When a Classroom Lesson Does Not Go As Planned: Where the Wild Things Are

Notes from my teacher diary on a lesson that went south:
Human nature is funky. Take Max, from the Sendak story: brazen and ferocious, ruler over the beasts. Example: stretch your brain and your brain bleeds. The kids become restless. The Wild Things pervade. I forgot to get the book to read to my students and therefore the entire lesson faltered a bit. I wonder sometimes if words can ever be restored; can a word marry itself with unadulterated passion? Can Max ever reconcile the beast-logic with home?


News Repost: David Pogue on NPR

David Pogue was recently interviewed on NPR.

I never laughed so hard in a long time.
He was testing a new camera that has a projector with a video of a clown intended to entertain children while you take their pictures.

Pogue tests the camera on a beach in Connecticut and suspicious mom's ask him what he is doing (he's wearing a leather jacket and pressing buttons on his camera and he tells the ladies, "I am a reporter from the New York Times," and as if this is enough to assuage their wandering minds, they laugh and say okay and ask if the camera is any good!



I was on the floor in my apartment laughing REALLY hard.


Body Language in the High School Classroom and What It Can Tell You About Your Students

The funniest thing about being a teacher is learning the body language of your students and discerning the meaning of their sometimes ineffable facial expressions.
Kids vibing in the classroom.
The Typical Layout of a Classroom Allows for Plenty of Observation into Human Behavior     
      When teaching a lesson, classroom teachers face the class so they see everything their kids are doing during a lesson (even though kids do not sometimes register this fact). On the flip side, kids are typically looking at their teachers all day which explains why kids are often flawless in their uncanny ability to imitate their teachers. Trust me. They can. I've seen it happen.
Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash
Kids Signal How They Are Feeling Through Body Language
      Here are some common messages your high school students are sending while you are delivering quality education in your classroom. N.B. I am not a clinical psychologist and I have not professionally studied human behavior — so take my observations with a grain of salt (or, leave your comments below detailing what you have observed).

  • If a kid has his head down and does not look up for a considerable amount of time, most likely he or she is texting.
  • If a high school student has a pen or pencil in their mouth and they're chewing it with wild abandon it probably means their mind is on something entirely different from whatever you're teaching.
  • If they are twirling their hair: the same thing. But they are probably thinking about someone (not you).
  • Head on the desk: not enough sleep at night. Disengagement.
  • Fidgeters: these kids need to be more active during your lesson. Make them write on the board or do some kind of kinetic task to get that excess energy expended. 
  • Smiling: they are listening. 
  • Staring off into space: something else is more important. Or, they have something on their mind.
  • Blank stare. Does not respond when called. They are listening to music or something. This is a perennial problem in the age of smart devices.  
Nipping Negative Behaviors in the Bud Before They Bloom
      Kids bring into your classroom whatever has happened to them during the course of the day. I did not teach him, but I knew a kindergarten-age child whose father would bring him to school and the kid would cry miserably when dropped off and was unpredictable and incorrigible for the rest of the day. But when the mother dropped him off, the child was well-behaved and acted appropriately for his age. The teacher, who was savvy, told the father not to enter the building for drop-off, and the teacher would meet the child at the entrance to the school when it was the father's turn to bring his kid to school. This school had breakfast available, so the teacher would make sure the student had breakfast and was able to check-in with his feelings — which typically made his day better. The point of the story is that kids bring with them their emotional baggage into the classroom. Most students are not as extreme in their behaviors as the kid I just described, but if as a teacher you stand at the threshold of your classroom as kids enter and take their seats you can pretty much do a "temperature check" of emotions and catch kids who might appear off or "not themselves". It works! One of my high school students would get into arguments with one of his classmates and their frustration with each other would often trickle into my class. But I wanted to get some teaching done and not have to worry about their squabbles. So, I made it a point to always observe these two when they entered my class and very quickly nipped it in the bud if they came in "hot". I would say, "one of you needs a moment. Take a minute by yourself and walk around outside for three minutes and come back".
Making Group Expressions Fun in the Classroom 
       My favorite is group expression: group laughter. I love it when the class acts as a group and the students respond spontaneously to the material and join in expressively. Take a few moments and tell a story. We were talking about embarrassing elementary school experiences: one kid told us how his teacher braided his moppish hair and I spoke about how I pulled down on my second-grade teacher's cardigan at a Halloween Haunted house. I was so scared. When we came out through the other end I had made her sweater into a dress.
       Don't make your lessons boring. Think — would I want to do this? Now. Granted. It is not your job to be the Pixar entertainment center for your students. Academic work can be taxing and kids need to learn self-discipline. We all have experienced tasks that feel tedious — like inputting grades in the grade book or taking attendance. The problem with being a teacher today: it is hard to make every lesson exhilarating. Sometimes, the lesson is boring. How do I make articles interesting? (especially at 7:40 in the AM). And: students are highly critical of their teachers. But, we demand a lot from them, so it goes both ways. Geez, if the opprobrium of the grade would disappear! Anyway: best moment this year: sculptures. Worst moment: being blamed for losing a notebook. Jesus, do I look like a housekeeper? Let's get back to nouns, verbs, and sh&(.


This is a version of me: selves divided like equal slices of crumble cake. I am teacher: "a version of me." I am friend: "a version of me" In each I am never myself: friend, confidante, fucker. I am a version without status to a true self: I shed off that Romantic notion as a Hindi sheds bad karma. Tender lips? A version. An alternative. A choice. Another display.


Aphorism Inspired by "Nightschool in Seventh Avenue Lodging House (Children's Aid Society)"

The more life sucks the more I abandon profundity.
image credit: ca. 1900, Jacob A. Riis, Museum of the City of New York


Literary Terms: "P" is for Paradox

Literary terms are often tricky for students. So I came up with this guide for the perplexed. Paradox - a statement that is apparently self-contradictory or absurd, but really contains a possible truth. Sometimes the term is applied to a self- contradictory false proposition. It is also used to describe an opinion or statement which is contrary to generally accepted ideas. Often, a paradox is used to make a reader consider the point in a new way.

The term is from the Greek paradoxos, meaning “contrary to received opinion” or “expectation.” Here is a list of cogent examples. 
The child is father to the man
William Wordsworth,
“Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” 1807
They have ears, but do not hear !
Psalm 115

Cowards die many times before their deaths
Bill Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Act II, scene ii : line 32

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others

George Orwell, Animal Farm

I can resist anything except temptation
Oscar Wilde

Death, thou shalt die
John Donne, "Death, Be Not Proud"

An example of a paradox in everyday speech:
Deep down, he's really very shallow

Theological Paradox: Christ died so we may have life!

Paradoxical Dialogue:

Me: What is better than eternal bliss?
You: Nothing.
Me: But a slice of bread is better than nothing.
You: So a slice of bread is better than eternal bliss.

Common Paradox:
Nobody goes to that restaurant; it's too crowded.

Time Machine Paradox:
A girl goes into the past and kills her Grandmother.
Since her Grandmother is dead, the girl was never born. If she were never born, she never killed her grandmother.

Physics Paradox
What happens if you are in a car going the speed of light and you turn the headlights on?

Nota Bene:
When a paradox is compressed into two words, as in “loud," silence,” “lonely crowd,” or “living dead,” it is called an OXYMORON.

For teachers:

I made a minilesson available on TpT 

Literary Terms: Paradoxes, Contradictions, and Oxymorons (Minilesson) 

The resource includes the following nifty features for a Minilesson:
  • 2-sided handout on paradoxes, contradictions, and oxymorons
  • 15 quotes and example from literature and other common sources
  • 1 "Further Reading" guide to take your students to the next level

Word Diary: How I Discovered Coded Languages Like "Pig Latin" and "King Tut" as a Child (And As an Adult Learned More About Their History)

In this post (which is an update of the original post I wrote in 2009), I write about the use of encoded words and phrases that have meaning only to the initiated — or, put in another way — how we can even understand each other at all! If you think about it — words are just sounds, aural signifiers that are inert, the utterances of our vocal cords. But put into context, into meaning, and then voila — we have utterances that can break through the void and become language.

Nonsensical Languages in Linguistic Terms

Nonsensical languages are so much fun. Nonsensical in the linguistic sense, that the use of words, syntax, order of words, encoded meanings, enact a playful dynamic to undercut the formal use of the dominant language form and to lay bare the construct of language, how it works and operates. You know you are a fan of the nonsensical if you can enjoy Lewis Carrol's "The Jabberwocky." I am stunned that I understand what a vorpal sword is and chortle. Amazing. Simply amazing.

The Jabberwocky by Lewis Carrol

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
      Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
      And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
      The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
      And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
      The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
      He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
      Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
      He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

Most of the words in this poem are completely made-up. They are neologisms. It was only recently, after they entered the dominant language, that words like chortle and snort came into the main as "English words". But coded languages do not only appear in poetry. Look to the child's playground. Or other social spaces where the need to speak in secret emerges. Do you remember Pig Latin as a kid? I-ay o-day! We used to speak Pig Latin in the schoolyard so we could say bad words. Uck-fay ou-yay!

King Tut

"Hello" in King Tut Language
But, what about King Tut language? I stumbled upon this coded language* several years ago, working as a page in a public library - you come across a plethora of arcane, but useful books.

King Tut is a language I read about as a child in a book by Paul Dickson — it involves taking all consonants and simply doubling them and inserting a "U" in the middle. It works like code. Vowels are pronounced as usual. Here is the alphabet:

King Tut Letters

A, Bub, Coy, Dud, E, Fuf, Gug, Huh (or Hoy), I, Juj (or Joy), Kuk, Lul, Mum, Nun, O, Pup, Quk, Rur (or Roy), Sus, Tut, U, Vuv, Wuw (or Woy), Xux, Yuk (or Yoy), Zuz

Double Letters

If a letter is doubled, like in "book" you say bub-o-square-kuk.
"Hello, How are you?"
in King Tut is rendered
"Huh-e-lul-square-o, Huh-o-wuw a-rur-e yuk-o?" 
When King Tut is spoken it is unintelligible only to the uninitiated. It sounds like complete nonsense. But once you understand the code (i.e., the rules,), it's meaning becomes clear. Once you learn how it works, the code is broken and you can understand it. I have taught coded languages like King Tut to my freshman English class to impress upon them the artificial construct of a language (although I don't tell them that is why I am teaching it to them). 

It is quite impressive how quickly the students can understand what I am saying once I explain the rules. And what was at first an unknown string of sounds becomes intelligible.

But — of course, coded languages come into being for a purpose. And while I did not at first know the origins of King Tut, I learned about it as a coded language that was used by enslaved peoples in North America.

Update (August 2021):
I wrote about King Tut Language on my blog in 2009. I first read about it in the 1990s when I was a kid — reading about it in a book by Paul Dickson. Subsequently, I have learned that Tut Language has its origins in American slavery. Enslaved people used Tut to communicate amongst themselves and to practice literacy without being caught. Tutnese, or Tallehash, is way more complex in its original form than the modified version I learned. In fact, the alphabet I learned as a kid most likely is not Tut’s original form. When speaking in Tut, or writing in Tut, the coded words appeared unintelligible to outsiders; this allowed enslaved persons to speak, write, and practice literacy without being punished — as learning to read and write was forbidden by slaveholders. Enslaved people fought against their masters and learned in secret, and in code — in a way that shows the resiliency and tenacity of the human spirit. I apologize for my ignorance in originally writing this post, thinking that Tut was a child's language (like Pig Latin). It has a much richer history. And one that seems to be getting noticed as people start learning more about their individual histories.

Thank you to Gloria McIlwain's book "Tut Language" — it was the book that I read that introduced me to the Tut language's history and origins. Check it out if you wish to learn more. Here is the pronunciation table she provides (using the phonetic alphabet):
McIlwain, Gloria. “Tut Language.” American Speech, vol. 69, no. 1, 1994, pp. 111–112.
*(thanks to Dickson's Word Treasury by Paul Dickson)
Also, thanks to Wordie