14 Misconceptions about Teaching High School Seniors

  1. They act their age.

Hah. Only if the true age range of seniors in high school is anywhere from 5-13. Maybe 15. Sometimes 17. Yeah, okay. And 18, too.

  1. They’re too old for candy, bubble gum, or cookie rewards.

No one is ever too old for candy, bubble gum, or cookies. Or ice cream, or cake, or chips, or granola bars, or fruit snacks, or…you get the idea.

  1. They don’t care about saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

Yes, yes they do. And some will argue with those who don’t stand for it, cross their heart for it, or say it.

  1. Senioritis doesn’t kick in until after Spring Break.

Riiiiiiiight. Contrary to this outside-of-school popular belief, senioritis kicks in sometime during their junior year. Trust me.

  1. They just come to school because they “have to.”

Hah. Seniors still heart school. Ask them.

  1. They spend more time on Snapchat than truly talking to their friends.

Nope. Most of them spend their time together sharing stories and laughing ABOUT snapchat—more than they do snapping.

  1. They complain relentlessly about school lunches.

Not really—they actually LOVE mashed potato bowl day and ask to go to lunch early!

  1. They’re great big bullies who pick on underclassmen.

Most of them only pick on the underclassmen that need set straight before they catch the school on fire or poop on the restroom floor or trash a building on a field trip.

  1. Friday Fun Day isn’t fun any longer. Especially after twelve long years. And especially in Senior English.

Friday Fun Day is ALWAYS fun, even after twelve long years, and especially in Senior English.

  1. They don’t care about school spirit or leading the student body.

Wrong: they create the absolutely palpable buzz of both!

  1. They won’t read a book or write a paper or do their homework any longer.

You just have to find the way in, because yes, they will. Especially if they love the class.

  1. They’re scary to anyone 10th grade level or lower.

Okay, that’s not a misconception. I’ll concede that one.

  1. Eight o’clock in the morning is a perfectly reasonable time to discuss Beowulf and the epic poetry of Anglo-Saxon culture.

No, no it’s not. Not for seniors, and not for the teacher. Phew.

  1. Seniors in high school are apathetic, lazy teenagers who have no respect for anything or anyone.

Not the teenagers I’m around on a daily basis. They make me laugh, make me feel alive, and make me so happy to still be teaching after all these twenty-five years. (And to all my former seniors reading this, I miss you!)

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Wahoo! It’s done! I wrote a book!

Last week, I happily submitted the entire manuscript of Permanent Marker to my publisher, complete with an epilogue I am quite proud of. (See last post.) I not only met the contracted deadline, I actually beat it by almost a month!

(And guess what else? The VP of the company actually called it, “a really damn good book.” Which is so so so so so so sooooooooooooooooooooo cool.)

Alas, summer is over now. I return to school and educating future writers, until the book launches in early 2018, and then I’m sure there will be lots more excitement! Especially since we all know who’s getting a new tattoo very very soon….in a very very exciting place!

I think it should look like this, don’t you?

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And don’t fret–I’ll still be blogging away, letting you all know how school and life are going. Thanks for following the book writing/publishing process with me!

Writing the End

When I teach students the structure and content of that ever-dreaded five-paragraph essay, I find that it’s the conclusion that gives them the most difficulty. So how do I help them? I like to refer to the conclusion as the “b.s.” paragraph to alleviate some of the stress of writing it.

By the way, don’t panic. I never say the actual words, just the “b” and “s,” because students already know what it means–no need to clarify. And anyway, it’s true. What does the conclusion do? Restate the thesis, sum up everything you’ve already said, blah blah blah. Yeah, I point out it’s a nice way to tie a little bow on the package of the essay, but why is it really necessary?

And then a few weeks ago, I managed to get to the end of my own book—a two-hundred-and-some pages, many-paragraphed, gigantic essay—and I couldn’t just b.s. the conclusion (hereafter referred to as the epilogue). It wouldn’t work. And my own stress grew. And grew.

It was the epilogue, for goodness sakes. The ending. I’d already done the hard part, so why couldn’t I get anywhere with it? I tried everything. I knew the update I wanted to give, but I just couldn’t come up with any neat little catchy ways to finish off the epilogue.

First I tried an ending similar to this:

“Thanks to The Trifecta of Shit, I’m on my third life.
            That’s how I figure it, anyway.
My own trilogy. A triple. Another trifecta.
My first life ended with a broken heart.
But I survived, rehabilitating myself enough to push through into my second life and the trials that would forever mark me: leaving home, moving away from my children into not one, but three other places, and the legal dissolution of my marriage.
My second life ended with a broken body.
But I survived that, too, resuscitated with new life—one whose permanent marks required nursing and care and healing. Number three.
The magic number. The magic marker. The third time really is the charm.
This life, one of sublime happiness. This life, one I didn’t know that I needed until it was mine.
I still remember Jackson’s first text message to me one Saturday in July, after I had sent him my cell number on Facebook.
“You waitin’ on this?” it asked, full of an irony I wouldn’t understand until years later.
Uh, yeah. I guess you could say that, Jackson.
For a couple of lifetimes, at least.”

I mean, it’s cute, right? It ties things up neatly, and Jackson and his adorableness get to be the last thing people read. Plus, that really happened, his first text to me. And it makes so much sense now, right?

But it just didn’t fit. So then I went a different direction with the book’s last words:

“Almost seven years have passed since the accident—almost five since plastic surgery—and I no longer see any doctors for related problems. But it has been seven and a half years since my heart attack, and I still see my cardiologist once, maybe twice, a year.
The heart may be the strongest muscle in our body, but this tells me that it must also be watched over and protected carefully: the heart is the seat of our soul. The heart is where love resides.
And I know the answer to my question—finally. I know why I’m still alive.
Because of love.
The answer is always love.”

But it’s too cliché. And as my editor pointed out, it’s the trending bumper sticker phrase right now. Totally not what I’m going for.

So I fell back on—what else—what I knew better than anything—being a teacher. And it worked. I guess you really don’t have to go looking any further than your own back yard. Stick to what you know, right? Treasure is always where your heart is, too.

I’d like to share the ending with you, but I just can’t, because it’s the very end of the book…and I don’t like to ruin endings. But it has to do with storytelling and why we do it. And I think you’ll all like it.

But more importantly, THE BOOK is done. PHEW. And…hooray!!!

Now what am I going to do with my time?!

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Time to celebrate finishing the book! (Photo by Kari Reidenbach)

 

 

How to Get Your Favorite Writers to Blurb for You (and Yes, Luck Is Involved)

Blurb (blərb/): noun; a short description of a book, movie, or other product written for promotional purposes and appearing on the cover of a book or in an advertisement.

This week I started what I thought would be the arduous task of finding “blurb-ists” for Permanent Marker.

I asked four writers (two of whom are big guns in the memoir writing world, Abigail Thomas, Safekeeping, and Darin Strauss, Half a Life), the pioneer of writing as therapy, one famous teacher, one famous Latino singer’s manager, and two other prestigious teachers for a grand total of nine, and guess what? Six of them—almost 70 percent—said yes!!! Another said he’d try, and there were two others I haven’t heard back from at all. Pretty good odds for my blurbs, right?!

So how’d I get them to say yes, you wanna know…especially those big gun writers.

1. When I read writing that moves me, I look up the writers. Or if I read an article about someone interesting (like the famous teacher), I look him up. After finding out whatever I can about them, I find them on social media and friend request, message, or follow them. That way, not only are my feeds filled with writerly things, but I have a way to connect, even if only in a small way. Then, I take the opportunity to comment on or “like” the writer’s posts or sometimes even retweet, if on Twitter. I’ve even messaged one to get more information, and guess what? He answered. You have to allow social media to work the way it’s supposed to.

2. I’ve looked up writers’ email addresses to try to connect them with my classroom. In one case, the writer agreed to respond to questions my students wrote to him after we had finished his book.

3. I also did a free monthly upgrade on LinkedIn to try to connect to someone there….nothing yet, but at least it’s an avenue.

4. I know these don’t seem like secrets, but today, social media allows us to help spread the word about others as a form of publicity, and once you’ve made yourself a part of that person’s “network,” your help for their cause could get you noticed, and that’s great for your own writing.

5. Which is what happened to me. When I reached out for blurbs, particularly with Thomas and Strauss, also with the famous teacher, I made mention of how we were/ or had been connected, or how I felt about their work, what it had meant to me personally. I was so excited that they even responded!!!

6. But guess what? It worked. I know that many different workshop sessions I’ve sat in on have called all of this being a good literary citizen, and I think I’ve only scraped the surface. Even though I still have a long way to go at understanding social media and making it work full force for me, what I have done has been successful—surprisingly. Social media has made the world a lot smaller, so why not take advantage of it?

And once they agree to those blurbs, then freak out full force because those award winning writers are going to read your writing. And phew. That’s some scary shit. I hope I don’t disappoint them.

(P.S. If Ricky Martin’s manager ever gets back to me, the world will know.)

My Silver Anniversary “Commencement” Address

I just finished my twenty-fifth year of teaching high school English. I spent the first 12 years with sophomores, but for the past 13, I’ve taught seniors. At the same time, because of my own life circumstances, I’ve acquired some pretty significant wisdom. In fact, if anyone asked me to give a graduation speech, this, right here, would probably be what I would say.

Commencement: the act or instance of BEGINNING; the granting of diplomas at the END of an academic year.

What an oxymoron.

Okay, whoops. Sorry. Oxymoron: a figure of speech which creates incongruity and contradiction, like “cruel kindness” or “jumbo shrimp.”

See it now?

Anyway, it really doesn’t matter how literally you want to take “commencement” or what it stands for.

Life is about beginnings and endings. Even though some things could just be means to an end, not ends in and of themselves. But at the end of the day, all good things must come to an end, and that’s just not the end of the world. After all, when one door closes, another one opens, right?

All clichés we believe in, live by, and preach. They must hold true.

But do they? Really?

I tend to believe that life folds one moment into the next, ever moving forward, braiding moments into one another, until before you know it, your youngest child, a handsome, witty, intelligent eighteen-year-old young man on the verge of the rest of his life has completed his last year of high school, graduating and leaving you, an educator of the school where both he and his sisters attended—a child (or children) there on the property with you for the last ten years—alone.

(I think I might be suffering from empty school syndrome.)

But it’s not an ending, really. Those who graduate are not finished visiting the school or attending school events (they always come back), and they are certainly—God knows—not done learning. They are not done communicating with their teachers or coaches or friends, and they are most certainly not done being made fun of, gossiped about, or held up by peer pressure.

At the same time, this doesn’t feel like a beginning, either. It wasn’t as if the graduates all woke up the day after graduation to something different than the few days they’d had since completing school before everyone else. Some slept in, some went to their summer jobs, and some sat around bored, playing video games and surfing social media, secretly wondering in the back of their minds if this was the way “adulthood” was supposed to feel. Sure, some will go on to further education and travel and careers, but there will be no switch flipped for that to begin. It will happen as everything else does: one moment morphing into the next, not stopping or pausing or waiting for anyone to say, “Okay, go! Now!”

So, this is my unsolicited “commencement” speech to anyone who’s ever graduated anything or had a New Year’s resolution or decided to start a diet on Monday. You will find out that life happens one moment at a time, no matter what you decide or how well you organize. There will be crazy course-changing moments, some random and some planned. There will be moments that make you and moments that break you. And there will be moments that force other moments to happen, splicing and intertwining until you can finally see how far you have come from whatever moment on the spectrum you choose.

And I think it’s best to be open to all of them, as long as you stay focused on one thing: becoming your ultimate best self, no matter the moments that happen.

“Since when,” he asked,
“Are the first line and last line of any poem
Where the poem begins and ends?”

― Seamus Heaney, Irish poet

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Connor Young, a 2017 graduate and beautiful son of his extremely proud mama.

Things (Mostly English Teacher Related) that Frustrate Me to No End

  1. Buying birthday cards for my sister who has been a humor writer for Hallmark longer than I can even remember. I should be buying her cards from Hallmark in support of my family, but what if I accidentally get her one that she wrote? Bummer. So then I resort to other card lines, and they just don’t compare, and all I can think is how disappointed she’ll be, and how stupid she’ll think the card I chose is. So I just don’t buy any for her. (Happy Belated Birthday, Tina!)
  2. When people ask, “So….what will you do all summer?” as if I haven’t spent the last almost-ten months educating teenagers in and out of the classroom. I can sure as hell tell you what I won’t be doing for inordinate amounts of time this summer: GRADING ESSAYS.
  3. People who respond to the above with: “Well, if you wouldn’t assign so many essays, you wouldn’t have to grade so many.” Please. Does that logic really work in the real world of education where we teach to standards that include—guess what?—writing, while we preach rigor and relevance? Oh, and p.s. I’m trying to prepare students for college, remember.
  4. Hallway noise of loud students, people, anyone laughing, yelling, etc. Or classroom noise of wrappers unwrapping, students eating or tapping their feet, and actually, any kind of noise bothers me, now that I think about it.
  5. When I’m writing on the board with a brand new piece of chalk, and it breaks. Yeah, I know. You’re wondering who writes on chalkboards anymore.
  6. Just because I teach seniors, and just because they are done three days before the other students are, does not mean that I sit in my room playing games on my phone, peeling grapes and cutting the crusts off my sandwiches, all while meal planning for the next two and a half months and watching Ricky Martin videos on YouTube. I have essays to grade—see above, I have senior grades to turn in, and I’m also involved in plenty of other school related activities in which I can get caught up on work. (Pause here to say that I have agreed to help Natalie coach the LHS Drill Team this next year as a transition into her own coaching, and in addition to that, guess who was just named the president of the board of trustees for the Mohican Historical Society? Moi. A position that I fill as an educator, for sure.) Anyway, if all of that is finished, I also like to volunteer my help in the high school office, fill-in for absent teachers, or hey, research for possible grants, read potential literature for next year’s syllabus, or maybe even do some lesson planning. I am not a slacker.

Okay, phew. I feel better. Sorry for the snark, and thanks for letting me vent.

How to Keep Seniors in High School Engaged on Their Very Last Friday of English Class Ever

The noise of desk legs scraping the floor as they moved into a circle filled my room today, the last Friday I would share Room 110 with the seniors in English 12.

“Here’s your final quiz,” I said, as I passed a two-sided paper out to students. It didn’t count for anything, but they didn’t know that.

Some students rolled their eyes while others sighed loudly to convey their displeasure, but after 25 years, I have learned to tune it out. (Ohmygosh, this is the end of my 25th year! Where did the time go?)

The quiz included questions about the last five Heisman award winners, the World Series champs, American Idol winners, and Nobel Peace Prize recipients.  Students always grumbled and stumbled through the answers, usually trying not to look at each other’s papers and asking, “Is this really for points?”

Just when I started to sense real frustration, I told them to turn the paper over and complete the other side. Name a few teachers who aided your journey through school, people who have made you feel appreciated or who have taught you something worthwhile, friends who have helped you through a difficult time. I never heard a peep while they answered these questions.

The lesson? Award winners of yesterday are quickly forgotten, but those who made a difference in your life are not. It was a great way to end the year, one last terrific discussion to remind students who was important in their lives right before they graduated.

“Okay, now choose a person from any category that you’d like to tell us a little something about. Who wants to go first?” I asked.

One by one, students went around the circle, sharing the people who had impacted their lives, sometimes offering brief reasons or stories.

When it was Gaven’s turn, he tilted his head to the side, looked at me, and read, “A hero whose story has inspired you? I said you.”

“Me?” I asked him.

“Yes, you,” he answered.

I have been keeping my students in the loop this year while writing my book, because 1) I can’t help it, that’s just who I am, and 2) writing, editing, revising, and publishing the book are all real-life English skills at work. But now I knew that sharing my story might have been doing even more than I had hoped. I was touched.

“Wow. Thank you,” I said.

We finished the activity with them writing 10-minute thank-you letters to someone of their choosing, and my wonderful son, who I had commandeered into joining us, happened to write his to me.

I was still fighting back tears from reading it as the bell rang and those seniors shuffled with their backpacks out the door, their last Friday’s English class finally over.

End notes: What a great activity—and I’m willing to share. Email me at aimeeross14@gmail.com if you’re interested. Also, how far back have I been doing this activity? I’m curious. If you remember doing it with me in class, or with Mr. Dunlap, who started it, let me know!