The how-to time of year

by Mr. Sheehy

Students in my sophomore classes are presenting their demonstration speeches, an assignment that becomes for many of them their favorite English assignment ever. They might enjoy the assignment a lot because they get to share something they care about, but I suspect they like it a lot because many of their classmates demonstrate how to make food and we spend three or four class periods eating desserts. This morning I began with a piece of banana creme pie and a cup of puppy chow–an auspicious opening to my day.

The other speeches reveal the hodgepodge of topics presented every year: how to shave, how to play a car racing video game whose name I cannot recall, how to change a bicycle tire.

In that mood, I am foregoing my normal weekly article in favor of mentioning a few things I have read this week, things of interest, things that show me a few of my own how-to’s.

How to think about standardized testing

I do not have a determined opposition to standardized testing, but I do not count on those tests too much and I do find that most of the testing my students take teaches me nothing about them and, at best, confirms what I already know. Sally Thomas had to give some tests to her children this past week, and she expressed nicely the problems that arise with a test when she noticed a batch of wrong answers on her son’s exam:

What do these wrong answers tell me? If I hadn’t been the one administering the test, if I’d just gotten the scores back in the mail, I might have freaked out. I might have imagined that the kid who follows me from room to room reading aloud and falling down laughing at the funny parts had just been putting me on all this time.

As it is, the conclusion that I draw is that this particular boy really could not give a rat’s patoot for Kate Greenaway and little sunbonnet girls. He probably read the first two sentences, thought, “Nah,” and proceeded to blunder his way through the questions just to get to whatever came next. As far as I recall, he managed to answer other sets of reading-comprehension questions just fine . . .

In examining data, we do freak out when we get these scores back. I don’t need to say more about tests today–perhaps down the road I can pursue the idea more. Suffice for now to say that I once had a student ask me, “Mr. Sheehy, are we going to have to take a test on this?” and I responded, “A test? When was the last time you took a full blown test in my classroom?” She realized then that her worry was unfounded and moved on with her day.

How to use literary terms in real life

I was reading headlines about the Celtics and Cavs and saw an interesting headline about Kevin Garnett and LeBron James and their different styles of leadership. I read it and realized I was looking at a perfect example of character foils.

King James and KG will step onto the TD Garden parquet tonight for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, with their signature pregame rituals accenting their different approaches: Garnett, head bowed, eyes burning, will thump his head into the basket support. James, gazing upward, will grab a fistful of resin and playfully toss it toward the rafters.

These literary terms I “have” to teach are all over the place, and I suspect bringing a few well considered examples will go farther towards teaching them to my students than babbling and babbling about them.

How to make the most of your curiosity

I have made it obvious that I am a David McCullough fan and am currently within 30 minutes of finishing the audio version of Mornings on Horseback. I am aware of many of his other titles and the more I read of him the more I discover how intertwined the topics of his study are. John Adams and 1776 have obvious overlaps in their content. Mornings on Horseback studies the early life of Theodore Roosevelt, and it was during Roosevelt’s administration that the Panama Canal was built (The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal) and at the beginning of his time, in his hometown, that the Brooklyn Bridge was built (The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge). Teddy Roosevelt was Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncle and of course Truman took over for FDR when he died (Truman). It’s all a bit amusing to me because I hadn’t made any of the connections before and now the story of McCullough’s scholarship reads a bit like my reading lists: I was reading this and it sparked an interest in that, which led me to the other thing, which finally dropped me where I am now. In a sense, it is affirmation that it is quite good to follow where your natural curiosity leads you. For McCullough, it appears to lead him to Pulitzer Prizes; for me, it usually leads me to library fines.

Anyway, I need to get my younger children to the dance recital to watch their older sister. Thanks for reading.

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