Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: We Should Be Angry Most of the Time, But for Some Reason. . .

Infinity time spiral 15267876

There are things that should infuriate public school teachers about our jobs. Here’s just one:

  • It is an impossible gig; to wit, there is not enough time in the work day to do the job we have been asked to do, or rather, the job that we would like to do, the job that we know is best for our students and our schools.

Exhibit A: I have a student intern who has, at this point in the school year, taken over one of my six classes. So that means to me, while I am not inside the classroom observing and my intern flies solo, that every other day I have an extra 87 minutes to plan and grade in addition to my daily 87 minute preparation period. The extra time afforded by having an intern should allow me to get out from the perpetual work load hole. So I sit down first period today with a stack of response journals to grade–just one stack out of four stacks that await my attention. But I realize, even though I know exactly what I’ll be doing with my seniors next period, that before I can begin grading journals, I must figure out what I’m doing today with my freshmen the period after that. This should take a few minutes. Okay, do I have the poem of the day? Yes. Do I have copies? Yes. But before I give them the excerpt from The House on Mango Street, I need to deliver that mini-lesson about symbol. Okay, let’s look at that power point slide. No, I don’t like this. I don’t like the examples here. The examples need to be more clear, closer to something students will recognize. So I take 10 minutes to revise that slide. Okay, what’s next, after the mini-lesson and the warm-up, I wanted to do that exercise where the students look at one of Cisneros’s vignettes and make a claim, provide evidence for the claim, and craft an explanation about why their evidence supports the claim. Okay, do I have a handout for that? Yes. But I don’t have copies and I don’t want to give them three handouts today, so what if I just put the instructions on the next slide in that power point? Good idea, let’s do that. This takes another 15 minutes. Okay, we’re about half way through the plan. What’s next? Oh, students need a prompt for the original vignettes they’ll be drafting today. Do I have that? Yes. Let’s look. I don’t like it. These prompts are boring; I’d like to give students more choices. Oh shit, I have not yet reread the pages I assigned students for today. Well, I can’t write this vignette prompt until I’ve done that reading. That takes 20 minutes. As I’m reading I am writing prompts inspired by Cisneros’s vignettes in Mango Street. This is much better, but I don’t have copies. 15 minutes making copies, three copies of the assignment on one sheet, and then the work with the paper cutter to make a handout for 110 freshmen. Okay. Good. Back to my workspace only to realize I’ve got paperwork to do and emails to send and there’s an incidental but important conversation with a colleague about the site council meeting yesterday and suddenly I have five minutes left before the bell rings to start grading that stack of response journals. That’s not happening.

Exhibit B: My intern is teaching while I’m in the staff lounge alone with Exhibit A. There’s a seven minute passing period in which restrooms are used and a.v. equipment is made ready for my second period senior class. The bell rings. My second period students in an astounding display of commitment to unpacking the reading for today from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, discuss the novel, with me directing traffic and trying to ask good questions, for an entire period. It is exhilarating and exhausting. Before I know it, it is time for lunch, a duty free 30 minutes to eat and chat it up with colleagues. And yet, because I want to know, and because I enjoy the interaction, I ask my intern how first period went. He’s on his way out the door to get to a class at Lewis and Clark College, but my question and his highlights from his morning turn into a 10 minute conversation. Then there’s the logistical preparation for my freshmen coming in after lunch. Consequently, I have 15 minutes to eat. Oh, I have to go the restroom again. I have 12 minutes to eat. Off to spend an 87 minute period with my freshmen and my new slides and my new vignette prompts and a plan that’s far better than it was the last time I taught it.

Exhibit C: When my prep finally arrives fourth and last period (the worst), I am toast. It takes me about 20 minutes to muster up the energy to face that original stack of response journals. I face them. I sit down with them. I proceed to grade. In an hour, give or take, I finish grading half of one class set of response journals out of the four sets that await my attention. The day is done. Tomorrow I will be just a little bit less behind than I was today, despite my extra and luxurious and bountiful 87 minutes to plan and grade.

These first three exhibits are only about one day in one teacher’s classroom. If the teacher above were to get out of this perpetual grading and planning hole and stay there, he would have to do one of three things: 1. work hour upon hour outside the work day and on the weekend, at home during his own time, 2. call in sick often enough in order to get caught up, or 3. make compromises to the quality of the work he does. The alternative to these three options seems to be a perpetual grading and planning hole that comes to a close only twice a year: at the end of the first semester and again at the end of the school year.

And then there’s the work that somehow the staff, as a collective, must do together.

Exhibit D: As a staff, we are trying to be an IB School, to be an AVID school, to have effective Professional Learning Communities, to have effective and cohesive departments, to implement brand new science and social studies curriculum, to attend district wide staff development, to have meetings regularly in which a large group of teachers, counselors, administrators, and support staff talk about single kids who are struggling, to get through the accreditation process, to do the ever important work of reflecting about why we do what we do, what we do, and how we do it. We have 40 minutes or so in a 40 hour work week, and perhaps 8 to 16 hours spread out over the entire school year to do all these things well. And that doesn’t happen. As individual teachers in an academic classroom, we don’t have enough time in the work day to do our jobs, and as a staff, while the possibilities of what we could accomplish given the time to really dive deep are mind-bogglingly profound, we find ourselves constantly scratching the surface of a half a dozen things, all equally important and relevant to the work, but always infuriatingly out of our reach.

I said this to a colleague today almost as if it were the first time it had ever occurred to me: Given these parameters, it seems like we should just be walking around angry all the time! I have an impossible job! But lo, I have been at this for 30 years. Am I angry? Yes. All the time? Sure. Do I have high blood pressure? Yes, I do. Does it physically hurt me inside to realize that I will likely work an entire career without ever having the experience of the work AS IT COULD BE IN A PERFECT WORLD, or even in a slightly less imperfect world? Yes it does.

And yet, do I love this work? Do I think there are very few things in the world that I would rather do for a living than teach? For some reason, the answer to both of these questions, for me and for many of my colleagues who have been at this game for a long time, seems to be a definitive YES. Go figure.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Teaching

Mindfulness in 2018: A Reflection

My meditation stats were stunning in 2018, comparatively, that is. Here’s the snapshot: one hundred and seventy-one consecutive days on the cushion as compared to one hundred and twenty four days the previous year. That’s an improvement of almost an entire two month’s worth of meditation on a cushion. However, I must confess that my daily practice has severely fallen off since the day I reached the 171 day record, way back in June–for reasons I might be able to get into here. Welcome to my fourth annual year-end reflection, wherein I try publicly to figure some stuff out about the previous 12 months and set some new goals for the new year.

I’d like to say 2018 ended well, but truth be told, the end of the year finds me in the midst of several upsetting little quandaries. Let me list them.

  • My meditation practice has fallen off considerably.
  • My writing practice has fallen off considerably. I have not been writing nearly as regularly as I would like–and that’s a common writer complaint–we’re never as productive as we’d like to be. But sometimes it’s a real anxiety machine–not being able to give yourself a little slack, worrying that the last thing you finished might be the last good idea you will ever have. The stuff of nightmares. Similarly, the last time I wrote a song was a year ago. Also not good.
  • The current state of American politics infuriates and depresses me, literally.
  • I’ve got a cold, damn it, one that’s been tenaciously holding on for dear life for the better part of two weeks now. Merry Christmas to me.
  • Apparently, I have a torn meniscus.
  • Over the last couple of years, I’ve been struggling with what appears to be my first serious health challenge of my “middle” age: I have hypertension, high blood pressure. Most of the time I feel pretty great, but blood pressure issues are sneaky and scary, my numbers waffle wildly, sometimes venturing into some horrifying territory, and since a colleague of mine recently had a triple by-pass surgery after a heart attack, I have been of late filled with dread and trepidation about my imminent demise. Truly, I do not think my demise is imminent. I am prone to hyperbole on this first day of 2019. But, I’d be lying to you if I said that I wasn’t a little worried. So my doctor keeps prescribing increasing doses of a blood pressure med called Lisinopril. We haven’t arrived yet at a dosage that works for me, and he just prescribed the largest possible dose of this stuff. Okay. I am supposed to check back with him in a month. My condition may require a cocktail of pills. Yippee. Better than the alternative, I must admit.
  • I have felt over the last year somewhat disconnected from my family. My wife, son, and I seem to be ships passing. Very busy, all of us, doing our own thing.
  • Motivationally, regarding almost anything, I have felt rather sluggish of late. I have spent too much time over the last year when I could be reading, writing, making music, or exercising, falling into the internet rabbit hole, habitually checking the national bad news, reflexively perusing the social media, and drinking too much. I have concluded that I think I drink too much. I’m noticing my choice of words there. None of this seems very mindful.

And it all seems like bad news.

We make our own realities, the wise ones tell us. Our behaviors have consequences, and sometimes our realities are shaped by the way we choose to look at them. So perhaps it might be helpful to simply try on another lens, to look at the above “issues” in a more positive light, or to think about the positive things that moved through 2018 instead of just the shitty ones. Okay. Let us try this experiment, addressing a different perspective on the above yuck in the same order.

  • I think I am learning to let go of the idea that meditation is something that one must keep track of faithfully like an athlete keeps track of their accomplishments and stats. I have meditated and will continue to meditate when I feel like it, when I am able, when the spirit moves me, when my meditation group meets every other Sunday, even, perhaps, when I am driving (remembering, of course, to keep my eyes open). There are opportunities to meditate outside the confines of the cushion, and I don’t need my Insight Timer app to be with me on a walk, or in silent moments in the classroom, or when I’m cuddling with my dogs. Is it important that I even know how many consecutive days I’ve meditated? Or how many total hours? Probably not.
  • I have written less this year, yes, but I have come super close to finishing two manuscripts. I revised the novella I’ve been working on for several years now, and I have a book of poems essentially ready to go. And yes, I haven’t written a song in a year, but I played the drums more this year than I have in the previous eight combined. I have found myself a gig in an 80s cover band that has kept me very busy and refreshed my drum set chops in a big way–AND–I’ve made new friends in the process.
  • The infuriating state of affairs in American politics was seriously shaken up in the midterm elections, especially in the House of Representatives, where democrats now have the majority, and the make-up of these elected officials actually comes somewhat close to representing the people it serves by gender, ethnicity, faith, orientation. There is hope. We are self correcting. More of that, please.
  • The cold is on the mend.
  • I’ve been seeing a chiropractor for the knee, and she is kind and lovely and an appointment with her comes with an hour of massage therapy.
  • The blood pressure, after a hair-raisingly high rating Sunday night, seems to be coming down. What was it that Twain said so famously: reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated? I have only died a little bit–rather, I have reached a sobering conclusion that as I get older I cannot ignore my body and its inner workings. My blood is telling me something and I need to shut up and listen. I’m all ears.
  • The fact of the matter is that my wife René has been working very hard and very successfully at building her own business; she is doing, most importantly, what she WANTS to be doing–and she’s making a living. This requires from both of us a bit of negotiating–a difficult balancing act–but one that we have been for the most part successful at for 33 years. We are not deterred by these challenges and have begun to acknowledge to each other that certain aspects of our lives together may require some care in 2019. My son, on the other hand, is 13. That explains most of it right there. I’m coming to that sad state in the parenting life when we begin to realize that our babies no longer need us. I mean, they do, of course, but they are eking out their independences from us, no longer see us as the center of their universes, and consequentially, are often making us feel rather superfluous. I can make this a celebration of his growth rather than a personal loss. He is significantly less needy, that’s for sure. Bonus.
  • Last night, I had my first dry New Year’s Eve celebration in memory. No alcohol. I was in a venue to play music for the big celebration and I was surrounded by alcohol. Not a single drink did I take. I am now four days clean and sober. I say that only somewhat jokingly. It has been two years since I last went a significant stretch without alcohol. Last month, once, I think I may have gone 6 or 7 days, but seriously, my modus operandi has been to drink nearly every single day. I conjecture that if there is one thing that’s messing with my motivation to do the things I really want to do (write, read, make original music, be more connected to family, feel generally more energetic and alive in my work), it is likely alcohol. That, and the stupid internet. And maybe the combination of the two. I know, I feel it in my bones, that I read and write less because of the million and one distractions on the web. And I know, not in my bones but in my brain, that it is next to impossible to pick up a good book when I’m tipsy. But I can be tipsy and easily drop in and out of these tiny little reading experiences on the web, where it feels like I might be learning something, but in reality I am like a pebble skipping across the surface of the river only to land on the other side in the dead and dry sand. It’s just not nourishing and it’s not deep. There’s writing to be done, books to read, love to make, a retreat to plan, music to hear and play–all of these things need to come closer to the forefront of my life in 2019.

Well, that’s my reflection, my act of mindfulness about 2018. The second half up there seems to be serving as a very wordy and elaborate kind of New Year’s Resolution. I could probably narrow it down, tighten it up, create some pithy and memorable slogan, something suitable for faceplant or tweeter. Something like this:

2019: More life, more love, better health, more books, less booze.

I can live with that for now.

1 Comment

Filed under Self Reflection

#317: On Not Being Able to Remember a Student’s Name

Question-mark

She sat right in front of me, in the first row, as it were, and I called her by name, the wrong name. She looked at me. She said, “Who?” And I thought, and maybe I said out loud, “Oh my god.” And even while I knew it was the wrong name, for the life of me, I could not remember the correct one. She took it in stride, even laughed about it, which, of course, set me a little bit at ease. Other students in the room, though, a couple of dudes, thought they’d have a little fun with their teacher by pressing him for the right name. “What’s her name, Jarmer?” To be sure, an asshole move. But still, her name would not come. One of my boys, when the girl stepped out to use the restroom or for some other business, kindly whispered the name to me. There it was. The name I knew but for some reason in those moments could not recall. One worries about the mind. And one makes up explanations for the lapse. She does not look like, exactly, but shares some of the characteristics of the girl in my other class whose name I called her. Yeah, that’s it. Or I was tired this morning (true). Or I was flustered that so few students were prepared with the reading done (true). Or I was further stymied by the boys who decided in that moment to be cruel to their teacher, and maybe to a degree, to the girl whose name I had forgotten (true). No matter. Whether the mind is faltering or not, whether it was just one of those things or not, and while no real harm was done, it still is, and I confessed this to all of them, one of a teacher’s worst nightmares to forget the name of a student three months into the semester.

2 Comments

Filed under Education, Poetry, Teaching

Stuff, Stuff, Stuff; the Excavation and Removal (?) of Stuff; Holding On To or Letting Go of the Record of Me

A burst pipe (circa 1930) in the basement necessitates the removal of 40 some years of accumulated stuff buried in a storage closet we fondly refer to as “the scary room.” There’s a bunch of shit in there, we know, that needs to go, stuff that’s doing no one any good. Now that we’ve had to move it out in order to remove an old slab of water-soaked, rotten linoleum, we’re given this opportunity to check this stuff out, to finally look at what has hitherto been, you know, out of site and out of mind:  Old photos we never look at, in frames, in albums, in boxes, photos of René and I over the last 32 years, photos galore of our beautifully photogenic progeny, a whole lifetime of photos from my parents and their parents, super 8 family movies from cousins, storage crate after storage crate of holiday crap, boxes and buckets of various memorabilia, original packaging for gear and electronics and doodads back to which these various things will never return, and, of particular annoyance to my wife but of a kind of introspective curiosity to me, is tons and tons of old writings and art projects of mine: my first attempt at fiction as a 6th grader, album art for imaginary bands I was in, a couple of pieces from high school English, but tons of writings, almost everything I’ve ever done quasi-seriously, from 1984 to the present day, literally reams of college essays, research projects, writings about teaching, and boatloads of poetry, abandoned novels, and short stories. I posted on to facebook the question: why can’t I toss this stuff out? And someone replied (a former student of mine, if I’m not mistaken), that these things are my extra limbs.

I think she’s right, to a certain degree. Someone very wise once said that we are not our writing, but rather, our writing is a record of moments moving through us. Fine. I get that and agree with that. No longer limbs, they are vestigial limbs, part of my evolution as an artist, a snapshot of me throughout various stages of my life, much more vivid and certainly more revealing than a photo. And yet, will I read this stuff ever again? Well, I read some of it today and it both embarrassed and impressed me. The 6th grade fiction was clearly terrible, but perhaps not for a 6th grader. This kid wrote like 400 pages. The stuff I wrote very early in college was perhaps more embarrassing, because I saw myself there as a very silly young person who was preoccupied with his own overblown sense of cleverness. Maybe not until I’m 20 or 21 do I start to develop some skill, I start to develop something of an authentic voice, I begin sketching the outline of the issues and themes that would become my obsessions and wouldn’t find themselves into novels of somewhat mature fiction for another 15 years. Some of the poetry I wrote when I was 20 I still think is pretty darn good.

So I decided today, for the most part, for better or worse, to hold on to the record of me. Interestingly enough, and maybe not at all surprising, is that the academic stuff I had very little difficulty discarding. I tossed report cards and transcripts. I tossed my CBEST and NTE results. I tossed essays about books I was studying as an undergrad. I tossed blue books. I tossed creative work that I had done as exercises in response to books I was studying. The original fiction and poetry, however, and the journals, I could not toss because I found those held a much more indelible impression in my memory of self, like, yeah, I remember these pieces. I’ll keep these. And maybe that’s what it’s about. For as long as I live I have a record of my life and my thinking unlike the record that most people have, which is primarily photographic and, even less reliable, residing only in the memories of people whose lives they touched. At some point in time, all of that disappears. I have no narcissistic delusions that the written detritus of my past will be of any value after I’m gone to any number of people, but while I’m alive it might be of value to me in my never-ending pursuit to know this strange individual that inhabits my body a little bit better. And I can’t imagine what it might be like to discover a similar trove left by my father or mother. They left me nothing of the kind–maybe a few letters, a couple of love poems. But my son will have a field day, if he’s interested. And he may not be. It’s a chance I am willing to take.

It’s spelled “juvenilia,” I discovered just today. 

The LC Review: my first published work of note

I think I kept this one. I’m embarking on a career! 

It never ends. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Self Reflection, Writing and Reading

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: When is a Frog Just a Frog?

jpg_Cartoon-Frog-Word

So the school year, thus far, is cooking right along. I like my 9th graders. And that’s no little thing to say. For the most part, they are positive, respectful, willing, and mostly ready for prime time. There are some exceptions, of course, as always, and, of the three groups of 9th graders in my charge, one of those groups is proving to be more of a challenge. Let’s just say, there’s lots of energy in the room, and a lot of that energy isn’t moving in the direction I’d like it to go. But there doesn’t seem to be a single mean soul in the lot. That’s huge. In other good news, I’m hosting an intern from Lewis and Clark College this year. He seems like a great guy and he’s turning me on to a bunch of new music. We’re playing records together during our prep period and as kids come into class. Today’s selection: King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard with the Mile High Club.

But the beginning of the school year has not been without it’s drama and difficulty. First, some teachers are dealing with some extreme class sizes. I have social studies colleagues, in particular, who are dealing with upwards of 40 kids in a classroom, one class in a physical space that was designed to house 25 students safely. A math teacher colleague had to teach one of her groups in the lecture hall. She since has experienced some relief. I don’t know if my social studies colleagues are being similarly relieved. Additionally, there were some safety issues: on the very first day of the school year, there was a fight between two brothers that broke out in the cafeteria (I think). In the second week of school there was a lockout. No drill. A lockout. This means that there was the potential of a threat outside of the school building. Business as usual, except for that all the exterior doors are locked and the teachers lock the classroom doors. That lasted ten or fifteen minutes before the all-clear. But again, during a lockout everything just keeps percolating as usual except for the locked doors. And then, a bit of controversy: Pepe the Frog made an appearance at the first assembly in a slideshow promoting a Monday Meme dress-up day for Homecoming.

I’m not a huge purveyor of the meme cultural phenomena. Vaguely, I remember in weeks or months past, hearing or reading on my periphery about the use of this particular image of Pepe the Frog in association with hate speech practitioners and alt-right conspiracy theorists. But it was not, as you might say, on my front burner. I saw the frog (just the frog) on the slide promoting Monday Meme Day and it struck not a single alarming chord. And yet, on Monday of this week, our Leadership Teacher came on the intercom to offer to the entire staff and student body a sincere apology for using the image in the assembly as she reiterated our school policy against hate speech or hate symbolism of any kind and toward tolerance and acceptance for all. Along with this was an admonition to students NOT to sport the infamous frog in any way, shape, or form.

Okay. The announcement came while I had my seniors in the classroom. Most of them seemed incensed, totally taken aback with what seemed to them to be the wild notion that a simple cartoon frog could be a symbol of racism and hatred. They all seemed to understand that that was not its original purpose. It was as if none of them had been aware of the appropriation. Any graphic, any cartoon, any meme can be, and probably has been misappropriated by someone, they said. Consider the recent Thomas the Tank Engine picture where the trains are all wearing KKK hoods. They seemed not to have any inkling that this frog image, somehow, inexplicably, had been used in this way to the extent that it had, any more so than Thomas the Tank Engine. Out of curiosity, today, I asked my 9th graders if any of them had awareness that Pepe had recently become a staple image of various hate groups. A handful of kids were aware–surprisingly, a greater number of 9th graders than in that particular 12th grade group. The upperclassmen in charge of the slide show to begin with also claimed to have NO awareness of how the frog had turned somewhat evil in recent years. Fine. To the kids in my 12th grade and 9th grade classes who were dismissive of the significance and the seriousness of the announcement, I would like to have said: just because you’re not aware of its use as a hate symbol does not mean that it has not been used that way. And it’s possible that you simply do not understand how often and to what extent it has been appropriated. And once a symbol has been appropriated towards evil uses, if that use is pervasive enough, the original intent be damned (right?), it’s now a hate symbol and cannot be tolerated. After all, it made the list of hate symbols curated by the Anti-Defamation League.

This was my first thinking on the subject. But then, I’ve been thinking about it some more. Would we ban an image, any image, of Charlie Brown, say, if enough white supremacists and nazi sympathizers had mutated it or co-opted it for their evil purposes? Would it then be that ANY image of Charlie Brown, whether it contained a racist, sexist, homophobic message or not, should be banned from public spaces and especially in schools? That sounds ridiculous to me. In part, because it’s Charlie f-ing Brown. How is Pepe, who was originally drawn as a kind of chill-dude-feel-good frog, any different? Has his image moved beyond the point where we are able to even ask: what’s the intent? what’s the message? Is Pepe on the same level now as the swastika? It seems preposterous to think that somehow Pepe is now on that same level. One of my colleagues was talking about the insidious way the frog, just the frog, can be a kind of code between evil like-minds. I don’t know, man. I am decidedly undecided. All I can do right now is ask the questions. My understanding (and it might be an incomplete understanding) is that teachers, not offended students, brought to our Leadership Teacher’s attention the association of the frog with hate speech. To my knowledge, no student at that assembly was shocked by the frog. Does that even matter? Our job, precarious as it may seem, may be to protect even the one kid in a thousand who was offended or threatened but too frightened to speak up. Meanwhile, it seems clear to me: Pepe as a nazi is bad; Pepe as original green frog? The very picture of innocuous. Whereas: swastika? Always bad. At this time, this is the best I can do.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Education, Politics, Teaching

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Michael Reads Rumi

Here we go. Another shot at the video blog. This little thing has little to offer in the way of “diary” and nothing to do with an English teacher’s penultimate year, but I found this Rumi poem that I just had to read. Took a few takes at this, the first time through, wrestling with glasses and a book I ended up making some terrible microphone noises that I just could not live with, even though that first take was probably better than what I ended up with. Flying by the seat of my pants does indeed seem to be the way to get the best performance. I’m kind of that way in the music studio as well: the more times I play it, the worse it gets. This turned out nicely, I think, but it’s in two chunks because I made a mistake reading the poem but liked the intro thing and didn’t want to do the whole deal again. Enjoy. Rumi, by way of Coleman Barks.

1 Comment

Filed under Poetry

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: It’s Raining and I’m Flying By the Seat of My Pants!

Yesterday I made a video blog so I could test my new microphone, and during part of my little talk there I kind of bemoaned the fact that it had been so long since my last entry, months, in fact. Afterwards, I was struck by this single observation: It took me three and a half minutes to make that video. I tried afterwards to see if I could do a better job, but the two takes I took after the initial one were disappointing. The one in which I flew by the seat of my pants was leagues better. I thought to myself, what if I flew by the seat of my pants more often? First take. No edits. No do-overs. So I tried it again today. This could become a thing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Literature, Teaching, Writing and Reading