Saturday, July 25, 2009

How Old Are You, Mr. R?

Eleven-year-olds, no matter how gifted and intelligent they are, have no concept of age. Oh, they know their parents are older than they are...and their grandparents are older than that. But the idea of just how many years difference there is in ages is lost to them.

Similarly, all of history that occurred before they were born, they believe, took place in a relatively short period of time. The Civil War, which took place a couple of years after the American Revolution, was followed shortly thereafter by the Vietnam War, though World Wars I and II got squished in there somewhere as well. So it is not surprising that they don't question when I tell them that I went to school back in the days when dinosaurs ruled the Earth and that we used to have run quickly so the pterodactyls couldn't swoop down and grab us.

I used to tell my CTY students that I went to school with Teddy Roosevelt and joined him in the charge up San Juan Hill. (Someone once asked me how I settled on TR and I replied that my father had always said he'd gone to school with Abraham Lincoln, so I had to pick someone about thirty years younger.) Saying that we fought in the Spanish-American War in '98 did not raise any objections once we rolled into the 21st century; they never questioned whether it was 1898 or 1998 and just presumed the latter. "Teddy got to be president of the United States and I'm here teaching a writing course," I would say.
Only one student ever questioned the veracity of my statements and said, "Mr. R, if you were really at San Juan Hill,what did you see there?" "Lots of Spaniards with rifles," I replied. She shrugged and said, "Oh, maybe you were there after all."
But I retired the story a few years ago when I was telling the parents of my students that guessing my age becomes something of a game during the session. When I laughingly said, "I tell them I went to school with Teddy Roosevelt," one of the mothers said, "You did?"

As far as actually guessing my age, they have come up with some amusing ideas:
One student in 2006, discovering that my email address was BobRo32, decided that I was either 32 years old or born in 1932. Since the latter would have meant I was 74 at the time, he opted for the former.
Another student thought she could trick me into giving the answer by asking, "Mr R, how old were you when you were 16?"
One year we asked the students to write down how old they thought Lauren and I were. The range for me was between 34 and 70, while Lauren's age (then 23, if I recall) was guessed as anywhere between 17 and 38. So, in one scenario, Lauren, easily young enough to be my daughter, was older than me!

Sometimes the students get so caught up in their own theories about how to figure out my age that they ignore clues that I drop into conversation. When we walk to lunch and some of them lag behind, I will say, "I'm older than any five of you glued together -- why am I walking faster than you are?" It's rare that any of them do that bit of math.
In one of our lessons, we read a number of radio plays that I wrote. The characters are a group of high school seniors and all the stories take place in 1969. "Hmm," Lauren and I will muse, "I wonder if there is any significance to the fact that all these plays are set in the same year." This year, as in most years past, no one caught on.

In the end, they eventually guess my age or I tell them, but the result never seems to be as interesting to them as the game. After all, whether I am 58 or 88 or 132 doesn't mean much to them. It will be many, many years before they reach my age, whatever it is. Indeed, just as all of history seems to have taken place in my lifetime, just as much will happen in theirs.
And when "forever" seems to be the last half hour of a class day that crawls along at a snail's pace, how can they ever conceptualize how long fifty years will take?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

CTY - Two and a Half Weeks Later

I have been at CTY for two and a half weeks and I realized that I have not posted anything since Day 1. What does this say about a man teaching a writing course who does not take the time to write?

There's nothing quite like having two full-time jobs to keep one busy, especially when they are two hundred miles apart. In addition to teaching the Writing & Imagination class here at CTY in Chestertown, MD from 9:00 till 4:30 each weekday, I have been doing lots of work at Combined Resources, thanks to the wonders of remote access.

Well, to be honest, it wasn't easy the first week. Though we have wi-fi here at Washington College, they have a security system that does not allow me to access my office computer.
My visit to the campus IT Help Desk went this way.
Bob: I've been trying to access my computer at home and it will not connect. Do you have something blocking it.
IT Guy: Yes.
Bob: Is there a way around that?
IT Guy: No.
Bob: Any suggestions?
IT Guy: They have free wi-fi at the bakery and Play It Again, Sam (a bar/coffee shop).

So, during the first week, I would pack up my laptop at the end of the school day and drive over to Sam's, where I would drink iced coffee and do work remotely on my Combined computer. Then I would email a variety of files to myself from the office computer, download them on the laptop, and return to the dorm so I could work on them.
Thankfully, this problem was solved when I returned home last weekend and picked up a wi-fi card that Howard and Susan (the owners of Combined) had gotten for me. Now I can make my own iced coffee and sit in the dorm room doing work.

Last weekend I headed for home on Friday evening. Though it was a holiday weekend, I lucked out an hit no traffic and made it home in about 3 1/2 hours. As I had hoped, most people who were going for a long weekend were already there. I had time to sort through the mail and do laundry.
On Saturday morning, I began the day with a platelet donation. (People who need blood and platelets don't take holidays off, so I try to do it on those weekends as often as possible.) Then I drove to the office to attend to paperwork that had piled up there (and sort through a variety of things I had printed remotely).
At noon, I went home and we had a 4th of July barbecue with Bob and Deb Greenberger. Swimming and eating ensued.
After they left, I went back to the office (which is, thankfully, only 5 miles from home) to finish up some more work, print out a variety of things I would need this week, and pack up all my belongings because the company would be moving to the new office across the street in my absence.
Sunday morning I did a few chores, packed up my now-clean laundry, and hit the road, hoping to avoid all the people who had gone away for the holiday weekend who would now be heading home. Good luck continued to be mine as I made it back to C'town in less than four hours.

And here I am a week later, finally caught up on both CTY work and Combined Resources work!


So, what of the class? Twelve delightful 11-year-olds, each with his or her quirks, with writing styles ranging from extremely creative to wildly bizarre and handwriting that goes from incredibly neat to "Kid, you should be a doctor!"
Invariably, each new class ends up focused on some odd topic, be it some line from a TV series (During the heyday of Beavis and Butthead, some of the students were obsessed with having characters say "Fire, Fire!" in everything.), a class mascot (which one year was a fly that was trapped in the classroom), or figuring out how old I am (since I went to school when dinosaurs ruled the Earth).
This year, it is zombies. We have had haiku about zombies, which, when we pointed out that the particular form of poetry was about "things in nature," was defended with, "Well, it is a thing in nature."
We have also had short stories, radio plays, news stories, and advertisements with zombies in them. One would think the world was awash in the undead. (Come to think of it, considering the incredible success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and a hoped-for similar response to Laurie's upcoming Zombie Lit Notes: The Undead Ate My Brain, and Now I Need This Study Guide to Help Me with My Homework! maybe it is!)
We have also had lots more traditional writing, colorful poetry, clever short stories, well-crafted (and not-so-well-crafted) five paragraph essays, and much more. Fifty-six assignments so far... and counting.
Lauren Strohecker, my co-instructor, and I have been working together since 2003, so we have most of our "routines" well-honed. Lauren is known here as "Bobstier," because, in her first year, she explained to someone who had confused her with another Lauren that she was "Lauren, Bob's T.A." and the person thought it was her name. So she became the daughter of French Canadian fur trappers and has been Bobstier ever since.
Many of our writing prompts and lessons center on what has become known as "Mr. R's Multiple Personalities, in Order." Dr. Wolf W. Wolfgang (the head of Science here at Washington College and an expert on the Marianas Trench "vich as you know iss the deepest part of the Specific Ocean") and Ulysses S. Feedum (head of Wash Coll's food services who says, "Don't ask what is in the scrapple; ask who is in the scrapple!" in a Yosemite Sam voice) play key roles in one lesson, while nerdy-voiced Walter W. Weebil, president and CEO of Weebil International shows up in another. A lesson on plots, in which I adopted a French accent simply to pronounce "denouement" has evolved into an entire morning of teaching by Jacques Poupon. Big-voiced Rock Payper is host to "The Strongest Link" and "Think Fast." games that we play when we have a few minutes at the end of the day.
Not to be outdone, Lauren also has a variety of identities, including Ima Server, Mr. Feedum's inept sidekick; Dr. Willa B. Better, the narcoleptic head of emergency medicine at the local hospital; and Candi Caine, Rock's lovely assistant and scorekeeper. (Lauren was also Wanda Weebil, Walter's sister, for awhile, but hated doing the nasally voice so much that poor Wanda has since perished in a skiing accident.)

The important thing is that the students have a good time, that they learn to enjoy writing (and not see it as a punishment, which, unfortunately, too many teachers seem to use it as), and they are exposed to as many different forms of writing as we can cram into fifteen days of classes. None of them is going to be leaving the course able to write a best-selling novel (unless they were able to do so before they got here), but next time they are in an English class and a teacher mentions writing a cinquain, the hamburger theory of essay writing, or "FANBOYS" (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), they'll be able to say, "Hey, I know about that!" (Most often, however, I hear from former students when they are in a science class and the question comes up about the deepest part of the ocean! Dr. Wolfgang would be proud.)


Finally, lest you think that this is all work and no play, I have to admit that I have had the time to play ultimate Frisbee on half a dozen evenings and poker a few times as well. I borrowed a bicycle and pedaled around town one afternoon. Yesterday, a baker's half-dozen of us went tubing on the Brandywine River and this evening a bunch of us went kayaking. I've been to see "Up," "The Hangover," and "Public Enemies" at the local movie theater.

And now I've even had the time to write a blog entry!