And So the Teacher Becomes the Student

My speech classes have always been my favorites. They're kind of like a reprieve from the reading classes, when I sometimes feel like I am a drill sergeant ("Do your vocab!" "Read a story!" "Drop and give me twenty, soldIER!"). And though my theater class this year is wonderful, and full of kids who actually LIKE theater and who don't give me a lot of lip in return, that hasn't always been the case.

So it's been the speech classes that have kept me sane. I didn't major in speech, and I have actually taken one (1) speech class in my life, and that was a summer class so it lasted a month.

The subject of speech is fascinating to me, and I know it isn't for everyone, so just consider this your warning.

We have recently talked about how a presentation is a complete package; it's not just your words that you're presenting, but YOURSELF. I asked my kids to think about what their appearance says about them. If someone they didn't know walked past them in the hall, what impression would the stranger have of them?

When we had discussed first impressions, and the fact that EVERYBODY judges a book by its cover, even though we're not supposed to, I asked them to think about how they would LIKE to present themselves to the public. Specifically, I asked them to make a t-shirt design that would represent them, that would give people an idea of who they are and what they're about.

Here's mine:

This t-shirt tells a stranger

1. I like purple.
2. I like mummies.
3. I'm a teacher.

Some of my kids turned in some great t-shirt designs. One boy made his almost into a classified ad for match.com. Others had drawn sports insignias or band emblems.

One of my kids said, "But Ms. Flower, I don't DO anything." And though this does appear to be true, according to my gradebook, I wasn't about to let him off that easy.

"What do you do when you get home?" I asked.
"What hobbies do you have?"
"I don't have any hobbies."
"Do you have a favorite food?"

I asked a couple more questions and then gave up. He really just wanted me to tell him it would be all right if he didn't do the activity, but that's not how I do things. Eventually he started to do ... something. But he didn't turn it in, so it was a wasted effort anyway.

Our current chapter is about how sounds are made. We talk about breathing and articulation (which, frankly, they definitely need to practice). I use Mrs. R as an example for this; she has beautiful articulation. I tell my kids about how when I was in Mrs. R's keyboarding class ten billion years ago when we still had to use typewriters, she would always call people out when they weren't doing their work. "FLOWER!" she would say. "Turn arooooooowwwwwwwwnnnnnnnnnnnD." My sister Joon and I say this to each other all the time. Mrs. R is the reason we always hit the ending Ds and Ts really hard.

I was talking to my class about Mrs. R's enunciation today. "She will tell you what is wrong with you," said one of my girls.

"Yes, but she does it BEAUTifully," I said, and she nodded in agreement.

We've talked about the International Phonetics Alphabet, and how there are 45 sounds in the English language. We've translated words from the English alphabet to the IPA, and it is really hard for some of the kids to differentiate between a letter and the sound it makes. For example, the c in cat is given the k symbol in IPA, but some of them still want to write the c. "No," I tell them, "that says Sat," and they sigh heavily and act like I'm asking them to learn the language of the African bushmen.

Eventually, though, the lightbulb clicks on, and all of a sudden they are geniuses, and they act like they've known the IPA all their lives. And when they are all enthusiastic like that, I give them another assignment: write your name using the IPA. And they go at it like it's ice cream, and I get all impressed and verklempt by their enthusiasm. They get to hang their names on the wall, all colored and decorated, like so:

What's this say?

And they are so proud of their work and of their impressive knowledge and this new language that they know that nobody else does. (Until the test, then they forget all about it.)

I love my speech classes. I don't know why, but I seem to get some good, bright students in there, who have a real interest in learning to speak properly. And I work them hard; it's no cakewalk. But the thing is, they DO the work. They might complain and they might mutter under their breath, but when I ask something of them, they reach my expectations--EXCEED my expectations, sometimes.


I don't care what anyone says; teaching IS a calling. It is inexplicable and supernatural, and non-teachers don't understand it and sometimes teachers themselves don't understand it. The rewards are few, in the eyes of the corporate world. The work is hard and its demanding and sometimes it just about kills us.

And so I wince at my scrawny paycheck, and I teach the extra classes, and I read the new, wholly unreasonable, NCLB standards, and I listen to people blame the downfall of western civilization on me. And I wonder why I put myself through this day after day, year after year, when it just gets harder all the time.

But every day my speech classes teach ME a lesson, and that is that I'm right where I'm supposed to be.

* This post did not go where I expected it to.

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