Book Review: Substitute by Nicholson Baker

29429931Resultado de imagen para 2/5 stars

Goodreads Description

In 2014, after a brief orientation course and a few fingerprinting sessions, Nicholson Baker became an on-call substitute teacher in a Maine public school district. He awoke to the dispatcher’s five-forty a.m. phone call and headed to one of several nearby schools; when he got there, he did his best to follow lesson plans and help his students get something done. What emerges from Baker’s experience is a complex, often touching deconstruction of public schooling in America: children swamped with overdue assignments, overwhelmed by the marvels and distractions of social media and educational technology, and staff who weary themselves trying to teach in step with an often outmoded or overly ambitious standard curriculum. In Baker’s hands, the inner life of the classroom is examined anew mundane worksheets, recess time-outs, surprise nosebleeds, rebellions, griefs, jealousies, minor triumphs, daily lessons on everything from geology to metal tech to the Holocaust to kindergarten show-and-tell as the author and his pupils struggle to find ways to get through the day. Baker is one of the most inventive and remarkable writers of our time, and “Substitute,” filled with humor, honesty, and empathy, may be his most impressive work of nonfiction yet.”

I’ve had this book since September, and just cannot make myself finish it.  Baker may be “one of the most inventive and remarkable writers of our time,” but this book is neither inventive nor remarkable.

If I wanted to hear a play-by-play of every single minute of a substitute’s day, I would just talk to my mom, who can talk to me face-to-face and actually make a story interesting.  She substitutes quite a bit, and tends to tell detailed stories, but she has a knack for storytelling and pulling out the interesting parts of the day.  She focuses on one or two kids and tells me what she thought of them in depth and why she thought they weren’t doing well or, in some cases, how sorry she feels for them just from the little she heard about their home life.  She humanizes them.  Baker tries, but he falls short.

The book is organized into chapters, each of which summarizes one day as a substitute.  Every single chapter consists of verbatim conversations, Baker’s thoughts about feeling tired and inadequate, and near word-for-word lessons that Baker taught or heard.  (Did he just record and transcribe his days as a substitute, and send that to his editor??)  If I wanted that, I’d substitute myself.  I’ve been through elementary and middle school; I know what classrooms are like.

With this book, I think Baker was trying to show just how bogged down students feel by school.  In the schools he was at, each student was issued an iPad in order to more easily turn in homework or play educational games during down time.  But there were a lot of technological malfunctions that resulted in kids sitting around for long stretches of time.  There were intellectual gaps that made it difficult to teach to a level everyone could understand.  There were seemingly pointless assignments — busywork — that not even Baker wanted to do, much less the students.  If our school system is this frustrating for a substitute, Baker tries to say, imagine how much more so it is for kids who must spend 13 years there.

While I understood Baker’s goal with the book, it just was not enjoyable to read.  It was boring.  I found myself skimming page after page,  skipping ahead in the book to see if it got any better.  Even then, I could only force myself to finish about half the book.  It just wasn’t interesting.  I definitely think Baker has more than enough material to make an interesting book, but he should have used the book as it is now as a resource.  He should have tailored the stories a bit more, and tried to create some semblance of a story line from the things he experienced and the kids he met.  I gave a rave review to a similar book a few months ago, and wish Substitute had been as good as it was.  Besides the fact that the other book was written by a full-time teacher, the only difference, really, was that the other one was organized into chapters according to theme, not days.  It made the book a lot easier to take in.

I may not give up on Baker completely, because he has written several other books (mostly novels) that seem to have good ratings.  In fact, I think Substitute is his lowest-rated book on Goodreads.  However, I wouldn’t recommend this book at all, unless you have insomnia and need something ridiculously boring to lull you to sleep tonight.

I received this book from Blue Rider Press through NetGalley for free in exchange for this honest review.  All opinions expressed are my own.


3 Lessons I Learned From Being a Tutor

Tutors are everywhere in American culture.  Almost everyone I knew growing up, including me, had a tutor at one point or another — music lessons and ACT prep were as common as dirt among my group of peers.  As a society, we are very focused on individual achievement, so it makes sense that we have tutors to hone our skills and make us the best people that we can be.  What we don’t realize is how much our tutors learn from us, too.

I have a (very) little experience being a tutor.  The summer before I started college I taught a beginner flute student, and last semester I was asked to tutor a beginner Spanish student here at Tech.  I knew both would be difficult, but I didn’t realize how inadequate I would feel.  Through teaching, I learned a lot of important lessons about teaching, business, and myself.

1.  Teachers aren’t responsible for output.

I am very results driven.  I love to cross items off lists.  If I spend two hours working on a project and don’t finish it, it bothers me a bit that I can’t mark it out of my planner yet, because if I don’t acknowledge accomplishments somehow, that time feels wasted.  I really had to rethink this last semester when I had my Spanish student.  Foreign languages aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I understand that they are difficult.  But even when I did my best to quiz my student on vocab and explain weird grammar concepts, her grades didn’t improve much.  For the first month or so, this really bothered me.  I felt that I was failing her as a teacher, and thought that maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.

I talked to my mom about it, because she has been a tutor for years.  She helped me realize that I wasn’t responsible for my student’s grades.  My job was to do my best, and the rest was on her.  There was only so much quizzing and explaining I could do in an hour a week, and then it was up to her to study and quiz herself.  Teachers can explain stuff till they’re blue in the face, but students are responsible for their own learning.

2.  Boundaries are extremely important

Last semester, I really wanted to be a good tutor.  I wanted to make myself as available as possible, and that desire led me to hold several extra sessions without asking for payment.  Part of this was because, as I said above, I felt bad that my student’s grades weren’t improving, and I didn’t feel that I deserved to be paid.  But this meant that I lost hours of valuable homework time during one of my busiest semesters ever.  By the time I realized I should have been compensated for my time, I had already set a precedent.

If I ever decide to take on another Spanish student, I won’t be so altruistic.  Tutoring, like any other service, is a business, and I needed to separate my own emotions from the service I was offering.  If there is a next time, I need to be sure to mention up front whether or not I’m willing to fit extra sessions in, and need to explicitly mention that I expect to be paid for every session, which most people, I think, would find reasonable.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that every time someone benefits from my Spanish knowledge, I expect to be paid.  I’m more than happy to help a friend with an assignment or read over a paper.  However, this was an instance where I needed to view tutoring as work.  I wouldn’t have taken an extra shift at a regular job for free, so I shouldn’t have tutored for free either.

3.  No one ever stops learning.

When I first took on my flute student in high school, I had 9 years of my own private flute lessons under my belt.  I wasn’t the best player by any means, but I could definitely hold my own in a band or as a soloist.  But when I started teaching my beginner student, I realized there was a lot I had forgotten.

The very first lesson I taught was a disaster.  I had trouble filling up the half hour because I didn’t know what to do or say.  I showed my student a few things, but I realized I didn’t remember enough about being a beginner to teach.  That week, I went back to my own teacher for pointers, and she reminded me of several things to look out for — good posture, finger positioning, and embouchure techniques that had become second nature to me.

This happened with my Spanish student, as well.  I was used to using a lot of different verb tenses, for example, but had to remember how to explain when and why each was used.  I also had to relearn a lot of vocabulary that I had been taught, but had not used in a long time.  Both of these experiences were very humbling, and it reminded me that just being good at something doesn’t make me an expert.  Albert Einstein once said,

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

I don’t know if I will ever tutor again.  I enjoyed it, but there are so many other things I want to try to do with my life.  However, my small experience as a tutor has definitely given me a whole new appreciation for teachers everywhere.

Book Review: Teacher Misery by Jane Morris




NetGalley Synopsis:

Teacher Misery perfectly encapsulates the comical misery that has become the teaching profession. Morris’ strange, funny, and sometimes unbelievable teaching experiences are told through a collection of short stories, essays and artifacts including real emails from parents, students and administrators. From the parents who blame their son’s act of arson on the teacher for causing him low self-esteem, to the student who offers to teach the teacher how to sell drugs so she can pay her bills, to the administrator whose best advice is to “treat kids like sacks of shit,” one story is more shocking than the next. An important read for teachers and non-teachers alike– Teacher Misery paints an amusing and thoroughly entertaining picture of what has become of our education system, without detracting from the overall point that what teachers have to put up with today is complete, utter, unacceptable insanity.

If you feel like being completely entertained while also losing all hope for the American school system, read this book.

I could not put this book down.  The stories that Morris tells about the school system are riveting.  The antics and violence and outright stupidity that she and other teachers have had to endure are outright insane — some of it is so crazy it’s almost unbelievable.  If I did not know many public school teachers personally, I would be inclined to believe some of her stories are embellished.  But while I was fortunate enough to escape the atrocity that is public school, I’ve heard enough to know that this is all real.

In a lot of ways, this is such a depressing book.  We all know that our school system needs some vast improvements, but this book is a down-and-dirty look at all the ridiculous ways it needs help.  While many of the stories and episodes are hilarious, the fact that these stories actually happened is really a cause for concern.  Teacher Misery simultaneously makes me feel hopeless about our school system and gives me so much more respect and appreciation for every teacher I know.

Teaching is hard.  I think it is one of the most difficult professions a person can choose, right alongside going to war — seriously.  Not only do teachers have to pursue extensive training, but they also have to deal with ridiculous or unenforced policies, parents who refuse to discipline their children, and students who are blatantly disrespectful and sometimes dangerous.  They must watch out for psychological issues, bad living conditions, and substance abuse while staying within the confines of privacy, policy, and procedure.  And they must do all this while actually teaching — introducing new ideas and concepts and encouraging students to think critically about all aspects of their lives — in between mandatory testing, of course.  The stress that teachers are put under is incredible — Morris starts the book by stating that almost half of all teachers quit within their first five years.  Most cannot handle it.

Teacher Misery is a brutally honest look into teaching, and I think it’s something that needs to be read.  When I began writing this review, I was going to write that my only complaint was that Morris does not counter her bad experiences with any good ones.  But then I remembered it was titled Teacher Misery for a reason.  If I had experienced all that Morris had been through, I would rant for 244 pages too.

I received this book from Truth Be Told Publishing through NetGalley for free in exchange for this honest review.

Flute Lesson Take Two

I am writing this is an haze of elation.  My blood is jumping in my veins and I feel like I can take on anything!  Even the most mundane tasks are okay to me right now, and I’m actually motivated to do them.

This is how success makes me feel.

Last week, I taught my very first flute lesson, and it turned out a disaster.  I was not prepared, I was nervous, and I had no idea what was coming out of my mouth.  I sent my student and her mom out the door wondering if they would come back.

I panicked a bit today when they weren’t here at four, when they said they’d be.  Did she drop everything and run? I wondered.  Did she decide to go for someone more experienced?

But no, they showed up around 4:20, to my relief.  And this time, I knew exactly what I was doing.  

If it wasn’t for my own amazing teacher, this week would have been just like the first.  But at my own lesson this week, she gave me some teaching tips, and even copied off some pages out of a beginner book for me because I gave away my own.  She reminded me of a lot of technical stuff that I now take for granted, such as what to look for when you hold your flute.  I’ve been playing for so long that I just pick it up and blow, but there is a lot of skill that goes into just that.  She reminded me of finger placings that are very difficult for a beginner, things I wouldn’t have even thought about.  That woman is awesome.  Teachers are awesome.  

Because of that, I knew just what to say to A, my student.  I watched her blow into her head joint and gave her a few tips on that.  Then I made sure she was putting her flute together correctly and helped her with her finger placement.  Then we practiced making a good sound with the whole flute.

We spent most of the half hour doing that, and unlike last week, it passed really quickly.  She would blow into the whole flute until the sound wouldn’t come out anymore, then we would take the head joint out and try with just that a few times.  Then we’d put the flute back together, place our hands correctly, and blow into the whole flute.

I’ve realized that a lot of a flute lesson is teaching the student how to practice.  I can give A tips, and correct her mistakes in lessons, but the vast majority of skill comes from the student.  I have to guide her so she can teach herself.  And it’s really a cool thing!

I did make a few mistakes, of course.  I told A all about time signatures and measures even though she won’t be reading music for a while yet.  But maybe that will help her remember better when the time comes.  Who knows.  Right now I’m just happy I didn’t fail completely.  

The half hour was over before I knew it.  I copied off a name-that-note sheet for A to fill in and wrote out pretty detailed instructions for when she practices this week.  Then I sent them out the door, much happier, I’m sure, than last week.

I’ve taken several spiritual gifts tests over the years, and teaching always comes up as one of mine.  I’ve wondered about this, because I’m not really great at explaining things unless I write out what I’m going to say.  But today confirmed that those tests aren’t wrong.  Now I feel like I really can do this.  I really can teach A to be a good player.

Teaching is already helping me to know myself better, as well.  My main spiritual gift usually comes up as administration, and I’ve read that spiritual administrators write everything down — just like I have to write down how I explain concepts.  Now I can see how my gifts work together within my personality.  They aren’t separate attributes; they are two parts that are distinct, but that blend together to make me who I am.  That, my friends, is really a profound discovery.

You know how people say that teaching teaches the teacher more than the student?  I get that now.

Thank Your Teachers

After yesterday, I have a new appreciation for teachers everywhere.

In my last Forpy post, I told you that I now have a flute student, which is awesome because I could use the money.  I was nervous for our first lesson, but really, I thought, I’ve been playing for nine years.  How hard could it be?  I googled some flute basics, because I can never seem to remember the exact mechanics of how a flute makes sound, but other than that — dude, I’m practically an expert.

insert extreme sarcasm

 My student, A, and her mom came around 4.  I welcomed them in, chatted a bit, and looked at A’s flute, a pretty Selmer.  I told her the names of the pieces and showed her how to put it together.  Then I asked her to blow into the head joint, and my (already very minimal) plans fell apart.

She had a beautiful tone for a beginner. When I started playing, it took me a month just to make a sound.  A had had her flute for a week, and she already had this gorgeous tone.  I had planned on spending most of the half hour teaching her how to hold her mouth, but obviously that went down the drain.  Great going, Sarah.  

After that the lesson was a mess.  I gave her a few embouchure tips, and then I sort of said, “Well…”  I awkwardly looked at the clock.  About ten minutes had passed.  I was going to die.

“She does need to learn to read music,” her mom said helpfully (or unhelpfully).

I had completely forgotten about reading music.  What musician forgets about music??  My thought train was so scattered the next few minutes A and her mom must have thought I was nuts. 

Oh, yes, I thought.  Music.  That thing.  Well, A, this is the musical alphabet.  It only has five — no, six — how many letters are there?  Let me count on my fingers.  Do I have staff paper anywhere? I used to…let me kill a few minutes searching for some.  Hmm, can’t find any…notebook paper will do.  Here’s a staff, five lines…this is a treble clef…you know, flutes play in treble clef…here are the space notes and the line notes…isn’t there some kind of mnemonic for learning those?  Anyway, I’m having a really bad time explaining this to you, so let’s just learn how to hold your flute!  Seven minutes to go.  Arrgghhh.

I showed her how to handle her flute properly, then I was at a loss yet again.

“Is there some sort of book she’ll need or anything like that?” A’s mom asked.

Ah, yes!  I wrote down the name of the book.  Then, I gave up on the “expert” front (or rather, acknowledged that it had been given up twenty minutes ago).

“You know,” I said, “you are my first student.  I know I’m not really explaining things the best way, so please [please, please, please] let me know if something doesn’t make sense or there’s anything I’ve forgotten.  I’ll definitely be learning along with you, A.”  It’s sure a good thing I’m giving you a discounted rate.  I really hope you think I’m worthwhile.

“Yes, we’ll do that,” A’s mom responded.  “We literally know nothing about music, so as much detail as you can give us would be great.  Can you write down exactly what she needs to practice this week?”

I did.  There were still three minutes left.  “Well, I really don’t know what else…”

“Can you play a bit for us?” mom asked brightly.  

Sure, sure.  I went and got my flute, explaining that my tone wasn’t great because I had just gotten my braces.  I played a few scales and went into the high and low ranges.  Then finally, finally, the lesson was at an end.

I showed A how to clean her flute, A’s mom and I discussed payments, and I sent them out the door.  Then I shriveled into a crisp of shame.

Ya’ll, teaching is phenomenally harder than it looks.  For one thing, it takes a lot of planning, which I really didn’t do.  (Shame on me.)  For another, it takes talent and practice to be able to explain things in a way that someone can understand them.  I’m afraid I do not have that gift, but I can learn.  (Yes, I can!  I can hear you doubting.)  

I better learn fast, because A is coming back next week.  Man, weeks have never seemed so short.