Saturday, March 1, 2014

Kill Me Now: Grading Papers

I hate grading papers. I HATE it.  I'd rather clean my apartment with a toothbrush after I leased it out to a fraternity for Rush Week.

And, of course, I teach the subject with the most amount of grading: English.

But, I think I've proven that I'm also a masochist, so that should be of no surprise.

I know most of my problem is psychological, but when it's me against my psychology, I get bitch-slapped every time.
Recently, I collected eighty, six-page research papers from my high school seniors. Rough draft research papers, which means that I'm going to have to make copious comments to guide them through their revisions.

Have I provided enough instruction for students to produce drafts that shouldn't need copious comments? Absolutely. I'll admit that I do not teach everything well (Siddhartha is always a crap-shoot; Emily Dickinson--never knew how just a few words could confuse me so much) but the research paper? I am a genius. My instructions include brilliant analogies, handouts with simplified instruction to maneuver MLA formatting, and color-coded examples to highlight each aspect of a quality research paper. I hold their hands through every step of researching, developing quality thesis statements, creating supportive arguments, and inserting relevant commentary. In class, I model, model, model; students practice, practice, practice. Yet, most of the students' first drafts are shit. And not the type of shitty first drafts that Anne Lamott writes about.

This has been a rinse-repeat process for my entire 17-year teaching career.  And no, to all you non-teachers, I can't just not assign the research paper.  It is a standard upheld by all senior English teachers, the district office, and God himself.  I could sooner teacher the writings of the Marquis de Sade than not teach the research paper.

Every year, I have a ritual preparation for the wave of badly written papers on topics that I could care less about. This includes buying several boxes of Girl Scout Cookies and a few bottles of wine, making sure all of my yoga pants are clean, and sending out a mass email to my friends and family to not even think about calling, texting, emailing, or in any other way communicating with me for a week.

As if it only took me a week.  One of my colleagues gets hers back in a matter of days; the others, a week to 10 days. Me? I am always the last to return my papers.  In fact, by the time I do pass them back, the students have forgotten that they wrote them in the first place. For those of you non-teachers, it takes me anywhere between 20-30 minutes to grade one paper.  Granted, I am slow, but I provide an individualized plan on how to revise their drafts.

Every year I approach this arduous task with a positive attitude and a promise to get through these papers more quickly than the previous year.  My school is generous enough to allow me a couple grading days (they provide a substitute for my classes at not cost to my sick days), of which I take full advantage. But no matter how determined, how optimistic, how "prepared" I am to blast through these drafts, the pattern is always the same.

Day 1 (Tuesday):  I wake up at 6 a.m., get dressed -- jeans and a cute crew-neck top, light make-up, hair styled--fill my bag with papers and walk up to the local coffee shop.  I power through about eight papers, jotting down comments like "You are on the right track," "Consider doing some more research in __________," "Expand here," "Clarify?," and "remember to refer to that handout I gave you on MLA formatting."  I have lunch, walk back to my apartment, grade a few more papers, take some time to watch TV for an hour or so, grade a few more papers, walk to a local restaurant for a romantic dinner with my papers, come home, have a glass of wine and a few Girl Scout Cookies, grade one or two more papers and then go to bed feeling productive.

My second "grading day" (Wednesday) is fairly similar, but I do get up a little later, watch a little more television in the afternoon, dinner is take-out. Two glasses of wine.  A sleeve of thin mints. My comments are a little less euphemistic: "Need more research," "Need to write more here," "Not sure what your point is here," and "Do you need another copy of the handout on MLA formatting?"

Then I must return to my normal teaching day, with maybe 1/3 of my papers graded.  The pressure begins to build. And I do not have 1/2 the energy I had in my 20s.  Shit, even in my 30s. I know that teaching is not the only exhausting job out there, but my workday is a lot like chaperoning a juvenile hall fieldtrip to Disneyland.  After work, I may get through four papers before I collapse from exhaustion.

Day 5 (a weekend day): I wake up at 9 a.m., do not get dressed, do not put on any semblance of make-up, hair is in a ponytail. I do not leave my apartment.  At this point, in addition to my comments in the tone of "You are not sticking with your thesis," "Where did information come from?," "Huh?," "The period goes outside the parenthesis," I am circling brown and red smudges on the paper and writing, "Girl Scout Cookie," and "wine ring."

By the second weekend, I have dedicated at least 25 hours of my free time to reading a bunch of papers that could have been titled "Captain Obvious" littered with errors and some nearly incomprehensible. I am sending texts of "kill me now," to my friends and family.

Day 12 (a weekend day): I wake up at 9 a.m., clean my apartment, do some laundry, go to the supermarket. While I am gone, my cats attack and play with my stack of papers.  I step on them as I haul groceries in from the car.  By 2ish, I sit down to grade my first paper. There are few, if any, positive comments.  I don't even bother to identify the "mystery stains." Some papers will be returned with torn edges and puncture marks from my cats channeling my angst.

Day 13: I might get to my first paper by 4 p.m.  My comments have been reduced to "I have no idea what you are writing about," "Now you are just being random," "Did you hear anything I've said in class in the last month?," and  "Did you even look at the MLA handout?" What I want to write is, "WFT?" and "A drunk monkey with a serious head-wound could write better than this." I am convinced that I spent more time reading it than they spent writing it.  There are more wine-rings than comments.

Last day of grading: I have around 8 papers left.  I don't change out of my pajamas, bathe, and the hair is still in the ponytail I put it in three days ago.  I don't even know what the mystery stains are on the papers. Girl Scout Cookies ran out days ago; anymore wine and I'll have to join AA. I am thinking of pulling a Anna Nicole Smith--overdose and all. If fornicating with an elderly man will keep me from having to grade another paper, I am in.

Eventually, the papers are returned. Students rush me with questions about my comments to which I answer: "I don't know what I meant; I graded EIGHTY papers." (See post after this one on my memory).  I go back to bathing, eating veggies, drinking water. And I vow, that next year, I'll be more efficient at grading the rough draft research papers.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

"Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory"-- Albert Schweitzer

I have a horrible memory. The only reason I don't forget my name is because someone calls me it on a daily basis.

I've always had a bad memory; I inherited it from my mother. Forget implanting computer chips into the brain to increase its function, I need to implant Ginseng.  

My mom used to joke that after teachers stopped pinning parent notifications to my clothing in kindergarten, she never knew what the hell was going on at the school.  I'm sure she meant to call and find out and then forgot. 

My father? Never forgets anything. Ever.  But the shit he reminds me of is not often helpful.

My mother's sister, Sheree, is her antithesis in memory.  She remembers even the most minute details.  Her brain is like a computer.  Every time Mom and I are trying to recall the details of a family event, or someone's birthday, or who bought who what the Christmas of 2000, we always say, "We'll have to ask Sheree." And be damned if she doesn't always know. She should have gone to the casting-call of Unforgettable.

In college, if I had to remember to do something when I got home, I used to call myself and dictate reminders on my answering machine. And my messages to myself would always start with, "Hey, it's me . . ."  The system worked unless my roommate got home first, listened to the messages and then did not give me the message from me. Fortunately, this didn't happen often; we had been friends for years and knew well of my handicap.

I graduated to post-it-notes when they began selling nationwide in the 1990s.  (An interesting fact: post-it-notes were first manufactured in Cynthiana, Kentucky. My mom's name? Cynthia.) Of course, I'd have to stick them on bathroom mirror or eye-level on the inside of the front door for them to be effective. 

With today's technology, I can program a reminder into my phone--and don't think I don't program more than one for the same thing.  Most people's reminders are about doctor appointments and social gatherings; mine are more like "don't forget to put on underwear."

But I find that teens have even worse memories than I do.  The first couple months of school, I reply to the 15-20 questions I get a day that start with "Do you remember?" with "I don't remember anything."

By the end of the semester, students have adjusted their opener to "you may not remember, but . . ." There isn't any "may" about it; I don't remember.  Eventually, they move on to, "I know you don't remember, but remember last week . . ." of which I simply say, "no" or if feeling particularly feisty I say, "I can't remember what I did five minutes ago, let alone what you said to me last week."

Point is, they never remember that I don't remember anything.  Nevertheless, I am skeptical of what teens claim to "forget." When one tells me that he forgot his notebook in his locker or that he left his backpack at home, I question his honesty.  How does one walk to class or out his front door to school empty-handed and not realize that something is missing?

They don't forget their cellphones. Ever.

Or when a student tells me he/she "forgot" to turn his/her homework, I always say, "How do you 'forget' to turn in homework, when you are surrounded by 35 of your classmates who are passing their papers in as I walk about saying, 'don't forget to put your name on your homework'?"

But, the other day a student forgot something that baffled me. It was the the first day back to school from Winter Break, and I was greeting my students at the door.  As one young man came shuffling down the hall, he suddenly stopped short, threw his head back and groaned.  

"Ms. Vance," he said.  "Can I go back to my car? I forgot something."

He had his backpack, so I inquired about what he needed at that moment.

"I forgot my tooth," he said and smiled.  One of his front teeth were missing.

How does one forget his tooth?  At the age of 18?  His tooth?  In my 17 years of teaching, I have never gotten that one; so, I let him go to his car--my laughter following him the whole way.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

To Quote My Grandmother: "Why Are Teenagers So Stupid?": A History Lesson

As the semester draws to a close and I read over student papers that reflect their newly acquired knowledge, I've come to a realization.

My students haven't acquired shit.

All juniors at my high school are required to write a research paper on one of America's greatest speeches. The content should cover the historical setting of the speech, a bit about the speaker him/herself, and why the speech qualifies as a great one.

Of course, we guide them through the rhetorical analysis part, but the historical setting we leave to Google and what they've picked up from their history classes. Not that I'm opposed to sprinkling historical tidbits into my instruction, but figure what I know they can easily find themselves on the Internet, or God help them, in their history textbooks. 

Recently, all the junior teachers gathered to grade the final drafts of these papers in order to share our success and bemoan our failures.  On this particular occasion, there was a lot of bemoaning.

Here is what we learned from our student papers:
  • Malcolm X read the Torah while in prison
  • The Cold War started in 1985
  • Martin Luther King Jr spoke in 1929
  • Teddy Roosevelt saw Patrick Henry speak
  • "The Japs bombed us; it's time to retaliate!" (The teacher whose student produced this gem--Japanese.)
  • "The Allied Powers accept the Armistice agreements so we could have Veteran's Day."
  • Twins are the same age
And my favorite line: "If America is the land of the free, where the fuck is the freedom?"

We could have blamed the history teachers, but we English folks are kissing cousins to you history folks.  Besides, I know that my school's history teachers are stellar. And my colleagues of Language Arts?  Let's just say that one of them was recently a California Teacher of the Year--so you know we ain't playin' around.

Nevertheless, as an educator, I feel a certain responsibility to set a few things straight.
  • Malcolm X might have understood Moses' demand to "set my people free" and approved of the violence rained down on Egypt for not doing so, but I think a black man trying to empower his oppressed race would not turn to the Torah.  Islam and Judaism--a wee bit at odds.
  • In 1985, the only build-up in weaponry was happening in our hairstyles. 
    Headman for Flock of Seagulls
  • Even though Martin Luther King Jr would have had contention with labeling the day the stock market crashed in 1929 as "Black Tuesday," his "I have a dream speech" probably would have included that he dreams that one day the sons of slaves and the sons of former slave owners can walk into and bank together and find their money still there.
  • I know Teddy was known for his physical prowess, but unless he lived to be 144, he did not see Patrick Henry speak at the Virginia convention in 1775.  But if he had, he would have definitely jumped on the "Give me liberty or give me death" bandwagon.
  • As for retaliating against the "Japs" we did that. Dropping the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is the mother of all retaliations. I think we can call it even-steven.
  • Yes, Veteran's Day is based on an armistice which started on November 11, 1918 but countries don't end wars so that another holiday can be added to their calendars.
  • As for twins being the same age, that is true.  I got nothing to correct there.
And as for "where the fuck is our freedom?" I can blog, can't I?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Whore's Offspring

The Oxford English Dictionary offers 37 definitions for whore; 27 for slut; 234 for "virgin"; 35 for "chaste."

Urban Dictionary: 271 definitions for whore; 386 for slut; 92 for virgin; 2 for chaste.

It seems that pop culture has very little use for celibacy.

Not only that, but whore and slut have produced quite an offspring of variations determined to have their own identity.

Whoredeal, according to Destri9 from Urban Dictionary, is "an ordeal involving a whore" or more specifically, an ordeal created by whoreish behavior. Clearly, a whore throwing a fit in a department store doesn't qualify because how do the salespeople know she's a whore? My question: can't most "ordeals" be traced back to sex? Isn't whoredeal redundant? And can't whoredeal also refer to a "deal" on a whore? A John could say, "I got a hell of whoredeal the other night! It got two blowjobs for the price of one!"

FCKEDOVERBYWOMEN (who needs to read my post "Rose by Any Other Name") from Urban Dictionary claims that a whordiot is "a cross between a whore and an idiot."   
Would the antithesis be chastigence? Is there also a whorsmart? Wait, that might be a better name for a contemporary whorehouse. Although, associating whores with discount department stores is not good marketing. Whoreingdales would be much better.  

To be honest, I don't see any whore as an idiot.  Whether the label is justified or no, a whore is a woman who has the ability and the willingness to control others using sex; the ones who are susceptible to it are the idiots. 

Since many of us, men and women, use sex as a panacea for the pain after a break-up, Coxxy created the term sluster.  This a person who will bed someone he/she considers "beneath them" in the name of "emotional stability" after being dumped or to reinforce "sexual prowess after a lengthly [sic] period of zero sexual activity with another person." I guess masturbation and bestiality can only provide so much comfort. But if it may Coxxy, no one--at least no woman-- will refer to herself as a slut. Whore, yes.  Slut, no.  Sluster is more accurate for the definition since the definition of "slut" includes slumming it, but women will not be motivated to call themselves a slut in the name of denotative correctness.  Throwing that extra "s" in there softens the word a bit, but might I suggest whorester instead? Or whoreaid? Whoraid might make us slusters feel charitable instead of pathetic.

A slustard is someone who "spreads her legs easy and smooth like mustard." I don't know what kind of mustard Mitzul, the author of this definition, uses, but my mustard has bite and spice. Butter has the connotations of easy and smooth. Besides, I think slustard is more akin to whoreidiot in it construction. Someone might confuse slustard as a combination between a slut and a retard and pass her up.  Any guy who misses a chance to hook up with a woman who will "spread it easy and smooth" would be pissed.  So, in place of slustard, how about slutter?

I realize that society's obsession with sex and all its aberrations is more potent than moonshine and more enduring than vampires, so let's make sure that our language for it is appropriate and accurate.  What do you think?

Friday, October 4, 2013


Just as celebrities set the trends for fashion and hip-hop artists set the trends for slang, I want to set the trends for icon usage.  Instead of strutting down the red carpet or making the Billboard Top 10, I dream of my text messages on the world's stage. I hope to grace the cover of Wired magazine. 

My pilot, trend-setting icon usage developed from a basic necessity: to text "fuck you" more efficiently. And I am not one to throw out those Bostonian, jovial "fuck yous" superfluously, so if I have the need, I know most of the population has a desperate need for a "fuck you" shortcut.

Recently, I trudged through a near back-breaking week. I saw it coming, which helps so that I can double up on my B12, but it was going to be a lulu to say the least.  Not only do I teach high school, but also I  teach at a junior college. As a result, on Mondays and Wednesdays I work a thirteen-hour day. Recently I had a work week that included writer's group on Tuesday night, and then the most dreaded night of any teacher's life: Back to School Night.

Oh, and I'm forty. For those of you south of thirty-five, who still can glide through those 12-16 hours workdays, beware. While the need to work long, grueling shifts will not end, your ability to work them without feeling hungover for the two days that follow will.

Knowing that this particular week of teaching, writing, and parent schmoozing was going to kick the snot out of me, I sent the following text to my close friends:

"This will be me by Friday." 
Of course, one of my smart-ass friends replied with "That's you now."

In the spirit of friendly texting banter, I wanted to reply with:

Courtesy of iStock Illustration.
But, Apple doesn't provide an emoticon giving the bird.  I would have had to either done the "f-u :)" or "fuck you, lol" but not "fuck you ;)" because then my friend would have thought that I was propositioning her. Besides, the main idea of my original text had been in the picture.  As a professional, I felt the pressure to maintain parallel structure and respond with a picture. But apple doesn't offer an icon with the exact message I meant to send.  I could have texted:

But that doesn't encapsulate my exact message. 

Dammit apple, you give me hypodermic needles, eggs in frying pans,a fish windsock, and an eggplant but no middle finger.  Fine, since I hate waste and I'm fairly certain even the passionate Italian food-lover only has so much need for an eggplant icon, I promote using the eggplant as a substitute for the middle finger.  

So when your friend compares you to a drooling baby, just send: 

When your friend reminds you that you really are a whore, just send: 

When your friend mocks you for getting your ass kicked in Grand Theft Auto 1000, just send: 
And you Bostonians, just text your mother: 

Join me in this emoticon revolution. Work those eggplants! I want to see them spilling out of phones, becoming the most popular dish in any Italian Restaurant, becoming the new black.  Make it happen!

Monday, September 23, 2013

"Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving" -- William Shakespeare

Amen, oh god of the quill.

What favorable, even if "unmerited" reputation that I have just took a roundhouse kick to the face. And, believe it or not, it was not a result of anything I did. The possibility that another person out there can inadvertently making me look bad is terrifying--I can barely keep myself out of the hot-seat, let alone stop anyone else from burning my ass.

But the most recent, undeserving blemish to my reputation did make me the center of attention, so I guess there's an upside. What's that saying: there's not such thing as bad publicity?  Oh wait, as a teacher, my reputation is more fragile than that of any politician.  Really, do you think a teacher who had an extramarital affair and with surname Weiner could ever set foot on a campus again?

During this past summer, my high school held a leadership.  I was not invited, my school doesn't dare ask me to lead anything except the damned into the apocalypse, but even though  I was not there in body, I was there in libido.

As an icebreaker, my colleagues were asked to share their most embarrassing moment.  One of my colleagues, Evie, who attended the retreat felt a shortage of humiliating anecdotes to contribute (a conundrum of which I cannot relate) and took the liberty of using one of mine. Since I consider Evie a friend, my fuck-ups are her fuck-ups, but her fuck-up of my fuck-up could land me in jail.

"One time I caught Holly having sex with a student," Evie shared with the more upstanding, more influential teachers of my school, which included my principal, my three assistant principals, and both my department heads. 

Not only did Evie throw me under the bus, but also hijacked it and backed it over me.

She tried to back-peddle by explaining that she had misplaced her modifier, but that just turned into some kind of sexual innuendo about me misplacing my modifier, so now my fellow teachers think that in addition to me boffing my students I am also a hermaphrodite. Trust me, if I wanted them to believe either, it would be the latter.

Now, just to clarify, that is not even remotely what she caught me doing. In fact, she didn't catch me doing anything.  A couple years ago, Evie, myself and two other colleagues had to "do our time" teaching in a set of portable classrooms--constructed to last five years but were around eight years old by the time I got into them.  Even though the teaching conditions were several degrees below adequate, they were perfect for misadventure.  While up there, my classroom flooded after every rainfall; the portable across from me was invaded by a swarm of bees; we were greeting daily by rabbits, squirrels, and the occasional coyote; and if any of us teachers found ourselves bored, we could just wander over to the abandoned greenhouse and catch a handful of students smoking weed. But the finale, literally and figuratively, was when the teacher across the way from me, Paul, saw from his classroom window two students having sex on the baseball field.

It was during the 6th period final on the last day of school.  These teens planned on ending the year with a bang.

I am not the one who caught them, I was the one elected to go and interrupt their fornicating because a) I didn't have a class that period and b) I am known for being quite ballsy.

I know, not helping with the hermaphrodite rumor.

"Hey Holly," Paul yells.  I go to my doorway to see him braced in his with sophomores trying to squeeze out of the room.  "Take a look around the corner of my classroom."

I peeked around the corner and a young lady riding a young man.  This was no amateur show; at her age, I would have had no idea how to do what she was doing.

My solution was to just turn the sophomores loose on them, but Paul was afraid of legal ramifications. As if there wouldn't be any for that 38 year-old teacher who strolled up on the soft-core porn and said, "Excuse me, do you think that behavior is appropriate?"

I may be a bit of a bulldog, but I am not stupid.  I was not going anywhere near that situation. Instead, I just went with prudence and phoned it into the office.  Of course, being the last day of school, the secretaries figured that I couldn't be calling about anything that serious --the seniors had graduated the night before so the margin for disaster was much smaller. As it turned out, when I called to notify the dean that, "two students are fornicating on the baseball field," I was on speakerphone.

So much for avoiding legal ramifications.

Evie could have used the phone call as "her" embarrassing moment.  But nooooo, instead I had to hear from what seemed like every one of my teaching fellows: "Evie announced at the leadership retreat that you had sex with a student." They quickly added, "She did explain what she really meant, but it was really funny."

How nice; I'm the life of the party even when I'm not there.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

I'm Pretty: Which Class Is This?

When I pose questions to a class of students, this is not what happens:
Mary Ashley York's Blog
It's more like this:
Old Sailor Blog
With me saying, "Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?" which only evokes laughter instead of knowledge.

Getting the entire class to participate in discussions challenges  all teachers. Either no one volunteers or the same three students volunteer. If a teacher just cold-calls on a student, he/she will either not have the answer while at the same time feel "picked on" and in the future will be even less willing to participate. Frustrated with the lack of response, I downshift into bad teaching by spoon-feeding the class the answers. After a few periods of doing this, I feel like I need to take a hot shower and scrub my entire body with pumice. 

To bypass these issues, I have created a system that engages the whole class. Okay, maybe "engages" is wishful thinking, but at least it keeps them on their toes.  And it lowers my angst, which overall, it critical if I wish to remain employed. 

The system is simple. I inform the class what answers I expect them to provide, give them a few minutes to make sure they have that answer through small group discussion (which is the lowering anxiety part), and then I get out The Cards.
Each student has his or her name written on an index card.  I mix them up with the flair of a Las Vegas card dealer--believe me, students will learn how to "count them" so they know when their time to share is coming up and then will slack off until that time. I walk down the aisles tapping the stack against my palm. No student meets my gaze; they won't abandon the belief that eye contact will dictate which card I randomly draw.

If I pull a student's card, he/she must provide me at least a legitimate attempt to provide the right information or risk losing participation points.

When I reached for my notecards the other day, the chorus of groans indicated that they had only needed a few of the new school year to assert their power.

Holding the cards above my head, I asked, "Who can tell me the answer to number one?" Of course, there would be no volunteers--no willing volunteers.

I lower the cards, and snatching one off the top, I bellow, "Amanda Smith."

I survey the room; the students survey the room.

"Amanda? You have the answer to number one?"

No response. It's too early in the year to know who is who, and my seating chart is hiding. I knew one student was absent; must be Amanda.  Figures.

The snap of another card being drawn, "Jacob Melendez."

Searching eyes. A few mutters.

"Jacob? Number one?"


I thought only one student was absent.  These kids better not be testing my authority already.  

"Okay, let's try Frank Larson."

No Frank either.  Where is that damn seating chart?

"Erika Bermudez?"

More muttering, but nothing remotely resembling the answer I want.   I set down the cards and begin shuffling around the papers on my desk looking for the seating chart.  Damn kids; as soon as I know where Amanda, Jacob, Frank, and Erika sit, there'll be hell to pay.  

"Ms. Vance." 

Finally, someone is paying attention.  

I turn to see a young lady who sits close to the front of the room raising her hand.  Her neck has sunk in-between her lifted shoulders and she smiles meekly. 

"Ms. Vance," she says.  "I think you've got the wrong set of cards.  None of those students are in this class."  

I pick up the cards and shuffle through them.  Shit.