"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Culture of Failure

As an introduction to a unit on literary analysis, this week I asked my juniors to think about where they come from in terms of culture. I gave them this handout. It asks them to think about ten ways to define themselves, from religion to family to entertainment choices. I then gave them this handout, outlining a three minute presentation where they were to talk about which cultural group they most identify with and share a text that illustrates that culture. The presentation also required a visual aide of this text they identify with. It's show and tell for the high school set.

Here's my example presentation:

You might see me as...an angry-all-the-time white guy who follows all the rules and only want you to do things his way.

What you don't know is...that I'm a liberal-minded Mormon who used to dress weird and listens to indie music, anything different.

I most identify with...punk culture and nonconformists.

(Side note: Remember that this was a presentation for my class of high school juniors. They said I pretty much nailed it on the head with how they view me. In an effort to keep them engaged I also decided to focus more on who I was at their age rather than who I am now. I don't think it would have gone well had I brought in a Book of Mormon for show and tell.)

The text I shared with them is the following song, "Institutionalized" by Suicidal Tendencies. I showed them lyrics from the verse about the Pepsi, along with the chorus. You get the whole terrible classic video. Lucky ducks.

I then proceeded to explain that this song is a plea for thinking for yourself. The lyric "All I wanted was a Pepsi" has been a kind of rallying cry to me for making my own choices. All teenagers struggle through a phase where no one in the world understands them, especially their parents. I went through it. But it doesn't have to mean a flat rejection of where you come from, your family's values, beliefs, education. (That would be just as unthinking, wouldn't it?) It just means that you follow what you follow for your reasons, not anyone else's.

I got a kick out of showing my students this aspect of my life and relished the opportunity to play a skatepunk masterpiece for them. Each class seemed to appreciate my efforts, despite their general aversion to the sound of the song itself. And they seemed to work the rest of the class period, filling out the charts and thinking about what they would say about themselves.

The next day they were supposed to present for themselves. Half of the class of forty one day, the other half the next day. (Yes, each class has forty students. It's unwieldy.)

Five students were prepared to present first period. Only three second period. 

This isn't atypical.

I offered them a second chance. After those prepared students presented, I told the rest of the class that if they wrote me an explanation about why they were not prepared on time, and why they deserve another chance, then they might be given the opportunity to make it up. Last quarter our writing unit was all about persuasive rhetoric, so I added that they should know all about how to convince me.

You can probably guess how many of them took advantage of this timely offer. Two students in first period, and one of those was a student who already presented and wanted to go again (she didn't do well). Six students left me an explanation from fourth period, and three of them had been absent and didn't really know what was going on anyway.

As icing, these persuasive letters were less than convincing. One said,
"I work from 4:00 pm to 10:30 pm that's a 6 hour shift & Im in school for 6 hour's as well so you can see that I dont have time to do homework because when I come home I dont wanna do anything but sleep but sure thing tomorrow I will have it for sure."
Apostrophes and sentences structure aside, this brings up a slew of troubles that I have to deal with every day with every student I have. But mainly what I'm thinking is, "What's going to make tonight any different from last night?"

I'm sure if I did get an explanation from every student, each one would be as equally compelling as this one.

So I'm stumped. I've done all I know how to do as well as I know how.


  1. James Mathatas

    I began working when I turned 14. I would mow lawns and perform general maintenance work for a slum lord in my home town. I earned $4.35/hr, when I quit at 15 ½ I was making $5.35/hr. I was working between 15-25 hours a week. My next job was at Burger King and paid $6.00/hr. Starting my junior year I was working 30 hours a week and brining in a $25 dollar allowance. I did this up until graduation. My junior year I had a 2.5 GPA, my senior year I had a 3.85 for a cumulative GPA of 2.8. For all the time I spent working I had a savings of about $200 dollars and a much lower GPA. Being from rural Ohio is much different from Aurora, but I bet that these kids are trading future success for short term luxuries much like I did….. I wish lessons were this cool when I was in school.

  2. Then let them fail. I am a high school junior and really, I know the type of kids you are talking about all too well. If they want to go to college, they have to learn to manage their time on their own.

    It sounds bad, as you do want your kids to succeed, but you can't beat a dead horse. It will never pull the cart.

  3. Dude, you just convinced them that rebellion is futile if you were rebellious then and now so mainstream. No wonder they checked out.

    Why not parent teacher conference for the kid with no time for homework? My mom never let me work more than 20 hours a week in high school.

  4. @ James: Well, I AM the coolest teacher I know. What's unfortunate is that a lot of my students have to work, and not for savings or luxury. Now I have no idea why this one student works, but there's got to be a way for him to get school work done. You did at least enough work to get C's, it seems.

    @ McKenzie: In my head I know I can't do much more than I am. But the culture of education today puts the blame on the teacher, so I'm always wondering what I did or didn't do right or wrong. If too many students fail my class, I'm bound to have to justify my actions and effort to stop that from happening.

    @ Anonymous: I see the irony in this particular lesson leading to not doing any work. But I hoped they could see that rebellion for no reason doesn't mean anything.

    I do talk to parents when I can. I have nearly 150 students to tend to, so phone calls home take a back seat. The real problem is that this kid's parents probably would rather he work more and go to school less. (At least that's a sentiment we often find at our school.)

  5. Well, first off - badass song choice. It's what I started my punk rock Pandora station with. I must now play that tomorrow as my "Hell yeah, it's Friday" music.

    Also, that's a really awesome lesson. I especially like the part asking them to pull in a text that illustrates their culture. I don't have any magic bullets, I just wanted to say I love the idea.

  6. Is this IB English? - because all of the IB kids that went to school with my son fell pretty much into two categories - either the straight A over achievers or the get through this so I can graduate kids - however both groups had a commonality in that all of the IB students were huge procrastinators. I think that it is an entrance requirement...

  7. Personally, after I saw "Yes, each class has forty students," followed up by "I have nearly 150 students to tend to," I had all the explanation I needed. You're not teaching a discussion/presentation class, you're teaching a large lecture class.

    That sounds more dogmatic than I mean it. Obviously, there are a lot of factors, it's all a rich tapestry, etc. But good lord, it is ridiculous to expect any K-12 teacher to excel in conditions like that. Maybe you need a couple of T.A.s? In college they'd use grad students. In high school... high-achieving seniors, maybe?

    P.S. I agree about the awesomeness of the lesson. I wonder though if it is pitched at a little too advanced a level? I am a total amateur, so I have no good way to evaluate this, and I don't want to be all soft bigotry of low expectations and everything, but I just wonder.

    I also wonder if ability/preparation levels are too heterogeneous in your 40-student class. Maybe those 8 students had a great learning experience, but part of the problem with the other 80% (or 50% of the 80% or something) is that they just need a lot more groundwork before they're capable of grokking a lesson like this.

    I dunno, that's just the stuff that jumped out at me.

  8. I like this assignment. But maybe consider having them set the criteria for it and also design some aspect of it. This might help with "buy in."

  9. Maybe all the rest of them compared notes and realized that they had all written the same thing. "I'm a teenager and I'm smarter than you and nobody understands me."

  10. This made me so sad. My daughter would have loved to have had this lesson instead of some of the regurgitate what the teacher says BS she's getting in a supposedly honors class. Problem is, her class, too, is filled with kids who don't do the work, aren't prepared, don't care, etc. Don't give up-you may be the teacher that makes one kid not hate school this year.

  11. I kind of sympathize with the kid with after school job. I was in that predicament once, and it's crazy trying keep up with that schedule.

    That Pepsi business reminds me of this time when my friend called and I was going on and on about faces in the mirror, and then my friend stopped me and we realized that the answering machine had picked up and our conversation was going out over the speaker. I went downstairs and my mother asked me if I was on drugs and...well, let's just say that the moral of the story is that sometimes the kid is on drugs.

  12. @ Amy: I hope you didn't scare anyone yesterday afternoon with your blaring music. I miss not having speakers in my room.

    @ laughingmom: No, this is a regular level 11th grade English class. Very few kids who will do classwork, let alone homework. I though about working this lesson into the IB classes, too, but they've no time.

    @ paul: When there's so many students in one room, it takes me a week before I can have a one on one conversation with each of them. makes it very difficult for me to glean their understanding.

    I don't think the ability level was too difficult. They had pretty specific, spelled out guidelines, and it really should have taken very little prep time. They do have a hard time making decisions like "what text can I bring in tomorrow?"

  13. @ dbs: That's not a bad idea. I'll use that next time.

    @ darev: If only they could use that sentiment to their advantage and do something interesting in an effort to be understood.

    @ lola: I'm not about to give up yet. I do sometimes have a hard time distinguishing the students who care and the ones who don't. The ones who care are often drowned out by the problems and behavior of those who don't.

    @ Bryan: Ha! you're so right. Sometimes they are on drugs. Not my children, though.

  14. Oh my gosh, we totally DID sit next to each other at RMFW! What a small world! And I'm sorry to hear about your students... I used to work with inner-city kids from L.A., and it was often a challenge to get them focused. But your lesson sounds so fantastic, and you were really unique and creative... I'm sorry it didn't work out this time around... :(

    In answer to your question, my offer actually wasn't a product of the conference; I got an offer from an outstanding agent, and that offer inspired another agent I'd queried to counter-offer. But the conference was fantastic, because it got me thinking about my next project, and it always seems like you don't get an offer until you give up and move on, you know? ;)

    So glad we got connected!

  15. This simultaneously broke my heart and made me realize what a nerd I am. This is such a cool assignment-- I would have had a lot of fun with it my junior year. It's tough to see all of your hard work go down the drain when the kids won't participate.

    I don't sympathize with the "I have a job" kids. You're in high school to learn so you can work AFTER high school. Am I opposed to having an after-school job? Absolutely not. I had two. But school should ALWAYS come first.

    Though now that I think about it...I seem to remember doing a lot of my classwork during the school day itself...

  16. @ LisaAnn: Thanks for the encouragement about school.

    Did I say congratulations on your agenting? Well there it is.

    @ Nicki: I feel like I need another post to explain about how many of my students have to work, according to their parents, culture, poverty. But I totally agree that school should be first. Some students and parents just do not understand that.