Category Archives: Teaching

Entries about the practice and philosophy of teaching

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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A Journal of the Plague Year: #14

Today, was the third day “back to work” as a Distance Learning Public School English Teacher and the second day of National Poetry Month, April, 2020. My contact with students thus far, remotely, has been minimal. Our district has given us three days to prepare the rollout of some supplemental learning resources for our students, and then (while the tech department is delivering laptop computers to families without the technology), about ten calendar days after that to roll out Distance Learning officially, where students are not just offered optional opportunities, but are expected to proceed with their high school education via the powers of the internet, lessons, assignments, and grades all delivered remotely. Today, I offered up the first enrichment, supplemental assignment (what I like to call “extra soul credit”) to my IB Seniors: visit the NaPoWriMo website, learn some stuff about poetry, write some poems, if you want to or are able, one a day for a month! I don’t know how many takers I’ll have, but I assured them that I was doing the assignment as well, so that might motivate a couple of them. It is my general philosophy to never assign my students a task that I would not be willing to do myself. And the extra soul credit is always the best kind.

So, without further ado, today’s offering:

#346: Pandemic Shopping

I’ve taken out the Honda Fit
maybe three times in as
many weeks. I did some
curbside record store
retail therapy, and I’ve done
the pandemic shopping.
A few days ago, when there
was a break in the rain,
I walked this time
up Concord Road, crossed
McLoughlin Blvd., trudged
across the Harbor Freight
and Tools parking lot into our
neighborhood Grocery Outlet,
the bargain market, the store
a friend of ours likes to call
The Used Food Place.
That’s not fair, but
I find it really funny.
They have marked
the floors of the checkout lines
with duct tape in six-foot intervals
so that customers don’t get
too close to each other.
Everywhere else in the store:
it’s a free-for all.
They make you bag your own
stuff and that’s fine.
The clerks mostly act like
it’s just another day and
that is also fine. I bought
milk, half and half, hot dogs,
buns, and a six pack of beer.
Buoy, IPA.
Walking back home, I kept
switching the hand that carried
the heavy bag so I wouldn’t
end up with arms of uneven
lengths. And maybe while
I knew that was not a likely
consequence of favoring one
arm over the other, it felt
real, and that’s good, when
you’re pandemic shopping
and nothing else does.

GettyImages_1215433825_toned.0

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #13

Today is April 1 of the year of our pandemic, 2020, but it is also the first day of National Poetry Month, during which, over the past six years, I have celebrated by writing a poem every day for an entire month. This will be year seven in a poetry writing streak. To the best of my recollection, over the last six Aprils I have never missed a day, and if I did, I’d write two poems the next day to make sure I had a poem for every day of the month. I was hard core. Additionally, I started writing and publishing poetry here that was not written in April. I numbered all of the poems, more than anything else, to easily distinguish blog poetry from blog prose. I’ve got 344 poems here. But every once in a while I will have started a series that is also numbered–like this one you are reading right now, #13 of A Journal of the Plague Year.

I actually woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this, among many other things, that I do not want to stop writing A Journal of the Plague Year, that I do not want to skip this year’s National Poetry Writing Month, that I do not want to write two blog entries a day, that I do not want to cause number confusion, and finally, that I’m not sure how I feel about recording video performances of my own shitty rough draft poems, not after reading Rilke and Donne and Oliver and Stafford and Piercy and Wordsworth and Rumi and Dickinson, which has become a kind of tradition in my Plague Year Journal. For readers who were especially fond of that segment, who maybe (I shudder to think) skipped ahead of all the verbiage and went straight to the video–think how disappointed they might be to find me reading, not Berryman or Bishop, but me!

For now, I have reached this truce with myself: I will combine the Plague Journal with the original poetry for April. The poem will be imbedded within or conclude the day’s journal entry. I will continue with the numbering of both pieces. Maybe, they can work nicely in tangent; maybe the poem, in and of itself, can be The Journal. Still unresolved is whether or not to continue with the video recordings. That remains to be seen. Especially now that I am officially (but remotely) back at work. The time I spent “slaving” over those video recordings may just not be available to me anymore.

As I get to the end of this long preamble, feeling surprisingly fatigued from video conference calls and trying to get my brain wrapped around my new teacher reality and writing a longish letter to my IB Literature seniors, I’m having a difficult time writing the damn poetry. Visiting the napowrimo website for some inspiration, I left feeling uninspired. I can’t write a poem today about a bird and I don’t feel like a metaphor self portrait, although I did have some minimal fun with a “synaesthetic metaphor generator” where I found the phrase “the colossal bays of escarpments.” So I started from scratch today with three completely different ideas, all shelter-in-place-for-the-pandemic related, and I landed on this one.

#345: What Our City Looks Like from Above

A photographer took drone pictures
of our city during the pandemic.
Beautiful and haunting, beautifully haunting,
there are no cars, trucks, or busses on the freeways,
there are no cars, trucks, or busses on the bridges,
you can just imagine how
the freeways and bridges no longer
stink of exhaust, which is nice,
but also terrifying, and why I’ve
been sitting at home for two and
a half weeks, only now starting to
reconnect with the life of my school,
remotely, from a safe distance,
sheltering in place,
emanating zero exhaust.

Unknown

Photo courtesy PORTLANDRONE®

 

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #12

Jesus, I wish the sun would come back out. The weather is still shitty, and it is Monday, March 30, the day we would have returned to the classroom after Spring Break had we no pandemic. Even in the early stages, the first school closure only included the five school days preceding the break and a few days after, meaning that school would have resumed on April Fool’s day. Then, only a few days into our extended break, the school closure was extended for students in Oregon until April 28. I’m curious, and I honestly don’t know: are there any states in the Union that have not shuttered their schools? Thanks to this world wide web, and according to Education Week, 47 states have closed their schools. I am still trying to wrap my head around the strangeness of these crazy days, and the enormity of it all.

Tomorrow morning at 9:00, somehow, teachers will remotely converge into some kind of google hangout meeting with our principal. I’m trying to imagine a zoom meeting with 35 to 50 people all floating around on my computer screen. Or maybe it’s just that our leaders will simply address us while we sit at home listening or watching or both; maybe they’ll let us know what the next steps are and give us some tips about how to use our 6 hour work day and how to log those hours. At any rate, we’re going back to work, one way or another, tomorrow. It does not feel that way. Unreal. Surreal.

I have intermittently in my journal of the plague year made references to the numbers, as they climb, of cases and deaths in Oregon. Often, what immediately concerns us is what immediately surrounds us, and, in our case, we’re in danger of developing a false sense of security. Our numbers are relatively low, but still alarming, but not nearly as alarming as the numbers from our neighbors to the North and to the South. Looked at globally, the numbers are terrifying. And looked at comparatively, the numbers in the United States are also terrifying. Dr. Fauci, our voice of reason in these crazy times, predicts that the death toll in the United States alone could range anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 by the time this whole thing is over, and these numbers, I understand him to be saying, could be accurate even if we do everything right from here on out.

Taking a wide view and then narrowing it down, according to The Washington Post at one o’clock this afternoon, there are 766,336 known cases and 36,873 deaths caused by COVID-19 in the entire world. In the United States, respectively, those numbers are 153,246 and 2,828. And then according to KATU, a local news outlet, in Oregon, 606 cases, 16 deaths. Numbers are insufficient to tell any kind of story here about the pain and suffering caused by this pandemic. Most of us have trouble, perhaps, seeing it as more than a pain in the ass–but thousands upon thousand of lives have been devastated by it. It is incomprehensible. It is unfathomable. I can find no way to express a suitable response. So I turn to literature. And I go way back, all the way back to the 17th century to John Donne. Meditation 17:

Who casts not up his eye to the Sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.

Within Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, if one who is not necessarily religious can move a little bit away from all the God talk, or at least take the God talk in its broadest possible metaphorical sense, there is wisdom for the ages. To my knowledge, I don’t know personally a single soul who is ill with COVID-19 or who has died from it, but nevertheless, I feel diminished, I feel the earth is impoverished by the loss of every one of those “numbers.” The economy will one day recover, but those that are lost in this battle with coronavirus never can be recovered. So stay at home, damnit.

In closing, and back to the front, regarding teachers going back to work tomorrow without classrooms and without students, I think of this great poem by Marge Piercy, expressing for all educators this deepest hope that we can, in these the strangest of circumstances, continue “To be of use.” And it’s impossible not to think of our heroic health care workers on the front lines, “who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,/who do what has to be done, again and again.”

 

 

 

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #11

It’s Saturday here in Portland, Oregon. More likely than not, it’s Saturday where you are as well. I don’t have a lot to report today, except to say that we are two full weeks into our extended Spring Break. We are all healthy here. A little stir crazy. I have been behind the wheel of an automobile two times in two weeks. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that the dogs have had walks at least 12 days in a row. The dogs report that they are loving the new normal. Ruby tells me that there is someone living inside the wood pile. Every time she goes out there she stands in front of it and whines, roots around with her snout at the nooks and crannies between logs and whines some more. Then she’s happy to chase balls around. Whoever they are, they’re in there good and proper, are not vulnerable to dogs in the day time.

As this is my last official weekend before work as a high school English teacher begins again, I’m still trying to get my head wrapped around a remote 6 hour work day without classrooms and students. Luckily (I think), I have been using the google technology that allows me to assign stuff, share stuff, and read stuff my students write–all in the digital realm, in real time, using the magic of the inter webs. So I really don’t have any problem imagining a world in which material is prepared, instructions given, assignments assigned, and feedback administered within this realm, without ever seeing the whites of their eyes. I don’t like it, but I can imagine it. And I can imagine how, if everything was cooking on all cylinders, and if every one of my 170 plus or minus students was playing along, I would definitely have 6 hours of work to do every day. But again, as I understand it, the material that we will be giving to students is in the spirit of “providing an opportunity.” It follows that many of them will just not take the opportunity we provide. And I’m not recording or grading? And the semester credit will be given based on what? Less than half a semester’s worth of the stuff they did before all this went down? Anyway, I have lots of questions. I am hopeful that most of them will be answered in the three days worth of preparation we have next week before the intended roll-out. I think about how in a few days I’m going to be walking into my son’s bedroom while he is knee- deep in some game play to tell him, “Hey son, stay here and go to school!” Best case scenario, I imagine, is that the Governor’s school closure until April 28th does not have to be extended. Then, at least, we would have a month with students in a physical space, in community, where we are able to see and speak to them, laugh with them, and learn.

I was dreaming about this poem last night, a playful meditation on loss by Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art,” a villanelle, btw, if you’re interested in formal structures. And it’s a friend’s birthday today, Tracy Youngblom, a terrific poet, and I asked her if she had a poem she’d like read on the occasion, and she chose a poem called “Lilies” by Mary Oliver. So today we get two poems for no extra charge. And I was thinking about how, of the 10 poems I’ve read, 8 of them were written by dudes, so I thought it was time to get some more women up in here. I hope, wherever you are, that you are well, that you stay well, and that you enjoy these two readings. Thanks for being here. It means a lot.

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #10

Are we having fun yet? That, in case there was any confusion, is a rhetorical question. We are not having fun on this Friday of Spring Break, 2020, the year of our plague. Are we bored? Some of us are bored. You know what they say, though? Whoever “they” are, I am told that they say that boredom is good for us. Out of boredom, often comes creativity and problem solving. The state of not knowing what to do often results in things being done. The Old Guy in me says, that’s what’s wrong with kids today! They don’t know how to be bored, surrounded, as they are, by a hundred and one distractions, a thousand different ways to be entertained, all immediate, all at their grimy little finger tips! To a certain degree, this is true. Maybe it’s wrong to generalize. Maybe there’s no maybe about it. As an educator, in every year, I find that there are always a decent number of young people who are not addicted to their devices, who are super creative, and who do not have grimy finger tips. When they are bored, they read, they write, they create, or they cozy up to their boredom like a lover. I wonder how they are all doing with all of this unstructured, unvaction-y, shelter-in-place time.

Soon, I will find out. Soon I will be back in touch somewhat with my students. In recent emails from our union president and from our district superintendent, we learn that on March 31st, we are all returning to work. Sort of. Although we are told we might be able to stop in to pick up materials we need from our classrooms, we won’t be returning officially to our buildings. We will work remotely. We will attend google hangouts, we will develop some kind of remote learning opportunities for our students, we will attend IEP meetings, PD meetings, PLC meetings, meetings about other acronyms and abbreviations, and we will log in our hours, a certain number of which will be mandatory. We will roll out some remote learning program for students within three days of our “return” to work. What I find fascinating and weird and oddly intriguing about this preparation for High School Remote, is that, as I understand it, students will be held harmless for all of it, meaning that none of the work they might do as a result of instruction and assignments given will be graded, recorded, or figured into a final mark for the semester. Part of me thinks, a ha! Here’s an opportunity for an experiment in an educational fantasy I have harbored throughout my career: the grade-less classroom! Another part of me is doubtful that students, out of desperation with their boredom, will flock to The Google to continue getting an education, you know, for its own sake. One can hope. One can only hope that they are THAT bored.

The dog is bored. She keeps bringing me her soggy, slobbery tennis ball to throw. And while we’re on the subject, today’s poem, happily, is about boredom. One of my favorite poems of all time, so much so, that I don’t need my reading glasses for it–because I have it committed to memory! John Berryman, #14 from the Dreamsongs.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #5

The day begins with session 10 of a guided meditation with Sam Harris. I’m not a huge fan of guided meditations, per se, because I feel while I’m meditating I don’t want somebody else’s voice in my head. But I am a fan of Sam Harris, so I figured, since he gifted me a free year’s subscription to Waking Up, that I’d live for awhile with Sam Harris’ voice in my head while I meditate. I’m learning some things. His guidance seems grounded to me, down to earth, less woo woo and more you you. In fact, that’s the thing I like best about him: there’s no woo woo.

René and I take another long dog walk, our fifth in a row, I think. The dogs are so stupidly happy it’s not even funny.

Feeling rather spunky this morning, I turn to Whitman for the poem of the day. I land on the famous concluding section, #52, of “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass. 

As I am preparing to record a poetry recitation in the back yard, I pause for a mostly delightful conversation with my student-teacher about how we might possibly reconnect with our students and recreate something of a learning community again in the virtual world. We are hatching plans. Meanwhile, her guy, a union representative for nurses, is working 16 hour days during our time of the plague. We talked more about paradox.

I begin recording #52 with the distant rattle of my son practicing his rudimental drumming on a marching snare drum in the basement.  I attempt many takes before I get it right. I get some really funny ones during which, after the transcendent lines of Whitman, I botch a line and start to curse–the evidence of which I have deleted from my phone–which somewhat disappoints me now. It’s not every day you get to hear “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” followed by an F bomb.

My son comes outside! We play with dogs. We reminisce about the playhouse we finally took down, about sitting in there years ago under cover while a thunderstorm raged, and about badminton competitions in the front yard. All our rackets are broken. All the birdies are gone. We are inspired to walk to a sporting goods store for some new badminton supplies. We return with two new rackets and three birds.

We play badminton without a net, trying to set the back-and-forth record, a thing we haven’t done together for three years or better. We get to 20 and can never get beyond it, fighting the whole time against an uncooperative head-wind. I had the wind at my advantage, but in this kind of non-competitive match, the wind is at no one’s advantage.

I manage more effectively today to stay clear of the news, but in times like this it is mostly impossible, and maybe not desirable. I want to know if our Governor Brown would follow California’s suit, a “stay-in-place” order. Apparently she has not, but our numbers are still climbing. 114 cases in Oregon, four of which are in my county. There are 4,500 cases in New York City. Despite this perspective, we continue trying not to be afraid. My dreams have been strange. I am still out of whiskey.

As I put the finishing touches on this dispatch and attach my backyard Whitman video, I realize I have two problems: 1. some strange audio glitch over the “boot soles” line, and 2. an inexplicable deletion of half a second elsewhere, making that particular line incomprehensible. This will not do. I will begin again, and post late, post-haste.

Whitman is the antidote today, even though working with him has proved difficult. It wasn’t his fault. Please enjoy and forgive the lack of green in the backdrop of Leaves. Take care of yourselves and your loved ones. Help someone out who needs it. Sound your barbaric yawp.

 

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