Category Archives: Teaching

Entries about the practice and philosophy of teaching

#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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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 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. I assumed the boy was not Catholic. His friend knew a little 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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