Tag: theme

The Ins and Outs of Being a Substitute Teacher

On this Monday morning, the door to the classroom is open. The teacher I’m replacing is at her desk gathering some last minute items for the field trip she’s chaperoning today. She doesn’t make eye contact when she says, “Are you my sub?” and hands me the sheet of paper with the lesson plans typed on it.

As I’m scanning it, she mentions that I might get asked to cover some other classes since she has two periods when she only has “teacher’s assistants” in the room. I’d like to ask about this, but I don’t. Instead I’m thinking, “This is going to be a long day.”

What Adds Hours

I’ve worked in education long enough to know that plenty of substitute teachers bring a thick novel and hope they’ll get uninterrupted reading time during their day. I’m not one of those.

Sure, I have my tablet, and there are always books to be read on one of my digital reader apps. Most of the time, I plan to use the planning period (at least) to work on whatever project I’m writing that day. Or I might whip out a blog post or two (like this one).

But for the most part, a day where students aren’t going to be engaging with me tends to be a L-O-N-G one. Here are some things I might see in sub plans that tell me this eight hours is going to feel like sixteen:

  • A movie (that will be played for three or four different classes)
  • Ongoing work on a project (like the essay in the sophomore language arts class today)
  • Silent reading of a text and a corresponding worksheet
  • Traveling to the computer lab to work on something
  • An online assignment (because many of the students will head off to a fun place in cyberspace and will conveniently ignore me when I try to redirect them)

This last one is what the seniors in honors language arts are doing on the day I’m penning this. They’re honors students, so they might be more on-task than the average class, but they’re seniors too. And it is the week before spring break.


Things You Wouldn’t Think You’d Do

Babysitting students while they supposedly work on an ongoing assignment is expected. Teachers don’t know what sort of substitute will be filling in for them (unless they request a specific one), and maybe the substitute won’t know the first thing out the subject matter.
Thus, I tried not to feel offended during this conversation today:

Me: “So should I expect some students will want me to check off this sheet before they begin writing?”
Teacher: “I wouldn’t worry about that.” Pause. “Unless you feel comfortable identifying themes.”
Me: Stunned into silence.

Hello? I have an English literature degree. And I’m familiar with Bradbury’s classic FAHRENHEIT 451. Are you serious right now?
But worse than that expectation that I wouldn’t “get” what sophomores are doing is the drill that will be held during second period. The vice-principal came in first thing to hand me the “procedures.”
I’ve already been on a fire drill at this school. But today there will be a LOCK DOWN drill. This is preparatory for a “live shooter” or “other threat” on campus.
So, when the announcement comes on, I’ll get to pull the blinds, switch of the lights and huddle under my desk with a class full of teenagers. All of them will have their phones out, and I’m supposed to keep them off those.

Because in the event of an actual lock down, those lights would be an open invitation to the threat that the room was filled with innocents. Not really a message we want to give out.

As the VP explains things to me (and I’m not a novice to this, so he really didn’t have to), he ends the conversation with, “It’s unfortunate that we even have to practice this.”

Unfortunate might be an understatement. This is the world we live in where people won’t even let kids learn in peace at school.

And then they decide to have a fire drill on the back side of sitting on the floor in the dark for six minutes. I’m sure you can guess how engaged those sophomores were when we came back to class 20 minutes later.


What Adds Interest

I didn’t want to end this post with a negative tone, so let’s talk about things that add interest to my day of substitute teaching. There are a few. It’s not always glorified babysitting (with a WAY better paycheck than I ever earned back in the day).

I’m a writer. I love reading. You can imagine what sort of things I’d find interesting when in the same room with teenagers. Things like:

  • Reading and discussing an article
  • Reading and discussing a short story with a specific purpose (like writing a paragraph on some literary device or element afterward)
  • Reading and discussing poetry
  • Watching a video that will spark a conversation that segues into an assignment
  • Brainstorming ideas for stories (a rare joy these days)
  • Class discussion when students actually participate

There are probably other things that have made the hours slide by in a middle or high school classroom. In the end, it boils down to student engagement and teacher-student interaction.

What things have you done at work lately that were unexpected? What makes the day drag on and on for you?

THE GREAT GATSBY

The Great Gatsby stalks me from one high school language arts class to the next. In St. Helens, he prowls through the junior classrooms and in Scappoose, his story resounds with the freshmen.

This disparity in curriculum gave me pause.

After all, I’ve taught students between the ages of twelve and eighteen for many years. There is a huge difference in the analytical abilities of freshmen (fourteen or fifteen-year-olds) and juniors (sixteen and seventeen-year-olds). Can Gatsby’s theme and content bridge this gap? Will freshmen understand the depth of Fitzgerald’s message in the same way juniors do?

The proof is in the pudding. And I won’t be around to see the end product.


Freshmen

In the freshmen classroom, the project due at the end of the reading is a theme timeline.

This is an art-heavy project. Students will identify the (a) theme of the book and create a timeline of events that support that theme. As I talked about in a recent post about theme, it must be evidence-based using words from the text rather than experience-based.

If these students can prove their interpretation with sufficient text examples, they will have nailed a theme. I believe there are many, but Nick Carroway does a fair job of stating an obvious one in the first paragraph of the novel.

You can’t judge a person because you don’t know what they’ve been through.

Everyone judges Gatsby as a successful and wealthy man who loves throwing parties. He’s affable and generous, and everyone is happy to take part in his excess but none of them show up to pay respects at his funeral.

So what sort of person was Jay Gatsby really? I’m not sure we really know. A poor man who sought his big break and found it, but all the success in the world couldn’t overcome his insecurities. His life ended before he could reap the benefit of finding true love with Daisy.

Juniors

The juniors are focusing on the symbolism in Fitzgerald’s classic novel. There is plenty to be found.

The one chapter I read with these students had several symbolic things in it, but many of the students missed their significance. Even when I stopped and asked leading questions, they blanked out.

I fear the teachers will be disappointed at the outcome of this assignment.

Like theme, symbolism is one of those things that gets emphasized in high school (and college) literature classes. Symbols can be subject to interpretation. I spoke more about that in this post about Blue Being Blue.

In my mind, symbols take more time to recognize. The harder you have to look for one, the more unlikely it is to be one. When analyzing a novel, only obvious symbols should be considered (as far as I’m concerned).

I believe symbolisim requires deeper reflection on a text, so perhaps the varied focus of the curricula explains things. The choice of this text for students at different intellectual stages of development might make sense in this case.

Literary Takeaways

No one argues the state of The Great Gatsby as a classic. It should certainly be part of a robust literary education.
Or should it?

As an author, I rarely give thought to symbolism in my writing and thought of theme is something done during revisions. Since I write genre fiction, that’s to be expected. Nothing I write will be considered a classic. No one will teach my short stories or novellas in their English class.

I’m sort of glad about this. Even speaking to readers about my books can be disheartening if they don’t “get” what I wanted to say. The thought of some English teacher claiming the technology in the follow up novel to “The Demon Was Me” represented evil as much as the demons makes me cringe.

Mostly because I didn’t even want my demons to represent evil. They were being trying to survive, and the way they did it destroyed regular people. Can you see a deeper truth in this? One that might be important for young adults (the intended audience) to understand?

I think students in today’s classrooms would be more engaged if more contemporary novels were taught in classrooms. My experience teaching a group of middle school students Hunger Games proves this point. They were low readers, many with language disabilities, so they missed much about theme and symbolism, but they could plot out the story and relate the character arc of Katniss Everdeen. Doesn’t appreciation of story have a place in a language arts classroom?

Fitzgerald is a notable wordsmith. His descriptions are lovely and borderline purple prose. Since he puts so much of himself into a story, readers feel intimate with the characters. But most of his stories are lacking on plot.

Maybe teaching one literary classic per year would suffice in high school English classes. Introduce reluctant readers (which most young people are these days because…technology) to a few masters. Let the assignments practice important life skills: like disseminating essential information and conveying ideas with clarity.

Because how often have you needed to identify a theme or recognize symbolism in your day-to-day life? It’s nice to want kids to broaden their horizons and look outside the box for beauty, but if they can’t balance their checkbook or hold down a job, does that truly matter?
What classics do you believe are essential for every young American to read? What skills should be taught in language arts classes?

Two Honors Classes Prove the Truth about Theme

Two classes of fifteen juniors in high school read the same story and come up with completely different themes for the story. What truth about theme could this possibly prove?

Read on if you haven’t already guesses the answer. (Or scroll to the end if you’re THAT person.)

As an author, I think about theme. I don’t generally think about theme when I’m first drafting a story. At least not in the concrete way English teachers try to teach it.

Since I prefer reading plot driven stories, those are the kind I generally write. Of course, they involve interesting and relatable (I hope) characters who will change, learn and/or grow by the time the plot culminates.

During my rewriting phase is when I ask myself, “What do I want readers to take away from this story?” For me, that is the essence of theme. In the language arts classroom, theme was said to be “the central idea or meaning of a story.”

Doesn’t my definition sound like something a person would actually say? (Could be because I said it.)

On this particular Wednesday, I read the short story “Love in LA” by Dagoberto Gilb (an award winning short story author) to (or with) two different classes of 11th-grade students (mostly girls, by the way).

Jake rear-ends a cute, young babe with his ‘58 Buick. Her brand new (‘93) Toyota doesn’t fare so well. You might think this is a story about these two hitting it off and ending up in love, but this is “Love in L(os) A(ngeles)” so that’s not what happens at all. Instead, she tries to get the information she needs to get her car fixed while Jake tries to get her phone number.

First Period

The lesson for the day was a Socratic Seminar around this story. As the substitute teacher, I was the facilitator, and I had to insert a few more ideas during this class period. It was before 9am, so most teenagers lack full cognitive functioning.

I read the first paragraph (the longest one in the story) and one of the students read the rest. She had a difficult time keeping her eye rolls at bay in some areas. Jake fancies himself to be quite the charmer, but even his target realizes he’s more of a con man.

The first and last paragraphs refer to freedom in contrast to the sticky situation in Los Angeles at that moment, a traffic jam.

After more than 40 minutes of discussing Gilb’s methods of characterization and what the title had to do with the story, the students were asked to write what they believed the theme was. It was like pulling teeth to get someone to have the courage to share theirs.

                    “Freedom doesn’t come without a price.”

Examples from the text supported this idea. Since the first and last paragraphs reiterated the pursuit of freedom as Jake’s main goal, it seemed like a good bet that could have been the “central idea or meaning of the story.”

Fourth Period

This group of all girls came in, energized from the lunch break they’d just had. They were chatty, but not disrespectful and happy to discuss the literature at hand.

After I read the story to them, that is.

This class judged Jake to me having a mid-life crisis (while first period thought he couldn’t have been older than 35). They saw his reliable, old classic car as a symbol for his “old life” as a younger man. His flirtations with a girl they felt was maybe 22 were really his attempt to return to “the good old days.”

In fact, the word freedom was never mentioned until, at the end of class bell, when I told the class what theme first period came up with. And I could hardly contain my grin.

“Sometimes dreams are beyond reach.”

“Sometimes it’s too late to go back to what once was.”

“If you want to reach a goal, you need to do more than dream about it.”

All of these were themes the students tossed around toward the end of our discussion. Furthermore, the evidence they cited in the text supported these as the central idea of the story.

The Truth about Theme

Theme in literature might not be subjective (since the text must prove it) but it is open to interpretation.


At the end of that second great discussion, I wished for Gilb’s phone number or email address. I wanted to ask him if one (or all) of these themes where indeed the meaning he intended to convey with this short story.

Not that it matters. The students had already proven what I’ve always know to be true:
Theme is the meaning the reader gleans from the story.

Yep, it’s not about the author’s intentions at all. Sometimes, readers might discover the truth an author buried in plain sight within a text. Other times, their personal experiences and worldview might glean unintended ideas and meanings.

The long introduction to theme in the lesson plans said, “Although readers may differ in their interpretations of a story that does not mean that any interpretation is valid.” They support this by saying that the statement of theme “should be responsive to the details of the story.” Meaning a reader’s experiences can’t outweigh the actual statements of the text.

One of the girls in the second class said, “Well, that line shoots down my idea.” This when I read one sentence from the text which stated the opposite of what she was sure the author intended to say.

Which of these themes was the one Gilb intended? Or did he have an entirely different meaning behind the writing?

Truthfully, themes are an amazing way to concentrate analysis on a text. However, even in a short tale, there is the possibility that readers will have a takeaway that the writer never intended. Conversely, they might not “get” the point the author hoped to convey.

Is it true that theme is open to interpretation (and thus subject to misinterpretation)?

Surrendering Fear

It’s a new year with a new focus, but the old fear hovers nearby.

What’s with that anyway?

I mean, I’m determined to trust in God and let love banish fear and then…wham, something unexpected ties me in emotional knots.

Could it be that I’ve lost my focus so quickly?

Or maybe I haven’t truly opened my hands in surrender.

After all, this is spiritual warfare. And it a war, there’s struggle and death and fear galore. Until one side says “enough” and seeks peace.

psalm-27-3

Here’s some wise words from life coach Holley Gerth:

I tried to control everything so that I could get a specific outcome. Tests and temperatures, appointments and articles. I held on as tightly to my goal as I did to the one-lined pregnancy tests at the end of every month.

Then slowly, slowly I felt like God brought me to a point where I finally said, “Whatever.” Not “Whatever” (with the sarcastic tone and eye roll—although some days I did indeed want to say that). But “Whatever, Lord. I am surrendering my expectations. I’m surrendering what I’ve been demanding.” I waved the white flag and I let trust win.

People would ask, “How do you feel about your infertility?” And I would say, “I have a peace about it.” And they would look at me like, “Yeah, yeah, Sunday School answer.”

And I said, “No, it’s the kind of peace that comes after war. And I fought for it. I will surrender everything else but not that peace.”

It was that peace that replaced my fear, that set me free.

To read the rest of her post, click here.

So, are you still trying to defeat fear on your own terms?

Did something ugly sneak up on you and wrap your peace in chains?

You can be free from fear. It begins by surrendering to the Commander in Chief of the universe.

Remember, he’s the one that has mad lion taming skills. His is the heel that crushed the head of our enemy.

Let go of the anguish caused by fear. Wave the white flag. Let the peace that passes all understanding flood your heart instead.

What’s making you afraid today? Can you surrender it to the Prince of Peace?

If this post appealed to you, you might like Hero Delivery. It’s a bulletin with deals and specials from Sharon Hughson. It can be on the way to your inbox in a few clicks.
Check out Finding Focus and my other books. You’re sure to find something worth reading.
Already read one or more? Please leave an honest review on your favorite site. That’s like the author discovering a gold nugget in the bottom of her washing machine.

	

New Year New Focus

Another New Year is here. Welcome 2017. What did you do with 2016? Hide his body in a calendar of HOT firefighters?

You all know what it means that we’ve started a new year. This author will choose a new focus.

Reviewing What Came Before

In 2014, I decided to BE THE CHANGE. This happened after July 2013 changed everything for me. How?

I graduated from college and committed to writing full-time.

Yes, there was a connection. It’s not easy to walk away from a guaranteed paycheck into the jungles of publishing.

The hard knocks I took that first eighteen months of full-time, professional writing did a number on my confidence. Which led to…

My theme for 2015. My posts were all about learning to have a positive attitude. Because, let’s be honest, the world is swamped with negativity. If you just go with the flow, you will become a huge downer.

And there are too many downers out there already.

So I went against the flow and took a friend’s advice to “accentuate the positive.” It’s pretty amazing what can happen when the two words you choose to focus on for 365 days are positive and attitude.

And that positive outlook carried over into 2016.

Do I need to remind you what happened this year? How about this?

#365DaysofGratitude

And a sample of what that looked like…

D52

And what it morphed into once a brand building expert set me straight…

Day 275: Drinking coffee like a superhero.
Day 275: Drinking coffee like a superhero.

These yearly focus words or phrases have been building blocks in the new life I’m carving out of the old one that held me stale and stagnant for forty-some years.

My decision to be the change I wanted to see in the world is a perfect foundation. What better architectural framing to use for the changed life than a positive attitude. And if you’ve experienced it, you know there isn’t a warmer, more welcoming color for the walls than gratitude.

So where does that leave me for 2017?

Looking Toward What is Yet to Come

It’s time to clean up the scraps around the building site. You know what I’m talking about, right? Those nails, lumber scraps, and broken boards that didn’t make it into the finished project.

What does that look like in my new life?

Banishing fear.

nofearthemememe

Yep, I’ve been talking about this lion over the past few weeks, and now I’m confronting him head on.

This year, I’ve even adopted at verse from the Bible to fortify my position. I know not every reader here ascribes to the Bible as God’s Word and the guidebook to truth, but I hope you’ll bear with me. I promise not to go all Bible-thumper on you.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear: because fear hath torment” 1 John 4:18

And to start things off right, I have to face down a fear. Tomorrow I’m going under for my first ever surgery. I know 50 years without s surgeon’s knife and now this.

Don’t worry, it’s “routine.” I should be back up and running in no time. But I appreciate all the positive thoughts and prayers.

This year while I’m sweeping out the shiny new space I’ve carved for my dream of author-ship, we’ll be looking fear in the face. By the time this year ends, I hope love will have relocated fear to some continent far away.

Won’t you join me on the journey to a life lived by love without fear?

What’s your goal for 2017? Do you have a word or phrase you like to build around?

Banishing Fear in the New Year

The next time you visit my website to read a new blog, it will be 2017. Which means it’s time for me to think about a new theme to guide my posts and thoughts in the New Year.

Thanks to plenty of reflection (and facing a few scary things), I’ve decided to banish fear in the New Year.

Let’s recap the past few years:

  • Be the change

  • Think Positive

  • An Attitude of Gratitude

D30Those are the themes from 2014 forward. That was the first year I decided that if I had a key thought, it acted like a beacon for me, guiding my writing and decisions.

In truth, these three things have become ingrained in my character. My worldview has been altered by these themes.

Now when I see a problem, I ask myself how I can affect change to help solve it. When something bad happens, I stop myself and search for the positive in the situation.

And rather than opening my mouth to complain, I speak words of thanksgiving. Well, probably not all the time because I’m only human. But most of the time if I start to complain, my gratitude-meter will ask me to check the words before I spew them.

Fear is a bully. The election last month proved this more than anything I’ve experienced recently.

And I don’t like bullies. I advocate for allies to stand up against acts of bullying.

So my theme is going to take on the biggest bully in our world: fear.

New Year New Theme

nofearthemememe

That’s the theme in a nutshell.

It’s inspired by several things.

The first is a verse from the Bible. The man known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” penned these words.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath torment” (1 John 4:18).

Several years ago the same preacher friend who ingrained “accentuate the positive” into my vocabulary delivered a sermon on this verse.

The essence of his message: fear is the opposite of love.

People want to talk about hate being the opposite of love, but if you look at this verse and consider its truth, can’t you see how fear is the real enemy?

We learn to hate what we fear. But if we could be made perfect in love, there would be no room for fear in our hearts.

And no fear = no hate.

Notice how John the apostle said fear has torment. That’s what I mean when I say fear is a bully. Bullies live to torment those they perceive as weaker than them. Tormenting other people makes them feel powerful, confident, in charge.

In order to chain the bully of fear, I’m going to have to learn how to love more perfectly.

Lion Taming in 2017

The biggest bully in a Christian’s world is our adversary the devil. Yes the one Peter calls a lion in his letter (1 Peter 5:18).

The roaring lion is on the prowl to do more than pick on people. He’s looking for a meal. He wants to devour everyone who claims to follow Christ.

The good news: greater is he that is in me than he that is in the world (1 John 4:4).

I have an advocate, an ally. He stands with me against the hungry lion of fear.

He’s already defeated that lion. And I don’t mean tamed him or caged him. The devil is sentenced to a thousand years chained in the bottomless pit and then an eternity in the lake of fire.

That’s why he’s so hungry now. He knows his time is short. So he plans to step up his game and take out as many unsuspecting sheep as he can.

And I’m no match for him.

But I can defeat fear. Through the love of God.

At this point, I’m planning to post about defeating fear in different areas of life. Each month I’ll address a different area. At the moment the topics are family, career, future, today, tomorrow, friendships, world issues, health and death.

Do you have any other areas where fear corners you? Leave a comment and I’ll see if I can address it in a future post.

If this post appealed to you, you might like Hero Delivery. It’s a bulletin with deals and specials from Sharon Hughson. It can be on the way to your inbox in a few clicks.

Check out Finding Focus and my other books. You’re sure to find something worth reading.

Already read one of more? Please leave an honest review on your favorite site. That’s like the author discovering a gold nugget in the bottom of her washing machine.