Monday, July 16, 2007

Latest Version of My Critical Incident

Dixie sits in the back corner of the room, again. She’s not causing trouble, but she is certainly not working on the assignment. While everyone else slaves over the rhetorical analysis timed writing, Dixie is deep in the calculus book. Her timed writing—the kind of thing that everyone else spends 40 minutes sweating blood over—was done 10 minutes early. And it’s good—she saw the metaphors, understood them, and was able to explain not only why the author used them, but also how they made the writing more effective. So far this year I have not found a single activity that challenges this child.

I think she did enjoy the nonfiction projects. The were, as usual, too easy for her—she has no problem coming up with food items related to a theme, and her poster describing the tarted-up women populating her book was visually interesting, but not something that required Dixie to think too deeply. Still, she smiled through it all, laughed with her group members, and rattled off several funny bits from the book.

I worry, though, because most of the time she just looks bored. An exaggerated look of patience seems almost permanently plastered on her face. Where other students are puzzled or confused by the AP curriculum, Dixie understands almost instantly. The vocabulary, the rhetorical terms—nothing fazes her. But every day she must wait while everyone else works to catch up. Luckily, she does have a well-honed sense of humor, so when her peers write “the author used diction,” as part of their analysis, she just laughs and then tries to explain how all words are diction and all authors use words. Dixie knows it’s all too easy for her, but she doesn’t make a big deal about it.

The beige, metal building I teach in sits on a burning-hot asphalt parking lot behind _______________. (Of course we are only 50 yards from a multi-million dollar football stadium, but my students and I work in a tin building. However, that is an issue for another day). The corrugated roof rattles in the slightest breeze, the pounding of a good rain can drown out all conversation, and (since all four garbage dumpsters are just behind us) all discussion pauses when the gigantic garbage trucks make their daily run. I never cease to be amazed at how fascinated high school boys become watching the process of emptying a dumpster. I know they're just waiting for the driver to miss getting the giant mechanical arms into the slots on either side of the dumpster. Personally, I worry that the drivers (who come up our driveway pretty fast) will puncture our little tin building with those giant metal arms. I also have recurring nightmares about them setting one of those behemoths down on top of a wandering student. SPLAT. Not a pretty picture.

The air conditioner in my room whirs constantly and loudly, cooling the room but making us shout to be heard over it. Reading aloud and class discussion are difficult, but we perservere, prefering to pit our voices against the pounding machine rather than perspire profusely. From the back of the room, Dixie continues observing everyone with an air of great patience. She says The Grapes of Wrath is a boring book, even if it does have a bizarre and semi-interesting ending. Actually, several students completely failed to understand the final scene and Dixie is once again called upon to explain the action to her less astute peers.

“How could they miss what happened in that scene?” Dixie can’t help but wonder. It seems so obvious to her and yet….Maybe it was just too strange or too shocking. Probably most of the kids had never before considered such a thing, and the idea couldn’t quite penetrate their teenage brains. Breastfeeding a grown man?! It was just too weird, too repulsive. Why on earth would Steinbeck include that—even use it to finish his book? “I read 600 pages—most of it as dull as dirt, just to end with this bizarre scene,” she told me. And yet…someone as bright as Dixie could understand, could see the profound meaning of such a gesture, offered by the abandoned, grieving mother of a dead infant, to the starving father of another almost-orphaned child.

The musty, dusty smell of paper is in the air as students go back and forth, back and forth in the text, striving to understand characters and their motivations. They're trying to see if, as has been asserted, Steinbeck was advocating a communist system and the book is a diatribe against capitalism. Or, was he simply highlighting a social problem, seeking solutions, but not advocating any single plan. It's a fairly complex writing assignment, and I’m hoping that Dixie will return to her paper and give it a bit more thought. What was Steinbeck arguing in his Nobel Prize winning novel? Finally she bends over her paper once again, pen in hand, and pauses to think. At least with this assignment, she can bring in her knowledge from other courses and make connections--economics would help here, as would her wide acquaintance with various forms of government.

Dixie is one of those kids who seem to know something about everything. Unlike most of her peers, she actually reads the newspaper and pays attention to what’s happening in the world. I remember our first current events quiz. I had warned the class that they would be tested over news items, mostly things on the front page of the paper. Explosions, murders, tsunamis and UFO’s--surely these are the kinds of things to interest teenagers. Besides, I keep telling them, you’ll be old enough to vote in two years and you need to know what’s going on. When I first made the announcement, they complained for a solid five minutes. “I don’t get the newspaper” “Well read it online,” “I don’t have a computer” “Use the computers in the library or listen to the news on the radio” “My radio doesn’t work” “Ride to school with a friend and listen with them” “I walk to school” “Download it and listen on your Ipod” “But I’m a poor student and don’t have an Ipod.” It was endless. Still, on the appointed day, the quiz began. Five questions worth 20 points each and a bonus question. I couldn’t find much exciting news to ask about, so the bonus was a sports question—at least most of them could score an easy 20 points on that. “Number 1, Name two people running for governor of Texas. (Surely they had noticed that one of the candidates was named Kinky). Number 2, What new drug has become a big problem across the Metroplex?” and so on. As a bonus, they got to name the new quarterback for the Cowboys. I repeated the questions, then we exchanged papers for discussion and a trade and grade. I could see Dixie’s big smile of satisfaction. Where other papers had blanks, hers was filled, and she not only knew Rick Perry and Kinky, she also named Chris Bell and Carole Keaton Strayhorn.

Of course, Dixie’s brilliance often comes in handy, especially when the school needs her. When I was looking to fill a spot on the UIL literary criticism team, she was the first person who came to mind. She probably just skimmed Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Trip to Bountiful and Emily Dickinson’s poetry, but she is so good at evaluating multiple choice questions that she placed fifth at the district meet. She also competed in three other events. No sweat for Dixie.

I have often apologized to her for being unable to actually conduct the class at her level, but if I went there, no one else would be able to keep up. So, I try to push her to write at ever higher levels and read more complex, rich texts. And, she is patient with the rest of us mere mortals.


Writers Rock! said...

Sherri, I will use the questions on the rubric to stay focused.

_ Does the writing make sense? Yes, the prose is clear and easily understood after the first reading.

_ Is the problem well-developed and clearly written?
You developed the problem in great depth,providing numerous examples to show your frustration with meeting Dixie's intellectual needs.

_ Is the solution clearly written so
the problems are solved in a logical way?
Part of your frustration lie in that you were not able to solve the problem. n that regard, the essay read more as a series of vignettes, ratherr thana narrative.

_ Do you need to cut or add writing
to make it better? I think you could cut a paragraph or two. For example, the paragraph beginning with "The beige, metal building . . . ' adds nothing to the understanding or solutionof the problem.
I also wqould like to hear Dixie's analysis of the final Grapes of Wrath scene.
I think some of the paragraphs would benefit from connecting phrases or transitions because they don't appear linked. Example: Going from "almost orphaned child." to "The musty, dusty smell of paper . . ."

Final note: What I think would improve an already good piece of writing is to provide descriptive, concrete examples of Dixie's brilliance. You really don't get to that until the end. I really want to know more about her, so I can understand the depth of the problem better. I enjoyed it!

ginny's world said...

Your writing is vivid and beautifully descriptive. However, I feel that you digress from the subject at hand, which is the student (writing about the building issues, what Steinbeck intended). I think you have material for two or three essays here, and it's all interesting !

Christine said...

Girl, you got style down pat! Every word was chosen which such care that the images are cleanly executed in the mind of this reader. I especially enjoyed the description of your portable. I've been there, sista!

In terms of sentence variety--you've got that too! Sentences flow together without repetitious beginnings, adding a short sentence here and there for emphasis. (i.e. SPLAT. Not a pretty picture.)

Thank you. I learned a lot about style from reading your work, though I'm not sure that was the intent of this editing assignment. :)