Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Crazy Little Thing Called English

This week, my little study group has grown to include two Hispanic girls (one from Mexico, one from Cuba) and a quiet young Mexican boy. We've started a short story unit. The short stories in our text are written for students who, ideally, read at at least a ninth grade level. My study group is maybe lucky to read at a fourth grade level due to their language issues. My initial plan had been to scout out some third and fourth grade level literature books and select stories at their level. The first such book I read was rather old, the stories were really bland, and the whole idea ended up feeling almost insulting -- asking these kids to read stories about boring birthday parties rather than the exciting sorts of things covered in the literature book their peers are using. I also knew that I wanted to still try to teach them key literary concepts like conflict, protagonist, antagonist. Heck, I might even get bold and try something like irony. Those concepts were impossible with most of the stories I was finding in these elementary-level texts.

Our counselor, wh0 works closely with our ELL kids, told me how she had used summaries when working on novels with the kids last year. I thought there might be something there. Our first short story in the English I curriculum is Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game." (It's a story I bet many of you read your freshman year of high school, too -- it's the one about the guy on the island that hunts people. Ring any bells?) It's a pretty long story with some complicated vocabulary for newbie English speakers. There's a reason, though, that it's taught in pretty much every freshman-level English course in the country, and that's because it's a pretty engaging story that crosses gender lines in terms of appeal and it's also a great way to teach some fundamental literary concepts to kids -- conflict, resolution, protagonist, antagonist, foreshadowing, mood, et cetera. The basic plot is something my kids could handle; it's just the vocabulary that would overwhelm them. So what I did was find a rather lengthy summary of the story online that I then went through and simplified the language a little more and added some more details from the story that would give them a deeper sense of the plot. I ended up with a five-page version of a story that's roughly 15 pages in our text. I then decided to take a similar approach with the other short stories in our book -- including Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" and the classic "The Lady or the Tiger?" (Both of which have incredibly challenging vocabulary even for high school freshmen!)

As I've worked with my students during the short story unit, it remains amazing to me what they do and do not know in terms of language. Slang presents particular challenges. There's a line in "The Most Dangerous Game" where the villainous General Zaroff informs our hero, Rainsford, that there's no need to argue about the sanctity of human life because he hunts "the scum of the earth." My Spanish-speaking girls looked the word "scum" up in the Spanish-English dictionary and grew more confused when the definition for "scum" showed them a word that meant "lather." It led to a discussion of bathtub scum and what it might mean to call people that same word. The girls were rather stunned and insulted, particularly when Zaroff goes on to clarify that by "scum" he means black people, Chinese people, et cetera. Yup, the dude's a straight-up racist.

Sometimes, though, slang becomes a different sort of challenge. One of the great, classic lines comes at the end of the story when Rainsford and Zaroff finally meet face to face. Zaroff tells Rainsford he's won the hunt and tells him he will put him on a boat for home. Rainsford refuses this concession, declaring his intention to let this fight be a fight to the death by telling the general, "I am still a beast at bay." I knew "beast" was a word the kids might not know, but it's such a classic line in that story that I wanted to keep it and use it as a discussion of how Rainsford has lost touch with his humanity during this hunt. So I asked the kids, "Do you know what a beast is?"

Without missing a beat, one of my students (let's call her Angelica) says, "It means really good at something."

For those of you who don't spend twelve hours a day with teenagers, let me fill you in here. "Beast" has become a slang term for just what Angelica said. An example of "beast" in action: "I'm really beast at football" or "I beasted that game of Words with Friends." So for poor Angelica, she had that moment where she THOUGHT she knew the word, was excited to know the answer, and ended up being wrong because slang had let her down. Once she found out what "beast" really meant, of course, her understanding of its usage as slang became a bit muddier, too.

And it got me thinking about how we use language, how we take words and twist their meanings so far away from what was originally intended that kids like Angelica and my other ELL kids are fighting an uphill battle just trying to become proficient in speaking this language. When I was walking through the parking lot of Wal-Mart this weekend, I saw a bumper sticker that said, "Welcome to America. Now speak the language." It sounds like a great idea in theory -- the idea that people who move to a country (any country) should be proficient in that country's language. If I moved to France, I'd better brush up on that high school/college French and be able to function. This notion, though, is so much easier said than done, particularly when you're talking about English itself, a language that seems to break more rules than it follows. There's no consistency in phonetics. There are all these crazy idioms that make no sense when considered at a literal level. There's all this slang that seems to exist solely to twist the meaning of words around in such a way that they make no real sense. Here are these kids, none of whom necessarily CHOSE to move here, thrown into this environment where they are trying to learn this horribly difficult language, and they are faced with this sort of taunting intolerance. How many of us can say that our ancestors came to this country with a proficient grasp of English? Okay, yeah, the majority of my ancestors came from England and Ireland, so all they had to contend with was the accents, but a chunk of my mother's family came from Sweden. I'm thinking that they likely had not mastered English before stepping off that boat and heading across the country to Illinois. Somewhere in our family tree is someone who struggled to learn this language, so maybe a little compassion is in order since somewhere in our genetic past, a little compassion was thrown our way. Rather than slapping a bumper sticker on our cars that chastises those who are trying to learn our massive language (and ignoring the irony that they probably can't READ that bumper sticker if their language is that poor), how about volunteering to help with local agencies that reach out to non-native populations? How about taking the time in a store to help someone who's struggling to figure out what's what? The time I've spent this year with kids like Mya and Angelica have given me a stronger appreciation for how hard this is for them and how desperately they want to be successful. They know language is the key to that success. It's just a matter of finding the right lock and getting that door open. It takes a village, guys, not a firing squad.

Post script: I gave my kids a quiz over the story Friday afternoon. As soon as she turned it in, Angelica asked me to grade hers. She got an A-. (She got two vocabulary words mixed up.) Based on her reaction to that A-, I would guess that Angelica had never gotten an A on anything in her life. She jumped up and down and squealed with joy. It was perhaps one of the most moving moments in my teaching career. I almost cried to see how happy this little twenty point quiz had made this girl.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

That's So Gay-ven

I'm an English teacher. That role in my life brings with it a passion for language. I love words. I love speaking and writing and reading and thinking about the way words come together to communicate ideas. I love profanity. Sometimes, one good exclamation of the f-word really makes things better. I love the creative ways in which we create language and the inventive ways that slang enters our vocabulary. What I don't like, though, is when we use language as a weapon of intolerance and as a way to marginalize people.

I very rarely write referrals to students for using profane language in my presence. I'm one of those teachers when I hear a student swear, I'm more likely to say, "Hey, language!" and usually they sheepishly apologize for letting the f-bomb drop in front of me. There have only been a few times when I've actually sent a student to the office for offensive language. All but one of those instances have been times when profane, abusive language has been directed at me. I know I'm a bitch; I don't need a student calling me that to my face. (Do it behind my back the way God intended it, people!)

Then there was that other time. Students were working in small groups on some project I had given them. All of a sudden, I hear a student exclaim loudly, "This assignment is so gay!"

Of course, I'm sure you're all thinking, "What's the problem? Mel clearly had her students doing an assignment on homosexuality. She's so cool and progressive."


What this student MEANT to say was that the assignment was any number of negative terms -- stupid, difficult, bad, sucky, shitty, et cetera. Instead of using one of those terms, though, the student chose to use "gay."

When did this become acceptable? When did we as a society decide to turn a blind eye to people using "gay" as a negative term synonymous with stupid? Before you roll your eyes and call me a prude, think about it. What if that student had said, "This assignment is so black!" (Or used an even more offensive term than "black.") "This assignment is so female!" "This assignment is so basketball player!" Do any of those make any amount of sense? Wouldn't we find those statements inappropriate on a variety of levels?

Somewhere along the line, though, we've decided that it's okay to let "that's so gay" happen. The same is true of the use of the word "retarded." That word flies around like bumblebees at a honey convention, and yet we continue to allow it to happen despite the tremendous amount of insensitivity it displays. At some point, we as a society have to make choices about how we use language and the subliminal messages we are sending to each other (and our kids) when we allow certain groups to become synonyms for bad, stupid, or downright undesirable. At some point, we have to choose acceptance over ignorance. At some point, we have to choose understanding over persecution. At some point, we have to realize there's nothing wrong with being gay. When that happens, "That's so gay" makes as little sense as saying "That's so delivery truck driver." It's just a fact of life and nothing more.

Monday, October 17, 2011

X'ed Out

I know I promised I'd write more about The X-Factor, and I know that I've dropped the ball on that one. Part of it has been just general busy-ness with life, and part of it has been a general fatigue with the audition episodes. It's hard to get too excited during the audition episodes because there's no guarantee that a early favorite will ever appear on screen again or that the future winner will be featured prominently enough to be remembered when the live performances begin. For the most part, the show didn't stray too far from the Idol template -- yes, there was the live audience and the weepy shots of the families watching backstage, but it was still the same general format.

The same is true of "Boot Camp". Did anyone see any major differences between Boot Camp and Idol's Hollywood Week? Okay, it was nice to see that the groups appeared to have been assigned, eliminating the weepy shots of the shunned contestant trying to find a group (ANY GROUP) that will accept him/her. For the most part, egos seemed to be relatively tame here compared to Idol, significantly less drama than usual, but still relatively entertaining. I do wish that we would get to see a little more of this stage of the competition, if only to find out what happened to early favorites or to grow more attached to potential winners.

So now, we're down to the final 32 who have been divided up amongst the judges. (I totally called that Simon would get the girls and L.A. would get the guys but figured Mama Paula would get the geriatric group and Baby Nicole would get the groups since that is a little closer to their own experiences.) I feel a little sorry for the groups that weren't assigned to Simon since they didn't get a trip to Paris out of the deal, but I guess the Hamptons and Malibu is acceptable. (I also loved how many of the contestants seemed to have decided that they were going to spend their $5 million on THIS house. I don't think they're for sale, kids, and if they are, whoever REALLY owns them will want a lot more than $5 million for them!)

This week, the final 32 gets whittled down to 16, and there's no denying that it's going to be a brutal process. Most of the final 32 gave pretty solid performances, and there will be at least one performer who seemed to knock it out of the park that is going to be eliminated this week. Based on Simon's comment last night about the girl "everyone thought was going to win" being eliminated, my money is on Melanie Amaro, who was featured prominently in the promos leading up to the show with her breathtaking version of "Listen" but who seemed to be a bit dated last night. She gave a terrific performance, but it just didn't seem all that contemporary. (I can't help but wonder, though, if Melanie might have fared better if Mariah Carey had been able to escape the hurricane to fly to Simon's side as his advisor since there's a lot of early Mariah in Melanie's style. Also, I would love to keep Melanie around if only to hear Simon say, "Hi, Mel," every week...but that's just ego.)

I also worry for another one of my favorites, the adorable Brewer Boys. Paula and Pharrell didn't seem nearly as impressed with them as I was. With the popularity of Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers, these two kids could fit into a niche market and maybe enjoy a little crossover success since they're so darn cute, but they may be a little too low key in the face of the other groups that seemed to have a lot more going on in terms of energy and performance. Sigh! Maybe THEY'LL get snatched up by Nickelodeon!

No, the new candidate for Nick stardom probably lies with the judge-created dectet Intensity. In all honesty, how cute were they? With the huge popularity of Kidz Bop and Glee, there is a market eager for this kind of fresh-faced energy and talent. I have to admit that I kept thinking about the end of A Mighty Wind where we find out that the New Main Street Singers have their own tv show where they play Supreme Court judges by day and a singing group by night and how this would be the perfect vehicle for Intensity. I think, though, that the pressure will be on Paula to include at least one of the judge-made groups, and Intensity gave a far stronger performance than Lakota Rayne (who should be eliminated for the pretentious spelling of "rain" if nothing else).

One thing that seemed apparent to me tonight was the fact that the group configuration might already need a little shaking up. There are a lot of really talented kids in this competition -- Rachel Crow, Drew Ryniewicz, Jazzlyn Little. Simon seemed to express a concern about the pressures of this competition on the younger competitors. Why not create an under-18 (or under-21) group where these young kids would get a mentor who could give them the sort of support and guidance they'll need? It would remove a lot of these younger kids from the "men" or "women" categories -- creating room for the Over-30's who are certainly strong enough to compete with the younger singers on their own merits. Give me Josh Krajcik or Leroy Bell over Nick Voss any day!

Okay, so here are my predictions for how the final 16 is going to shape up.

I think Melanie Amaro is a goner. I really do. I also worry for one of my personal favorites, Tora Wiloshin. I liked her take on "Satisfaction," but Simon seemed lukewarm to the chick my sis and I have dubbed Lady Minaj. So who gets to be on Team Simon? My money is on:

1. Drew Ryniewicz -- Drew's performance of "It Must Have Been Love" was one of my favorites we saw from the top 32. There's a haunting, Sarah MacLachlan-esque quality to her voice that would definitely fit into today's market. I'm really rooting for this kid.

2. Tiah Tolliver -- For whatever reason, Simon loves this chick. Her "No Diggity" last night was probably her strongest performance so far, and it is hard to imagine Simon allowing his team to move forward without a soul diva in the midst. Tiah is much more likable than Simone Battle -- something that is going to become more important when the decisions are put in the hands of the American public who puts likability above everything else when it comes to voting -- any kind of voting.

3. Caitlin Koch
-- I also have a hard time imagining Simon moving forward without a pretty blonde on his team. The guy has his go-to preferences when it comes to performers, and Tiah and Caitlin fit that mold better than anyone else. I'm not a huge fan of Caitlin (I thought her rather heartless response to Tiah's panic attack was a bit much), but the girl has talent.

4. Rachel Crow
-- This is the one I'm least solid on in terms of predictions. I loved Rachel's "I Want It That Way," but I think there's an argument to be made that this spot should go to Melanie Amaro or maybe even Jazzlyn Little, whose "I Will Survive" was quite strong. The thing is that Melanie is a bit dated, and I suspect that Jazzlyn's nerves and confidence issues probably lost her a lot of support from the coaching staff that served as Simon's advisors in making his choice. Considering that I can't imagine Simon moving forward with TWO soul divas and that his reaction to Tora seemed a bit muted, that leaves us with Rachel, who clearly impressed Simon last night. Plus, she's cute, she's uber-likable, and of all the youngsters, she seems the strongest in the face of the pressure.

(One quick question -- a couple of the kids talked about missing their families. Were they not accompanied by an adult on this Parisian-adventure? Does that seem shady to anyone else?)

Okay, first of all, how cool is it that they all got to perform in front of Rhianna who was shooting every single one of them bedroom eyes -- even, grossly enough, little Brian "Astro" Bradley. (Like you could seriously see her calculating how many years until it would be legal to tap that!)
For the most part, though, it seems as though the guys might be the weakest leg on this X-Factor table. There weren't a lot of "WOW" moments from this group. Maybe there will be down the line, but I think L.A. is going to come out on the losing end of this deal with his team.

1. Chris Rene -- I really have a hard time imagining this group moving forward without Chris Rene. He is, hands down, the strongest member of this group. A lot of time has been spent getting the audience to invest in this kid, and he's always given strong, memorable performances that seem edgy and contemporary. Last night's "Everyday People" was something I would totally download -- or at least not turn off when it popped up on the radio. I would expect Chris to go pretty far in this competition if he makes it past this round considering he's probably the closest the show has to a breakout star right now.

2. Marcus Canty -- I'm a big fan of Marcus, and again, I have a hard time imagining him not moving on. He is a softer, more soulful side to what Chris Rene is packing. Shows like this tend to have a hard time with black men (yeah, I said it), and Marcus gives this show what a lot of other shows have been lacking in their offerings -- a talented, soulful young man who will appeal to a broader base since he seems like a genuinely nice kid. His "All My Life" did seem a touch dated, but I'm not sure L.A. is as concerned about that because L.A. knows he can make anyone a star with a little polishing.

3. Brian Bradley -- The consensus on "Astro" seems to go back and forth. With his first audition, it seemed as if L.A. was ready to crown him the future of music. In Hollyw --er Boot Camp, L.A. expressed concern about his age. There's no denying the kid is mad talented. He certainly isn't able to deny it, and his massive ego may be the thing that makes it tough for him in the face of American voters. (We like our Idol, er, X Factorers humble!) Considering the weakness of the male field, I could see Brian edging in here over, say, Brennin Hill who seems equally arrogant but not quite as promising in terms of what he actually brings to the stage. Brian gives us a new spin on something we already have; Brennin gives us more of the same.

4. Tim Cifers -- This fourth spot could go to Brennin. I won't be surprised if it does because the guy is, as he likes to remind us, quite good looking and the tween voters will eat that up. I suspect, however, that L.A. will seek to bring a diverse team to the stage and will likely go with one of the country boys to target that demographic that made the last season of Idol complete misery for me. Of the two straight-up country singers, Tim Cifers is the stronger performer. Skyelor Anderson's performance for L.A. and Rhianna was a bit of a mess, and while I'm not a fan of that country crooning Tim brought to "Dance With My Father" (a song I generally loathe), his overall performance was much stronger. He also, likely, stands a better chance in terms of actually moving some albums.

One of the ways that X-Factor distinguishes itself from Idol is its inclusion of groups. While that may have worked well in other markets, there's nothing particularly memorable about the groups here. I mean, they couldn't even come up with a full eight to round out the team here and had to resort to cobbling together two groups amongst their rejects. (I would like to point out that some of those rejects might NOT have been rejects if the show went with an Under-18 group rather than the Over-30 group. Just saying....) Again, I have a hard time imagining a winner coming from this batch of performers, meaning that ultimate victory probably lies with either Simon or Nicole. According to the rules, though, four of these groups have to advance to the finals, so.....

1. Intensity -- As I said above, one of the judge-made teams has to go through in order to justify them even creating such a team. Intensity had the far stronger and more memorable performance and actually seemed happy to have the chance to still be competing. (Didn't Lakota Rayne seem kind of bitchy? And it seemed like they spent their entire performance of a country-fied "Born This Way" trying to outsing each other. That's not what a group does...and that's not what the adorable Intensity did.) I can see them being a group I look forward to seeing every week even if they don't make it all the way to the end.

2. Stereo Hogzz -- They probably were the strongest of the groups although I think they, too, seemed a little dated. (I see Boyz II Men every single time these guys are onstage, man! I guess as long as it's not New Edition, we're fine.) They are definitely polished and have this whole thing down, but I wonder how they'll fare when they're placed alongside the solo artists.

3. 4Shore -- In all honesty, 4Shore isn't all that memorable, but as I look back over the other groups who performed, it seems like they were probably one of the better groups, so..... Paula's choices here are limited. Which might be a good thing because it might open up the possibility for ....

4. The Brewer Boys --
I had kind of written these boys off until I saw last night's performances that included an abyssmal version of "Bohemian Rhapsody" by 2 Squar'd (I kept thinking of Gemini Twin the entire time. Is that bad?) and a performance by Illusion Confusion that was apparently so weak that the producers included cuts to interview footage during their performance -- treatment that no other performer received. With the groups from the first night being relatively unmemorable, I would think that might give the Boys a shot. Fingers crossed!

If the eventual winner doesn't come from Team Simon, it'll likely come from this group. That's my prediction. There's a lot of sentimental momentum here as we get teary confessional after teary confessional about how this is a last chance at success and families that need this money and houses about to be foreclosed. If America votes strictly on sentiment, any of these eight could win. If America votes on talent, all eight of these singers have a strong shot, too. The biggest obstacle is going to be Nicole who seems obsessed with the question of who's a "superstar" and who's most marketable. (Thank you, Enrique Iglesias, for finally shutting that down last night by saying it's about talent not marketability.) The tears that will be shed Chez Mel when the final 16 are announced will most likely be shed over the elimination of singers from this group because you just know that the ones eliminated are going to go home and just kill themselves -- literally.

1. Josh Krajcik -- For me, Josh is the standout of this group. It probably helps that his sort of white man blues voice is the kind of voice I tend to gravitate toward in my own music collection. Coming on the heels of Ray LaMontagne's recent success, Josh could help usher in a revival of that sort of bluesy music that is a perennial presence in bars across America. Smart of him to bring in a kid last night to create even more of a rooting factor. If he doesn't make the cut, Nicole seriously needs to have that tiny little tear-stained head of hers examined. For real.

2. Stacy Francis -- Okay, I'm not going to lie -- I've grown a bit weary of Stacy. She is the one I worry the most for in terms of what happens when she's eliminated (either now or down the road). Her over-the-top dramatics are a bit much, but the chick can sing. Yes, like others I've mentioned before, her style seems a bit dated for today's contemporary market, but I think Nicole is also smart enough to know that sympathy votes will carry this chick pretty far. I generally like Elaine Gibbs a little better, but Stacy is going to garner more votes.

3. Leroy Bell -- I could see this spot going to either Bell or Tiger Budbill. I generally like Leroy's style a bit better than Tiger's, but Tiger does have a slightly higher level of sympathy income with the whole "My house is going to be foreclosed any day now" thing. Age could also work against Leroy here. Yes, as he points out, there are plenty of music superstars 60 and over out there, but those 60+ year old superstars have been at it since they were 20. Would Mick Jagger be a star today if he were just starting out as a wannabe rocker pushing 70? Hell, no. He would be laughed off the stage. So even though I've listed Leroy here as my choice for the top four, I won't be super shocked if this spot goes to Tiger. I just hope it goes to Leroy because I'd like to see some more of his performances.

4. Christa Collins -- My sis will likely shoot me for this one, but it seemed as if Nicole and Enrique's response to Christa was generally pretty positive last night. Christa also brings the most contemporary sound to this group, and for a coach/mentor/whatever-you-want-to-call-Nicole who is obsessed with marketability, that could give Christa a huge advantage over anyone else in this group. If Nicole is looking for diversity in her group, Christa brings that, rather than loading Team Nicole down with multiple soul divas or bluesmen. I didn't particularly enjoy her performance last night (I might have even hated it), but she could also be the sacrificial lamb that Team Nicole is going to need to make things safer for her stronger contenders.

I keep hoping that they'll pull out some sort of wildcard that would let more than 16 through to the finals. (Wouldn't it be cool to give America a say to pick one more for each group?) Since that doesn't seem to be forthcoming, though, this seems like a pretty deeply talented pool that should make just about every week a shocking elimination week, especially once we get through the first couple of ousters. And if I'm completely off the mark here, well....I also thought Scotty McCrery didn't stand a chance in hell of making it to the top 12 on Idol, so.... what do I know?