December really is a great month at FGS. The fall term ends right before Thanksgiving, which means that the faculty spend Thanksgiving "break" grading exams, calculating grades, and writing comments, as well as planning the new term ... but then there's a sense of blessed peace and calm during the weird three-week start of the second trimester before winter break. Or at least there is for me; some colleagues in other departments try to squeeze a lot into that term, and the students tend to feel stressed out, but in English I think we mostly do a good job of choosing an appropriate text for the length of time we have. Also, because we've ended the first term, I'm usually moving away from the many smaller assignments that I often give in fall term to get students up to speed with skills and reinforce the reading habits I want them to have, which means that my grading slows way down -- blessed relief! December therefore often feels to me like a wonderful little protected period in an otherwise hectic year.
This year I'm teaching a new-to-me novel to my sophomores, and it's going FABulously! It's Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and the students are totally into it. I read the novel in about 24 hours back in the spring, and many of my students are having the same experience that they just can't put it down. They'll come in and say things like, "I already read tonight's homework last night because I couldn't stop reading," or "I finished the book already!" One kid said to me on Thursday, "This is the first book for English class that I have ever liked just as a book!" ... which is maybe a sad statement about her experiences in English class but I think is more about how accessible the book seems to them, even though there's a lot going on in it. Another kid who never says much of anything in class couldn't stop speaking up this week because she's clearly so interested in what's going on in the novel. It's been a lot of fun! (And my department chair is observing my class on Monday as part of my sixth-year review; I'm hoping they maintain this air of lively inquiry and enthusiasm when she's there!)
Now, we'll see how their essays go, but I'm hoping that their enthusiasm gives them additional energy to focus on the assignment. I gave them a challenging topic, on the connections in the novel between domestic violence and colonialism, and they were scared at first, but they're increasingly having a lot to say about it, and I actually have high hopes for the papers. I did something new for me, which is to give them the essay topic on day two of our reading the novel. I want them to work on tracing themes through the novel, and it seemed to me that 10th-graders might do better with this if they knew from the very beginning what themes they were looking for. I mean, we talked a lot about the 14-page introductory chapter that clearly lays out much of what will be important in the novel, so theoretically they should have been able to annotate the novel as they go, but they are only 10th-graders, and I figured that knowing that one will be writing a paper on a topic and needing a lot of textual evidence about it would be the extra motivation they need to really think sharply about the novel as they read. And it's totally working thus far -- they're doing a great job at noticing textual details -- so I may want to think about doing this or some variation on it for other books we read. (Unfortunately, they'll turn in their essays on the last day of classes before winter break, and I'll then have a pile of grading to do as the break begins. Sigh. But it was the only way to take our time reading the novel and give them time to write, and with my iPad/Notability grading I can at least send them back their graded essays once they're graded instead of hanging onto them until January 7. Of course, they may not pay much attention to my comments, and I do worry a little about sending bad grades home when kids can't talk with me about them until January, but that still seems better than waiting to give the papers back almost three weeks later. No perfect solution here.)
It's also nice because we watched Adichie's TED Talk, "The Danger of a Single Story," back on the first day of class, and we'll watch it again after we finish reading the novel next week. And probably at the end of the year as well. It's been a great touchstone for this World Literature course, and I think that the students like having seen and heard the author when they're reading the novel. I can't always give them that, of course! But I think it's good to do so when it's possible.
They are loving the novel so much that I'm actually slightly nervous about heading into Othello in January -- Shakespeare is just going to be more work for them, no two ways about it -- but the two texts are going to work beautifully together, and students really do come to love the play (more than I do, actually; it's definitely not my favorite), so all will be well.
Here's what teaching a novel for the first time is doing for me this December: I'm getting to use my brain in a different way than I often do these days, and I'm having a lot of fun with it, which is highlighting for me the ways in which I'm often in autopilot with teaching works I've taught many times before. I do worry about getting bored, which isn't entirely about teaching HS -- in my five years at St. Martyr's I was already getting bored with some Gen Ed courses that I taught year in and year out -- but certainly the limited number of courses available for me to teach is a factor. I need to find ways to stave off boredom and keep myself interested in the absence of elective courses. This World Lit class is good because the teachers have all agreed that, aside from a few texts that we're all going to do, the rest of the year we can choose what we want. And in my AP Comp class I have a lot of freedom, although the fact that I have to teach The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby does actually limit my "free" time; I may try to drop one or more of them in the future, although I suffer some canonical anxiety whenever I consider this. The English department is talking about revamping our senior electives (which I've never taught), although I'm not tempted to teach these because (a) the fact that they are year-long courses means that all of the topics end up being kind of broad (and we have no choice in this year-long business, given the way our school schedule works), and (b) half of the senior class winds up in AP Lit, so the students available for the electives are the unmotivated or less capable, and (c) I don't have any real interest in teaching seniors because they're all neurotic grade-grubbers in fall term, and by spring term even the good kids have mentally checked out. And the 12th grade is the only year in which we offer these electives.
So, as sometimes happens, having this great teaching experience this December is actually making me kind of restless and frustrated with my teaching situation in general. But despite that, I'm enjoying this little December oasis.