Category Archives: Teaching

Entries about the practice and philosophy of teaching

A Journal of the Plague Year: #24

My classroom now has a blue refrigerator, a recording studio, a vertical turntable, a small personal library of classics and contemporaries, childhood art by the resident teenager, and two dogs.

September 15, 2020

Yesterday was the first official day of school for students in my district, the first time in my 32 year career that the school year would open with distance learning on account of a viral pandemic, and, as it turns out, the first time in my 32 year career that school would be canceled on the first day of classes for inclement weather, in this case, hazardous air, the result of the wildfires in Oregon. It was maybe the first time Oregonians have ever prayed for rain. The weather folks told us we would get some yesterday, but they began hedging, and, again, as it turns out, they were wrong about the rain. The air in Portland and in Milwaukie is still hazardous, but our district is open for business today, encouraged us all to work from home–as most of us would have done anyway.

So, today, we had the first day of school, each teacher meeting with one group of kids as part of a home-room-type situation, showing them the ropes of the google meets, laying down some technology expectations, and showing them some tips around navigating some new features of the google classroom. It’s a google world now, I tell you. I met with my 25 students, talked my way through a presentation, had exchanges with three or four kids who were brave enough to show video and unmute their mics–but for the most part, it was quiet, and I felt a little bit like I was talking to myself. But none of the things that freaked me out last night at one in the morning and kept me awake for three hours–you know, being interrupted, constantly chatted around, distracted by inappropriate things in the video feed or the instant message bar, students refusing to leave the meeting, me having to kick them out–NONE of that stuff happened. On the one hand, I was super pleased, but on the other hand, with so little feedback, the stuff teachers usually get, a sense of their style and personality, an opportunity to hear every kid’s voice at least a little, watching them interact and respond to each other, watching them smile or laugh at our attempts to put them at ease–I had no idea really about how any of it went! I meet with this same group tomorrow for round two of practicing The Google Meet. At least, today, my fears that this would be a train wreck were assuaged and I will go back at it tomorrow with far less trepidation. On Thursday and Friday of this week, academic classes begin in earnest. For me, two groups of 9th grade English and one group of seniors in IB Literature.

The prediction or the assessment or the outlook on the move to distance learning is that we will proceed in this manner at least until November, or for a full quarter of the school year. No one is expressing confidence that at this magical moment everything will have shifted. I think many of us are psyching ourselves up for the long haul. And many of us are pondering and musing about the way this shift away from traditional brick and mortar schools, out of necessity, will change the nature of schooling and education in irrevocable ways, forever, or at least, for the foreseeable future.

Necessity is the mother of invention, says Plato. It feels true that we are reinventing our schools. What’s unclear, unnervingly so, are the ultimate outcomes, either good or ill. I don’t know that anyone will ever be able to argue against the effectiveness of students and teachers physically in a room with each other, but I worry nonetheless about this particular trajectory. In my half glass full sort of orientation, I believe that there might be aspects of the brick and mortar model we could happily lose, and their loss would be, as Elizabeth Bishop writes, no great matter. Others we lose at our own risk and peril. The optimist in me believes we may at some not so distant day strike just the right balance. Meanwhile we soldier on. I’m happily, gratefully, doing the best I can with what I’ve got, chanting my new favorite mantra: better than nothing. It’s better than nothing. WAY better than nothing.

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Journal of the Plague Year: #20

As a high school English teacher, I believe that on Friday, June 12, 2020, I experienced the strangest last day of school in the history of last school days. I mean, on the surface, it was somewhat unremarkable. I got out of bed at 8:30 a.m., took a shower, didn’t shave, moseyed on downstairs in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, took my meds with a glass of orange juice, boiled some water for tea, and made myself a cheesey egg sandwich. By about 9:30 I was ready to read a bit of news, mostly bad, check the Facebook, and open up my work email. I checked in with my intern to see when she might be ready to input her grades, and she said 3:00 pm. I had some time to kill, during which I walked the dogs, did some writing, some household chores, listened to some music, and I made a goodbye video for a colleague who is leaving. My intern wasn’t actually ready until about 4:30, and it took us about a half an hour to finish that task. After 5:00 I started but did not finish the check out process in a google form, you know: what’s your summer contact info, are you holding on to your keys and your computer, is anything broken inside your “classroom,” have you turned in all of your shit, grades, fee reports, your professional development log, and a pdf of your semester grade book? And then I filled out Incomplete forms for the five (yes, only five) kids who hadn’t done any work before schools closed or afterwards.

I administered no finals. I looked at no student work. I didn’t even enter the schoolhouse. I saw or spoke to zero students. There were zero cheers of excitement from teenagers as the bell closed out their last final exam. There were no bells. No students were visibly stressing about their grades. I gave no grades. I said zero goodbyes. I gave beloved colleagues zero hugs. I attended zero end of the year staff parties. My final year-end conference with my supervising administrator didn’t happen. I submitted no student growth goal data. I didn’t clean up my classroom. I didn’t pack up my stuff. Almost nothing happened that would normally happen on a typical last day of the school year.

And today, Monday, in turn, was the strangest teacher work day at the end of the year in the history of end of the year teacher work days. We held a virtual staff meeting at 9:00 am, the purpose of which was primarily to say goodbye to four members of the staff who were leaving this year. So folks took turns saying nice things about them and it was lovely and moving, despite the sterility of the Google equivalent of Zoom. We couldn’t hug anyone or shake anybody’s hands, but in every case the sincerity of good feeling was palpable in the words of every individual who spoke about their beloved colleagues. After we said goodbye to our friends, distantly, our principal somewhat unceremoniously concluded the meeting, hanging around for a bit to answer any lingering checkout questions. I had a handful of things to do before I could officially wrap up the school year, you know: submit my summer contact info, let the head secretary know if I am holding on to my keys and my computer, if anything is broken inside my “classroom,” and whether or not I had turned in all of my shit, grades, fee reports, my professional development log, and a pdf of my semester grade book. Check, check, check.

I did not run around the building like a headless chicken. I did not spend most of my last days talking to good people that I wouldn’t see for two and a half months. I didn’t work my way through the last pile of final exams. I wasn’t the last one out of the door. I never even had to go through a door–at least, not that one, that big iron double door at the end of the hall by the parking lot. I didn’t stand there for a few minutes after those doors shut behind me wondering if I had forgotten anything. I did not, once I remembered that I had indeed forgotten something, have to put my stuff in the car and walk all the way around to the front of the building, walking all the way through the school again to pick up what I had forgotten, a thing, it goes without saying, that was likely not very important to begin with. One more time through the school–that’s probably what it was really about (but not this year), because really, as much as I love summer break, I love my schoolhouse, and truly, during the summer months, I miss it. I hope to return in September.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #18

It’s been almost two full months since my last entry in A Journal of the Plague Year, although, as part of National Poetry Writing Month I wrote 30 poems, many of which were, by their nature and subject matter, a continuation of the journal in another form. During the month of May I took a little bit of a hiatus, posting to the blog just a couple of times, both times, not about living through a pandemic, but about music, one of the key components of my survival during this, and other, difficult times in life. My last post was on May 11th, and on May 25th George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. Since then, words are difficult things to manage, and rather than writing, I have been reading and listening to the words of others, the words of people who are far better prepared or who can articulate the tragedy of our time more effectively than I ever could.

But today there is much to say, and I resume A Journal of the Plague Year in prose. There are things I would like to share, like the fact that I got a haircut this week, or that I’ve had a meal in a restaurant for the first time in almost three months, or that I’ve mowed the lawn a bunch of times now with my new Electric Mower, but all of this feels absolutely stupid and inconsequential. I mean, even if I had the most adorable puppy or kitten video ever known to humankind, I’d feel stupid about posting it now.

Even my recent facebook series of posting my most influential records from the turn of the 21st century onward, seems insignificant, superfluous, slight, insensitive. Except that: I am discovering that the music of the 21st century that has been most influential to me was often made by artists of color and by women. And that seems significant. As a child, and in my formative years, I listened to and enjoyed black music I heard on the radio, had tremendous respect for the black musicians who backed up Zappa’s band, and as a teenager and in my 20’s there were a handful of women who completely rocked my world, but it probably wasn’t until the 90’s, when I heard Fishbone and Rage Against the Machine for the first time and was exposed to the fierceness of Tori Amos, P.J. Harvey, and Liz Phair, that my record collection and musical proclivities began to diversify. My list of influential 21st century artists includes Brittany Howard, Janelle Monae, Anderson Paak, Childish Gambino, Mitski Miyawaki, Thao Nguyen, Neko Case, and Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent. All of these artists are making music, I think, that I find challenging, beautiful, content-rich, music that expands the head and the heart, music that has taught me, I think, a lot about the world from perspectives that are radically different from my own. I am listening.

Watching the news of the protests, this incredible convulsion in our country, my emotions have been all over the map. I am outraged. I am disgusted. I am worried. I am terrified. I am inspired. I am hopeful. Yesterday, I was reading about the action in Washington D.C., that on the 9th day of protests, the largest crowd had assembled and the police had essentially disappeared. Something is shifting and I felt a tremendous surge of hope and tears welled up in my eyes. I believe this nation is at a crossroads and a turning point. Politically speaking, it has been the most devastating three and a half years of my life time, and it culminates with this pandemic, 100,000 American deaths and counting, and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, the catalysts perhaps for what looks like might be a long overdue reckoning in this country with systemic racism and the overt oppression of people of color. We cannot go back. There is only forward. I am learning how to be an anti-racist. I am trying to find the best way to be an ally. It is perhaps, one more good reason not to retire from teaching.

In other Plague Year News: we are moving into the last week of the school year, and the 8th or 9th week of distance teaching and learning. It has been the most paradoxical of times. My seniors gone, having been cut loose almost immediately after the closure on March 13, and the gift of having an exceptionally capable and caring student teacher taking over my sophomores, I have had some time on my hands, the understatement of the year. I have counseled my intern to the best of my ability, I have participated in staff meetings and department meetings and professional learning communities, I have recorded a whole slew of poetry for the pandemic, I have immersed myself again in Neruda, I have helped advise the roll-out of a district on-line literary magazine, I have read some, and I have written a lot: 18 Journals of the Plague Year, 30 poems, a couple of music blogs, and I’ve been working somewhat in earnest on the draft of a new book, a memoir in micro chapters about religion and the lack thereof. I realize that I have been exceedingly lucky in all of this. Dickens said it best in the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t even have to quote it.

I wish you all health and safety. As has been customary at the conclusion of each journal in this series, I would like to leave you with a poem, one that seems appropriate for the moment, as much so now as when it was published in 1921. “America,” by Claude McKay.

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#372: Day 28 Hummingbird Haiku

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My sophomores, under the gentle tutelage of a wonderfully gifted student teacher, are distance learning about imagery, beyond the sort of rudimentary understanding that imagery is language that appeals to the senses, into a deeper knowledge that imagery plays on both the intellect and the emotions, that it is associative, that it often works best in juxtaposition to other images. So she’s having them write haiku. In my earlier experiences as a poet, a had a tendency to poo-poo the haiku, but in recent years I’ve come to a new appreciation, in part, because of a late, very late understanding of what we’re introducing to these 15 and 16 years olds now.  So, ignoring the Napowrimo prompt for today, and ignoring, as Robert Hass gives us permission to do, the traditional 5-7-5 syllable count, I give you: haiku.

I

Hummingbird makes a nest
in the tree above my hammock.
Ignores the feeder.

II

Hummingbird makes a
loud clicking sound;
wakes me from napping.

III

Birds chirp, warble, coo
in the back yard.
The Hummer has no song
but buzz and click.

IV

At my brother’s house,
a red-headed hummingbird
accompanies our reunion.

V

Hummingbird knows
nothing nor cares about
our troubles with Covid-19.

VI

I saw this mother bird
fight off a finch;
the nest, safekeeping.

 

 

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#367: For Its Own Sake

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Here’s a question.
What motivates a person to do a thing,
especially a thing that is purported to be
good for a person–let’s say, eat right,
exercise, learn an instrument, learn
an instrument well, dance, sing, paint,
or act well, and while we’re at it, add into the mix
all the academic endeavors:
write well, read well, understand
history, compute effectively, think
scientifically, abstractly, metaphorically,
not to mention the soft skills (a phrase
I hate), of building and fostering
strong and healthy relationships
to self and others?
Why would anyone do these,
all, admittedly, difficult things?
Our system of education is
designed to reward individuals for
doing these things with gold stars,
praise, and grades. We have conditioned
generations of students to do
purportedly good things for themselves
so that they can achieve a carrot
or avoid a stick. But we all know,
there are healthy people, musicians,
dancers, singers, painters, actors,
writers, historians, mathematicians,
scientists and philosophers who did
not get where they are because
they were afraid of the dunce cap
or the chair in the corner or the
C minus. They got good at their craft,
whatever that craft may have been,
because they wanted to, for its own
sake, because they knew it to be good
without anyone ever telling them
it was good. And here we are,
in Oregon, about to embark on
the grand experiment: learning
for the sake of learning. And we’re
doing it now, not because we have
had some grand epiphany about
the supremacy of intrinsic motivation,
but because we have no other
choice if we are to make the end
of the pandemic school year as
equitable and as fair as we can make it,
so as not to make a terrible situation
more heinous than it already is.
Some people will be helped
more than others or will grow
more than others, but no one will be
punished or hurt by frowny faces
and failures, and maybe, without
the kind of risk or peril they typically
experience in schools, they may plug in,
not because they have to,
but because they choose to,
because they see the value of the thing,
in this case learning, for its own sake.

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#357: First Day of School, April 13, 2020

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I had no students.
As are all seniors in Oregon,
my seniors are done,
but I read a few lovely,
comforting notes of gratitude
from a few of them, and
some requests for letters
of recommendation.
My sophomores, cared
for now by an extremely
competent, caring intern,
earning her Masters in
Teaching, remotely,
at a distance, are continuing
their learning with her,
which puts me,
more remote, more distant
than the longest line
between teacher and
student ever imagined
by an online educator.
I still managed to put in
a six hour day, including
an hour I put in over the
weekend, which, I guess,
is still a thing: practice
with new remote techno,
an I.E.P. meeting, a conference
with the intern, reading
exit surveys (intended initially
to be entrance surveys)
from my seniors, more
practice with remote techno,
updating of grades pre-pandemic,
and finally, a conference
with a friend about writing
poetry, which, as long as
it feeds the teacher, feeds
the teacher’s students,
if the teacher had any.
Then I fired up the BBQ
and the work day was done.
On the one hand,
I feel like I’m getting away
with something; on the
other hand, I feel
I’ve been robbed by
the state of my purpose,
my raison d’être.
To be of use–that’s the hope,
that’s the desire, and
I comfort myself that I
was today of some use,
that I have been, and will
be again, even as, on a Monday
night, as the sun begins its setting,
I open up my third
can of cider.

 

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#355: Ophelia Was Really On To Something

 

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There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.

There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it herb-grace o’Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.

Hamlet, Act IV, scene 5 

Kate Greenaway’s The Language of Flowers is a stupendous compendium of names of flowers and their symbolic association. Who knew? But when I read today’s Napowrimo prompt, after having recently finished a study of Hamlet with my seniors, the last piece of curriculum I will ever share with them, I thought of Ophelia. Ophelia’s flower speech is above, and then my little offering (#11) follows.

Ophelia Was Really On To Something

I don’t know shit
about flowers.
I like to look at them
and I like to smell them
but don’t ask me to
name them.
I am told that,
not only do
flowers have names,
but meaning, too.
When Ophelia says,
here’s rosemary,
that’s for remembrance,
she’s not kidding.
And she’s dead serious
when she says,
here’s some pansies,
that’s for thoughts.
And when she says,
here’s fennel, columbines,
and rue, watch out!
She’s not messing around.
And did you know
that violets wither
when our fathers die?
A daisy is a poor
substitute, but in
these times of trouble
it will have to do.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #17

Most importantly, I will not be able to BE with my seniors in IB English, not even remotely. I won’t see their faces, hear their voices, read their writing, laugh at their good humor, be in awe of their intelligence and kindness. But additionally, I will not be able to formally finish the Hamlet unit with my seniors. I will not be able to read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with them. I will not be able to read Death of a Salesman with my students. I will not be able to read Waiting for Godot with my students. I will not be able to ask them, what is your dream, what are you waiting for? I will not be able to explore with them the six tenants of existentialism: existence precedes essence, time is of the essence, humanism is at the center, freedom and responsibility are key, ethics are paramount, and integrity is all. I will not be able to share with them the names that many of them will have heard for the first time in their lives: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. I will not be able to share with them the poems that would prepare them for Paper I. I will not be able to share with them the random questions about drama that would prepare them for Paper 2. I will not be able to commiserate with them as they prepare for and then spend four hours taking these brutal IB written examinations, which, while brutal, are still so much fun and provide so much rigorous reward. And afterwards, they will not be able to tell me how they felt well-prepared for the task, how they felt confident about their work. Finally, I will not be able to see them make fools of themselves as I ask them for a final exam to write and perform a play of their two-year IB English experience. I will not be able to do these things with my seniors. And all through the staff meeting this morning on Google Hangouts, I was fighting back tears, unsuccessfully.

For today’s poem, (#9), inspired by the NaPoWriMo website, I offer up a concrete poem, which is not really a concrete poem, but a poem about concrete, and improvised into a voice memo, and revised only slightly, because, god damn it.

#353: Concrete Poem

Concrete,
seemingly solid,
cement,
deceptively hard,
rocky,
stupid and orange,
sometimes grey,
sometimes blacktop,
asphalt, potholed
like my driveway.
You play ball
on the concrete,
basketball
in the park
or in the
driveway,
foursquare
on the
playground.
If you fall,
little rocks
embed themselves
inside your knee-
skin.
This is a concrete poem,
but it doesn’t look
anything like what
it’s about.

And finally, yesterday, I wrote a poem that stole a first line from Emily Dickinson, but today, that poem still haunts me, so I read it here–because I believe it helps.

 

 

 

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #16

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We saw it coming. In fact, it’s not at all surprising. Nevertheless, I was surprised (!) to hear our governor’s announcement today that schools would remain closed until the end of the year. Distance Learning would be the modality that would take us through to the end. What I found most distressing in this news–and maybe this is just selfish of me–is that seniors, the class of 2020, so long as they were on track to graduate on March 13, will receive passing grades in their classes for the second semester. If I understand this correctly, it means that I am not expected to offer them any more learning opportunities. I am to teach no new concepts, I am to give and assess no new assignments. Essentially, we are done. Wait a minute, I say. We were not even finished with the unit! Can we not at least finish the flipping unit? I don’t have an answer to that question yet. I will ask it, but I predict that the answer will be no, you can’t even finish the flipping unit.

Meanwhile, it’s still national poetry month. I find myself looking through Emily Dickinson for a good first line to steal, as per the optional prompt today from NaPoWriMo. It wasn’t difficult to find the right one.

#352: A Poem Beginning with a Line from Dickinson

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
when I Learned I might never See
these young People again–
when I counted them in my head
and tried to Remember,
to record their little Lives–
what I knew of them–into
Long Term Memory, and I tried
to hear their Voices, too, as if we
were still in that Room together–
where we might be able to Say,
while looking into each other’s Eyes–
our Sadness, our Goodbyes.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #15

Famous people are sick and dying. Yesterday we learned of the passing of Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne. I love that band. He was 52 years old. That makes me sad and anxious. So, among the new coronavirus developments is this understanding that you don’t have to be old to be especially vulnerable. The CDC is asking us to wear masks in public while there is, as far as I know, still a shortage of these things for medical professionals. We’re seeing some more blatantly reckless behavior from politicians, like the governor from Georgia who apparently just learned yesterday that the virus can be carried and spread by people who are asymptomatic, causing him to shut down his state three or four weeks after almost everyone else did it. There ought to be a law against that. How many people did that stupid man endanger? According to my research, about 10 million people.

As we reach the end of the fourth teacher work day in this new reality, it’s still National Poetry Month. My workday ends by trying to write a poem. It’s interesting to me that the NaPoWriMo website has said in the first three days nothing about the pandemic. Maybe that’s intentional. Writing creatively might be a way for us to take our minds off our troubling current situation. I really did try to write a poem with today’s suggestion of using a rhyme generator for inspiration. I drafted a funny little thing after collecting about 40 different rhymes for the word “butter.” But I found myself returning to A Journal of the Plague Year and writing more poetry for the pandemic. My strategy, perhaps, is to go through rather than around. Here’s my 347th blog poem, my third offering for National Poetry Month, 2020:

#347: Distance Learning

Don’t stand so close to me.
Everything we used to do with
people we should now do with
computers. We’ve had some
practice with this. Soon we’ll
be old pros, but for now,
we’re going the distance.
It’s going to be a long road
and nobody I know has a map.
Distance makes the heart
something-something but
I’m not sure I buy it.
No exertion of the legs,
Thoreau said, could bring
two minds closer together.
He may have been wrong
about that. Maybe not.
How far could you throw
a bouquet so that your lover
could catch it? I know now
one friend who is sick.
It’s not a severe case, but
she has to stay away
from her husband and they
must communicate through
a hole in the wall like
Pyramus and Thisbe
from the play Pyramus
and Thisbe
, or A Midsummer
Night’s Dream
, if you like it.
There’s a forest in that story
so deep, the distance seems
impossible. We’re in that boat.
I know there are new metaphors
right around the corner, hiding,
the little bastards. We’ll dig
them out, learning about distance,
distance learning, and in some
distant day, I am almost certain,
we’ll be able to touch each other again.

id-distance-learning

 

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