Category Archives: teaching

The Oubliette

Every Dungeons and Dragons player, especially game masters, know about the oubliette.  In the foundations of towers in the castles of the French you often find a windowless room with the only entrance in the ceiling.  It is a dark hole where you throw captives you want to simply forget.  In fact, the name comes from the word in Middle French, “oublier” which translates to “forget”.  Now, of course, as a former school teacher, I know about oubliettes.  I have been in one more than once.  I have tossed bad kids in there more than once.  But the thing I had to learn about “forget holes” is that there is always a way out.

Eli Tragedy

I had a principal who decided I had betrayed him because he overheard me talking sympathetically to a teacher he had been berating for asking that he discipline students she sent to him for disruptive behavior.  He overheard me saying that he would be more understanding if he tried to manage a class himself once in a while.  For my indiscretion he took away my gifted class and gave me in its place a class composed entirely of students who had been repeatedly sent to him by teachers for being disruptive and unmanageable.  It was a class from hell.  Really… from hell… Satan’s stepson was the first student he put in that class.  I was told I would have to discipline them entirely without help from him.  But as tough as it is teaching twenty dysfunctional learners at once with no outside help, it was do-able.  In fact, I liked some of the kids in that class.  (Hated some too, though, because you can’t always like every kid no matter how crappy they act.)  I didn’t manage to teach them much English.  They all spoke Skuggboy fluently the whole time.  But I did endure.  In fact, when that principal was suddenly jobless two-thirds of the way through the year and replaced by a new principal, I got a chance to get some back.  She overhead Satan’s stepson doing his comic stand-up routine in response to my specific directions and came in to remind him who was in charge in the classroom and who deserved respect.  That reminder lasted for a good fifteen minutes and was a prelude to a parent-principal conference that same afternoon.  I saw his evil smile turned upside down for the first time that school year.

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Whenever I put a student in the oubliette (asked them to stand outside the classroom door until I could talk to them about their bad behavior) I never left them there more than five minutes.  I would quickly give the class the directions they needed to continue on their own, and then I would go out to execute the prisoner.  It usually was an explanation of how I wanted them to behave, and then giving them a choice, whether they wanted to go back in and do the right thing, or they wanted to visit the office with a written explanation by me of exactly what they did wrong.  Even though nothing would probably happen to them in the office, they rarely chose that option.

So, there is always a way out… but there are many forms of the oubliette, and no one is immune to being sent there.

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Practical Magic

Wizards do magical spells. It kinda goes without saying. But to do magical spells, you have to know how the magic works… and why.

Me, imprisoned in my own crystal ball by my naughty familiar.

The secret is in knowing what the word “magic” actually means. It is not supernatural power, nor the creation of something out of nothing. It is entirely the act of uncovering and understanding the underlying truth, the actual science that most people don’t yet comprehend that underpins the thing you are trying to accomplish. Jonas Salk was a wizard. His polio vaccine was a successful magical potion. But magic can be evil too. Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer were wizards. And the atom bomb was an act of necromantic evil.

Me, in my early green wizard phase.

So, being a wizard, I have learned lessons over a lifetime that uncovered for me the secrets of practical interpersonal magic. Being a teacher has taught me far more than I taught to others.

So let me share with you some of my hard-won practical magic.

In a room full of rowdy children, most of whom are not minding any of the teacher’s directions, you can get their attention easily by shouting, “What the poop is going on here?” with the biggest evil grin on your face that you can manage. They will immediately quiet down like magic and look at you. Some will be wondering if their teacher is having a fatal stroke. Some will be wondering what punishments their behavior has earned as indicated by your evil grin (and here it should be noted, their little imaginations will cook up something much worse and much scarier than anything you could’ve thought of to unwisely threaten them with. A few will begin recording you with their cell phone cameras in hopes of future behavior they can post online and get you fired with. And the rest will laugh at the word “poop” and forget why they were acting out. At that point, with their full attention, you can ask them to sit down and look at page 32, and, not knowing what else to do, they will probably do it.

Here are some other rules of practical magic that apply to the wizarding arts of being a public school teacher;

  1. Violence is never the answer. Change their actions and reactions by making them laugh, making them cry, or making them think about something else entirely. The last thing you would ever want to do is hit them, even if they hit you first.
  2. Anything they can be forced to repeat eight times in eight different ways is something that will be fixed in their memory for more than just the duration of a class period. It moves things into their long-term memory, and that is itself a very magical thing.
  3. Students laugh when you surprise them or present them with the absurd. Tell them they should imagine themselves as pigeons who have to act out Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. What costumes will they wear, and why? What stage directions are necessary to add to the play that are unique to pigeons, and how will they word them? How does pigeon Mercutio go about his death soliloquy when stabbed by pigeon Tibault? Will he have to say, “Look for me tomorrow and you will find me a very grave pigeon?” By the end of the lesson they will have learned more about this play they are supposed to learn about as ninth graders than they ever would have otherwise.

Being able to do any of those things is actually a manifestation of magical power, and only producible by a wizard. The simple fact is, every good teacher is a wizard.

Me, as a wizard in my blue period. The period at the end of this essay.

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I Really Kinda Like That Kid

As a retired school teacher who retired for health reasons, I have a limit to how much I can teach. As I substitute, mostly for teachers who planned on being out for in-service training or special educational meetings, I can usually only do two jobs a week. That limits the number of kids you have contact with, especially the more gifted and talented sorts of kids. But that doesn’t really matter much. As a regular classroom teacher I always focused more on making connections with kids, especially the challenging ones. My two jobs this week consisted of sixth grade Science all day on Tuesday, and seventh grade AVID classes on Thursday.

Sixth graders are the rabid squirrel monkeys of the middle-school monkey-house. They are the ones who jump around the most, scream at each other the most, and swing from the light fixtures the most. And if you think of it as being only metaphorically true, you don’t really know much about sixth graders and modern education.

But the coach I was subbing for is very good at discipline. He gave them an article on the organ systems of the human body and told them to to use the annotation marks on his close-reading poster. Now, you and I both know that coaches don’t really walk sixth graders through note-taking and reading-comprehension drills regularly. There’s a reason coaches are more likely to teach Science, History, or even Math before taking on English or Language Arts teaching assignments.

So, I did a quick-teach using the two-page article on how to circle key words, underline main idea sentences, and how to do a SWBS (Somebody-Wanted-But-So Charts) analysis to summarize the article. They, of course, did not do that before in science class, or even in English that they could remember. I basically simplified his fifty-minute busy-work assignment into a simple twenty-minute reading assignment that would take the slow readers longer. So, I had to occupy the smart, quick, and evil kids with something else while I helped the stragglers finish. I drew a cartoon rabbit, a cartoon duck, and a Disney-esque Goofy on the white board, challenging them to copy it.

I got to work one-on-one with several slow readers. Xavier, a hyper, mouthy kid who had dyslexia was tickled pink to learn he could pick out and put together key words and main ideas. He was unable to write the summary, but he annotated correctly, possibly for the first time ever. And that was a break-through for him. I subbed with him in other classes where he was one of the awfullest chandelier swingers, so that connection made a huge difference for him for at least fifty minutes of his school life. Malik the Mouth who never does anything but insult the others, and gives somebody else’s name to the sub when he gets in trouble, actually kept his bargain with me from the last time he was baby-sat by me. He stayed in his seat and kept working all period. The only time I had to make him give me his name was at the end of class so I could leave a good-job note for the coach after class ended. I actually like those sorts of kids who other subs routinely blow up at and send out of class. Xavier and Malik (possibly not their actual names) are both a hoot to teach. And they help add to my list of funny classroom anecdotes when they lose control and get in trouble with me. I always try to turn those into teachable moments.

But when the coach came in at the end of his smartest class, saw everybody was done, and saw cartoons on his board, he got mad at them. I had to take the blame for them and explain why they were not simply blowing the assignment off and playing around. Coaches don’t usually understand that classroom learning can be fun.

Thursday I was subbing for AVID classes again. These are special classes where at-risk kids are put in college-prep courses and treated like gifted kids. The program is misused as a warehouse for failing discipline-problem kids by this school district. But the Field Middle School has their act together for this program. The kids were working with college-level education students as tutors, and had to fill out self-examination forms that evaluated how they were doing in working with their tutors.

These are well-trained, smart, and seriously funny kids. Xochitl (an Aztec name pronounced ZOACHIE for a Hispanic girl that I have suprisingly encountered more than once in Texas) was a giftred complainer and procrastinator who was too lazy to lift a pencil, yet did the actual work in a few short minutes when she finally got around to it. She had time to tell the kids at her table, one of the tutors, and me about a time when she knocked the head off of a cucaracha (a cockroach who speaks Spanish) and tried to wait for an entire day for it to finally die so she could pick it up and flush it. The thing is, a cockroach only needs its head to eat with and see with. It is perfectly fine otherwise until it starves to death or gets eaten by a rat. So, when she went to pick it up with salad tongs, it was still alive and wiggly. She pantomimed how she threw the thing across the kitchen in surprise, and when it landed in the sink, she nailed it with the garbage disposal. This girl is a gifted story-teller. She had us all laughing. And her school grades were all A’s and B’s.

I admit it. I love kids like that. They are the best things about teaching. And whether they are Aaargh! Sixth Graders! or Uggh! Seventh graders! (the chimpanzees of the middle-school monkey-house) I actually love them. (But PLEASE don’t tell them that!)

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Found Poetry

by Sergio Aragon├ęs

Found poetry begins with three found things

Picked up at random

Like three pictures from my internet gallery

Plagiarized from somebody’s fandom

oil painting by Maxfield Parrish

And then you have to sit and have a thought

About how it fits together

To make a stupid poem you’ve wrought

That’s not about the weather

Movie image by Woody Allen featuring Woody Allen

You must pretend the very best you can

There’s sense in what you’ve found

And it fits together as if you had a plan

That was always quite profound.

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Writing a found poem

Okay, this is the essay part. That first part is a terrible poem written by me to illustrate how to make your own found poem. Of course, you should know that I was not a natural-born poet. I am among the lower percentages of America’s worst-possible poets. Right there somewhere between the poetry books of Farley Bumbletongue and the Collected Musings of Hans Poopferbrains of Snarkytown, Wisconsin.

But I take great pride in my abilities as a terrible poet. You see, what I mainly was, truly was, was an English teacher of middle school and high school kids. And found poems were an activity in the classroom intended to teach writing skills, creativity, and an appreciation of what a poem actually is.

I needed a large usable picture file cut out of Christmas catalogs, Walmart advertisements, newspapers, magazines (“What are those?” is the most common comment you would get out of today’s classrooms,) grocery-store bargain flyers, outdated calendars, and any other non-pornographic picture sources available.

I would hand out three random images pulled out of the picture file without looking at them to each student (or small groups of students) and then require them to create a poem of at least twelve lines with an optional rhyme scheme and rhythm.

I would have to remind them not to eat the pictures, even if they were pictures of food. And with middle school students I would have to have extra pictures for the next class to replace the ones they ate anyway.

I would tell them there was a time-limit, specified to be much shorter than the actual time I planned to give them, and then let them create horrible poetry. Near Vogon quality in its horribleness.

When all of this was done, we would have a good long laugh by sharing the pictures and poems, and find out who the truly wacky and perverted poets were.

Now, don’t go telling parents that we teachers are wasting their children’s precious learning time this way, but it is not I lesson I created. Simply a lesson I used at least once every year.

But the real question on my mind is, “Given three random pictures, what kind of poem would you write?” Feel free to share.

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Filed under education, humor, kids, poem, poetry, teaching

How To Write A Mickian Essay

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I know the last thing you would ever consider doing is to take up writing essays like these.  What kind of a moronic bingo-boingo clown wants to take everything he or she knows, put it in a high-speed blender and turn it all into idea milkshakes?

But I was a writing teacher for many years.  And now, being retired and having no students to yell at when my blood pressure gets high, the urge to teach it again is overwhelming.

So, here goes…

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Once you have picked the silly, pointless, or semi-obnoxious idea you want to shape the essay around, you have to write a lead.  A lead is the attention-grabbing device or booby-trap for readers that will draw them into your essay.  In a Mickian essay, whose purpose is to entertain, or possibly bore you in a mildly amusing manner, or cause you enough brain damage to make you want to send me money (this last possibility never seems to work, but I thought I’d throw it in there just in case), the lead is usually a  “surpriser”, something so amazingly dumb or off-the-wall crazy that you just have to read, at least a little bit, to find out if this writer is really that insane or what.  The rest of the intro paragraph that is not part of the lead may be used to draw things together to suggest the essay is not simply a chaotic mass of silly words in random order.  It can point the reader down the jungle path that he or she can take to come out of the other end of the essay alive.

Once started on this insane quest to build an essay that will strangle the senses and mix up the mind of the reader, you have to carry out the plan in three or four body paragraphs.  This is where you have to use those bricks of brainiac bull-puckie that you have saved up to be the concrete details in the framework of the main rooms of the little idea-house you are constructing.  If you were to number or label these main rooms, this one you are reading now would, for example, be Room #2, or B, or “the second body paragraph”.  And as you read this paragraph, you should be thinking in the voice of your favorite English teacher of all time.  The three main rooms in this example idea house are beginning, middle, and end.  You could also call them introduction, body, and conclusion.  These are the rooms of your idea house that the reader will live in during his or her brief stay (assuming they don’t run out of the house screaming after seeing the clutter in the entryway).

Teacher

The last thing you have to do is the concluding paragraph.  (Of course, you have to realize that we are not actually there yet in this essay.  This is Room C in the smelly chickenhouse of this essay, the third body paragraph.)  The escape hatch on the essay that may potentially explode into fireworks of thoughts, daydreams, or plans for something better to do with your life than a read an essay written by an insane former middle school English teacher at any moment, is a necessary part of the whole process.  This is where you have to remind them of what the essay is basically about, and leave them with the thought that you want to haunt them in their nightmares later.  The last thing that you say in the essay is the thing they are the most likely to remember.  So you need to save the best for last.

So, here, finally, is the exit door to this masterfully mixed-up Mickian Essay.  It is a simple, and straightforward structure.  The introduction containing the lead is followed by three or four body paragraphs that develop the idea and end in a conclusion that summarizes or simply restates the overall main idea.  And now you know why all of my former students either know how to construct an essay, or have several years left in therapy sessions with a psychiatrist.

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The First Year as a Teacher

My proudest achievement of my thirty-one year years as a public school teacher was the fact that I survived my whole first year. That doesn’t sound like much to you unless you are a teacher. But it sounds even more amazing if you knew what South Texas junior high schools were like in 1981. I mean, my school, Frank Newman Junior High had practically been destroyed the year before I started teaching there by the seventh graders I would be teaching as eighth graders.

You see some of my favorites in the painting I did during my third year as a teacher. From front to back they are Dottie, Teresa, Ruben, Fabian, and Javier. Of course, in these essays about being a teacher, I usually don’t use real names to protect the privacy of my former students, both the innocent and the guilty. So, I leave it to you to decide whether, even though I love these kids, those aren’t probably their real names. Unless… they are.

But not all Texas eighth graders are loveable people. In fact, they are hard on first-year rookie teachers. Especially the ones with a Midwestern faith that they can step in and change the world with their idealistically pure and golden teaching methods. Those teachers they will try to eat alive.

I followed the seventh grade English teacher in the same classroom with the same kids. They made her scream daily, had classroom fist fights weekly, exploded firecrackers under her chair twice during the year, and made her run away to the San Antonio airport and leave teaching behind forever. As ninth graders, they made their English I teacher leave teaching forever even though she was a three-year veteran. And believe me, they tried to do the same to me.

I foiled them constantly by being an on-your-feet-all-day teacher rather than a sit-behind-the-desk-and-yell teacher like my predecessor. After I had a chance to sit during planning period, I always had to clean thumbtacks, tape, and smeared chocolate bars off the seat of my little wooden teacher chair. Paper airplanes were the least gross things that flew through the air. Boogers, spit-wads, spit-wet pieces of chalk, and brown things you had to hope were chewed chocolate flew constantly whenever you had your back turned to them. And if there was only one kid behind you and you turned on him and asked pointedly, “Who threw that?” The kid, of course, saw nothing, has no idea, you can torture him, and he still won’t know anything because you are a lousy teacher and didn’t make him learn anything.

And lessons were mostly about talking over the malevolent tongue-wigglers. They didn’t listen. Not even to each other. One kid would be talking about monster trucks that shoot fire out of their exhaust pipes while the kid next to him was talking at the same time about whether Flipper is properly called a dolphin or a porpoise, or like his older brother says, “a giant penis-fish.” And the girls behind them are actually hearing each other, but only because they are speculating which boy in the classroom has the cutest butt.

I broke up three fights by myself that year, one of which I got slugged in the back of the head by the aggressor during, teaching me to always get between them facing the aggressor and never being wrong about who the aggressor is.

They don’t let you do much teaching at all your first year. They force you to practice discipline by keeping them all seated at the same time with their books open in front of them. “I don’t do literature,” Ernie Lozano told me. Well, to be accurate, none of them actually did literature that year. But they taught me to survive long enough to learn how to actually teach them something.

On the last day of school that year we gave them all extended time on the playground, using the outdoor basketball court to keep them occupied for long enough for a terrible school year to finally run its course. They didn’t set the school on fire that year. They didn’t break into the office that year and steal all the cash. We did well enough at keeping them under control that year that I got rehired and our principal got promoted to high school principal. I had a decision to make that year. Would I keep teaching? Or find another job? Sixty percent of all first-year teachers in Texas in 1982 quit teaching. I only earned $11,000 that year. Did I really want to continue down that dark path for another school year?

Ruben walked up to stand beside me and watch the bigger eighth graders foul each other on the basketball court. “You know, Mr. Beyer, you were my favorite teacher this year.”

“Thank you, Ruben. I needed to hear that.” I bit my lip to keep from crying.

That was when I made the decision. I stuck it out in that same school and district for the next 23 years. I became the head of the Cotulla Middle School English Department. I moved to the Dallas area for family reasons in 2004, but I would teach for eight more years in two more districts and in three more schools. But all of that is Ruben’s fault. Because that was the most important thing anyone ever said to me as a teacher. And I did hear it more than once. But he was the first.

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Spinning Wheels of Thought

Picture borrowed from; https://www.townsends.us/products/colonial-spinning-wheel-sp378-p-874

I start today with nothing in my head to write about. I guess I can say that with regularity most days of the writing week. Sundays in particular are filled with no useful ideas of any kind. But I have a certain talent for spinning. As Rumpelstiltskin had a talent for spinning straw into gold, I take the simple threads of ideas leaking out of my ears and spin them into yarns that become whole stories-full of something to say. And it is not something out of mere nothing. There is magic in spinning wheels. They take something ordinary and incomplete, and turn it into substantial threads useful for further weaving.

Of course the spinning wheel is just a metaphor here for the craft of writing. And it is a craft, requiring definable skills that go well beyond merely knowing some words and how to spell them.

My own original illustration.

The first skill is, of course, idea generation. You have to come up with the central notion to concoct the potion. In this case today, that is, of course, the metaphor of using the writing process as a spinning wheel for turning straw into gold. But once that is wound onto the spindle, you begin to spin yarn only if you follow the correct procedure. Structuring the essay or story is the next critical skill.

Since this is a didactic essay about the writing process I opened it with a strong lead that defined the purpose of the essay and explained the central metaphor. Then I proceeded to break down the basic skills for writing an essay with orderly explanations of them, laced with distracting images to keep you from dying of boredom while reading this, a very real danger that may actually have killed a large number of the students in my writing classes over the years (although they still appeared to be alive on the outside).

My mother’s spinning wheel, used to make threads for use in porcelain doll-making, and as a prop for displaying dolls.

As I proceed through the essay, I am stopping constantly to revise and edit, makeing sure to correct errors and grammar, as well as spending fifteen minutes searching for the picture of my mother’s spinning wheel used directly above. Notice, too, I deliberately left the spelling-error typo of “making” to emphasize the idea that revising and proof-reading are two different things that often occur at the same time, though they are very different skills.

And as I reach the conclusion, it may be obvious that my spinning wheel of thought today spun out some pure gold. Or, more likely, it may have spun out useless and boring drehk. Or boring average stuff. But I used the spinning wheel correctly regardless of your opinion of the sparkle of my gold.

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Filed under humor, insight, Paffooney, strange and wonderful ideas about life, teaching, Uncategorized, writing, writing teacher

The Oubliette

Every Dungeons and Dragons player, especially game masters, know about the oubliette.  In the foundations of towers in the castles of the French you often find a windowless room with the only entrance in the ceiling.  It is a dark hole where you throw captives you want to simply forget.  In fact, the name comes from the word in Middle French, “oublier” which translates to “forget”.  Now, of course, as a former school teacher, I know about oubliettes.  I have been in one more than once.  I have tossed bad kids in there more than once.  But the thing I had to learn about “forget holes” is that there is always a way out.

Eli Tragedy

I had a principal who decided I had betrayed him because he overheard me talking sympathetically to a teacher he had been berating for asking that he discipline students she sent to him for disruptive behavior.  He overheard me saying that he would be more understanding if he tried to manage a class himself once in a while.  For my indiscretion he took away my gifted class and gave me in its place a class composed entirely of students who had been repeatedly sent to him by teachers for being disruptive and unmanageable.  It was a class from hell.  Really… from hell… Satan’s stepson was the first student he put in that class.  I was told I would have to discipline them entirely without help from him.  But as tough as it is teaching twenty dysfunctional learners at once with no outside help, it was do-able.  In fact, I liked some of the kids in that class.  (Hated some too, though, because you can’t always like every kid no matter how crappy they act.)  I didn’t manage to teach them much English.  They all spoke Skuggboy fluently the whole time.  But I did endure.  In fact, when that principal was suddenly jobless two-thirds of the way through the year and replaced by a new principal, I got a chance to get some back.  She overhead Satan’s stepson doing his comic stand-up routine in response to my specific directions and came in to remind him who was in charge in the classroom and who deserved respect.  That reminder lasted for a good fifteen minutes and was a prelude to a parent-principal conference that same afternoon.  I saw his evil smile turned upside down for the first time that school year.

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Whenever I put a student in the oubliette (asked them to stand outside the classroom door until I could talk to them about their bad behavior) I never left them there more than five minutes.  I would quickly give the class the directions they needed to continue on their own, and then I would go out to execute the prisoner.  It usually was an explanation of how I wanted them to behave, and then giving them a choice, whether they wanted to go back in and do the right thing, or they wanted to visit the office with a written explanation by me of exactly what they did wrong.  Even though nothing would probably happen to them in the office, they rarely chose that option.

So, there is always a way out… but there are many forms of the oubliette, and no one is immune to being sent there.

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Classroom Clownery (Not to be confused with Sean Clownery… He’s James Blond)

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See Dick?

See Jane?

See Sally?

See Dick run?

See Jane run?

See Sally…?   Wait a minute!  Why don’t I remember Sally?

Did Dick forget to feed Spot and Spot was forced to kill and eat Sally?

No…  I had Dick and Jane books in Kiddy-garter and they did have Sally in them.  And Spot never killed anyone.  But with all the running she did, Sally did not do anything memorable.  If my teacher, Miss Ketchum, had told the Spot eats Sally story, I’m sure I would’ve remembered Sally better and learned to read faster.

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But I actually did learn to read faster because there was a Cat in the Hat, and a Yertle the Turtle, and because Horton the elephant heard a Who, and a Grinch stole Christmas.  Yes, humor is what always did it for me in the classroom.  Dr. Seuss taught me to read.  Miss Mennenga taught me to read out loud.  And in seventh grade, Mr. Hickman taught me to appreciate really really terrible jokes.    And those are the people who twisted my arm… er, actually my brain… enough to make me be a teacher who taught by making things funny.  There were kids who really loved me, and principals who really hated me.  But I had students come back to me years later and say… “I don’t remember anything at all from my classes in junior high except when you read The Outsiders out loud and did all those voices, and played the Greek myth game where we had to kill the giants with magic arrows, and the stupid jokes you told.”  High praise indeed!

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I think that teaching kids to laugh in the classroom was a big part of teaching them how to use the language and how to think critically.    You find what’s funny in what you learn, and you have accidentally examined it carefully… and probably etched it on the stone part of your brain more memorably than any other way you could do it.  And once it’s etched in stone, you’re not getting that out again any time soon.

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Humor makes you look at things from another point of view, if for no other reason, then simply because you are trying to make somebody laugh.  For instance, do you wonder like I do why the Cat in the Hat is trying to pluck the wig off of Yelling Yolanda who is perched on the back of yellow yawning yak?  I bet you can’t look at those two pictures positioned like that and not see what I am talking about.  Of course, I am not betting money on it.  I am simply talking Iowegian… a totally different post.

But the point is, humor and learning go hand in hand.  It takes intelligence to get the joke.  Joking makes you smarter.  And that is why the class clowns in the past… the good and funny ones… not the stupid and clueless ones… were always my favorite students.

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Filed under clowns, goofiness, high school, humor, irony, kids, philosophy, teaching, word games

The First Year as a Teacher

My proudest achievement of my thirty-one year years as a public school teacher was the fact that I survived my whole first year. That doesn’t sound like much to you unless you are a teacher. But it sounds even more amazing if you knew what South Texas junior high schools were like in 1981. I mean, my school, Frank Newman Junior High had practically been destroyed the year before I started teaching there by the seventh graders I would be teaching as eighth graders.

You see some of my favorites in the painting I did during my third year as a teacher. From front to back they are Dottie, Teresa, Ruben, Fabian, and Javier. Of course, in these essays about being a teacher, I usually don’t use real names to protect the privacy of my former students, both the innocent and the guilty. So, I leave it to you to decide whether, even though I love these kids, those aren’t probably their real names. Unless… they are.

But not all Texas eighth graders are loveable people. In fact, they are hard on first-year rookie teachers. Especially the ones with a Midwestern faith that they can step in and change the world with their idealistically pure and golden teaching methods. Those teachers they will try to eat alive.

I followed the seventh grade English teacher in the same classroom with the same kids. They made her scream daily, had classroom fist fights weekly, exploded firecrackers under her chair twice during the year, and made her run away to the San Antonio airport and leave teaching behind forever. As ninth graders, they made their English I teacher leave teaching forever even though she was a three-year veteran. And believe me, they tried to do the same to me.

I foiled them constantly by being an on-your-feet-all-day teacher rather than a sit-behind-the-desk-and-yell teacher like my predecessor. After I had a chance to sit during planning period, I always had to clean thumbtacks, tape, and smeared chocolate bars off the seat of my little wooden teacher chair. Paper airplanes were the least gross things that flew through the air. Boogers, spit-wads, spit-wet pieces of chalk, and brown things you had to hope were chewed chocolate flew constantly whenever you had your back turned to them. And if there was only one kid behind you and you turned on him and asked pointedly, “Who threw that?” The kid, of course, saw nothing, has no idea, you can torture him, and he still won’t know anything because you are a lousy teacher and didn’t make him learn anything.

And lessons were mostly about talking over the malevolent tongue-wigglers. They didn’t listen. Not even to each other. One kid would be talking about monster trucks that shoot fire out of their exhaust pipes while the kid next to him was talking at the same time about whether Flipper is properly called a dolphin or a porpoise, or like his older brother says, “a giant penis-fish.” And the girls behind them are actually hearing each other, but only because they are speculating which boy in the classroom has the cutest butt.

I broke up three fights by myself that year, one of which I got slugged in the back of the head by the aggressor during, teaching me to always get between them facing the aggressor and never being wrong about who the aggressor is.

They don’t let you do much teaching at all your first year. They force you to practice discipline by keeping them all seated at the same time with their books open in front of them. “I don’t do literature,” Ernie Lozano told me. Well, to be accurate, none of them actually did literature that year. But they taught me to survive long enough to learn how to actually teach them something.

On the last day of school that year we gave them all extended time on the playground, using the outdoor basketball court to keep them occupied for long enough for a terrible school year to finally run its course. They didn’t set the school on fire that year. They didn’t break into the office that year and steal all the cash. We did well enough at keeping them under control that year that I got rehired and our principal got promoted to high school principal. I had a decision to make that year. Would I keep teaching? Or find another job? Sixty percent of all first-year teachers in Texas in 1982 quit teaching. I only earned $11,000 that year. Did I really want to continue down that dark path for another school year?

Ruben walked up to stand beside me and watch the bigger eighth graders foul each other on the basketball court. “You know, Mr. Beyer, you were my favorite teacher this year.”

“Thank you, Ruben. I needed to hear that.” I bit my lip to keep from crying.

That was when I made the decision. I stuck it out in that same school and district for the next 23 years. I became the head of the Cotulla Middle School English Department. I moved to the Dallas area for family reasons in 2004, but I would teach for eight more years in two more districts and in three more schools. But all of that is Ruben’s fault. Because that was the most important thing anyone ever said to me as a teacher. And I did hear it more than once. But he was the first.

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