Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dishonest in Small Things: What I learned in French class that had nothing to do with French

Last week, I was trolling through Facebook, vicariously experiencing life through my "friends" and I happened upon the page from my former high school in Goshen, Indiana. There was a link to the obituary of my high school French teacher, Mr. Fancil. He had died at age 83. He had taught 30 years and then spent several years volunteering. The notice said, "No services." This man taught me a lesson that I have never forgotten. The lesson had nothing to do with the French language but it served me well and I wanted to observe his death and honor his life by sharing this story. It didn't seem right that there were "no services" but I venture to guess that I am not the only one who had her own personal memorial moment for this fondly remembered teacher.

On a regular basis, Mr. Fancil would give our class a vocabulary test, as teachers are wont to do, and we would need to know the French/English counterparts of a list of words. I could have studied them but in all my 15 year old wisdom, I thought I had found a shortcut. What if, I wondered, I would take in my page of notes and use it to cheat on the test? It seemed easy enough so the day of the test, I snuck the note sheet out of my folder and slid it under the test paper. Sneaking furtive glances up to the front of the room, I would copy the vocabulary words onto my test, all the while anticipating the A+ that would soon decorate my paper. About five minutes into the test, Mr. Fancil lifted himself from his chair, walked over to my desk and picked up my test paper. Silently and without even looking at me, he wadded up my test, walked up to the trash can beside his desk and disposed of it.
Then he sat down and resumed his paperwork. I sat stunned, embarrassed, and horrified but knowing even then, that I deserved it. What happens now?  I sat there in the quiet classroom waiting for my classmates to finish their tests. Will he call the principal or worse, my parents? Will he berate me after class, have me kicked out of French II? These questions ran through my mind for the next ten long minutes in that third floor room with windows that looked out over the parking lot.

The fact is, nothing happened, except that I failed that test. He never said a word and never treated me any differently. I never cheated in school again, not through high school, college and graduate school. His decisive but wordless response taught me a valuable lesson.  Mr. Fancil, for whatever reason was shrewd, as is the steward in today's gospel. The words in Luke 16, "The person who is dishonest in small things is also dishonest in great ones " make me grateful that I was caught at a very small thing but given the gift of seeing that it mattered and wouldn't be tolerated.  As a teacher now myself, I know that when we catch students cheating, we need to address it quickly and without fanfare. To excuse it doesn't help them.

Years later, I caught college students turning in papers that were done by students who had taken the class the year previously. There were a couple of things that I had done which helped me know that these students hadn't done their own work. The first class session, I always assign a writing assignment to be completed in class so that I have a sample of a student's work. I knew how they wrote- their voice, fluency, and the use of conventions.  I had also read the previous instructor's syllabus so I knew the content of her class assignments, therefore I recognized the theme of the replacement assignments these students had tried to pass off as their own. At first, I was angry at these students, wondering why they thought they could get by with this. Such audacity! It didn't take long  to remember the lesson I had needed to learn and to decide to follow the example of my French teacher. With little ado, I talked to each young man separately and told them I knew the work wasn't their own and that I had given the assignment for a good reason. "Do the assignment," I said, " hand it in next week."  They did and it was done.  Later that semester, one of the students emailed me and said, "I don't make a habit of cheating but this time it seemed easier. Thank you for giving me another chance."  I wish I could say that was the only time as a teacher that I had to "Mr. Fancil" a student. It wasn't and with the availability of resources via technology, a teacher has to be shrewd and vigilant in new and complicated ways.  However, handling such infractions with firmness and grace is a timeless approach.

I never had the courage to thank Mr. Fancil although I don't know that he ever expected it. I wish he knew the valuable lesson he taught me that day and the impact it had on more than one life.

Rest in peace, Mr. Fancil. May your memory be eternal.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Aha Moment

Continuing to use Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading this week I worked with my students on the Aha! Moment in stories. When we find the Aha! we notice that a character realizes something new or has sudden insight and it changes the story. In class, we used some excerpts from Crash by Jerry Spinelli as suggested by the authors of Notice and Note (Beers and Probst).  We discussed how the changes in the narrator as a result of his Aha moments helped us figure out the theme. From there I had the students read Leo Tolstoy's "The Old Grandfather and His Little Grandson," a very short story with an unmistakable epiphany, a moment of truth that changed the lives of the characters.

Eager to introduce my students to Shirley Jackson, an author who often places the Aha! Moment at the end of the story, we delved into "Charles," the story of an ornery Kindergarten student.  It was fun to see the kids reaction at the end of the story when they realize that Laurie, son of the narrator, has made up the character Charles to tell stories of his own troublesome antics. A couple of students actually said, "Aha!" to punctuate the last line of the story.

Today's Gospel Reading has an Aha! moment. In Luke 15:1-32, the Pharisees and Scribes, after watching Jesus for awhile complain, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."  Aha! Of course he does. So, Jesus kindly tells some parables to help those around him "get it." Jesus,  who came for the least and the lost, changes our story. Because more often than not, we are lost, wandering in the far lands away from our heart and our home, seeking comfort where it can't be found.  Jesus welcomes us home. When I do come home, tired, frazzled and worse for the wear, I imagine, he says to me. "Come on in girl, and sit down. Welcome home. You are loved. Stay awhile this time. " 

This moment should change our story as well. We keep our hearts open, we offer love, we welcome the unlovable as we have been welcomed so many times.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Contrasts and Contradictions: In Literature and Life

There is a great resource available for Literature teachers of all grade levels. I am using it in my 8th grade Literature class but I find the strategies helpful for my own spiritual and leisure reading.

Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading
Kylene Beers  and Robert E. Probst
Heinemann, 2013

This book suggests strategies to help readers make sense of text.  Some of the students I work with tell me the hardest thing about reading is understanding what they have read. With the genesis of common core and the challenge to present kids with more complex text, we have to help kids develop their skills for figuring out what the words on the page really mean. This book is one great tool to have in the teacher toolbox. The authors have presented "signposts" based on features in novels commonly taught, that help readers understand character, plot, and theme.

I introduced the first signpost, Contrasts and Contradictions, with the story "Thank you, Ma'm" by Langston Hughes. The story begins with a contradiction that impacts the plot and theme. A young boy attempts to snatch the purse of a woman, who ends up taking him home.  A relationship based on trust begins from that initial contradiction. My students had no problem finding the contradictions and contrasts throughout  the story. How it impacted plot and theme was a little tougher so we will keep working on that. One of the young men noted that all the contradictions were "good" and we discussed the possibility that we wouldn't always find only positive contrasts in stories, or in life!

We carried on this signpost to another story, "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh" by Ray Bradbury. The students quickly identified the contradiction as the general in the story admitting to the scared young drummer boy that he also cried sometimes. He cried about the seriousness of the battle and the lives of young soldiers. This discussion opened the path for a discussion about the somber mood of the story which takes place on the night before one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. 

Since introducing this, I have become more aware of the signposts in my own reading. Today's gospel from Luke 14:25-33 has always been a troubling one for me. I have heard a myriad of sermons and homilies on it over the years but until today didn't realize exactly why it troubled me so. Here is Jesus, our loving Jesus, telling us to hate. It's a contrast, a contradiction, and totally unexpected. And it bothers me. But it must mean something and today the words of many pastors and writers came together for me as I sorted through the message as I understand it:

When you said "yes" to follow me, you didn't sign up to bring potato salad to the church picnic. You signed up for a lifestyle change that won't always be comfortable or sweet. The people you love the most may not always be the ones who will help you to the Kingdom. The carefully laid  plans of your white picket fence (or log cabin in my case) future may not be what is in store for you. Stay open, be willing to give some things up and don't always expect this journey to be smooth. There will be joy, there will be abundance, but get off the throne and let me run things. Don't get too attached to anything or anybody because, really, this gig is mine. You are the disciple. Welcome aboard.

Sometimes a teacher, always a learner.