My name is Matt Thomas, and today is the first day of our new term here at East Hollywood High School where I teach Language Arts to 9th- and 10th-graders.
East Hollywood High School is a small charter school (“charter” school: No district, yeah! No access to millions of dollars of property taxes, boo!) located in…wait for it…Salt Lake City, Utah. Okay, Sundance started last weekend, so–for this month at least–situating the nation’s only high school focused on training film professionals on the shores (some might say “coast”) of our nation’s largest inland sea (shut up, geographers–I know I’m wrong in my facts, but I’m right in my heart) isn’t as absurd as it might seem.
This blog is primarily intended for you, my students currently enrolled in Language Arts 9 and 10, as well as the occasional web-surfing grad student from Finland or Shanghai housewife looking to improve her English. We welcome you all. Be warned that I am a first-year teacher and also have a somewhat “perverse” sense of humor; many of the activities I plan and conduct in class are created with the intention of precipitating amusing situations for me to write about, and are therefore frequently retarded. I apologize to the nation’s youth and to their parents.
But then again, if I were really sorry, would I keep doing it?
Oh yeah–the site might also provide any interested observers with a snapshot of life in an “alternative” school. Our school has about 350 students and 15 or 16 full time faculty and administrators. I know the names of about two-thirds of the students at this school. My class sizes range from 9 to 25. With its reduced scope and size, this school is a real alternative to the massive feedlots of education that surround us.
But what difference does it make? Well, read for yourself.
To all students, welcome. Here’s what we did today:
We started with a little guided meditation which took us deep into our primitive lizard brains to formulate a vision of the perfect classroom. Students got comfortable, pictured their typical morning, and then saw themselves entering this class on the “perfect” day. I had them imagine what activities we did in class, what we read, what we talked about, etc.
When I snapped my fingers and the students awoke from their stupor, I quizzed them on what they had “seen.” I’m not quite sure why we were doing this, although I’m quite certain it was a good idea. Superficially, I was hoping to get some ideas about what the class would like the class to look like. I had my last class fill out evaluations on the last day of the term (last Friday) and they had some really good ideas, which made me wonder if it might make a little more sense to get the feedback earlier in the semester.
Most of the suggestions had to do with providing a high-continental style breakfast with gourmet coffees. I appreciated and shared these pipe dreams, but was unable to make any promises. Other ideas included “laughing a lot,” talking about “stuff,” and using cell phones. Hmm. Aim higher, nation’s youth. You could have had it all , but you sold your birthright for a mess of cell phone requests.
Anyway, then I led masterfully into a discussion of how we might attain some of our dreams for this class, specifically, what RULES might be required. There were a few heartfelt pleas for respect, which I appreciated. In second period, Adam and Richie led a wonderfully comprehensive discussion about whether to allow nocturnal handstands. (That’s not a euphemism–don’t ask me how it came up.) At first I didn’t really understand how the issue related to our Language Arts class, particularly because our class does not convene “after hours,” so to speak. But they resolved the issue in a civilized manner (no offense to the savages) and we were able to negotiate a compromise (the rule was stricken from the record and Adam, who had suggested it, was publicly humiliated).
Then I presented my own rules: No cell phones (multi-tasking is bad for English class); specific words that are too offensive for classroom discussions (although sometimes appropriate for creative writing); and of course the whole “respect” thing. It’s kind of weird how many students know this word “respect” and have obviously heard it uttered on countless first days of school. It has definitely sunk in for some kids, but others regularly sacrifice “respect” for other behaviors that must satisfy personal needs for attention or something. I don’t know. Anyway, we talked a little about that, how it’s not really a rule but a principle that informs all we do.
(On a side note, Sonia, the delightful Salvadorian woman who cleans the school after the kids are gone, stops by my room each evening for a little Spanish chat, the running theme of which is how disrespectful kids in this country are, and what she would do to them if they were HER kids. These chats always make me re-evaluate my own natural inclinations to “understand and excuse,” and I think I’ve actually become more of a hard-ass disciplinarian in class thanks to Sonia.)
Finally, we began our “get-to-know-you” activity, which consisted of a questionnaire I crafted in 12 parts (attached) which we filled out in a curious, totally counterproductive way: A student would answer one question at a time and then pass it along to the next person. The first question asked for the student’s name, so each individual questionnaire became a group effort at creating a new identity for the first student who responded. None of the classes got to the point of sharing them yet, much less to the psychological point of understanding the purpose of the activity, and I don’t blame them. If anything, the main point of doing stuff like this is to introduce kids to the idea that most things in life and English class have no point, and that’s actually a good thing. I’m hoping that students took many liberties with the “truth” and produced hi-lariously absurd pieces of collaborative writing. The students will use the sheet with their name on it to “introduce themselves” tomorrow.
Quote of the day: “Gilligan gives me my answers.” Dylon M.