never had his vulnerabilities used against him or thrown back in his face.

One of my favorite essays of all time and hence, one of my favorite essays to use in my advanced English class is Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When The Other Dancer is the Self.”  I’ve mentioned it more than once and written about it more than once and that’s because it’s so well-written and generates some great discussions about how people judge one another based on physical traits or characteristics as well as the cruelty of children toward one another.  We discuss this essay in my classes via student-run seminars, so I don’t do very much talking except to either clear up factual questions the group can’t answer (although I have been known to jump in when things go completely off the rails).  But when it comes to this essay, it’s very hard for me to not say anything because of how the subject matter affects me on a personal level.

You can’t notice it unless you look very closely or meet me in person, but I have a scar under my right nostril.  It’s the result of a bicycle accident I had a few days after my thirteenth birthday–my face hit the handlebars of my ten-speed and one of my front teeth went through my lip.  For the first three years after the accident, the scar was very noticeable because the tissue had keloided, meaning that it had puffed up and instead of looking like most scars, it looked like an extremely large pimple.  Combine this with the fact that I had two false teeth, which I was wearing until my orthodontist completed the task of moving my other teeth over so my dentist could cap them with veneers, the school year following the accident (eighth grade) was a nightmare.  I wasn’t really popular to begin with and the comments I heard ranged from “Can you take your teeth out?” to “Why don’t you pop that thing?”  I even had one person offer to perform home surgery with an ice cube and an Exact-o knife.

I am hesitant to compare my experience to Alice Walker’s because that would be an exercise in ego and I would surely be taken to task for my ignorance as well (and rightfully so), but whenever I read and discuss the essay, I can’t help but make that text-to-self connection and notice at least some similarities.  We both had noticeable scars (hers was in the eye, the result of a BB gun), and both had corrective surgery sometime later (I went to a plastic surgeon and had a skin graft done between my sophomore and junior years of high school) that on some level fixed the problem.  Walker writes about how her grades improved and she excelled beyond that; I heard, “Oh, you popped it!” a few times before not having to hear much of anything else about my facial irregularities.

Still, the damage was done and it took being around people who didn’t know about the scar on my face (read: people not from my high school) to realize that everything would be fine. As a result, I came to terms with my scar and the insecurities that came with it, and the scar on my face stopped being the first thing about me that people saw, thought about, or commented on.

I should tell this story when we discuss the essay in class specifically because it dovetails so well with it and as I mentioned, it’s a good text-to-self connection moment.  And yet my experience with being pushed around and both aggressively and passive-aggressively ridiculed during my formative years makes me very hesitant to do so.  I still reflexively act as if anything I say can and will be used against me.  Plus, even though my students are intelligent, they are also teenagers and not all of them have the maturity to absorb or handle that amount of honesty, especially from a teacher.  Sometimes they do, and I have told a version of my scar story and related it to the essay and that seems to be a positive contribution to the discussion.  Other times, I’ve started to talk but held back when side conversations and chatter that weren’t going on began the moment I opened my mouth.  After all, why should I open up like that to people who can’t give me the respect of a single word?

I have no problem making and owning mistakes as a teacher (I think I’ve said “I’m an idiot” out loud more times than anything in class), but the vulnerability and soul bearing that I read about doesn’t come as easy.  There is a line between humility and humiliation, and controlling who you are as well as how much people see of you is just a demonstration of your own humanity as baring your own soul.  Scars are what they are for a reason–they remind us of damage and of pain.  And yes, they can remind them of resilience and strength, but it takes a while for some of us with the scars to discover that, and until we own those scars we shouldn’t be told that we have to reveal them to and share them with everyone else.

Don’t Break the Ice

I hate the first day of school.

That’s not a sentence you expect to hear from a teacher. In fact, if I said this sentence out loud in the confines of edutwitter, I’d probably get a ton of responses that wondered why I am a teacher, some platitudes that people would retweet, a few quotes in pictures, or be edusplained to by someone who hasn’t seen the inside of a classroom for more than five minutes since the 1990s (yet is a “Thought Leader” in education). So, for clarity’s sake, I’ll say it again.

I hate the first day of school.

Some teachers walk into the first day with the energy of those really chipper people who were your freshmen orientation staff at college. They want to do cheers and play games and willingly embarrass themselves by acting silly. In the lead-up to the first day of school, they burst with enthusaism about all of the money they spent on school supplies for the kids and how they’re so excited to meet all of them. And on that first day? Well, I guess you call it “teaching like a pirate” or something? I don’t know. What I do know is that they bring to their classrooms the enthusiasm equivalent of the pyrotechnics at a KISS concert.

I am not like that. It’s the second day of school and I was just in my advanced English class and we were doing some of our initial discussions of the summer reading (Into the Wild) and I was not a bundle of enthusiasm and rah rah this is exciting and teaching like a pirate but instead was just a bundle of nervous energy. In fact, the only thing that I will ever have in common with Lloyd Dobler is that when I get nervous, I have that talking thing … I just ramble on and try to fill quiet space/awkward silences with something so that the silence isn’t there. I know that I’ll settle down in a few days or maybe a week and will feel more relaxed in front of the students, especially as I get to know them more, but these first few days take so much out of me because I have to make a real effort to seem outgoing and wanting to get to know the students when my instinct is to put my head down and work quietly.

It’s not because I hate students or anything like that–I actually like spending my days surrounded by sophomores (most of the time, anyway). It’s that I’m way more of an introvert than I let on, and those people who know me well see a little more of my personality than those who are getting to know me. Not only that, I also tend to overanalyze my interactions with people I don’t know well or encounter in social settings. For instance, if I go to a party, I will spend the entire drive home replaying the entire evening and searching for moments where I may have done something stupid or embarrassed myself. And that’s pretty much how yesterday went as well. I spent my entire drive home replaying the day to see if I said anything or did anything that might have left a bad impression on my students and wondered if I handled every classroom management situation well. You know, on a day where we did introductions, went over the course guidelines and did a small activity.

Other people don’t have this issue. They will come home on the first day a little tired because they’re not reacclimated to the routine of the school day, but they will be so enthusiastic about the kids they’re teaching and feeling even more excited for the next day. I come home exhausted, with my voice shot, and wondering whether or not I have already ruined their lives because the first day was too teacher-centered or something. And yes, I realize that this isn’t all about me and it’s about my students and all of the other supposedly selfless things that teachers say, but I’m not afraid to admit that I constantly worry about what I’m doing and if what I’m doing is the right way to do it. And the time when that’s the worst? The first day of school. When we hit the middle of September and I’ve got my rhythm down and I know the students and their traits and quirks very well, I won’t have as much anxiety about all of this and I won’t feel so exhausted when I get home because I feel like I have to pretend that I’m that constantly psyched all the time.

I also won’t have to constantly remind myself that I can do this.

I have a lectern in the front of my classroom and taped to the top of the lectern are notes students have left me over the years as well as a Post-It with the phrase “You’ve got this.” Now, I wrote that and put it there, but I did it because it was one of the best things any colleague has ever said to me in my nearly twelve years of teaching. It was about two years ago and I was getting ready for our school’s Poetry Out Loud assembly; I was running around the stage area like a complete nutcase, stressing out over every little detail because I had about 600 students who were about to come in to watch eight of their peers recite poems for a contest. My partner in the assembly and someone who was one of my best friends here, saw that I was basically about to pop a blood vessel, put her hand on my shoulder, and calmly said, “Hey. You’ve got this.” And I know that it was probably just her way of trying to calm me down because I was probably driving her nuts, but it worked and any time that I am super stressed out or wondering if I’m screwing everything up, I take a moment and remember that.

Because she’s right. I’ve got this. And even though I may not be completely on point with my enthusiasm, cheerleading, or teaching like a pirate-ness from minute one of day one, I know that when it comes to the long game, I’m going to have no problems. And I guess it’s kind of my hope that someone is reading this post (not likely, I barely get any traffic here) and can completely identify with my nervous energy and the exhaustion that comes from being introverted and forcing yourself to extrovert until you are comfortable. I don’t see many discussions about that when I read about making an impression on the first day, which maybe is one we should have so that we’re not all nervous wrecks and feeling guilty about hating the first day of school.

Where are the other voices?

Back in the spring, my advanced English class was having a discussion about Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self,” and at one point one of the students leading the discussion asked a question and got a reply of “Oh well, I don’t know what it’s like to be a black woman.”

Now I usually stay back during class discussions because I want to let the students take the lead and see where it goes, but I was struck by the dismissive tone the student in question–a white male, by the way–had used when making the comment and when the group leading the discussion had a hard time coming up with a response, I said, “Well, of course you don’t.  Which is one of the reasons we read writers like Alice Walker.”

The discussion continued from that point and went pretty well, but that comment continued to grate on me, especially a few days later when a similar comment was made while several students in the class went off on a great thread about what it’s like to have parents who were immigrants or who live in a bilingual household.  This time, it was a snarky remark about how “this isn’t my experience,” to which I did my best to be diplomatic by offering up that it wasn’t my experience either (I’m a white kid from the suburbs of Long Island, after all), but I always want to hear these different stories and experiences from different perspectives.  And to the group running the discussion’s credit, they shut him down right away by giving him one of the most epic death stares I’ve ever seen before moving on.  I made a mental note to praise those students later while also making a mental note that the guy making those comments really needed to shut up.

Moments like this are what I think about when I read the latest tweet or post about the importance of student choice in reading and letting them read what they want to read, as well as the vast number of Dead White Male authors I have read and studied in my time.  I touched on why DWMs are a default setting years ago and have also gone on about how it does not begin and end with choice, although I want to expand a little on the latter.

I assign reading.  And I will readily admit this.  Yes, I am working on a way to incorporate more independent reading, perhaps through more informed choice, but I don’t think I will ever not assign reading despite what trend pieces and tweets say.  Why?  Because of what I detailed in the first few paragraphs of this post.  Like I said, I grew up on Long Island and my town was a very white suburb where the biggest problems ever faced were what to do with the kids who liked to drink the woods on a Friday night.  The books I was assigned to read in high school, while very good, had a very common demographic characteristic and the reading that I did own my own rarely strayed from the comics/fantasy/sci-fi realm.  While I did know of the existence of The Color Purple or The Joy Luck Club because they were boxes on the shelves of my local video store, I didn’t read anything by Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or any other non-white authors until they were assigned to me in college.

The reason?  Partly my own immaturity and sheltered view of the world, partly because I had no idea that they were there.  Perhaps I would have found them, but I have to say that maybe I would not have or I would have been dismissive of them the same way that student was if I had not been introduced to them and had gained the willingness to sit back and back and listen to those other voices and perspectives (and even then, Loyola College in Maryland was not a bastion of diversity).  So as an English teacher, I want my students to see, hear, and read the voices that are unlike those around them and try to provide a diversity of race, gender, religion, and sexual identity in the course concept.

Of course, this is not easy and I have not perfected it at all.  I am still having a hard time finding LGBT voices to share in class, and I could stand to just have more volume in that library, which is what I will continue to do as long as I’m an English teacher.

What I tell myself and what I am afraid to say

So the other day I got a message on Facebook from a former student.  She had just finished a placement test in writing at her new college and wanted to message me to tell me that she got a perfect score.  I congratulated her and wished her luck this year while also telling her that it’s going to be weird to not have her stopping by my room on a regular basis.  At some point during our quick chat, she said, “It’s because of you.”

I share this anecdote not to brag or hoist myself onto a pedestal, but because while I sent a message thanking her, my internal reaction was, “Really?”  I mean, I run into students all the time and am even friends with some on Facebook, but our conversations often have to do with catching up on how they are doing since I last saw them or heard from them or maybe something a little more random.  Most of the time, I walk away from the conversation feeling glad that I ran into him or her, and there are even times when I’m genuinely impressed by what they’ve been able to accomplish beyond their time in my class.

But over the years I have had a hard time believing that I really had a hand in that person’s success.  Their talent and their ability all comes from within and I just get the feeling that if their teacher had been someone different, the results would have been similar.  They still would have succeeded and still would have gone on to lead good lives no matter whose classrooms they passed through.

It’s the teacher’s constant existential dilemma–do I really make a difference?  Does it really matter if I’m here?

And then there’s the other dilemma–am I allowed to admit that I’m a good teacher?

Now, my internal monologue (as it was) probably just comes from my own feelings of anxiety and oft-bruised self-esteem, and I certainly am not indicative of most teachers out there.  And while I usually am proud of what I’ve accomplished, I learned at an early age not to express that pride too much lest I be called an egomaniac.  In short, this is my own hang-up that I’m expressing here.

But.

Whenever I read the comments on an article about teachers or teaching, I see people who want to set me on fire or run me out of town.  I’m their tax burden.  I’m a lazy waste.  I’m the source of the problem.  Whenever I go on edutwitter, it’s either platitudes in pretty boxes or statements about what I “should” be doing or what I “don’t” do.  I’ve even see Very Important Education Thought Leaders get in on the act and advocate all sorts of alternatives to what I do for a living, then claim to be supportive of teachers.  Everywhere I turn, it’s a reminder of what I’m doing wrong, and honestly, that gets to me.  I think it will get to anyone.

I realize that part of this profession is being humble and that students succeeding on their own is an indicator that they have received an excellent education, but I wonder when that translated into not being allowed to admit that you’re a good teacher.  I’m serious here–I’ve never actually said that to myself or out loud because I’ve more or less convinced myself that I’m not.  And I’m not writing this to fish for compliments or anything like that, just to say that I wonder if I’m the only person who goes through phases like this, where despite all evidence to the contrary, they think they’re not doing enough or not doing enough the right way.

I don’t wish to take credit for any of my students’ accomplishments. I’ve been fortunate and grateful to teach some amazing young people during my eleven years as a high school English teacher.  I’ve also had the misfortune of teaching some young people who were very much the opposite.  But I want to be allowed to take the opportunity to look at what I have done or how far I’ve come since I started teaching and say, if only to myself, “You’re a good teacher” and not feel that I’m being arrogant or putting myself before my students.  Maybe I’ll earn that one day.

The Object of Poetry

PHOTOGRAPH
Michael Stipe & Natalie Merchant / Night Garden Music ©1993
I found this photograph
underneath broken picture glass
tender face of black & white
beautiful, a haunting sight
looked into an angel’s smile
captivated all the while
from her hair and clothes she wore
I’d have placed her in between the wars

Was she willing when she sat
and posed a pretty photograph
to save her flowering and fair
for days to come
for days to share
a big smile for the camera
how did she know
the moment could be lost forever
forever more

I found this photograph
in stacks between the old joist walls
in a place where time is lost
lost behind where all things fall
broken books and calendars,

Letters script in careful hand,
the music to a standard tune by
some forgotten big brass band

From the thresh hold what’s to see
of our brave new century
television’s just a dream
of radio and silver screen
a big smile for the camera
how did she know
the moment could be lost forever
forever more

Was her childhood filled with rhyme
or stolen books of passion crimes?
was she innocent or blind to the
cruelty of her time?
was she fearful in her day?
was she hopeful? did she pray?
were there skeletons inside
family secrets sworn to hide?
did she feel the heat that stirs
the fall from grace of wayward girls?
was she tempted to pretend
in love and laughter until the end?
Over spring break, I was talking about R.E.M. with a friend of mine for a future episode of his podcast, and over the course of our conversation, this song that the band recorded with Natalie Merchant in 1993 (which is around the time the band was riding the success of Automatic for the People and Merchant was nearing the end of her tenure as the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs) was mentioned and while we didn’t spend too much time analyzing it, we both agreed that the song is excellent

After the conversation, I wound up listening to “Photograph” again, and while there are a lot of times when R.E.M.’s lyrics border on the indecipherable, the lyrics here are actually more clear even if they are pretty complex. My first thought, upon first hearing it, was to compare it to the Jackson Browne song “Fountain of Sorrow,” but giving it another listen, I realized that the beauty in this particular song is that neither Merchant nor Michael Stipe know who the person in the photograph is.

It all reminds me of the early 2000s when I would waste time at work by looking at things posted to Found Magazine, which was devoted to trying to tell the story of objects that users had found. Many times, they related the circumstances that led to finding and keeping the object; other times, they were more about trying to tell that object’s story, in the same way that the lyrics are doing here.

The English teacher side of me loves this song, as does the writer side, because it lends itself to such a great multifaceted writing exercise. Of course, there’s the idea that I could take the time to tell the story of the photograph and answer the questions that they’re asking, similar to how I have often used Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse” as a springboard for a writing assignment. There’s also the possibility of describing the photograph based on the questions–as in, what about that photograph would lead someone to ask those questions?

And then there’s the objects that we own or don’t own that have stories behind them. Granted, you don’t need to study this song in order to create that assignment, but this would serve as a great model for any student looking to write the story of an object. If it’s something a student already owns, there is description and there is reflection; if it’s something the student doesn’t own (i.e., I gave them a photograph of people they didn’t know without any context), there is indulgence of curiosity and creativity, and also perhaps some self-reflection of the way that we judge people based on what we see.

I think poetry as a genre works really well, especially in this case, because it forces a person to stretch themselves. I could provide a prompt with a journal response, but that’s too simple and might result in some sort of bland description. This song, “Photograph,” and other poetry about the objects in our lives, goes deeper than that, asking questions that may not have answers and providing answers because it’s in our nature to want to do that.

English Class isn’t Sexy

You ever notice that there are a lot of people who post “look at what our school does” photos to Twitter?  You also notice that they lean very much toward something involving an apparatus or a structure?

It’s not by accident; I know this from experience.  During my time as a yearbook adviser, my staff often went into classrooms on days when the class was “doing something cool” and took pictures for the book’s academics section.  Many classes were easy to cover, but English class often wound up being tough to shoot because we usually wound up with four very generic-looking photos:  someone at a desk writing, someone typing on a computer, someone in front of the class giving a presentation, or someone talking while sitting at a desk.  I remember one year, in fact, where my editors and I vocally bemoaned the number of pictures in our network drive that featured students sitting at desks.

Why, you ask?  Is it because those pictures would showcase how the school doesn’t allow for movement and is therefor part of an oppressive system?  No, not really.  We bemoaned the pictures because they were bland, ordinary pictures.

Structures are sexy.  Action is sexy.  Science can make things go boom; art is messy and has immediate visual results.  English class?  Yeah, sometimes there is a project of some sort that is incredibly visual, but so often a picture of an English class can appear boring, even if it’s quite the opposite.

Take last month, for instance.  My class was discussing Amy Tan’s essay “Mother Tongue,” and because several students in the room had parents or grandparents who were not born in the United States, they had a great conversation about who in their family speaks what language and how they can relate to what Tan writes about–her mother’s “broken” English, and how her heavy accent makes people think she’s somehow stupid.  It was such a lively conversation that we barely got to the second topic of the day, which was an excerpt from Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club.

If someone were to take a picture of that, however, it wouldn’t have seemed as lively as it was.  Sure, the discussion was a seminar run by a group of students, so you wouldn’t see me in front of the room (I sit in the back, take notes, and don’t say much), but a photo student in front of the class speaking about her experience being Chinese and how that relates to this essay can’t be differentiated from a student giving a sloppily written oral report.

There is no apparatus involved when speaking one’s mind or sharing one’s experience.  There is no device that my class needs to use when debating a point in a classroom forum.  We read.  We discuss.  We write.  Sometimes what comes of it is lively and engaging.  Sometimes, it falls flat and getting through the class winds up being one awkward silence after another.  And hey, I’m not going to pretend like I am transforming lives or anything, but you cannot look at my classroom and know everything that goes on.  I strive to make English class interesting and fun for the students I teach, but the reality of teaching is that most days aren’t public relations moments.