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The Graduate

"One quarter down, three to go"

Katelyn Phelan
MSM Class of 2011

(11/2011) One day recently a student raised his hand in the middle of class and asked the following: "Miss Phelan, I see you have a ring on your finger. Are you married?" The ring on my left hand is actually on my middle finger and not on my ring finger. But all I said was, "No Iím not married. Letís get back to class." I resumed teaching, but a minute later I was interrupted again. This time it was by a different student who exclaimed, "You idiot, itís not even on the right finger!"

Every day, every class, every minute of teaching is a surprise. Sometimes itís a funny surprise, like the story above. Sometimes itís a good surpriseóthe students understand more quickly and easily than I expect. And sometimes itís badóthey misbehave or dislike the material.

This constant surprise and change is part of what makes teaching exciting. My first two months have taught me that teaching is invigorating, exhausting, frustrating, and rewarding, sometimes in the space of 2 minutes. After two months of struggling to keep my head above water with planning, grading, and teaching myself some of the lessons Iíll present, I finally feel like Iím getting the hang of things in a good way and really starting to enjoy teaching.

November 1st is my first big milestone. This date marks the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second. It means that Iíve taught 25% of 9th grade English, half of creative writing, and one full rotation of Speech class. It also marks the 44th day of classes. Just 136 school days to go until summer. Just kidding (kinda).

The best part of the arrival of this date is easily the end of Speech. Iíll teach the same class four more times this year, but Iíve already prepared for it once. That means I have a store of lesson plans, assignments, and rubrics already prepared and set to go. It means I already have an idea of what works well and what doesnít. Iíve already amended some of the things I did in the first quarter for the next time I teach the course.

Right now, I run the library as well as prepare three different brand-new 40 minutes lessons each evening, plus keep up with grading. Preparing for those lessons involves everything from finding images for powerpoint presentations, devising and typing assignments, making up rubrics, researching information, typing tests, reading short story anthologies to find appropriate short stories for creative writing, et cetera, et cetera.

Creative writing is the class thatís giving me the most work right now. Since that class doesnít have a textbook, I spend most evenings lately flying through short story anthologies that Iíve collected over the years. The point of reading stories in creative writing class is to give the students professional pieces to serve as example and also inspiration.

When I select stories I look on a basic level for appropriateness. I look for stories without any drug use, swearing, drinking, or any other questionable things. This is actually much more challenging than you might think. I also look for stories that I think the students will like. This includes looking at plot, theme, character, and especially writing style. This is one of the most important factors in whether theyíll like something because if the writing is too dense, theyíll have a harder time with it and be more likely to give up on the story. It will also be harder for them to understand. I also keep length of the story in mind, because they complain about the length of everything I give them, even 16 line poems.

Right now my creative writing students have been doing everything from reading stories, to competing exercises to stretch their imagination and improve skills, and starting drafts of their very own short stories. Some of the prompts spawn quick and easy writing, but most prompts require them to think in ways to which theyíre not accustomed.

This was one of my favorite ones because of how hard it made the students think:

A middle-aged man sitting at the bus stop has just learned that his son has died violently. Describe what and how the man sees things WITHOUT revealing to your reader what has happened. How does the street look to this man? What sounds does he hear? What things does he smell? How will his clothes feel on his body? What things will the man notice?

As you may be able to tell, this is not a simple assignment. Try it for yourself and see! It requires students first to place themselves in that situation. How would it feel to lose a son to a violent death? As 17- and 18-year-olds obviously none of them are middle-aged and none have children of their own. Some of them have not even lost a family member or friend close to them. So they first have to stretch their imagination to comprehend and work through these hypothetical emotions. How would this feel?

After this, they start writing the actual assignment. How does one convey utter desolation and grief without speaking of the event or person directly? Would all of the manís senses be heightened? Would they be diminished? Would one of the manís senses, for example hearing or sight, be exaggerated and the others seem almost non-existent? Would his clothes feel light or heavy? Would they feel rough on his skin? This exercise forces students to think about how emotions affect our perception of the world. This in turn will help them when they write fiction especially with the "show, not tell" rule. You may remember from your own school-days that showing your readers through description is much more effective than telling them in straightforward explanation.

Though it can be challenging to find appropriate short stories for them, I do love the freedom I have to shape the course. And when I find a story they actually like, itís wonderful. So far weíve read "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, "The Bet" by Anton Chekov, "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell, and "A Small, Good Thing" by Raymond Carver. You can read all these stories online for free just by googling the title of the story with the words "full text" afterwards. Clearly I would recommend all of them

This sharing of stories and discussing literature is what I like best about teaching so far. I love the idea that after my students leave class they might think about something we read or discussed, whether itís just that day, during the week, or at some point in the semester or year. Itís the idea that someone who claims to have read 8 books in his entire life has just sat in my class and diligently read a story quietly and with interest for 45 minutes. For some of them who arenít moving on to college, they could technically get through the rest of their life without reading a single book. This, to me, is a tragic thought. Itís something I keep in my mind every day when I select things to read, when I present material, and when we discuss the reading. I firmly believe that everyone can enjoy, even love, to read. All you have to do is pick something up.

Read other articles by Katelyn Phelan