Friday, May 7, 2010

Explicit Lyrics and Style Points

Today in class I was conducting a partially-bunk lesson on Vietnam that involved the analysis of a song from that period. Going into it I had a feeling it was too much for a single period, which meant the discussion at the end of class (probably the most educational part of the lesson) would potentially devolve into me telling students what the lyrics meant rather than allowing them to think about it for themselves, all the while being irritated at myself for being dense about time management and about the students talking too much and wasting a lot of time.

All of that happened, by the way, which left them with a shallow understanding of the war in Vietnam leading into tomorrow's guest presentation by a veteran of the war, but something else also occurred during my fifth period class that was at the very least amusing, if not helpful for me as we head toward the end of the year. After listening to Country Joe and Fish's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" and summarizing the stanzas, the students were to talk about how the music changed the meaning of the lyrics. That was fine for most of them, but one of my students located near my iPod had a much better idea about how he should spend his time.

Now, this year I've been much less paranoid about having my things stolen. I've left books out, my iPod sitting on my projector cart while I walk around the room, etc. Last year my students either destroyed or stole everything I brought in that was fragile or worth more than five bucks, so it's the huge improvement is reflected in my being able to move around my classroom without worrying about it long after the iPod has fallen silent. While I trust my students not to take all of my stuff, that doesn't mean they don't pick it up, look at it, carry it around and show it to other students. In this case the student located closest to my iPod reached over and started scrolling through the list of artists until he came to Eminem. From there he scrolled through the song titles until he found, "As* Like That," and it was all over. While kind enough not to blare it over the speakers the iPod was still attached to, a small contingent of my students started to whisper about the song, which caught my attention. What tripped them up was the fact that they never whisper in groups of more than two unless it's important or a big deal.

At first I thought they were just generally making fun of what was on the contraption, but they were hardly too shy to show me otherwise. They thought the song being on there was hilarious and said that, "I (had) a lot of explaining to do," trying to put me on the spot and waiting to see if I could think fast enough on my feet to get out of the situation. I learned too much about this last year (the hard way), which in part kept me from earning the respect of my students until near the end of the year- when I was too exhausted to be at all surprised or jarred by what my students did. This time, instead of coming off as if I'd been caught in some scandal, I just pocketed the iPod and walked off, tossing back over my should the direction to get back to work. While disappointed they didn't get a rise out of me, I could tell I'd earned points for that and more especially for having Eminem on my playlist.

Last year when I faced situations like this one I was always caught off guard. I was so paranoid about screwing up, being fired or reprimanded for doing or saying something wrong in my classroom. That was a lasting effect of hearing loads of stories of teachers being dismissed for seemingly trivial offenses (mostly in suburban schools, it seemed) while I was in the school of ed. When you get put on the spot for something like this, the students give you half a second to respond during which they'll be able to tell if you were even slightly jarred by whatever it was they discovered or heard or saw you do. Good luck getting a class back if they really want to rip into after an incident like that. That button is gigantic. In the mean time, you've got to learn to keep your mind from wandering through all of the worst-case scenarios. In short, you need to learn to react to situations like these quickly and in the appropriate way.

After school today I had the chance to sit around and chat with an esteemed colleague of mine. We talked about stakeholder accountability-something that's been on my mind lately. Within that vein what we spoke more specifically about what could be done to hold students responsible for their actions. In the setting we work in the only thing you can really hold over students is their respect for you. For the ones that give you the most trouble, if they do not respect you there is nothing you can do outside of a bribe to keep them in line. I think that idea would shock and appall my school-of-ed self, but it seems to be a reality on the front line. That version of me might also have found it shocking that I got style points for having a pretty bad Eminem song on an iPod in my classroom. I'll certainly take those point, however, as they'll help as we head toward the end of the year.

Today's Wine: Le Sciare Rocca Normanna 2008. This one was great and under ten bucks; medium-bodied, a bit fruity but also with a slight smokiness. I'd pick it up again.


  1. You are right that you have about half a second to respond. If you mess up, it is all too obvious. My last sub job left me feeling like maybe I have lost my edge. Like you, I learned over the years and most students respected me. In my last job, one class started in with the noise making, etc. I never felt like I had their respect. It isn't easy subbing. Any suggestions?

  2. Subbing is a tough gig. I spent a year doing it in rural Kansas and it was no cakewalk. Here in NYC it is actually the last job I would ever want on the planet. That says a lot for a teacher who actually likes his job.

    The respect piece is crucial. The most successful subbing I had was in repeat classrooms and seeing the subs that come through our building, the repeaters are the most successful. You mentioned that briefly in your recent post "Thoughts from a Substitute Teacher." If that's not not possible, I'd say setting clear expectations up front is crucial- almost like treating the room as your own microcosm for the day.

    Also, I do think that how the students behave is a reflection of their regular teacher's management practices. Last year my students were HORRIBLE the couple of times I was out, while their behavior was only moderately unfortunate when our math teacher (regarded by them as both powerful and terrifying)was out.

  3. I had something very similar happen today! I'd brought in a CD to listen to during my prep period and it was sitting on top of my desk. A student picked it up to look at it and notice that one of the song titles had the word "b*tch" in it. I finally just mumbled something about being old enough to buy CDs with parental advisory stickers on them and left it at that.

  4. Heather BledsoeMay 8, 2010 at 2:47 PM

    The differences between a first and second year teachers are immense. You have grown so much. Save this and read back over it when you have a few more years in. It will amaze you!