Once Upon a Time in a Classroom, Far, Far Away

“Panoply”  makes my teeth itch. It’s an English teacher word (not its fault; I’m not blaming it), one of those that kids learn in high school as they develop their vocabulary so they can write longer more descriptive essays. Unfortunately, as a college writing teacher, it was my job to unteach them and it wasn’t always easy. Lots of students felt betrayed. “But my high school English teacher said…” I tried to explain it as the way a giant amorphous gaseous unfocused section of the universe could collapse into a singularity of immense gravity and power, smaller and more intense.

“Panoply” goes along with “plethora.” Back in the day, when I saw either of these words little worms crawled under the skin on my arm. I knew what was ahead of me.

So who were these kids? Mostly they were kids who thought using big words (that they never heard in real life) would impress their teacher. In their mind, “English teachers like these words. If I use these words, she will like me and I will get a better grade.” That smarmy, unctuous little creature didn’t get it.

“Why didn’t I get an A? I always got A’s on my English papers in high school.”

“Well, Lamont, you didn’t follow directions. This isn’t supposed to be an argumentative essay. It’s supposed to be an observation of a place in nature. I gave you a handout. All you had to do was fill it in as you looked around.”

“You never said that.”

“OK, that’s not a conversation I’m having, Lamont. If you look at this panoply of papers here, done by your classmates, you’ll see that everyone did the assignment except you. You tell me what that means, ‘K?”


“Lamont, you want a chance to do this assignment right? You don’t deserve it, but I’ll give it to you.” I didn’t say, “Because I’m the all-powerful deity in charge of this room for one hour three times a week and from my high promontory, I can make all things new again.” It was a PR stunt. A kid like this didn’t deserve a second chance, but if I gave it to him, it would speak well of me. It might (often did) turn into a teaching opportunity for a skill more important than writing. He might learn that his homework is for HIM not for ME.


“Yeah, really. I know you know what the assignment is. It’s on the syllabus, it’s on the handout I gave you.”

“Uh, I never got the handout.”

“How’d that happen?”

“Uh, I wasn’t here.”

“Awright. Here you go. Bring your paper Monday. You’ll lose a few points, but if you don’t do this project, a lot of the stuff in class won’t make sense, OK?”

“Thanks, professor.”

I had an immense panoply of these kids. An entire plethora.



Honking My Own Horn

For the first few months after I left teaching, my brain was busy trying to make sense out of a 30+ year career that had ended. I wrote about it (big surprise), a small text dump of philosophy and experiences. A blog reader here on WP suggested I post on Medium. I found myself part of a “magazine” — The Synapse — dedicated to teaching.

One of my pieces, “Student Centered vs. Teacher Center Learning” has been read by thousands of people, mostly young teachers. They’re highlighting passages, clapping for the content, following me. It makes me so so happy to have said something useful — after all — and helpful, for the ones just walking into the classroom now as teachers.

Another thing that’s happened related to teaching since I left, the Youtube videos I posted for my students (and never took down) are helping students today. Once in a while I get a comment thanking me. “That was the clearest explanation of the thesis statement ever. Thank you Mrs. Kennedy.”

I don’t think of myself as a teacher any more. I’ve also realized it was a way to make a living and I enjoyed it, mostly. It was NOT the grand “vocation” I often believed it to be back in the day. It seems to have been a long, long time ago that I was teaching, though it was only 3 years. But when I learn that something I’ve written has helped a young teacher or a kid in an English class, I feel warm inside.


Back in the Goodle Days of Teaching Freshman Comp

As many people know, I was once an English teacher. I taught composition, critical thinking and business communication. Once in a GREAT WHILE (like twice in two decades) I was “allowed” to teach summer literature. I spent 35 years of my life reading student papers. What’s more (and possibly strange) I liked it. I liked teaching post-adolescents and I never got tired of it. Everything I ended up hating about “teaching” really had little to do with teaching or students.

There is a thing about college freshmen and sophomores, it’s a good thing, but it’s also challenging, funny and annoying, they think they’re VERY VERY VERY smart and that they created the world and everything in it when they hit 18. I thought this, too, at that time of my life, so I have and always have had total sympathy with the hubris of youth. Now I know two things about it 1) their frontal lobes are not completely grown, 2) if we didn’t feel that way as young people the world would never change.

They wrote papers and they confused words. They confused words because they wanted to use big words. They had a few things going on in their minds. 1) they wanted to use big words because they were smart people and smart people use big words, 2) they wanted to impress their English teacher and everyone KNOWS English teachers are impressed by big words, and, 3) you get good grades by impressing your teacher. The advent of “spell check” made this problem even more interesting. :p

I think “plethora” is probably the favorite big word of college freshmen to use in their English essays. I’ve read that word almost exclusively on freshman English papers. One student even said, “Did you like how I used ‘plethora’?”

They also liked to get on their soapboxes. In order that they learn to be logical in presenting their arguments, they were required to write a PERSUASIVE PAPER on a controversial topic. I made rules. They could not write about legalizing pot, capital punishment or abortion. “Why, professor?”

“Well, here’s the deal. I don’t want to read a bunch of papers about legalizing pot, capital punishment or abortion. You gotta’ see this from my side. You’re going to write ONE paper. I’m going to take home 30 papers from each of my 3 freshmen comp classes. I don’t want to read 90 papers on abortion, would you?”


“All right then. Come up with something YOU really care about.”

“I care about that.”

“Find something else.” If a student were too invested in one of those three topics I was pretty sure they already had a paper and works cited page, probably from high school. There was also the reality that there are  9 million freshman papers available for sale on those three topics… I hated dealing with plagiarism.

If you have never sat down to a stack of freshman level persuasive papers, you have not lived (huh?). 🙂 Usually they were pretty OK. Occasionally they were abysmal, often they were cliché, sometimes they were inspiring. There was always at least one paper that took it upon itself to defend Freedom and the American Way. Almost always that paper told me that it was my right to peruse happiness.



“Hole in the Ground” – Memoir

I don’t have kids, but I do have students. Considering that every semester I teach between 150 and 200 students, and I’ve been teaching for (YIKES!) 35 years, that’s, uh, a lot. 6000 students, roughly? (I try not to teach roughly.) This past semester in my upper division writing class, one of the required projects was a memoir. I wasn’t sure of the value of this, to be honest, but my students got behind it 100%. I started off the project by telling stories from my life (which, they say, has been interesting so far). Along with the stories I told them, there were three examples in their workbook. One was mine, there was Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” and Langston Hughes’ “Salvation.” They liked all of them. This set the bar for them; nothing mysterious; just tell your tale.

Somehow, probably for catharsis and because they think sad experiences are more meaningful than happy ones, people feel that the sorrow of their life MUST be told. I read some harrowing stories.  My students and their memoirs dwelled on the hard stuff from their lives. The stories ranged from being with their grandmother when she died of cancer to losing faith in the military after two stints of active duty in Iraq…

There really were very few happy stories. I thought of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the woman about whom I wrote my masters thesis. At one point she was adamant and straight with her contributors, basically saying, “No more elegies, for the love of God!” Her language was more flowery than mine. She said, “Feelings of grief are universal and a well-established theme for poetry, but we could not publish all of them lest we make our magazine a repository of sorrow, only.” One story, however was, for me, very happy in the experience of watching one student writer learn what it really means to write.

This student wrote about his friend’s suicide, but his first draft was about as powerful as the prose on the back of a toothpaste tube. I chided the student, “Really? That’s it? That’s how it was? Dude, this is a C.”

“How can I get an A?”

“SAY something. What was it LIKE for you! I’m sorry, but this is just boring.”


“Yeah. I wasn’t there. I’m sure it was awful for you, but you haven’t told me anything about that. How would you like to be me and have to read a hundred boring sad stories?” I grinned. He cracked up.

“I guess that’s kind of what your life’s like, huh, Professor?”

That weekend he sat down and tried to remember how he felt when he learned his friend had jumped off a bridge. He wrote it. He couldn’t even wait for class for me to read it; he emailed it to me he was so excited.”It was amazing. I just sat down and thought about it. I tried to remember everything I could about that night and then, bam! It was incredible! I felt all of it again. I could see everything.” He wrote WELL. I was a very happy writing teacher because that’s what it means to write. Not some academic formula that gets a grade, REAL writing is the expression of the human soul across time. He went from looking at writing as an obnoxious but necessary task to looking at writing as an experience and a process through which he could better understand life.

It’s not easy to write a good memoir, but my grandfather succeeded. He was born on a farm in 1870 near Keokuk, Iowa, and “only” finished the third grade. That’s not to be mistaken with his being poorly educated, because he wasn’t. He was — for any time — extraordinarily literate. Around the end of WW I, he took his then little family to settle in Montana. I was lucky to inherit two of his books; Les Miserables and a history book, Queen of Republics. I believe he was also either somewhat sadistic or had a dark sense of humor. His custom was to open the cold, dark month of December (the family was very large and very poor, living on the high plains of Montana in the 1930’s) with Whittier’s “Snowbound” and then take the family through their frugal Christmas with Les Miserables. I can imagine them saying, “You think you have it bad? What about Jean Val Jean?” and having disputes about the ethics of stealing to feed your family.

Along with two books I have two things he wrote; one a memoir. It’s one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.

“Between my place and town there is a hole in the ground. A long time ago I noticed some boys digging. I stopped and looked. A small hole. They built a fire and I furnished the marshmallows. We roasted them and then they forgot the hole in the ground. Some played marbles and some flew their kites, but the next spring a new bunch of boys enlarged the hole, built a fire, I furnished the marshmallows and by then it was time to play marbles and fly their kites so year after year a new bunch of boys would enlarge the hole and finally we organized a club. We named it the hole in the ground. I was too old to dig so they elected me an honorary member with the title “Dad.” Every spring a new bunch of boys dig until the hole is big enough for a basement and then came Pearl Harbor. I would go to the depot to see the boys leave. Just boys they shout, ‘Bye Dad’.”
S. A. Beall, Hardin, Montana, 1941

Grandpa Beall Calf