Monthly Archives: February 2019

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Kids These Days, Part the Third–On Being and Unbeing

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This is e. e. cummings

I’ve been writing lately about student behavior. In one blog I commiserated with my elementary school colleagues about young children who cause violent disruptions and I bemoaned the high school apathy I saw at my own school, and in another blog I wrote about surprising teenage shenanigans, you know, like bringing communion wafers to class. Today I want to write about an essay I’m studying with my 9th graders, an excerpt from “Nonlecture Two” by e. e. cummings. In this essay, cummings makes a number of assertions. One, that our idea of home is commensurate to our idea of privacy. Two, most of us have no conception of what privacy really is. Three, our “walls” are full of “holes.” Four (and there are more, but I want to linger here), we have difficulties being here, now, ourselves, and alone, in part, because we are terribly distracted beings, and here I have to quote directly and generously from the essay:

Why (you ask) should anyone want to be here, when (simply by pressing a button) anyone could be in fifty places at once? How could anyone want to be now, when anyone can go whening all over creation at the twist of a knob? What could induce anyone to desire aloneness, when billions of soi-disant dollars are mercifully squandered by a good and great government lest anyone anywhere should ever for a single instant be alone? As for being yourself–why on earth should you be yourself; when instead of being yourself you can be a hundred, or a thousand, or a hundred thousand thousand, other people? The very thought of being oneself in an epoch of interchangeable selves must appear supremely ridiculous.

Now, we’ve read a biographical sketch of our poet, and have read and probably even recorded the years during which cummings was alive. We’ve maybe even glossed over the publication date of this essay. But in our attempt at a close reading of this piece, that information does not resurface. Not right away. So here’s a tale of two different classes responding to the same text:

In my first period today, one student, in response to the above passage, in particular to the “pressing a button” and the “twist of a knob,” says, “He’s talking about our smart phones.” At this point in the discussion I am so excited that I can remember nothing of what was said afterwards verbatim, but I clearly remember talk about how our smart phones allow us to go “whening all over creation,” allow us to be “a hundred thousand thousand other people,” and perhaps most ominously, prevent us from being alone, from being and knowing ourselves. And I specifically remember the priceless look on another student’s face as she begins to understand. These moments are the moments I live for as a teacher. And when someone asks the question, “When was this piece written?” Our mouths all fall open with amazement when we remind ourselves that the book i: Six Nonlectures was published in 1953. The knobs and buttons cummings refers to are likely radio tuning knobs, rotary dials, and if one was lucky enough to have a television, the channel selector. The poet saw and (perhaps) exaggerated (maybe) the dangers of his technology but managed to predict with perfect precision the powers and the dangerous reality of our own. Our addictive use of smart phones epitomizes the point he’s making.

Second period. I try and fail to recreate the epiphany from the period before. I fail for a couple of reasons. First, I move against the tenets of this particular strategy that students must construct their own knowledge while the teacher simply records their observations, questions, and conclusions. Instead, I ask a guiding question: “Do you notice in this passage the images of pressing a button or twisting a knob?” Then I admit, “This absolutely blows my mind.” Then I follow up, having already established that the piece was published in 1953: “What knobs and buttons might he be referring to?” In response, students talk about their knowledge of 1950s technology, radio, maybe television. I ask another question: “What do you think of his claim that radio or television might be having these adverse effects on us? Why is your teacher blown away by this?” Crickets. And as I scan the room, I notice a different kind of failure: a number of kids, a much larger number than I would care to admit, stare intently at their smart phone screens. They are, in this moment, “whening all over creation,” distracted by others, being anybody else, incapable of being alone, incapable of grasping the fact that they are the subject and the object lesson of this essay. We are indeed in an “epoch of interchangeable selves.”

Five (I’m continuing here, with the list of the poet’s assertions): poetry is being, not doing. Six: and if you’d like, at whatever distance, to follow “the poet’s calling,”

you’ve got to come out of the measurable doing universe into the immeasurable house of being.

He continues with his seventh, eighth, and ninth assertions, expressed in these two glorious sentences:

I am quite aware that, wherever our so-called civilization has slithered, there’s every reward and no punishment for unbeing. But if poetry is your goal, you’ve got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about self-styled obligations and duties and responsibilities etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only: that it’s you–nobody else–who determine your destiny and decide your fate.

I love it that he says that this is what you must do if poetry is your goal. I love that, because I don’t think it’s really what he means. Or, rather, he’s not being literal. Poetry is my life, or, poetry can be your life even if you never write a word! And that’s what my greatest hope is for my students, not that they run out the door with a burning desire to write poetry (although that would be nice), but rather, they live their lives as if they were poems, they recognize that poetry is being, that it’s difficult to be, much easier and “rewarding” to unbe, but that somehow they  gain the wherewithal and the self knowledge to regain their privacy, their aloneness, their sense of self-identity unclouded or polluted by the never-ending noise and distraction of the stupid smart phone, to determine their own destiny and fate so somebody else doesn’t do it for them.

 

 

 

 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Kids These Days, Part Deux

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Apparently, for $16.36, you can buy a tub of communion wafers from Amazon. And I know this because a student of mine came to class the other other day with a tub of communion wafers. He was passing them out. Snacks for his classmates. At first, I was just sort of dumbfounded. It was a brand new what-the-hell classroom moment, one that I admitted was a career first. In 30 years, no student has ever brought a tub of communion wafers to class. He offered me one, as he offered one to anybody in the room who was interested. I declined. Still in disbelief, I asked to look at the plastic tub: Cavanagh Altar Bread, 1 and 1/8 inches, white, made from only flour and water following historical liturgical guidelines in a gas fire oven, a thousand pieces. He bought them, I’m sure, because he could. It could have been worse. He could have pretended to be a priest, moving around the room from student to student, offering up a wafer to each tongue, speaking “the body of Christ,” to which each tongue would reply, “amen,” before taking the wafer fully into the mouth, chewing it or allowing it to dissolve before swallowing. He didn’t do that (I want to say), thank God. The boy was not Catholic. His friend knew more than he did about the tradition, what it meant, its symbolic significance, the notion of transubstantiation, maybe he even said something like, “You’re eating Jesus, man.” I just remembered my childhood. 18 years of Catholic mass every Sunday whether I wanted it or not, a ritual about which I have since decided, not. And yet, there is still a Catholic roaming around inside of my bones, my heart, and my brain, and part of me was, or knew that I should be, deeply offended. And I knew, also, that there would be students in the room who would be, and would have every right to be, deeply offended. So, the party ended shortly after it began, maybe the whole thing lasted less time than it would take a person to read this paragraph out loud, and I said, “Put them away,” and a student in the back row looked at me; she nodded in approval.

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#318: Ode to Boredom and Non-Snow

Non-Snow

It’s 5:30 in the evening,
my son is playing video games
and my wife is napping
and I’ve poured myself a brandy
after hemming and hawing almost
all day long about what to do with myself.
I did four productive things:
I picked up a ball of cotton stuffing
from an eviscerated dog toy;
earlier, I drove cans and bottles
to the recycling center;
back home, I listened to bonus
recordings in my Kate Bush box set;
and a little while ago I swept
up a pile of dirt and dog hair,
sucked it up with the vacuum.
I’ve felt happy most of the day
despite the weather. We were
supposed to have had the winter
storm to end all winter storms,
people in grocery stores yesterday
behaving as if the world was about
to end, but today, while 30 minutes this way
or 30 minutes that way as the mallard
flies, in slightly higher elevations,
people saw 2 to 6 inches of powder
on their lawns and the roads
were made dangerous, in my
neighborhood we got next to
nothing. A flurry. A dusting.
In an hour it was gone.
I was bored. I thought about
driving to a local wine bar to
drink a beer where a former
student of mine has been
making soup and posting pictures
of his soup. I even went so far
as to put my keys in my pocket
and my notebook in the car.
I’ll write a poem by hand at
the wine bar, I thought to myself,
but it was cold and the dog
needed to go outside and my hair
was a mess and I’m unshaven and
it was getting dark so I decided against it.
I told a student of mine on
Friday who was complaining
of being bored that it’s good
to be bored, healthy to be bored.
It’s an opportunity for creativity,
I told him. He did not believe me.
So here I am proving him wrong:
instead of traveling to a wine bar
to occupy and inspire myself,
I am staying home with a brandy
and I am writing a poem about
boredom and the snow that refuses to fall.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Kids These Days

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In my neck of the woods (Portland, Oregon) there has been some media attention paid recently to a terrible new development inside elementary school classrooms: violently disruptive children. The problem is exacerbated by an interpretation of State Law that says that a teacher can never touch a student unless that student is in imminent danger. I may have it a bit backwards or not fully correct, but I think this means that if a kid threatens to jump out a second story window, the teacher can stop the kid physically, but  if the kid threatens to throw another kid out the window, that teacher can do nothing physically to remove the threatening kid away from the threatened, or, out of the fucking room. So the reports go something like this–on a daily basis in Oregon elementary schools, kids are cursing at other kids and at their teachers, they are throwing furniture, throwing scissors, throwing chairs through windows, they are punching teachers in the stomach, they are kicking, scratching, and biting teachers, they are running wildly around the room and down the halls, they are screaming bloody murder, threatening self harm and harm to others inside crowded classrooms of over 30 children, and the teacher, if they feel other students are in danger, must do this: a classroom clear. They must move every kid EXCEPT THE OFFENDING KID out of the classroom to a safe place. You read that correctly. And, if they can remove the offending kid, they must do it in a non-physical manner, something my elementary school colleagues call “herding.”

I would like to tell you that this stuff does not happen in my school district. I cannot tell you that. In fact, at union meetings I have heard teachers talking about these very things and in one investigative report done by KGW, a local television news outlet, our district is represented in a panel of teachers. It boggles the mind. I have to say that if this were my experience as a classroom teacher, I would immediately be looking for another line of work. I’m not sure how my colleagues have the capacity to deal with this kind of disruption and danger and stress. The gig is stressful enough, as I have written about here many times, without adding to it this element of physical and emotional danger.

Questions arise: First, WTF? Then, in no particular order: who wrote this stupid law and why is it there? Why are 30 kids removed from a room when one kid causes a safety issue? How did we arrive at a place where adults cannot, acting in good conscience and to protect themselves and others, touch a child? Why don’t we have security measures that would immediately remove dangerous children from classrooms? Why don’t we have counseling staff who can deal with kids in crisis? How much educational time is lost as a result of these kinds of events? How are other kids damaged and traumatized by seeing one of their 7 year old peers flip a gasket or a beloved teacher in danger? What happens when these dangerous kindergartners are teenagers? I’m going to use a phrase that I hate because I seem to be out of steam for anything more articulate: I can’t even.

A few of these questions I might be able to answer, I fear, somewhat unsatisfactorily. In 2011, House Bill 2939 was passed prohibiting teachers from touching students unless the student was in danger of “imminent, serious bodily injury.” It was designed to prevent the restraining or isolation of special needs students in response to an increase of these kinds of reports. Okay. Of course, we would hope there would be laws protecting special needs children from abusive treatment. But clearly, the interpretation of this law seems to have tied our hands behind our back. How does this happen? It feels not too far afield to suspect that we have cast our definition of what constitutes as “special needs” pretty widely to include a whole host of aberrant behavior unrelated to any medical or psychological “special need” diagnosis. Doesn’t the kid who screams obscenities at his teacher and runs with scissors have special needs? I would say yes. But these are needs that cannot be met in a classroom with one adult and 32 eight year olds.

So the law and our paranoid response to it provides answers to some of our questions. It seems to me that the other factors that prevent us from addressing this serious problem are those of awareness, will, and money. The panel of teachers in the KGW report say that until parents get involved, nothing will change. They say most folks are unaware this occurs in grade schools. One teacher on that panel said that this has become so normalized in the school experiences of our kids that students don’t even go home and talk about it. I would venture to guess that once the community becomes aware of the problem, the will might be found to change the system, and with the will from a serious number of constituents, the political and then financial support for smaller class sizes and more counseling services for students in need will be forthcoming–and laws can be better written and better understood so as to protect and support the rights of kids to a quality education AND a teacher’s right to safeguard their classrooms and their students. In a world. One can hope. And one can do stuff. Tell people. Share that news report. Wear a Red for Ed t-shirt. Go to the State Capital Building on February 18. Write a blog post. Anything.

I’d like to talk about my own experience now to wrap things up. A facebook friend of mine posted that KGW report today, and it was one of those moments on social media where I felt compelled to say something, something that would compare my experience to my colleagues at the Elementary school and perhaps shed a little bit of secondary ed perspective on the thing. This is what I posted:

I have rarely, if ever, felt physically unsafe in my classroom. However, students these days more often seem disrespectful of the process and are more likely to be disruptive. It bugs me. Sometimes I think to myself that it’s just me, older, less patient. Other times I know that the culture has changed and young people seem less ready than ever, and needy for something I’m not prepared to give them.

No student has ever thrown a chair at me, hit me, kicked me, or bit me. Students have called me names on a few occasions, maybe walked out of the room in anger. These events are so rare that I cannot specifically name one. However, once in my career a student in my room started strangling another student. I touched that kid. I pulled his arms away from the other kid’s throat and I physically and personally escorted him down to student management. This was a long time ago. Also, long ago, a student threw a coin across the room and it hit a girl in the forehead. That kid was gone in a heartbeat. Two or three years ago, while a group of students waited in the hall for me to let them into my classroom, one student of mine, out of nowhere, without provocation, punched another kid really hard in the stomach. Again, I escorted the offender to student management and the other boy quietly recovered in the classroom. In 30 years, these are the three violent acts that have occurred in my room. And in that 30 years, in and around our building at large, every year, a small number of brawls and fistfights–in the hallways, in the lunchroom, in someone else’s classroom, somewhere on campus. These incidents notwithstanding, my school has seemed on the whole to be a safe school and I have never feared for my physical well being while at work.

But my social media comment above points to a different kind of danger. First semester, I wrote not a single behavior referral until the very last day, and that behavior was plagiarism. Nearly a third of my freshmen failed first semester English. About 8 of those students, who were mathematically close to a D grade, were given an Incomplete and a chance to make a corrective move in the next week or so. Yesterday, on the first day of the semester, I asked my 9th graders to write a letter to me about how they’re doing, how they felt about first semester, and what their goals were for second semester. In almost 45 minutes, most students could not (or would not) write more than a paragraph, a few students wrote three or four sentences, and a healthy handful (about a third, the same number of kids who failed first semester) wrote nothing at all. Many of my youngest students (14 or 15 years old) will not take academic work seriously. If they take grades seriously, they expect them, feel entitled to them, blame the teacher if grades are not to their satisfaction. Many others are above (beneath or beyond) even trying. They don’t want to work at anything. Some of them are capable, but won’t bother to use correct conventions in writing. Some of them don’t know how to write a complete sentence. Many are dismissive of reading or refuse to read, take absolute pride in not doing homework. In some classes, I am in constant competition for their attention. I compete with their phones and I compete with their friends and I compete with their utter disregard for the seriousness of learning, and sometimes I spend more time waiting for them or managing them than I do with any substantive material or content. And now and then, (thank the Universe, not this year) I have students who are not just easily distracted, uninterested, and apathetic, but downright evil. They deliberately try to hurt others and undermine the process in sneaky, devious, quiet, but nevertheless destructive ways. I spent the last two years with a gaggle of these. All of the above are experiences or moments when, while I am not in physical danger, I feel in constant emotional peril. It is exhausting. It is demoralizing. It is sometimes difficult to sense that I am making any positive headway with them at all. I often feel unequipped to protect myself and protect the students that are squarely on my side from the damage these other kids can do. And while I sometimes think, as I have said above, that it’s me, not them, I have to trust that indeed things have changed in the schoolhouse, in our community, in the culture at large. I don’t know exactly what it is, and, as I am in my penultimate year, feel I am running short of time to figure it out and fix it. Even if I had another 30 years, I feel the problem may not be solvable. I have left my phone charging in my bedroom for the better part of four or five hours now, and I realized moments ago that I have purposefully neglected to watch the State of the Union speech. And with that left turn for an ending, I’m going to do something domestic in the kitchen.

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