So this is the letter I typed today in my 3rd period class to my principal:
Hi Mr. ___________ (name withheld — but easily googled I am sure),
I don’t think I’ve written a referral in a decade. Matter of fact, I can’t even find them in my file cabinet.
But in teaching the difference between denotation and connotation in English class today – and asking students to construct examples (prepping for the state test next week), Jose just blurted out in the middle of my room…
“Would SUCK MY BALLS be an appropriate phrase to examine?”
And this is after I clearly said, “No profanity, please.”
Could you please answer his question?
A few things…
1) This is totally true.
2) Jose’s comment went over like an absolute lead balloon. The room went from one of comfort, learning and emotional safety to one of immediate tension and awkwardness. Everyone instantly became uncomfortable.
3) I was flummoxed. The comment was just so inappropriate, so out of left-field, so uncharacteristic of anything that goes on in my room I felt thrown. In my more than a decade of teaching, if I had to rank it, I’d say this was the most inappropriate classroom comment ever uttered in my room. And if you work with teens long enough, you know that you’ve heard some wildly inappropriate things.
The point of the activity was to examine words/phrases and to see if the denotations carry more weight than the connotations or vice versa. My examples on the board were about illuminating the difference between calling someone an “accounting manager” or a “bean counter”. (Similar denotations, wildly different connotations.) So then I had to ask myself, are students today this wildly desensitized to a sense of context, to gauging appropriateness? And in my small effort to try and cut Jose some slack by justifying his actions to myself (i.e.”Oh, Alan, maybe he just didn’t know.”) I realized, “Come on, who am I kidding? Jose was simply pushing the envelope, trying to test my limits. Don’t rationalize it. He was out of bounds.”
So I bounced him out of class with the above letter in hand and told him he wasn’t allowed to come back until the principal had answered his question for him. Such a thoughtful response, I said, required a higher authority on the matter.
Terror ran through the blood of all my other students when I sent Jose on his way. I actually had to lighten up the mood in class because kids mistakenly assumed I was furious with them as a result of something one of their peers did (I was not) — and the tension was simply too thick, a real pink elephant — so we talked about the denotation versus the connotation of the phrase “fly on the wall” and I briefly chatted about how much fun it would be to able to eavesdrop on the conversation Jose was going to have with the principal of our school about his classroom question.
Within a few minutes, things became more relaxed again.
You know, once a person graduates from high school, the days spent in our classrooms often blend into amorphous blobs of scattered recollections. For some reason though, I have a feeling Jose will always have one particular day in English class well-etched into his memory.
As we all know, you can’t be an effective teacher unless you have a line in the sand. And once it’s crossed, there must be consequences. My guess is that by lunchtime, all of my 9th graders will have heard this story, too. Gossip travels faster than a stolen teacher’s test with the answer key does around these parts.
And I expect very few behavior problems in 3rd period for quite some time. LOL!