Category Archives: eleventh grade

So you want to talk about your penis?

I have a kid in my class who I think is really awesome for an eleven-year-old. Except he’s 16. And he’s (probably permanently) stuck in that period where he thinks it’s funny to talk about his penis in public. He used to (as in: earlier this school year) get in trouble all the time for drawing penises on things, but now he draws roosters on things instead. Because, you know, penis—>cock—>rooster. Right. Probably I didn’t need to explain that, but I explained it to my principal too, and boy, you should’ve seen the way he looked at me like I was an idiot for explaining that to him. I was far more amused than he was for sure and it was totally worth it.


He is always – constantly – saying stupid things in class about sex in the same way that a rooster is a substitute for a penis. It’s because he’s really eleven, remember. And when he says it everyone rolls their eyes and I tell him to stop and we carry on with our lives.


The other day in class I said something about going hiking and the kid says, “My girlfriend went hiking once. On my happy trail.” And he was all smug and proud of himself for his joke alluding to oral sex, nodding and looking around for approval. I put on my best facial expression of pity and said in my most pitying tone, “Only once? Bummer for you.” And then I went on with what I was saying beforehand. Or, rather, I tried to go on with things, but everyone was applauding me for shutting him down because a) I think they didn’t think I had it in me and b) he just sat there opening and closing his mouth like a goldfish and that, my friends, is truly an accomplishment.

And then the next day, he gets up to this sign I have in my room pointing the way to Neverland and makes the sign point right at his crotch, again looking around smugly, waiting for high fives and guffaws of male approval. I looked over and laughed hysterically, right from the belly, with an open mouth and everything. I said, “Oh my gosh, that is the most ironically appropriate joke you’ve made in perhaps your entire life!” He looked confused. I said, “Neverland is where Peter Pan lives. It’s where children go and never grow up! It’s also the name of Michael Jackson’s ranch!” And I’m still laughing this whole time and then he just sits down and stops talking. Other students cheered again.

Today, I said, about something (obviously, because it was during class in front of a dozen teenagers) not at all about sex: “It just feels really big.” So the kid said, “Heh heh, it feels really big,” and used his elbow to bump the elbow of the boy next to him, who just sat there staring at him like he’s an idiot. So I say, “Ugh, stop pretending like you have ever in your life had someone say that to you,” and went back to whatever else I was talking about. He just sat there quietly. The rest of the class commented that the score this week was 0-3 and that they’re really enjoying how easy it is to shut him up.



Last year when I taught Slaughterhouse Five, it was difficult to help students take all the notes they would need to take – and then keep those notes straight so they would be able to access them at the end of the novel for our big project.

This year, I arranged for the English department to purchase books for my students. Each student received their very own copy of the novel to write in and mark up and highlight and sticky note…and then take home at the end of the unit and keep for ever and ever. I was so, so excited for them. They were so, so surprised, and, most of them, really appreciative.

Well I had this girl. Great girl. Sad story. Issues with mental illness, problems with homelessness, off-and-on drug use. Collapsed social network and nonexistent adult presence. She’s been in and out of school my entire three years here (because of the aforementioned issues). She started strong in my class last quarter, but then things got rocky and she stopped coming every day. Then she just stopped coming altogether.

Yesterday, I saw her in the hall. She ran up to me and said, “I love that book! I finished it and then I read it again! Twice! I’m going to start it again this weekend! I love it so much! Thank you for buying me a copy! I’m so glad I took it with me when I left!” And then she ran on and caught up with her friends.

I don’t know all the demons she’s wrestling with. I don’t know how OK she’s going to be a year from now or ten years from now or even tomorrow. But knowing that she has Kurt Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim to keep her company makes my heart swell and my eyes leak. I wish that she, too, finds peace on Tralfamadore.

Starting Class

Today I started class with these directions:

Today, everyone should be finished writing their EOC paper. If you’re not done yet, then that’s where you need to start. Everyone else who is done will move on to pages 13 and 15 in your packets [gesture to the list of directions on the board]. If you don’t yet have a partner for these pages, let me know and I’ll set you up with someone. The directions are on each sheet, but they are both identical to what we did earlier in the week. And remember, everyone’s paper is turned in the same way, so to find your partner’s paper, just go to the document where you gave me the link for your paper – the document I shared with you Tuesday. Your partner’s paper will be there too.

When you’re done with that, let me know and I will give you the next step for our writing process today.

Then, a few minutes later:

Me: Boy 1 says he’s done. Is anyone else finished and ready for a partner?
Boy 2: I am.
Me: OK. So you two are going to read each other’s papers and complete those pages in the packet.
Boy 1: What pages?
Me: Pages 13 and 15.
Boy 1: What packet?
Me: The orange packet. The packet we’ve done all of your EOC work in all week.
Boy 1: I don’t have that.
Me: Where is it?
Boy 1: I think I put it in the basket.
Me: OK, then it’s still in the basket. Go ahead and get it.
Boy 2: Which pages are we doing?
Me: Pages 13 and 15.
Boy 2: I don’t have my packet.
Me: Where is it?
Boy 2: It’s at home.
Me: That packet has three of your EOC grades in it.
Boy 2: Yeah, can you just print the pages for today for me?

So I print the pages, then when I bring them to Boy 2, the boy next to him speaks up.

Boy 3: What do I do when I’m done?
Me: You’ll get together with someone and read their paper. These two haven’t started yet, so how about we do a triad instead: 3 read 1’s paper, 1 read 2’s, and 2 read 3’s.
Boy 3: What do we do with their paper?
Me: You’ll complete pages 13 and 15 of your packet.
Boy 3: What packet?
Me: The orange packet. The packet we’ve done all of your EOC work in all week.

Boy 2: How do I find his paper?
Me: Go to the document where you turned in your paper – the document I shared with you Tuesday. Boy 1, have you opened 2’s paper yet?
Boy 1: No. Why?
Me: Because you need to read his paper and complete pages 13 and 15 of your packet.
Boy 1: How do I find his paper?
Me: Go to the document where you turned in your paper – the document I shared with you Tuesday.
Boy 2: I have that document open. Now what do I do?
Me: Click the link for the document next to his name.
Boy 1: This document?
Me: Yes, that’s the document where everyone turned in their work. See? There’s yours right there.
Boy 1: OK, now what?
Me: Click the link for the document next to his name.
Boy 1: OK, now what?
Me: You’ll complete pages 13 and 15 of your packet.
Boy 1: I already did this.
Me: This is a new sheet that you’re completing for your partner’s paper, but they are both identical to what we did earlier in the week.

Boy 3: So what do I do now?
Me: Do you have 1’s paper open?
Boy 3: No. Why do I need his paper?
Me: Because you’re going to read his paper and use it to complete pages 13 and 15 of your packet.
Boy 3: I was reading my paper.
Me: There’s no need to read your paper. You wrote your paper; you already know what you had to say. You need to read someone else’s paper for the analysis.
Boy 3: How do I find his paper?
Me: Go to the document where you turned in your paper – the document I shared with you Tuesday.
Boy 3: The link won’t even open.
Me: You have to click on it to open it.
Boy 3: I already did this.
Me: This is a new sheet that you’re completing for your partner’s paper, but they are both identical to what we did earlier in the week.

Boy 1: Is this all we’re doing this period?
Me: Based on how well things are going so far, yes, this is probably all you’ll be doing today.
Boy 1: Sweet!

Then about twenty minutes later, I see a girl across the room watching a video on her phone with her laptop put away.

Me: Are you considering yourself all done?
Girl: Yeah.
Me: OK.
Girl: I don’t have a partner though.
Me: I can get you a partner. Are you wanting to get your computer out again so you can do the partner activity?
Girl: No, not really.
Me: OK. Then make sure your packet gets turned in. You’ll just have a zero for that portion of your EOC.
Girl: OK. Do you still want me to do page 15?
Me: No, because that was part of the partner activity and you said you don’t want to do that. So like I said, you’ll have a zero for that portion of your EOC.
Girl: OK.

I promise you, the amount of repetition in this post is entirely accurate.

There are limits.

Girl 1: Ew! These Cheez-Its are gross!
Girl 2, pointing her finger: Don’t you ever disrespect Cheez-Its again.
Girl 1: They’re whole grain.
Girl 2: Oh. OK. That’s fine then.


Remember when I wrote about that fight a couple weeks ago?

Yesterday in class, my student who was in that fight was talking about it with another girl in class. The girl asked her, “And Ms. H was there?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I don’t know how she got there so fast, though. Her classroom is way over here and we were in the middle of the school by the stairs.”

“I was walking back from the copy room,” I said.

“Oh.” It was the sound that comes when you mix surprise with understanding.

The girl who wasn’t in the fight but was just asking questions asked me if I had been so mad about the fight.

“No,” I said. “It made me sad. Really, profoundly, sad.”

The girl who was in the fight said, “Oh.” This time it was the sound that comes when you mix understanding with humility.

Revisionist History

I had students do a mini research project on race in America today…and it brought me to this conversation with a student.

Me: What was the most interesting article you read?
Boy 1: Um…Well, this one was about these statues…
Me: Oh good! That’s a great topic for our discussion tomorrow. What did you think about it?
Boy 1: Well, I don’t really get it.
Me: Which part didn’t you get?
Boy 1: I don’t know what this means. [points to the paper]
Me: Confederate?
Boy 1: Yeah. I don’t know what that is.
Me: When we talk about the Confederacy, we’re talking about a historic region of the United States.
Boy 1: OK…
Me: Do you have any idea what region that would be?
Boy 1: Pittsburgh?
Boy 2: Naw dog! Baltimore! [in his semi-defense, we read an article about Baltimore last week]
Me: Nooooo…The Confederacy came about during a major military conflict…
Boy 1: The Great Depression?
Me: No. A major military conflict.
Boy 1: Like a war?
Me: Yes. What was the name of that war?
[Boy 1’s eyes grow wide; he sits with his mouth open.]
[Girl leans over and whispers Civil War.]
Boy 1: Oh, yeah, the Civil War.
Me: Yes, ohmygosh, the Civil War. And the Confederacy was one half of that conflict. Do you remember what two sides fought in the Civil War?
Boy 1: [hesitantly] Yeeeesss…
Me: So which side was the Confederacy? Remember, you’ve already suggested a couple of northern cities and I said no.
Boy 1: The…North…?
Me: No!
Boy 1: So….the…South…?
Me: Yes! The Civil War was fought between the northern states, the Union, and the southern states, or the Confederacy. And what were they fighting about?
Boy 1: Ssssssss….
Me: Yes! Say that word!
Boy 1: Slavery?
Me: Yes! The Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery. The northern states wanted to end it, but the southern states didn’t. Bonus question: Who was president during the Civil War?
Boy 2: [quickly and proud of himself] George Washington!
Boy 1: [immediately after, snapping his fingers] JFK!
Me: Oh! My! God! I’m going to have a seizure over here!
Boy 2: Hey, these are hard questions! How are we supposed to know this? Man, this is English class, not history!
Me: These aren’t “history” questions! These are common knowledge questions! You guys! Who was president during the Civil War?
Boy 2: [overhears another boy say the answer, but clearly only hears part of it] Abraham! It was Abraham! Abraham was president during the Civil War!
Me: That’s only his first name. What was Abraham’s last name? [the boys blink at me] You guys! Come on!
Boy 3: Abraham Lincoln.
Boys 1 & 2: Yeah! Abraham Lincoln! I’ve heard of him!
Me: [putting my head down on the desk] I’m dying inside. You know that, right? [looking at them again] Do you both have Ms. W for history right now? [they nod] I’m totally going to tell her about this.
Boy 1: Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. She should have a warning so she doesn’t die a little too.

Complaints from the Peanut Gallery

My students have been complaining. Shocker, I know. Today is the eighth day of school this year and, according to students, this hasn’t been much of an “English classroom” yet. It’s been more of a history classroom. So now about half of my students are wishing for Ms. F, the teacher down the hall, who isn’t even teaching eleventh grade this year but who the students are all telling me they’re going to talk to their counselors about to get their schedules changed. I told them to go ahead.

It’s funny to me, that my students, so many of whom say that they hate school and that what I have to teach them isn’t valuable to their lives, suddenly have these uber-political ideas about what an English classroom is “supposed” to be like. So then I find myself justifying what we’re doing – which, by the way, is all frontloading for A Raisin in the Sun, which we’ll start reading next week. When I teach this text, I use the essential question “What connections exist between the past and the present?” So I start by looking at the Civil Rights Movement and then we look at racial tension today. Throughout the text, we bounce between the 1950s and today, examining the roots of discrimination as well as the modern development of said discrimination.

My students so far have activated prior knowledge about the CRM quickly and without lecture or notes, they have analyzed primary texts, they have read a poem and written a literary analysis of said poem, they have moved through the peer revision and self-revision stages of the writing process, they have conducted a short research project and today they are preparing for a large group discussion that leans toward a Socratic seminar. In short: they have done a LOT and all of it is supported by ELA standards.

But yesterday I actually had a girl ask me, “So, is this, like, all we’ll be doing this quarter? I mean, we already talked about race in school a few years ago.”

Yes, honey, we will be having this conversation all quarter. Because one conversation about race a few years ago doesn’t make you enlightened and beyond all stereotypes and racist comments.

Ugh. I’m not getting bogged down by their complaining – not really – because I know that they’re teenagers and they complain and the teenagers who have the life circumstances that the teenagers at my school have probably complain a lot more than other people, so it’s not personal. I will keep doing what I’m doing because I know it’s good and right and, like I said, supported by the standards.

But it would be nice if they stopped.

Bleeding vs Blackface

I had students writing out a quick list of all the things they know about racial tension in America in the mid-1900s. You know, the Civil Rights Era. They worked in small groups on posters that we then hung up for discussion.

I’m walking around, doing the good teacher thing, checking on groups and whatnot. I go over to one group, read some of the stuff on their poster, then point to something they wrote about three from the bottom. “Menstrual shows?” I ask.

“Yeah,” this boy responds. “They were really popular for a long time. It was where white people painted their faces black and put on these plays where they made fun of Black people and stuff. They really just helped make a bunch of Black stereotypes.”

“Oh! Minstrel shows!” I said.

“Yeah, menstrual shows,” he replied.

I just left it.

And you know what? That poster’s been hanging in my room now for two days. No one. Has said. A thing.

Risky Business

My students engage in risky behaviors all the time.

They drink and do drugs. They throw huge, multi-day long parties or “camping trips” as minors. And then they talk about it all at school like it’s no big deal.

They have unprotected sex. And show up pregnant or talking about pregnant girl friends, or they brag about their sex-capades and “smashing” like it’s no big deal.

They go skydiving, cliff jumping, and off-trail mountain biking in forbidden areas.

They tie skateboards to the back of pick-up trucks, light things on fire, pierce and tattoo themselves in the kitchen, and post naked pictures on the internet.

They stay up all night for multiple nights in a row and fuel their tired hours during the day with multiple giant cans of energy drinks.

And yet…

They do not risk speaking in class. They do not answer questions aloud. They do not let anyone else see that they are trying. They would much rather respond with a quiet shake of the head and “I don’t know” than venture a guess, even if it’s something that I literally just gave them the answer to or if I know they wrote about on an assignment the day before.

Why do they do this? Why are they so comfortable doing damage to their bodies, but so uncomfortable answering a direct question?

I get it. I mean, I sort of get it. I get that they don’t want to be seen as dumb and I get that they’ve learned how to fail because teachers (and parents and siblings and society at large) have made them feel like failures and their backgrounds are not set up to provide them with the information they need to feel comfortable answering questions and so on. But good golly. The kid who pierced her own tongue when she was bored one weekend – a thought that sends shivers down my fear-of-face-paralysis spine – won’t tell me one damn thing she remembers from any part of the novel we’ve spent ten days on in class.

We talk a lot about the differences between the kids who “can’t do” and the kids that “won’t do” in terms of turning in work, but I think we need to change the timbre of that conversation. My kids will turn in work, mostly, but they won’t do other, simple things required of a student. My kids won’t venture. They won’t try. And that’s something I don’t know what to do with.

At least they sort of remember the book.

Girl: Have you read the book How to Kill a Mockingbird?
Me: You mean To Kill a Mockingbird?
Girl: Right. God. You know what I’m talking about.
Other Girl: That’s the book with Boo Radley.
Boy 1: No, it’s the book about the kids who can’t read in school because they live in the south.
Girl: Yeah, it’s about these two kids and their dad is a lawyer who goes to court to defend an African-American man who’s accused of something…raping some girl…?
Boy 2: Cunningham’s daughter.
Me: Ewell’s daughter.
Other Girl: He’s defending Boo Radley.
Me: Boo Radley isn’t involved in the trial. He lives in a house down the street.
Boy 1: Boo is the kid who comes to visit in the summers.
Me: Dill is the kid who comes to visit in the summers.
Other Girl: Then who’s Boo Radley?
Boy 2: Boo Radley is the old guy who scares the kids.
Girl: No, he saves the kids.
Other Girl: Then who’s on trial for rape?
Me: Tom Robinson.
Other Girl: No, who’s the guy on trial?
Me: Yeah. Tom Robinson.
Other Girl: Then who was Boo Radley???
The One Girl Who Eivdently Paid Attention In Ninth Grade: The book is about Jem and Scout whose father is a lawyer. Boo Radley lives down the street, but he’s not that old and the kids just think he’s scary, but he’s nice, and Dill comes to visit in the summer. Their dad defends Tom Robinson in a rape trial, but he’s found guilty