Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap Frog Day

In South Korea, my students called me "test queen." Or rather, they called my sister "test queen" and I picked up on the name by virtue of being the exact same person. True story: I once taught a student at Pusan University of Foreign Studies. He spent four months with me--four months observing my fashion triumphs and disasters, four months listening to my corny jokes, four months watching me wave my arms about as I tried to be entertaining. He went on to take several English classes from my sister--who also taught at PUFS. Through idyll chit chat, my sister discovered that he thought we were the same person. In fact, he was startled to learn she had a sister, more startled still to discover that he had been in my class. So here is my question: If you're going to be remembered as someone else, do you take more chances? I mean, if my students were going to remember me as Sonja, why didn't I dye my hair green and yellow, sing half the lessons, and make students dance if they came to class late or if they were text-messaging?

In South Korea, I gave lots of quizzes--and unfortunately didn't make a single student dance. In Riverside, I do the same. "Take out a nice clean sheet of paper," I say, and I feel like my high school history teacher. Sometimes if the class looks particularly glassy eyed, I'll say, "put a smiley face on your paper"--and, this surprises me, most of them do it! Sometimes they even scrawl below the smiley face, "Have a nice weekend, Mrs. Fordham." [shudder]

I then launch into the quiz. "What fashion item," I ask in all seriousness, "did Jeeves disapprove of?" Some of the students furiously scribble down, "Alpine hat." The keeners even include, "with a pink feather." I continue, "Bertrum’s aunt asks if he's taking Jeeves to Toitleigh Towers. Bertram says, yes, of course. His aunt then tells him to watch out. Why?" And so on.

First, isn't it bizarre that I've been entrusted with these students? Obviously, I've been teaching a long time, I know what I'm doing, etc., etc. But really, when I'm standing up front asking a question about an alpine hat, I feel deliciously like an impostor. My next question could be about oranges or skipping giraffes or skipping giraffes that juggle oranges.

Second, I once heard you should never teach an author you love. I adore P. G. Wodehouse, and after two days of sharing P.G. with my students, I'm beginning to concur. My students are cranky. "But he uses such big words," they complain. "We didn't understand any of it." "But he writes about alpine hats," I counter. "You have to love a book about an alpine hat." They disagree, nonhumorously.

Besides humor literature, this quarter I'm also teaching a journalism course (!), and a remedial reading course. Each Friday, in the reading class, I bring in a poem--everything from Pablo Neruda to Billy Collins to Maya Angelou. Today, my students brought in their favorite poems--everything from Emily Dickinson to Tupac Shakur. After class, Student A told Student B: "When you read your poem, you sounded just like Beyonce."


Bryan said...

I always thought the joy in teaching literature was to force your tastes on a captive audience. Besides, if there's anything the kids need these days, it's more exposure to Alpine hats.

And by the way, Beyonce is Maya Angelou with dance moves and an attractive figure. You'll come to appreciate that eventually.

Writing Sisu said...

Ha! The "Beyonce" student was reading Maya Angelou.

Mommy said...

This is so funny! And timely - over the past couple of weeks, I have been reacquainting myself with practically the entire Wodehouse oeuvre. I finished The One With the Alpine Hat two nights ago.

Seems to me that it would be very difficult to teach if you were limited to authors you didn't love. I think I like Bryan's reasoning better.

Writing Sisu said...

You know Ami, I think the Alpine Hat book I have is your copy. I suppose it's in the great spirit of Wodehouse that I pinched it.

Happily, the students really got into Wodehouse after the shock of the vocabulary wore off. I got them to join me in the silliness and they were either laughing at or with me--but they were definitely laughing.

Molly said...

I wandered over here from Shana's blog, and it looks like we have some mutual acquaintances! My assumption is that you graduated from the U of MN's MFA program, but I could be fearfully wrong. Either way, I know that crew, and I have finally ventured to follow in their footsteps and will begin the MFA myself this autumn.

And I agree: NEVER teach anything you truly love because they will kill it. I teach high school, and they devour everything.