Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Dialect Lesson

The activity is finished; movie clips are viewed; dialects are discussed; dialogues are written. Overall, a great success. What did I learn?
1) when you watch a movie on your own, the swearing and other bad parts aren't as obvious as they are when you watch the same movie with 26 fifteen year olds. In 6 minutes, Matt Damon and Robin Williams said the F-word 7 times, as Cory S. was happy to inform me.
2) according to a large majority of students, any movie viewed at school is automatically more interesting than the same movie viewed at home. Therefore, students clamored loudly and almost convincingly enough to let me play the entire film of Men in Black. But I persevered.
3) no matter how many times I give directions and even if I give them both aloud and in writing, a handful of students will still find ways to shirk the complete assignment.

What did they learn?
1) it can be fun to study dialect, especially when they get to watch fun movies.
2) it is very frustrating to watch movie CLIPS.
3) Mark Twain is a genius, an even greater genius than some had previously thought.
4) their English teacher is pretty sweet.

Sometimes I'm so clever I amaze myself. ;)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Intended Use

When I conceived the idea for my blog, it was meant to be a wastebasket of sorts, a repository for possible ideas that I could dive back into if needed and find inspiration for a story or poem. I haven't done much of that, but I thought today might be a good day to toss some things away and see what happens.
I write every day with my Creative Writing students. And I've got a notebook half full now of the beginnings of stories and poems. Actually, most of the poems are complete, but the stories...I get tired of them and move on the next week.
Here are the kernels of the stories I've begun. Do any of them sound like they should be continued?
1) a fractured fairy tale in which a princess has grown up as a changeling, raised by a family of disguised fairies who want her for her human vitality. She eventually finds out she's not the same as her foster family and goes out into the world in search of her identity. It's got a wry tone so far, with a winking knowing narrator.
2) Pauly Malucci is a taxi driver in NY who always lands the night shift. One night it's so humid everyone seems to be at home in front of an air conditioner, and Pauly is just driving around looking for a customer. He sees a body lying in the partial light of a street lamp and stops to investigate...and lands in the middle of a murder scene.
3) Gregor Samsa (remake of Kafka's "Metamorphosis") wakes up one morning from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into...Underdog. What does he do? Does he decide to keep his new identity or find a way to revert back to his slightly boring self?
4) This one is finished, but could be polished. A woman tells the story of her abusive husband and justifies murdering him. It's an experiment with an unreliable narrator, but when I read it to my students, they didn't get that she was unreliable. So either they're slow or I need to do some major revisions.
5) Memoir about finding out I was pregnant with Jared, how it felt to be pregnant and have a baby at this later stage in my life, how he has changed our lives.
6) Science fiction: Captain David Stark and his crew are stranded on an alien planet which appears to be uninhabited. But then strange things begin to happen with their sensors, things like the sensors showing signs of life but nothing appears on the view screen. Are there aliens? Are they invisible? Are they hostile or friendly? Will Capt Stark ever get home to his family?
7) I'm working on this one now: Arin Maxwell owns a small bakery in a small town, and her business is failing. She keeps baking and fills her shop with bread, but the customers walk past her window, looking in with hungry eyes, but walking past. A man comes in one day, beefy and sweaty, asking for protein bars. She turns him away. Then when she goes to deliver the day-olds to a shelter run by her friend, Josie tells her even the women at the shelter don't want bread anymore; they're all on the low-carb diet. So Arin decides the time has come to take on the MAN and get her customers back...

What do you think? Any good ideas here, or should I scrap them all and keep starting over?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

New Tricks

Since I've only taught for six years now, I don't exactly consider myself an old dog, but I do find that I often get into a rut, and now that we're almost half way through Huck Finn, I have become a bit bored myself with the tedious daily schedule of 1)review yesterday's reading and sigh when the same three kids demonstrate that they're the only ones who read their assigned pages 2) clue the rest of the class in on what happened, probably reinforcing their decision that it is unnecessary to read the assignment anyway since the teacher and the three good kids will give them the highlights 3) dive in to reading, trying to remember exactly how Huck sounded yesterday--and trying to keep the King's voice at least a little different than the Duke's, and 4) in the last minutes assign the next night's reading homework.
Sometimes, to make things fun, I vary things up a little by throwing in a pop quiz. Always depressing because then I know for sure how many kids didn't read the chapter. At least when I just ASK them about it, I can think maybe they DID read and are too shy to raise their hands. Oh, and earlier this week, I had them draw and label mappish diagram of Huck's adventures thus far. But for tomorrow, I think I've outdone myself on creativity. I am so excited about the lesson, I am almost bursting with glee.
The idea came to me last week, as I was showering. Always a great place to forment ideas, I have found. Maybe it's the steam and the still-dreamy state. And I don't turn the lights on either, which heightens the sense that I am still mostly asleep. Anyway, I got to thinking about how Mark Twain really is a genius when it comes to writing dialect, but that my reading of his novel (while, admittedly, pretty durn good) is not a true rendition of the variety of the characters. And I was also thinking about how in America, even today, we have a wealth of different accents and dialects. And I was thinking about the fact that Twain carefully studied speech patterns, eavesdropping on people and transcribing their words, and turning those patterns into the dialogue in his novel. And that's when the lightning struck my brain.
If only I could find a bunch of movies that have people speaking with really great, strong accents--the real kind, not the totally fake kind of accents, and have my kids watch clips of the movies and then transcribe what they hear, that could be really cool. So I fooled around on google for an embarrassingly long while, looking through lists of movies with good accents (and sadly, most of the lists are lists of movies with horrible accents--people are so negative!), but I finally came up with my list.
I'll start with My Fair Lady. Yeah, I know, they're Brits. But the scene where Prof. Higgins is spying on Eliza Dolittle and writing down every word she says...I can't not show that. That's exactly what Twain did, and what my students will be attempting. So we'll start with that.
Then it's on to Good Will Hunting. I had to look long and hard to find a clip without the F word, at least too many explosions of it, but I found one near the beginning. And Matt Damon's Boston accent is fantastic.
Then they'll watch Escanaba in the Moonlight. We're starting off easy, I hope, with strong clear accents that they should be able to pick up on. I plan on playing each clip twice. The first time, they'll just listen and watch. The second time, they'll write down characteristic words phonetically as they hear them. Then they'll share (and add to) their lists in their peer groups while I'm cuing up the next movie.
Then I'll pop in Sweet Home Alabama, a movie I really love, not sure why, and Reese Witherspoon's Southern accent is pretty accurate--which makes sense, considering she's a North Carolina girl.
Then I think Men in Black which is perfect because it's got both Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, both with strong accents. I'm going to show the scene where the two meet after Smith has come in for initial Agency competence tests.
Next Saturday Night Fever for John Travolta's New York accent. I'm going with the scene where he eats the family dinner and they're all arguing with each other and slapping each other.
Then finally, Nell for Jodie Foster's Appalachian accent. Only problem is: I rented the thing, but I can't find it. I'm afraid Jared hid it somewhere or maybe it fell under the seat in my car...I have to find a clip before I just randomly pop it in...hopefully the lesson runs over till Monday so I've got some fudge room.
Then after they've done all those transcriptions, I am going to have them try writing some dialogue with at least 2 of the dialects they've heard and then write a reflection on the experience, hopefully showing a realization that Mark Twain's work was not easy or quick.
So I'm sure it's pretty clear that I am eager for class tomorrow. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Finding the Voice

I love reading out loud. It's probably my favorite thing to do when I'm teaching. I am pretty good at it too, if I do say so myself.

My favorite read-aloud book of all time is Of Mice and Men--mostly because I just love to do Lennie Small's voice. I've seen a couple different versions of the movie, and my voice for Lennie is a combination of John Malkovich's Lennie with a little sprinkle of Randy Quaid's Lennie too (this was a made for TV movie that came out in the 80's--can't find a clip for it). When I start in on Lennie's voice each time I read it, my students perk up. By the end of the novella, most of them are so glued to the story, they mourn along with George when he...well, I won't tell you; don't want to spoil the ending.

But I've discovered a new favorite book to read aloud: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yeah, it's long, and I've only read a total of 4 chapters aloud to my students so far, and my voice is already getting scratchy--but really, I should multiply that 4 by 3 since I've got that many sections of sophomore English. And I do assign reading homework each night, but I get so addicted to reading out loud to them, to getting into Huck's southern twang and trying my hand at Jim's negro slave dialect, I just can't help but read it out loud. For some kids, the kids who can't or won't do their reading homework no matter how many chapter summaries I assign, this is the only place they will engage in this book.

And I figure it's my job as their English teacher to make that encounter as memorable as possible. I've already been stopped by former students and other teachers who can hear me in their classrooms when I get into full swing. "So," they say, "you're reading Huck again." I think I can detect a twinge of jealousy in their voices. Maybe they want to sit in on my class and hear me read.

Or maybe I'm just flattering myself.

Whatever the case, I like reading out loud and I intend to continue doing it until I lose my voice.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


Oh sheet of sage splendor
Of glorious striped matte and satin damask
Stretched taut over the vastness
Of ivory comfort puffed with foam
Imbued with memories of our bodies
Lying supine in repose
Drowsy in darkness
Restless with dreams

What hath caused thee to rend thyself?

Was it because I loved thee overmuch
Discarding the other sheets for their
Faded limpness, their years of use
Ingrained too deeply even for the vicious
Cycle of rinse and spin,
The searing tumble seeking to evaporate moisture

Was it out of protest, out of tiredness
That thou allowed thinness to invade thy very weave?

Perhaps the tear began in stealth
A small separation of fibers
A test of our observation

Thou hast won this battle,
O sheet of sage splendor,
But dost thou fathom the enormity
Of thy choice?
The product of thy scheme?
No longer shall our bodies cover thee
In times of darkness
Thou shalt be cast aside
Thrown into the vile bin of refuse
Making company with castoffs and rubbish
With the unwanted and discarded

What hast thou murmured into mine ear?
The susurration of a whisper,
The hushed crumple as I ease thy elastic fingers
From the mattress
Villainy, thou murmureth, foul deeds done
Under shadow.

To hear thee tell as I bend close to listen
A tale of savage malcontent
Mine own beloved partner hath wrought a deed
Of such fiendish destruction
Mine heart hath frozen within my breast

The wicked sharp nails on his toes
Those nails which he hath refuseth to cut
Hath worked an end to thy life
Hath rent thee in the very fabric of thy soul

Clippers, thou hath whispered, and nail files
And rasps
A powersander as well
Shall be mine weapons of vengeance
I gather thee close for one last embrace
Before folding thy ruined form
Into the rubbermaid masoleum