Category Archives: Teaching

Entries about the practice and philosophy of teaching

Car Crash Haiku

Damaged bumpers from car accident

As we were about to read Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” for the poem of the day, I was introducing my students to a poetic formal structure I was pretty sure none of them had ever heard of, the villanelle. To begin with, I explained to them that a formal structure was one in which the poet was following a set of rules. I asked them if they knew of any formal poetic structures, and as it turns out, most of them were familiar with these two giants: the sonnet and the haiku. We unpacked what they could remember about the rules of a sonnet, and then the haiku. Many of them recited: five, seven, five. Okay, a haiku is a three line poem in which the first line is five syllables long, the second line is seven syllables long, and the third line five syllables long. I do not consider myself a haiku scholar by any stretch, but I ventured to guess out loud for the edification of my charges that there might be other “rules” at work in a haiku, especially in its most traditional form. I speculated that many haiku are meditative in tone and usually incorporate some nature imagery. And then I told them that they were unlikely, for example, to find very many car crash haiku. After one student suggested that Car Crash Haiku might be a great name for a band, I laughed out loud, agreed, came pretty close right then and there to walking out of the room to form such a band, and then, having embraced the idea fully, I suggested a student could actually do a series of car crash haiku, thought better of it, and claimed the idea for my own–which, you know, is kind of a cheat–because any individual in that room could go out into the world with their own series of car crash haiku and there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it. So, this little paragraph is just to say that somebody might be generating some number of car crash haiku in the near future. It could become an entirely new haiku school. I just wanted people to know how it started. You’re welcome.

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The American English Teacher Rereads a Clean Copy of Beloved

I’ve posted a slightly different version of this piece before, two years ago and some change. It seems appropriate to post this revision now in honor of Toni Morrison, whose fiction has over the course of my adult life completely changed my heart and my brain in immeasurably powerful and positive ways.

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The American English Teacher Rereads a Clean Copy of Beloved

My classroom copy is copiously marked in three or four colors of highlighter and underlined and bracketed and annotated with pen and pencil seven different ways to Sunday. I’ve read and reread and reread this novel perhaps eight or nine times now, but this time I choose a clean, elegant copy over my raggedy-ass classroom copy and it’s like reading it for the first time again. I’m a sucker for fine editions and could not resist this one. I can smell the ink. I can feel the lettering engraved into the spine like braille, or like the text carved into a tombstone, Beloved. And my reading this time is not cluttered by my previous readings, marked up by some earlier version of me who thought he had answers. I complain sometimes about the time I lack to read new work because I am always rereading to teach. And yet, with this gem, I might be happy if it were the only book I could ever read until I died. Every time I read it I find new things to love and new reasons to mourn or hope, and I understand more deeply how tragic our history, how tenacious our ghosts, how all the repair work in our country that needs doing (now more than ever before) springs from this, from this.

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#342: May 8, Soul Work

It’s May 8.
I sleep in an extra hour.
I make myself a kick-ass scrambler.
I pick my brother up
at 9 and we drive toward
I-84. There’s a bunch
of teachers on an overpass
wearing red and hanging
their banners and I honk
at them. My brother and I
make our way to the Gorge
to visit the retreat center
I have chosen for some
fall Courage work.
Afterwards, we drive
to the Vista House, and
yes, by god, it’s a vista
all right. On the way
home we stop at Edgefield
for burgers, beer, bourbon.

This day is for the kids.
My t-shirt says that I stand
for students. And I do. No doubt
about it. But I’m also struck
by the notion, the conviction,
that teachers can’t take care
of students if no one
is taking care of teachers.
I’ve had to practice self-care;
additionally, I’ve tried self-medication,
but I find I have to balance the two,
which is hard. I try to err
on the side of care.

So much about what happened
today I find totally inspiring,
all my colleagues out there in their
red shirts holding their signs,
thousands of them. But it’s also
exceedingly sad. It’s like if firefighters
had a massive demonstration to call
public attention to the dangers of fire.
People don’t understand in the way
they understand that fire can kill you
that ignorance and stupidity and poor
mental, physical, and emotional health
are just as deadly–even though it’s staring them
down every single day in the person of the
president of the United States.
Democracy is at stake and we are
well on the way to losing ours,
and losing our souls into the bargain.

Souls need tending,
They whisper their sweet nothings
into our ears, and if we can’t listen to that,
we are doomed. Soul, Jarmer, what are you
talking about? Parker J. Palmer tells us
that it doesn’t matter what we call it
as long as we call it something, as all the
great traditions have: the great mystery,
the spark of the divine, big self, true self,
inner light, inner teacher,
“the being in human being,”
the wild animal in us all, resourceful,
resilient, strong, yet shy–and in need
of the greatest respect and care.
You do that for teachers by making
the conditions of their work
as humane as you possibly can make them,
and give them not lists of standards
and administrative hoops of fire
to jump through and an impossible
student load, but the appropriate
space and time and creative freedom
to cultivate the minds, the bodies, and the
souls of their students, together.

I checked out the setting today for
some October soul work in the Columbia Gorge,
I spent time with my brother,
I took a nap, I had pizza with my family,
and I wrote this poem.
This is the best I can do.

 

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#341: You Do What You Need To Do

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You do what you need to do.
If you want to hang a banner over an overpass,
you go ahead and do that.
If you want to stop by the union office
and write a letter to your representative,
you do that.
If you need to go downtown to be
inside of a crowd of people who cheer things
and hold up signs that say things, you go.
If you want to hang out at a transit center
and greet people getting off and on the train,
answering questions they may have about
why their children aren’t in school and
why their children’s teachers are hanging out
in transit centers, you go ahead and do that.
If you are an English teacher, and the most
needful thing for you is to have an extra eight hours
to grade all those fucking papers, you, do you.
If sleeping an extra hour is your protest, go ahead, sleep.
If you need to drive to a retreat center to check out a venue
you have booked for October to bring educators
together so they can figure out how they can stay
in the profession, you do that.
Maybe you want to write a poem or an essay
about what it’s like to be a public school teacher
in 21st century America. You do that.
And maybe you need to sit on a meditation cushion
for an hour instead of your daily fifteen minutes
in order to breathe more deeply than you usually do,
breathing out everything that makes the gig suck,
breathing in everything that makes the gig the greatest gift,
you go ahead. Myself, not a banner guy or a cheer guy
or a press the flesh kind of guy, I still may do a number
of the above things on May the 8th.
I vow to do at least three of the above things on May the 8th
and you can do as many or as few of them as you desire.
You do what you need to do.
And maybe it goes without saying: do something.
Please, do something.

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#340: Why Teachers Walk Out (A Short List)

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Here’s a short list of reasons
why teachers in Oregon
are walking out on Wednesday:

First, some math:
40 kids in a class room–
times six. A student load
anywhere between 160 and 240.
6 sections of up to 3 distinct
courses to teach, 87 minute periods.
An 87 minute preparation
period to plan a meaningful
261 minutes of instruction.
Another 87 minute prep
period to grade 240 papers.
If a teacher is smart and doesn’t
ask all 6 of her classes to turn
in papers at the same time, best-case
worst-case scenario is that she
will have from her three 9th grade
classes only 270 pages to read, on
which she should provide timely
and meaningful feedback.
When she puts response journals
into the mix (an English teacher
staple), she’s looking at closer to
thousands of pages of reading
for only 3 of her 6 total classes.

Enough math. Let’s talk about
some conditions: Let’s say, that
in each class of 30 to 40, a number of her
kids, maybe a full third of them,
are impaired somehow: resistant,
recalcitrant, angry, depressed,
hungry, homeless, violent, distrustful,
absent, disengaged, disinterested,
high, attempting to vape inside their sweatshirts,
attached to their stupid smart phones
as if these devices were evolutionary
appendages, functionally illiterate,
and finally, learning-disabled in a myriad
of ways, towards all of which, as their teacher,
she is legally bound to be aware
and accommodating.
She is not afraid of her students,
but she knows that some of them
may be dangerous, and she’s
crossing her fingers.
She cannot take comfort
in the fact that there
are only three full time
counselors in a building of
approximately 1300 students.

Step outside the classroom.
There are two staff bathrooms
in the entire building and they
are about a football field
or two apart from each other.
She’s got seven minutes in
between classes to go to the
bathroom, but that’s only
if she talks to zero kids after
class is over, and spends zero
time greeting kids from the
next period as they come in
her room.

Generally speaking, her work
life is frantic and frenetic, and
while she is a deeply reflective
person, there is no time to be
reflective long enough to result
in significant advances in
her never-ending desire to be
more effective at her craft.
She sincerely wants this for
herself and her students, but
the reality is that her job does
not afford her the opportunity
in time to do her job, at least not
in the way she would hope to do it,
not within a 40 hour work week.

For this teacher, simply because
she is who she is, money is not
the issue–but she knows fully
well, that compared to other professions
requiring similar schooling and
accreditation, pay for teachers
is low and has fallen precipitously
over the last decade or so.
She cannot live her
modest middle-class lifestyle
unless she has a partner
who also works full time,
or by living with a room mate
or extended family members.
It is, at the end of the day,
perhaps, a living wage.
But she has not had a pay raise
in a long time; when she reached
the top of the pay scale 15 years
into her career, having tapped out
years of experience and having
finished that other 3rd degree,
she understands that
cost of living is the only adjustment
she will see for the rest of her
teaching life. While there are lots of
opportunities to do more work
for free (serve on committees, mentor
other teachers, lead workshops
in her school, attend after school
study sessions), there are no extrinsic
or monetary incentives to do more or to be better.
In actual fact, when she thinks further
about it, money is the issue. Schools
in her state are poorly funded,
perpetually operating in a shortfall
and this results in the large classes
and the mediocre pay and the lack
of supplies or new materials and
the dearth of support for kids
who need what their teachers
are not prepared to give them.
Sometimes she despairs.
She may as well phone it in, she thinks.
But she doesn’t. She doesn’t phone it in.
That is not the way she rolls.
Because she cares so much,
she is used to doing everything
she can do to make the very
best of a bad situation, even while
she understands her middle school
and grade school counterparts have
it much worse than she does.
She’s done this for a very long time
and she’s tired of it, frankly, so on
Wednesday, she’s walking out.
She’ll leave that stack of papers that
need grading behind in the classroom
and she’ll walk out. She’ll walk out
so that people will ask, listen, and learn.

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#321: The American English Teacher Receives a Note from the Benevolent Rabbit Society

My only wish
is that they would
have gone for something
more alliterative:
Benevolent Bunny
sounds better and
simultaneously more
bouncy than Rabbit.

But none of that
overshadows the fact
that, for the first time
in my career as a public
school teacher, I and
a few of my colleagues
have received a tip.

It felt wrong somehow, and
a couple of us asked the principal
if there would not be something
kind of underhanded about
accepting the cash.
Our gifts were not signed by
any specific person, the envelope
was mailed to the school
without a return address,
so there was no way to know
who our benefactor was
beyond bunny rabbit,
a society of rabbits,
a group of benevolent rabbits.
Keep it, he said.
What else would you do?

When anonymous bunnies
give you money, what else could you do?

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Teacher Appreciation and Spring Break Randomness

First of all, here’s a thing a student of mine wrote in response to the question: what does e. e. cummings say in his poetry about being and unbeing?

When e.e cummings talks about being and unbeing the message that he’s pretraying [sic] is that to be [is] not to be and not to be is to be[,] is the perspective that living is to dying as walking is to running.

This student is either on to something way over my head or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Either way, I found it a thrill to read out loud. I love the (I think) unintentional nod to Hamlet here, and I am amused by the idea that Hamlet was speaking, not so much about whether to live, but rather, as cummings is doing, speaking about HOW.

Then, teacher appreciation week. It is supposed to happen in May, but our administrative team, in their wisdom (seriously), made it happen during the last week in March, during classified staff appreciation week, in order to ensure that the two appreciation weeks happened simultaneously so that one appreciation week was not overshadowed by the one that follows, to make sure that the certified staff and the classified staff received the same level of love and attention. We all got rocks decorated and painted to look like us, mostly. Mine was good; the hair was perfect. We got a breakfast on Wednesday. We got fancy hand sanitizers on Thursday. We got t-shirts and free coffee on Friday and healthy snacks all day long. And then we got (the Pièce de résistance) Spring Break. Overall, one of the best appreciation weeks of my career. Outside of the rock from the leadership kids, however, students on the whole still seem oblivious to appreciation weeks.

Spring break. On this first day I am home alone. Thinking about a beach trip with the family. Planning to attend the Association of Writers and Writers Programs (AWP) Annual Conference, this year hosted in my own lovely city, where I’ll learn some stuff, see some famous people, schmooze a little by talking to folks about possible places to publish a book, and meet a bunch of friends from my MFA program. I’m writing this little blog entry. And I am gearing up internally for National Poetry Writing Month, when I will, I think for the fifth or sixth year in a row, write a poem a day for a month and post each one of those little nuggets right here on the blog. So I hope you’ll come visit.

I’m trying to finish a review for the new book by David Shields. It’s a difficult one to write, not because I am anything shy of enthusiastic for the work, but because the subject matter is difficult to write or speak about publicly. For now I’ll just let loose the title and you’ll immediately see what I mean: The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power. Initially, I was just hoping to have a small thing to post in the review sections of amazon or Goodreads, but I’m also toying with the idea of writing book reviews here on the old bloggy blog, so it may turn out to be a little more than a blurb, and Shields’ book would be a good, if not risky place to start. Let me know if you have thoughts.

Finally, I posted a haiku on Facebook yesterday, but not a single one of its 30 readers seemed to recognize the form, I think because they were somewhat distracted by the irony of the post, that my dog destroyed the glasses manufactured by a company that donates its profits to dogs, and by the accompanying photos. I’ll leave you here with the picture, followed by the poem, a little warm-up for April:

 

My dog, she ate my
glasses. So I got a new  
pair from Fetch Eyewear.
Postscript: Fetch Eyewear is a local outlet for glasses that donates 100% of its profits to animal welfare. Check ’em out.

 

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